World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King
Believe It Or not, it's been four years since World of Warcraft opened its awaiting arms to would-be adventurers, and nearly two years since its first expansion, The Burning Crusade. Regardless of this slightly languid release schedule, WOW continues to be wildly popular, and thus Blizzard are willing to swing the punch of an expansion at the most competitive time in gaming.
Expectations are high, otherwise respectable people are preparing to forget to use the toilet and eat. and over 11 million subscribers are desperate to hit the icy terrain of Northrend. Which is why it's slightly awkward to deliver this review. Wrath of the Lich King, while a phenomenally tight, well-built expansion, lacks the killer instinct and wow-factor (acronym and adjective) that both WOW and The Burning Crusade had.
Depending on what character you're using, WOTLK starts off with you either at odds with or working for the Lich King. And if you have a level 55 character, you'll be able to create a Death Knight WOWs first hero class (see 'Death Knights' box out).
Birth Of A Knight
Beginning at 55, the initial experience of being a Death Knight introduces you to the class through a few hours of heavily story-driven quests, beginning above the Eastern Plaguelands in a necropolis known as Acherus: The Ebon Hold. This gigantic floating skull-palace houses your quests, your class-trainers, and the new rune forging (read: Death Knight-only buff application) system. Through these quests you level from 55 through to 59, and acquire as many talents as you would from level 10 onwards.
These quests are well-written, fun, and reasonably dramatic, ending with a large-scale battle against the forces of the Light, who eventually free you ' from the thrall of the titular undead demigod, carefully explaining how you can join the goodie-two-shoes Alliance. You'll even find yourself experiencing a little guilt as you do dirty work for Arthas (the titular Lich King) - killing innocents, stealing horses, and generally doing true, no-nonsense evil. This is refreshingly grim in comparison to some of WOWs somewhat reserved content and will no doubt create a fair amount of grumbling among the moralistic.
Lich King is also an example of how well Blizzard does boxed-in, instancebased content The instance that you (and other new Death Knights) work within constantly changes as you advance, with once-beautiful countryside becoming plagued and charred. You have a real connection to the world as you progress, gaining gear, levels, talents and a rather clapper steed, which causes dissonance when you reach the end, to be thrown back into the static, yet enjoyable, content of The Burning Crusade. Sadly, once you're past the initial stages, you'll have to move up to level 68 to enter Northrend. And. face it in the last two years, we've already grinded ourselves enough alts to 70 to get tired of Outland.
Nevertheless, the Death Knight is an endearing, playable and endlessly resourceful class to both play with, as their ability to (when specialised in Blood Talents) solo makes Outland that bit more palatable. That and those of you who need to catch up to 68 to hit the icy waters will have a slew of grumpy new friends to level up with.
Entering Northrend is done by zeppelin or boat depending on whether you're Alliance or Horde, to either the Howling Fjord (accessed by Menethil Harbour or the Undercity) or Borean Tundra (accessed through Stormwind or Durotar). The Fjord's Valgarde houses the Alliance dangerously close to the newly-awoken Viking giants, the vrykul, while the Horde end up doing more bitch work for the Forsaken at New Agamand. In the Tundra, the Horde's Vengeance Landing is immediately accessible, as is the impressive Warsong Hold, while Valiance Keep is all that stands between the Alliance and a swift reaming by the ever-more-bold undead Scourge.
In comparison to the demonic, explosion-filled war zone that The Dark Portal had waiting for you, your entrance to the North is actually rather relaxed. You'll slip in somewhat unheralded and begin collecting quests and go to work trying to establish your side's agenda. Wherever you choose to land, it seems that old habits die hard - The Forsaken are up to new and unusual ways to make members of the Alliance suffer, while the goodie-goodie humans are trying to get along with the locals and protect their supply routes.
In fact you'll find a great many of the initial quests eerily similar to your experiences in The Burning Crusade, with kill X of Y quests, pick up X of Y quests, and bombing runs against large groups of otherwise unreachable opponents. It's not that these aren't fun or well balanced, it's more that they lack the furious extremes of Outland. While two years ago you were fighting hellboars on charred terrain while juddering devices of the Burning Legion fought overhead, a great many of your first hours in Northrend are spent killing the wildlife or scuffling with the locals. This is an expansion of exploration, and feels more like an expedition, not an adventure.
The best example came from my personal experience jaunting around the Howling Fjord in my first few hours. Feeling the advantage of jumping off the beaten track, I sought out Winterhoof, a camp of both Tauren and Taunka (apparently their ancestral cousins), thinking that it would be ripe for the adventuring. On arrival, I received a quest that had me picking up hippogryph feathers around generic, icy/green terrain, amongst a few others involving the killing of elementals and wildlife. I threw up my hands - hadn't I left this shit behind in the Hinterlands?
This isn't to say that Wrut/j of the Lich King is a litany of repetitive boredom -far from it There are some wonderfully intricate, atmospheric and well-done quests within the Frozen Hell. Zul'Drak, the home of the ice trolls, is simply one of the coolest environments in fantasy lore. You're sent into gigantic troll ruins at the request of gods (gigantic Totem animals), fighting vicious ice trolls protected by eerie dancing tiki masks with floating spears. Lightning crackles in the sky, and Blizzard do their best to build on the lore started rather briefly in WarCraft III expansion The Frozen Throne.
In fact the best parts of Wrath of the Lich King seem to be when Blizzard breaks away from making a successful MMO and focuses on pure, unfettered adventure. Be it the Death Knight quest line, the battles between the Skybreaker andOrgrim's Hammer, insulting a vrykul's mum, or fighting a Scourge Veteran and an army of skeletons alongside a Horde Hero, WOTLK shines when it doesn't feel like it's setting up the treadmill for generation after generation.
Lake Wintergrasp is a great example of this. Only accessible past level 77 (when players are able to learn Cold-Weather Flight and mount their respective winged beasts), it's high-level PvP chaos that rewards good teamwork. Either the Horde or the Alliance takes control of Wintergrasp Fortress, where they must destroy the enemy's siege engines and workshops before they can blow the fortress to smithereens.
Unlike your average battleground, Wintergrasp rewards coordination and smaller groups protecting siege weapons, weakening walls, or baiting groups of players into the path of one of the long-range siege weapons' guns. It's important to realise that you can't really win Wintergrasp reliably without playing as a team - have-a-go heroes on their lonesome find themselves torn to shreds, even at 80. No matter how many hours you've denied your spouse or your worklife, you're not going to win in a fistfight with a Demolisher.
This is a refreshing take on PvP, but disappointingly closed-off for the average player. Many will (reasonably) assume that this is a counterpoint to the PvP-centric Warhammer Online, only to find that out of the box they're not going to be able to travel there - especially if they don't even have a flying mount to begin with. What could have been a drop-in, drop-out PvP war zone is now a fun little club for the elite to hang out at - which is, now especially, not what it should be in the face of what Mythic has to offer.
Wintergrasp isn't the only bizarre geographical choice that Blizzard made with Northrend. Before release, it was stated many times that the continent wouldn't be made up predominantly of icy caverns and different kinds of yeti. While this is certainly the case, much of the continent feels put together seemingly at random. Lush plains roll into barren wastelands, that in turn roll into Scourge-infested terrain, that then subsequently rolls back into icy expanses. The Borean Tundra and Howling Fjord are the worst examples, and feel rather like eight or nine zones stuck together with varying degrees of success, but much of Northrend lacks coherent artistic direction. Once you leave tfie loving arms of the Tundra and the Fjord (which takes far too long, in comparison to the transition between Zangarmarsh and Hellfire in The Burning Crusade), progression becomes a little more interesting, but it lacks a vigorous, adventure-like buzz. It's more of a stroll through a series of well thought-out ideas that aren't held together as well as they should be.
In all fairness, WOTLK does everything that LVCW has always done very, very well. Zones in and of themselves are always dramatic, and at times stunning, particularly Icecrown and Zul'Drak. A great deal of effort has been made to make zones feel bigger than anything Blizzard has created before, as is evident from the vertigo'you'll get on flying towards the flying city of Dalaran (see 'Swoop, magic, swoop'). Character models are still cartoony and lacking in detail compared to Age Of Conan and Warhammer Online, but environments are still ahead of the competition.
This makes scoring this expansion rather painful. There is so much love for the lands, the lore, and the characters in the Warcraft universe, and so many fantastic ideas that exist to go into the Northrend Saga. Somehow, Blizzard managed to take potentially the least interesting idea in history - an entire continent made of ice - and lace it with fascinating ideas, quests, and areas to explore. The problem is that these ideas aren't held together very well, and players have to push through more ho-hum content than we've yet seen from a Blizzard product I hasten to add that it isn't bad content, but we're now four long years into WOW.
If you're on that boat, and want to continue playing a game that is enjoyable and addictive yet ultimately, doing the same bloody thing it did on its release, then be my guest You will love Wrath of the Lich King, because it does exactly what many want it to - it elongates a successful game model in a pleasing, easy-to-consume package, much like each year's new FIFA and Football Manager games. The instanced content is excellent, the Death Knight is a well-balanced war machine that looks good in black, and the storyline - once you hunt it down and wring it out of Northrend - is crafted well enough to sate even the most die-hard lore nut
But by any standard, this far into the development of an MMO, and with two years since your last expansion, the envelope should be pushed a little. Blizzard could've shaken up the genre here. Wrath of the Lich King has had two years to innovate, build and refresh WOW, but all it seems to have done is prolong the same experience that people have been waiting to continue for years.
Whether or not that's a bad thing is up to you.
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Wrath Of The Lich King, the second expansion to WOW in its four year tender, has had the same build-up as the second coming of Jesus. Men with loudhailers on street corners, excitable nuns... the works.
So it was almost a surprise to find ourselves finally exploring Northrend, the K frozen continent and home B of the Scourge's leader Wf The Lich King. The expansion lets would-be grinders level all the way up to 80, as well as introducing achievements, graphics upgrades and a new hero class: the Death Knight.
For those unfamiliar with Warcraft Lore, The Lich King was once the son of the King of Lordaeron, Arthas Menethil (and, in part, the Ore chief Ner'Zhul). Through Warcraft 3 and expansion The Frozen Throne, he picked up the dread sword Frostmorne, travelled to Northrend and became an all-powerful undead monster - getting some free spookily glowing eyes and power over the undead.
Wrath of the Lich King takes place some years after his undeadification, with both Horde and Alliance players intent on doing their best to take down Arthas and putting the kibosh on the dratted Scourge once and for all.
All very dramatic, I'm sure you'll agree, and what's more, it's a neat segue through to the hero class that serves as an introduction to the war on Northrend.
The Death Knight is available for creation on reaching Level 55, running as a character that acts in parallel with your own. So, technically, if you haven't played through Burning Crusade yet, you could happily create a Death Knight and run him through Outland and then onto Northrend. In fact, everyone has to. He/ she/it plays unlike any of the other classes. You have three pairs of runes (unholy, blood and frost), and each of your spells uses a combination of them. You also have a runic power gauge that fills depending on what you cast and kill, allowing you to unleash abilities such as Death Coil; a spell that either does direct damage or heals an ally depending on who it's cast on. Death Knights start in the flying city of Acherus: The Ebon Hold, floating above The Eastern Plaguelands like an angry blimp.
You're immediately greeted by none other than the Lich King, who recruits you into his evil forces and demands that you eliminate the inhabitants of the nearby Scarlet Crusade villages. These first steps as a Death Knight are gruesome: you're part of the Scourge army and thus have to murder, poison and obliterate innocent people for your master, while spitting at the mortals that cross your path.
I won't spoil the eventual conclusion of the quests, but I can say that they take a few hours to complete, and that they're utterly brilliant. The starting zone is instanced, and changes several times throughout the experience as the storyline advances. The quests, meanwhile, cleverly award you talent points and loot as you go, meaning that once you leave the relative safety of the Ebon Hold you're at Level 58 with quality gear, an epic mount and a full stable of talents - a proper badass, relatively speaking. It's also massively impressive how well VI Blizzard integrate the Death Knights lore-wise into Azeroth. You start your crusade as a lowly, mindless scourgeling, but once you leave The Ebon Hold you're a free man.
Death Knights can fit into any playing style, with blood, unholy and frost builds erring on the side of damage, PvP and tanking respectively, making this one of the most accessible and versatile RPG classes ever. They've also nailed the feeling of being powerful, with abilities that can let you deal with most situations whether you're alone or in a group.
I have concerns about how Death Knights will balance with other classes, but as it stands they seem to fit neatly into most grouping scenarios without causing penis envy. As mentioned before - the slightly annoying part of being a Death Knight is that you'll have to fight through The Burning Crusade to access Northrend.
Replaying old content may be a jarring prospect for experienced grinders, but the Death Knight experience is fresh enough that it's a lot less painful than you'd think. That, and the new influx of level 58 players, should give a little extra life to The Burning Crusade content -hopefully allowing those left behind the chance to play catch-up. Then, once you finally reach level 68, you can finally grab a Zeppelin or boat to Northrend from either of your side's capitals.
As of going to press, the beta hasn't been open more than two weeks, but there're already a few 71+ Knights around Northrend. (Typical.)
Cold As Ice
Northrend itself, as Blizzard have said many times, isn't a continent purely made of ice. It's got lush greenery, gigantic cities (including the Nerubian home of Azjol'Nerub) and even a forest set ablaze by the newly-awoken Viking-like Vrykul. Depending on where you land, there's a stunning amount of quests available to you. At first they're mostly concerned with pissing off the other faction and cementing your foothold on Northrend, but once you advance further into the cold wastes you'll see more of the Scourge, the Vrykul, and the other indigenous fauna.
You'll also meet up with other WOW lore-staples, such as the Explorer's League and Hemet Nesingwary, as well as the perennial dickheads from the Venture Corporation. Unlike your trip into Outland, Northrend hasn't been kind to its new explorers, with some members of the League turned mad. This insanity has caused a civil war between them and the Druids for the Ethical and Humane Treatment of Animals, D.E.H.T.A. A relatively inane pun, yes, but one made up for by the fact that there's an entire area composed of wildlife and poachers in the Borean Tundra, and if you kill one of the animals, the D.E.T.H.A druids will be enraged and for three minutes you'll be a legitimate target for their members. So while they're crazy activists - a kind of paramilitary RSPCA - at least they have short memories.
This D.E.H.T.A. situation also leads to one of the more inventive quests I've seen so far, which culminates in riding a mammoth to war against an army of poachers and their leader, Kaw. It also introduces the new UI for controllable units, such as Kodo and Cannons, each with their own hotbar and special attacks. Each time you control one of these is fun yet also a little dissonant, as at present they still feel steeped in WOWs not-quite-realtime combat. However, they are still a departure from the usual slog of collection and kill-quests, which Northrend remains intent on throwing at you.
No-one ever said the grind was going away, and I'm probably the most grind-tolerant chap around, but playing through the first 15 to 20 hours of content in Northrend, left me with a lack of awe. I wasn't underwhelmed or overwhelmed -I was simply whelmed. It cannot be argued that there was a real cogency to the entirety of Burning Crusade, but now we're into Lich King the quests range from the good solid fun mark, to a bit dull. Blizzard are usually famed for barraising, but thus far I'm yet to see much that leaps out as overtly new or fresh. For example, the first few quests of Vengeance Landing, the undead entrance to Northrend, are almost identical to The Burning Crusade - there's a bombing run, a few kill quests, and then one where you have a hound that faithfully follows you. (Although you don't have to sift through shit at any point on this one.)
Another worried shrug came when, on arriving at a Tauren encampment, I received a quest that involved killing rams and another that made me pick up hippogryph feathers. I pressed M and, unbelievably, I was in the buzzing new continent of Northrend and not the bloody Hinterlands. True enough, quests like these will always be a part of WOW, but while The Burning Crusade had a few of them strewn about, it got away with it due to the dramatic locations and otherworldly vibe. They weren't so much of the "kill these kobolds, they're ruining the flowers," vein. Northrend's content is good then, but my immediate concern is that it doesn't have that same drive and vigour that made levels 60 to 70 so enjoyable. I'd be lying if I said it wasn't fun, but from my limited time at the frozen end of Azeroth I rarely felt like a hero in a great saga -I felt more like a good Samaritan with knives and ADD.
It's not that it's broken - in fact, for a beta, it's all looking slick - it's just that it lacks the adventurous atmosphere, innovation and general newness that usually pervades most fresh content from Blizzard. It's scary to say, but one word I couldn't bring myself to write about the Lich King was "exciting."
But remember, this is Blizzard - a company that is full of surprises. The huge changes that took place in the original WOW beta show their willingness to take things back to the drawing board and hold back content until it's ready. There's always the chance that they have something reserved to spruce up the content.
The question is how much will Blizzard do to pump variety and atmosphere into the game, to make ft as astounding as the Death Knight.