The long-awaited expansion pack to World of Warcraft has been on the shelves for a few days now and it's already an instant hit, with nearly 2.4million copies sold in the first 24 hours it was available. A whole new continent to explore, two new races, new professions, flying mounts, a rise in the level cap from 60 to 70 — there's plenty to tempt both the hardcore gamer and the casual player.
I'd kicked my addiction and my level 35 gnome mage (Pollydolly on Silvermoon, since you're asking — she's a member of The Scorned guild) has been languishing in Booty Bay for a while now. However, installing TBC and creating a sexy blood elf warlock has got me hooked again, just as surely as a caffeine addict eventually returns to coffee. But, and but. In many ways it's more of the same. Yet again I'm grinding through killing off a set number of murlocks or elementals in a chain of quests that has me tackling a boss for its head. There's just enough good loot interspersed with the dross to keep you interested in what the mobs drop; and yes, I'm scavenging for raw materials — I'm a miner as it complements my chosen profession of jewelcrafting.
WoW has a finely tuned reward system that delivers enough short-term overlapping and reasonably easily achievable goals to keep you playing despite your best-laid plans to get an early night. Regular players will know the feeling of thinking "I'm off to bed. Well, I'll just finish this quest because if I kill another four murlocs I'll level up, and then I can swing by my trainer and pick up a new spell and if I also go to the quest giver I'll pick up my reward, and if I go the long way round back to my trainer and my quest giver and kill a few elementals I'll finish that other quest too and hmmm, while I'm in the city I might as well put some stuff up for auction and perhaps smelt some copper ..." and the next thing you know it's three hours later and even the cat has come in from her night out and gone to bed.
You end up feeling, as you totter off to bed at 2.30am, that you've somehow been had for a mug — and it's not a nice feeling. With so many new characters running around the already over-populated servers, Blizzard is again a victim of its own success. I was surprised to see during the process of creating my blood elf that the software defaulted to allocating her to the server my main character is on, despite the fact that that server — Silvermoon — is already bursting at the seams. Surely the system should default to sending you to a newer, less busy server? I imagine the idea is that your secondary and further characters can join your existing guilds, but it's madness. It should automatically assign you to a newer server unless you specify which server you want to be on.
The folly of this approach was apparent the evening after launch. Silvermoon — and other servers — collapsed under the strain. I created a Dranei on another server, only to find the new Alliance race's starting area over-run by nascent Dranei all doing quests at the same pace as each other. The chat channels were full of that uniquely inarticulate static generated by the players WoW seems to attract. "Bliz sucx" and "mi servur down. urz 2?" Dozens of characters hanging around waiting for mobs to spawn. Each one that did spawn being tagged by five different people. We were all in the same boat, waiting for our home servers to come back up.
If you've previously levelled a character and immersed yourself in the rich world of guilds, raids and dungeons, starting with a new character and without the backup of a guild will be frustrating. It's no fun struggling by yourself with a level 10 boss when you're used to seeing off level 60 mobs in a perfectly synchronised group of guildmates. Your fingers will automatically reach for the way you set up the UI for your main character — I've died a few times because of this, missing my mage's favourite ranged attacks. Wearing rubbish armour is just, well, rubbish. But for all that, I'm hooked again. Flaws and criticisms aside, WoW is just plain great fun. It's satisfying to finish quests, it's still great to yell "ding!" when you level and bask in congratulations. The magic is still there.