World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King
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.
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