Wrath of the Lich King is the second expansion to Blizzard’s game, something the player base had snatched up in great quantities.
Simply having plenty of content and stability isn’t enough to make the game worthy of your dosh however. As most gamers out there know already, however, that World of Warcraft is a remarkable product. From the entertaining, strongly defined classes with wildly diverse functionality and generally solid feel and timing of activating skills, to a gigantic, beautiful open world and myriad ways to spend your time levelling up professions, coordinating large-scale attacks against powerful dungeon bosses, or engaging in player versus player battles ensures you’ll find something to like.
While the previous expansion, The Burning Crusade, offered quite a bit for new WoW players back in January 2007 with two new playable races and accompanying level 1 – 20 starting zones, Wrath of the Lich King is geared more for high level players. The level cap was bumped up to 80, and the new continent of Northrend isn’t accessible until you’ve got a higher level character, so if you’re new you’ll need to move through the original release content as well as territory from the first expansion, both of which are required to play Lich King. That being said, Blizzard made the levelling process up to 70 much more rapid through patches released, so those who activate now won’t spend nearly as much time in the original release territory or Outland from The Burning Crusade as those who dove in when the content was still new.
The new class, the Death Knight, starts at level 55. Provided you’ve got a high enough level character you can roll one of these demonic melee fighters as Horde or Alliance and experience right away one of the expansion’s major strengths; a stronger narrative cohesion. Unlike the other classes, Death Knights get their very own introductory quest lines that have you working temporarily for Arthas. In all it’s about 49 quests that start out with your character battling against the forces of light, killing citizens, infiltrating operations, assaulting strongholds, and flying frost wyrms over battlefields to reign death on those below. Through a few in-game, voiced character interactions alter you’ll witness some dramatic events that provide a nice narrative context for the class within Blizzard’s alternately self-serious and flippant fictional world.
After the introductory sequence you take a bit of a detour though Outland as you’ll need to level up to the requirement for entry into Northrend before rejoining the story of Arthas. Compared with the other nine alternatives in World of Warcraft, Death Knights have a distinct rhythm to their play styles, a result of two unique resource systems used to pull off moves. Death Knights start off fights by consuming different types of runes to activate skills, all of which have an accompanying cooldown sequence. Using these skills also builds runic power that makes available other skills, meaning the flow of fights with Death Knights alternates between managing rune cooldowns to trigger abilities and counterbalancing that with those that consume runic power.
Talent trees of course strengthen different aspects of the class. Depending on how you’ve allocated your points you can be more effective at generating and maintaining runic power, make yourself more resilient in battle, dramatically boost your damage output and unlock a number of interesting skills. The Death Knight can, for instance, briefly bring an ally back to life as a ghoul after being killed, project a stationary anti-magic zone to dampen incoming magical damage, call down a gargoyle to inflict damage on foes, blow up corpses like Diablo II’s Necromancer, and even summon a ghoul companion. Considering the class wears plate armor it’s certainly a force to be reckoned with, and is particularly noticeable in PvP because of its death grip ability, which yanks targets from a distance to the death knight. It’s been a long wait for a new class to toy around with, and what Blizzard has delivered provides players with a fresh set of distinct, entertaining skills to put to usewhile playing solo and grouped.
One criticism that tends to get levelled at MMOs like WoW is that there’s no strong central narrative. Something like BioWare’s Mass Effect has a powerful story and characters, the endless nature of the MMO and the need for the developer to keep players engaged so they’ll keep that subscription active means there can’t really be a true termination, even if there are climactic events, though games like Turbine’s Lord of the Rings Online try to address that. That being said, Blizzard has built in much more narrative across the zones of Northrend, anchored by frequent appearances by Arthas, which makes the levelling process a more interesting endeavour.
Like in the Death Knight opening sequences, players will get plenty of opportunity to interact with the Scourge’s heavily armoured leader. He tends to show up all over the place, after seemingly mundane quests in the Howling Fjord to the finale of a dungeon run through Drak’Tharon Keep on the borders of Grizzly Hills and Zul’Drak. He’ll spout sinister lines, whether you take him seriously or smirk at his overwrought malevolence, you can’t help but pay attention when he raises his sword, Frostmourne, to single out a victim or emphasize a point. One of the more involved questlines in a zone called Dragonblight fleshes out more of Arthas’ history, his transformation from noble prince to embodiment of evil, and culminates in a lengthy cut-scene surrounding the Wrath Gate that gives players a better sense of what’s going on in the world at large, and with a follow-up questline that spans the old world and provides a nice connection between the new and existing content.
Another step forward for Blizzard is their overall zone design. Northrend not only looks far more appealing than any of the old world content but also contains a wider variety of quests. It’s an important development as many tend to complain about how getting quests to kill X number of mobs, pick Y bits of random crap off the ground, or collect Z collectibles off of corpses can make you want to tear your hair out, and rightfully so. Those types of quests are boring, and in WotLK; Blizzard had not only strengthened storytelling, but it’s greatly improved the quest structures.
You still spent time killing and collecting but quest chains are mixed up with vehicle missions, like running dragon battle daily quests at Wyrmrest Temple where you blast fireballs at other winged reptiles. There are sequences where you swoop around battlefields to snatch up survivors as well as numerous instances where you put on disguises to infiltrate enemy installations and quest for monsters which all work to alleviate the drooling stupor you might fall into after doing the same type of quest for hours on end.
Beating on AI controlled bosses and leveling your character isn’t the only option in World of Warcraft; there’s also quite a bit of player versus player combat to be had. On open PvP servers you can slap around anyone of the opposing faction, but Blizzard has gradually added a number of more ordered systems to its game over the years, something expanded upon in Wrath of the Lich King. Wintergrasp, a zone dedicated entirely to PvP, lies buried near Northrend’s center. It’s an attempt by Blizzard to give more structure to larger scale conflicts, as players can enter the zone and after a timer counts down attempt to assault or defend a fortress. It’s not something that’s going to elevate the game’s open PvP element to the level of Mythic Entertainment’s Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning, but it’s still a nice change of pace from leveling or bashing bosses since, in addition to engaging in large-scale team battles, you can commandeer siege equipment armed with rams and destructive projectiles to break apart pieces of the stronghold, adding another element to the PvP gameplay.
The culture surrounding this new zone hadn’t really matured at this point, though there’s certainly potential. Something that’s a little more measurable is the Strand of the Ancients battleground arena, a new type of set player limit see-saw battle where teams take sides storming a series of gates with siege equipment. It fits in with the general philosophy of the expansion pack where Blizzard takes what their player base enjoys and adds to it, in this case socketing another cog in the overall PvP machinery.
Plenty of smaller scale changes have been implemented on top of this, not the least of which is another new profession, Inscription, that among its many functions allows players to power up existing skills. An achievement system had also been built into the game, evidence that Blizzard took a note from systems whirring in something like Microsoft’s Xbox 360, where simply by virtue of adding in a goal, let’s say kill a number of turkeys within a time limit, the company can keep its player base busy sometimes even without a reward beyond a higher achievement point total.
Not to deny the player base a fancy new hangout, WotLK includes a new capital city. Dalaran, the metropolis floats over the sparkling forests of Crystalsong on Icecrown’s border, and comes with portals to other major cities, access to battlegrounds and Wintergrasp, and even its own instance, the Violet Hold, where groups fend off wave after wave of powerful enemies and bosses.
Dalaran, like the rest of the zones, is quite pretty thanks to graphical effects that were added into the game including real-time shadows and more detailed models. Pairing those upgrades with the more interesting zone designs and a return to more realistic settings, a refreshing change after the alien zones in Outland, and you’ve got a game that still manages to impress with scenes of occasional beauty. And of course you get character animations practically unparalleled in the genre, and a diverse range of spell and ability effects that easily allow players to identify another’s class as soon as something’s cast. Many of Warcraft’s sounds will be familiar to players, but the music and effects are still of the highest quality. While running around Northrend you’ll be treated to a score that works to enhance the overall feeling of the zones, and it’s always great to listen to the Lich King’s spiteful verbal barbs.
World of Warcraft’s play style had been tweaked to be more accessible, addictive, and deeper. Any long time player is sure to be pleased with what Blizzard’s done here since it gives the higher level population a wealth of new content for play as well as improves the overall look of the world
Blizzard is more than content to build on World of Warcraft’s formula, improving and refining nearly every aspect of the game, delivering new quest systems, a better and more focused narrative, loads of new goals to chase by yourself or with friends, and made acclimating to its world’s complexities a process generally free of the headaches of something like CCP’s EVE Online. Those who’ve yet to jump in should absolutely do so; it’s hard to imagine anyone being disappointed with such a well-run, polished product that offers so many reward strata and diverse styles of gameplay.