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World of Warcraft The Burning Crusade

This is a rock-star moment for Shane Dabiri. He's the producer of the world-conquering World of Warcraft, standing in front of 6000 Blizzcon attendees, about to announce the first details of the World of Warcraft expansion.

But his players are uppity. Much of the detail of his presentation, and the introduction of a new race, the Blood Elves, has found its way on to the web already. It's going to have to be quite a show to satisfy this audience.

All it takes is a little flash of charisma to turn the tide. Shane bounds on stage, flashes the horns of rock, then starts with a series of snappy, crowd-pleasing statements, clearly playing to the dreams and requests of the hardcore fans who sit in front of him.

"You're going to discover the Caverns of Time, where you'll be able to journey backwards, fighting battles you played in Warcraft 3 and Warcraft 2," he says.

"You'll be able to buy Nether Dragon Flying Mounts in a whole new area, the Outlands. There's a new profession - jewel crafting - and we're introducing 'socketed items' for further customisation to your weapons and armour. And we're going to introduce linked auction houses in every major city."

The crowd roars its approval. "Oh. My. God," whispers one attendee, moved close to tears. "That's freakin' AWESOME."

This is the strangest of announcements. Much of it is aimed at the players who have reached the limits of the game, and now concentrate on grinding the end-game dungeons for rare loot and rewards.

For months, they've been playing the massively multiplayer equivalent of Half-Life 2's final level. For them, Blizzard will raise the level 'cap,' and provide new quests and areas.

But Blizzard's real focus is on what the expansion pack means for the casual player. New races come with fresh towns and villages to explore, each filled with novel quests and rewards.

It's the tourists of World of Warcraft, those who dip in and out of the game, who are most likely to benefit - there are more places and things to see and do.

The Burning Crusade means that casual players will have more choice at every level; they can pick and choose the best bits, rather than grinding out the 'fetch 10 monkey fingernails' quests.

The hardcore will race through the extra 10 levels in a few weeks, then fall back into the repetition. Shane points out that Blizzard will lower many of the barriers that prevent players reaching the high-level treats.

Group numbers for the hardcore raid-dungeons are to be lowered, and the team is working on its party-finding tools. The major dungeons should no longer be the preserve of zealots who can organise a team of forty or more and play for 10 hours at a stretch.

But the truth is, the announcement of this expansion feels rushed. The area in which they allow Blizzcon attendees to play through and taste the Blood Elf race for the first time is simultaneously small and directionless, and nowhere near complete.

What is intriguing, however, is noting the detail in the Blood Elf lore. Their racial storyline says that the Elves are addicted to magic. Part of growing as a character requires you to master and control your latent talents.

This trait is realised in-game as a great feature which enables a Blood Elf to drain mana from opponents, then turn it back on their victim in the form of a stun spell.

The hardcore Warcraft fans are more impressed with the Caverns of Time. In his final pitch, Shane promises that players can relive the final battles from Warcrafts 3 and 2 in World of Warcraft from a grunt's perspective.

He leaves the stage to a standing ovation. Teary-eyed fellow is the only one left sitting. He dabs at his eyes with a freebie promotional T-shirt. Right now, he's the happiest man in the room.

World of Warcraft The Burning Crusade will be released for PC in late 2006

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