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Why the Burning Crusade didn't suck

Alex Ziebart

Yesterday, Brian Wood explored his thoughts on why Burning Crusade sucked. He did it in-character, playing the role of Grandpappy Frostheim, laying out his thoughts in the persona of a grumpy, crusty old dwarf telling the young'uns how bad things were back in his day. You can't take a persona like that seriously -- and you're not supposed to -- but the piece made me think about why I love Burning Crusade so much. Even after all of this time, it remains my favorite expansion, though Mists of Pandaria is pretty darn good.

Yeah, Burning Crusade had its faults. It wasn't as well-balanced as most remember, it had more than its fair share of annoying gameplay mechanics, and the fact that the developers hadn't yet solidified the roles of 10- and 25-man raids was a real drag at times. If Burning Crusade were released this year, it would have a terrible reception. There have been so many quality-of-life improvements made since its release that players would never want to live as we did in Burning Crusade ever again. Despite that, it still had many elements that I loved, and still love. Many of these things are nebulous and completely up to personal tastes -- what I love, you may hate, and that's fine. That's how opinions work.

Stranger in a strange land

To me, Outland defined the Warcraft franchise's storytelling capabilities. Though Warcraft often utilizes the same fantasy tropes you see just about everywhere in the genre, it wasn't afraid to be different -- we went to a new, completely alien planet. The playable draenei were a race of people who traverse the stars. The ethereals were merchants from another plane of existence. Outland was not just a subcontinent of Azeroth, it was a new world entirely. While it has been done in fantasy, it isn't done very often.

Yes, we've visited Outland in the RTS games, but it was never so defined. All we've seen in the RTS games are the red, blasted regions of Hellfire Peninsula. Burning Crusade showed us that while Outland is a broken planet, it isn't all death and decay. Nagrand is lush and lovely. Zangarmarsh is full of flora and fauna unlike anything we've ever seen. Netherstorm is just as broken as Hellfire Peninsula is, but it's broken in its own way -- being torn apart by arcane winds, not blasted by the sun.

The writers, artists, and developers at Blizzard were able to run wild, not constrained by building within the rules and limits of Azeroth. Yes, Azeroth can be strange and quirky all on its own, but it still has established rules and aesthetics. Even the Cataclysm didn't create places like Netherstorm in Stormwind's backyard -- because it simply wouldn't make sense on Azeroth, even in the midst of the apocalypse. Azeroth doesn't work that way. Azeroth needs to maintain some consistency to be recognizable as Azeroth.

On Outland, the rules change, and you don't know what might be around the next corner. You can't know. Not only is the place intended to be alien and unknowable, but developer experimentation on another world does not impact the aesthetic consistency of Azerothian locales. It's a playground. And that's awesome.

Variety's the spice of life

That alien diversity is what kept you interested in seeing what comes next in Burning Crusade. Outland wasn't modeled after any single real world location. Likewise, the enemies you encountered weren't modeled after any single villain. Sure, the Burning Legion was prominent and you fought a lot of demons, but they weren't the sole villain in the expansion. Burning Crusade, thanks to Warcraft III, pulled from a cast of numerous memorable villains. Illidan Stormrage, Kael'Thas Sunstrider, and Lady Vashj all brought their own set of aesthetics to the table. Illidan possessed his dark and foreboding demons, Kael'Thas brought the mystic regality of the blood elves, and Lady Vashj had her naga.

Why the Burning Crusade didn't suck
This wasn't just variety in gameplay mechanics, but variety in palette. Burning Crusade utilized color to incredible effect, and this variety is what allowed the artists to run wild. These three core villains weren't seperate from each other, either. As far as we knew, these three iconic villains were operating as one unit. When we were locked in combat with the vivid blues of the naga, we weren't fighting a conflict removed from the reds and golds of Kael'Thas or the fel green of Illidan. They were one enemy, with great variety and diversity. They were outcasts that banded together to create something greater. Not only was the story awesome, the gameplay was awesome -- you were never looking at the same ol' thing all day long.

In comparison, the villains in other expansions are downright samey. Wrath of the Lich King set us against both the Lich King and Yogg-Saron, but there was little to no palette difference between them. Sure, Ulduar had unique enemies and palettes when you were battling Titan constructs, but that's one raid zone in an entire expansion. Illidan, Kael, and Vashj's combined forces were everpresent in nearly every zone. There was very little meaningful difference between the Scourge and the Faceless. Cataclysm was much the same -- we fought Deathwing and the Twilight cultists a whole lot. Sometimes they'd enslave a djinn, sometimes they'd enslave an elemental, but overall the enemy aesthetics were the same no matter where you went.

This applies to raid zones, too. To me, Serpentshrine Cavern and Tempest Keep will always be the model of what raiding should be in World of Warcraft. Again, this is purely a matter of personal taste. I don't like raids that are extremely long. 10-14 bosses in one zone is not interesting to me. It's too much time spent looking at the interior of the exact same place. Serpentshrine Cavern had 6 bosses. Tempest Keep had 4 bosses. They both had completely different aesthetics. Serpentshrine Cavern was an underground reservoir in blues, greens, and varying earthtones. Tempest Keep was a flying fortress gilded in gold, lined with massive crystals of bright pinks and purples, flying the crimson banner of the blood elves. You could not possibly confuse the two. They shared no aesthetics whatsoever.
Why the Burning Crusade didn't suck
Cataclysm attempted to recreate this dynamic with Blackwing Descent and Bastion of Twilight. Blackwing Descent, populated by the remaining black dragons, used a palette heavy on browns, black, and splashes of purple. Bastion of Twilight, populated by the Twilight cult, used a palette heavy on purples, black, and splashes of red. Blackwing Descent's enemy type was dragons and dragonkin -- but 3 out of 5 encounters in Bastion of Twilight had you fighting dragons. The two raids, despite being seperate locations, were themed exactly the same.

If, after defeating the final boss of Bastion of Twilight, you walked down a hallway and came to the first boss of Blackwing Descent, you'd never know you were in a different place. Splitting the two served no meaningful purpose except for hoping players would put the two raids on two different days on their raid schedule.

Burning Crusade constantly threw new visuals at you and ensured you were never looking at the same thing for too long.

And on the topic of raids, Ulduar is often lauded for its epic sense of scale -- a massive, sprawling complex full of wide-open spaces and giants that made the player feel insignificantly small. Ulduar wasn't the first time we saw structure like that. Black Temple was too long for me to give it much love, I have a thing against long raids, but it had scale in spades. Go to Black Temple, make your way up to the courtyard, and tell me that place isn't massive. Stand next to Supremus and have your mind blown as he makes you feel smaller than you've ever felt in World of Warcraft.

Fear of the unknown
That is not dead which can eternal lie.
And with strange aeons even death may die.
Azeroth has faced many terrifying enemies over the course of its existence: Old Gods, the Scourge, the Burning Legion, the Black Dragonflight, and others. Of those enemies, the black dragons were the most personal. For all we knew, they were a natural part of our existence on Azeroth, and they wanted us dead. Even before Cataclysm, they were doing a pretty good job of screwing us up at every turn, whether it was through raw power or the political machinations of dragons like Onyxia. Deathwing was a name to be feared long before he shattered the world.

Despite the terror that black dragons inspired in the hearts of men ... they were just as afraid and vulnerable as we were in Outland. Our greatest enemies back on Azeroth actually feared the denizens of Outland. Gruul the Dragonkiller, one of the introductory raid bosses of Burning Crusade, built his reputation upon the corpses of Deathwing's sons and daughters. If he was one of the first raid bosses, Outland meant business. We weren't on our home turf and we were up against things that made our greatest enemies wet their pants. That's a great story hook.

Look at it from a gameplay perspective, too: dragons are the standby raid boss. Everybody likes to slay dragons. We do it all the time. Then you get to Outland and the game itself tells you that dragons are nothing. Dragons are weaksauce. There are things far more dangerous than dragons, and we're pitting you against them. That's awesome! Loot is a good motivator, but even better is when the game itself impresses upon you that you're going up against something bigger and nastier than the challenges you've just overcome.
Why the Burning Crusade didn't suck
It wasn't just a matter of raid bosses, either. Think about the netherdrakes. The netherdrakes were the spawn of black dragons, twisted by the wild arcane energies of Netherstorm. Not only do black dragons fear what lurks in Outland, but they've been changed by Outland. Even our greatest enemies back on Azeroth are susceptible to the twisting powers of Outland. This isn't Old God corruption, warping a person's perception and personality -- it's the land itself making the dragons' physical form something it wasn't. Outland is broken and nothing is safe. What happened to Draenor makes Deathwing's Cataclysm look pathetic.

Deathwing was the herald of Azeroth's endtimes. Draenor has been there, done that.

Betrayal is the only truth that sticks

An interesting criticism often leveled at Burning Crusade is the idea that Illidan didn't have enough presence as a villain. Personally, I disagree. His presence as a villain was perfect. He wasn't in your face all of the time, but his influence was undeniable. All of Draeneor's native people were struggling against his influence, and many of them failed. Illidan's slaves were everywhere. Illidan's agents were everywhere. You heard from the man himself rarely, but whenever you did, something seemed downright broken about him. He couldn't accept the truth of his situation. He claimed he defeated Arthas at Icecrown, when we know very well that he didn't.

Illidan obviously held a great deal of power, but you knew the man himself just wasn't right. He couldn't come to terms with his problems, even though he was the one who caused them. He wasn't a grand schemer overwhelmed by malice -- he was a misguided person with a tremendous amount of power. He couldn't accept the fact that he lost everything he held dear. He couldn't accept the fact that he went up against the Lich King and lost. He was a person who had done horrible things. When you enter Black Temple, you see how empty he is inside after all this time.
Why the Burning Crusade didn't suck
The entire final stretch leading up to the man himself is full of decadence -- wine, hookahs, and countless sex slaves, of both the mortal and demon variety. And they meant nothing to him. He was filling the void left by the woman who didn't want him, and he could never have. This was displayed very well by one of his loot drops, the Memento of Tyrande. It wasn't Tyrande's fault. It was purely his own creepy obsession that caused this. He couldn't come to terms with the fact that he couldn't have what (and who) he wanted.

We could understand his plight, but still knew we had to kill him. The game displayed that to us without giving him countless monologues.

What made the villains in Burning Crusade even more real is the fact that their cooperation was a lie. Illidan pulled together these disparate outcasts and hoped to make an unstoppable army, but he didn't have what it took to keep people as willful as Kael'Thas Sunstrider and Lady Vashj in line. Kael'Thas betrayed Illidan for a greater power. Kael'Thas betrayed him for the Burning Legion -- the people Illidan feared most. Hiding from the Burning Legion was the entire reason Illidan put so much effort into bringing Outland to heel. He wanted an army that could protect him from the Legion. In the end, the person Illidan believed to be one of his most powerful allies was, in fact, a servant of the Burning Legion the whole time.

Over the course of his existence, Illidan has earned the moniker "the Betrayer." In the end, that's what killed him. The Betrayer became the betrayed. Not only by Kael'thas in service to the Burning Legion, but by Akama on the side of the players. Akama's aid is how we infiltrated the Black Temple. Akama freeing Maiev Shadowsong from prison is how we managed to defeat him. Illidan built a precarious house of cards, and the foundation of that house never had any loyalty to him to begin with.

Betrayal was a theme even earlier in the expansion, too. In Shadowmoon Valley, Teron Gorefiend tricks the player into resurrecting him. He played the player. That's awesome.
Why the Burning Crusade didn't suck
The bait and switch between Illidan and Kil'jaeden was, in my opinion, masterful. Illidan was the Lich King or Deathwing of his expansion. He was the big bad, the guy we wanted to kill to win the game. But we didn't win the game. In the end, he was a speed bump on the road to something far worse. The real enemy, the enemy we had missed the whole time, was Kil'jaeden, commander of the Burning Legion. The threat wasn't on Outland at all, it was back home on Azeroth.

We all gripe about neutrality now and then in World of Warcraft -- cooperation between the Horde and the Alliance simply doesn't make sense when we are each other's greatest enemies. Burning Crusade did neutrality right. Throughout the expansion, we were at war. Even Shattrath, a bastion of safety and neutrality, was torn between the factions of the Aldor and the Scryers. In every zone, we saw the two sides battling against each other, were told that we were at war, and we fought that war. When Kil'jaeden was revealed as the real enemy, the war had to stop. Even the Aldor and the Scryers, two opposing NPC factions, threw in together to create the Shattered Sun Offensive and halt the Burning Legion.
Why the Burning Crusade didn't suck
This wasn't one influential person (Tirion Fordring, Thrall, Jaina Proudmoore, etc.) arguing for neutrality. It was two opposing factions, independent of either Horde or Alliance, realizing things just got real and they needed to band together. We learned from them by example. The Aldor and the Scryers impressed upon us the importance of the situation and they showed us what had to be done -- that held far more impact than Malfurion Stormrage telling the Alliance to behave themselves while the orcs ran rampant across Ashenvale.

The entire expansion built up to that moment and it felt more personal than anything one single named NPC can do.

Paradise lost

Players who have been with the game since Burning Crusade still claim the Isle of Quel'Danas was the best daily hub the game has ever had. I'm inclined to agree. Mechanically, it may not have held the most variety, but it had flavor -- and that's what Burning Crusade was all about. Its theming was perfect and the Isle of Quel'Danas embodied that.
Why the Burning Crusade didn't suck
Quel'Danas, in terms of physical size, was actually rather small. It was only a fraction of the size of a place like Vale of Eternal Blossoms, but I feel that worked to its benefit. It was a tight, close-quarters combat situation that sent you fighting in, around, and through gorgeous elven architecture and the lingering remnants of past conflicts. It was urban combat in a place the blood elves once considered paradise, at the seat of the Sunwell.

You were fighting this dirty, nasty war to protect your home ... and as far as your enemies knew, so were they. If you have a character capable of stealth, take a trip over to Quel'Danas and hang out with the enemy blood elf mobs. They don't know what Kael'thas is doing. All they know is their king is in danger and it's their duty to protect him. The enemy NPCs talk to each other about this, and their conversations display them as people with lives, not mustache-twirling villains. They discuss going on vacation. They discuss their salaries. They discuss retirement.
Dawnblade Blood Knight says: Yeah. I hope to retire next month to a little tract of land I bought off the coast of Azeroth.
The people you fight on Quel'Danas are people. They aren't evil. As far as they know, you're the aggressors intruding upon their sovereign lands, sacking elven paradise. Kael'Thas has been playing everyone for fools without the benefit of ancient mystical powers or mind control. He's pulled it off with only his own wit and political influence. Clever people are more frightening than any Old God.

The Burning Crusade, mechanically, left much to be desired. From the view of an MMO player in the year 2012, almost 2013, its mechanics seem almost primitive. It had its weaknesses and flaws and to claim that it didn't is either madness or intentional deception. Despite those flaws, it was an amazing expansion, and I don't feel bad proclaiming it as my favorite. To write the entire expansion off as bad is the exact situation described in the idiom "throw out the baby with the bathwater." There was some bad in Burning Crusade, but also a whole lot of good.

There are numerous other things I loved about the expansion I haven't touched on here. For example, flying mounts were integrated into gameplay via bombing runs -- not quests where you're on-rails or using a vehicle, but you are tasked with flying over targets on your mount, completely under your control, while you lob explosives down to the ground, dodging projectiles the entire time. Burning Crusade used flight as something other than a means of transportation. It was a part of gameplay. Challenging, but awesome. Non-player races such as the ethereals and the arakkoa were allowed to have their own cultures that weren't based on whether they fit in with the Horde, the Alliance, or the villains. They were who they were.
Why the Burning Crusade didn't suck
What I want in World of Warcraft, more than anything else, is to see Blizzard revisit non-Azerothian locales using all of the lessons they've learned over the course of WoW's existence. A modern Burning Crusade visiting other Legion-touched worlds could be a wonderful thing.

My love for Burning Crusade doesn't mean I hated the other expansions. I don't. I love Mists of Pandaria. I just also love Burning Crusade and am unwilling to agree with the idea that it sucked.

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