This week we take a break from investigating the elements of gaming as I hazard something new and write my first game review: early impressions on Wrath of the Lich King. I must add before I begin that, since I have no characters L68 and above, I am in no position to discuss the new continent of Northrend. However that is only one facet of WOTLK and while it is the largest addition it is, in terms of advances in game design, perhaps one of the least significant.

With the release of WOTLK, Blizzard proved once again that they understand business far better than the American automobile industry. Regardless of whatever storm of skill and circumstance thrust WoW to the top of the MMO heap, the newest expansion shows that Blizzard isn’t content simply to rest on its laurels. Except for graphics, which are difficult to advance in an expansion, WOTLK brings the 4-year old WoW universe on par with the newest innovations of fantasy MMOs and, in several ways, pushes beyond them.

As a minor example, take LOTRO which is now celebrating nineteen months and has just released its own expansion. While a fine game in its own right, LOTRO really didn’t introduce anything “new” to MMOs. It differs from WoW in details rather than in kind. One of the details that LOTRO has offered is its post-creation character customization in the form of outfits and barbershops. While WoW hasn’t allowed for outfit appearances it did introduce barbershops with its pre-WOTLK patch, bringing it on par. A more significant example occurs in a comparison with WAR. One of the few things that impressed me about WAR was its highly detailed Tome of Knowledge that catalogued player activities and accomplishments. Yet WoW has already matched this with its own Achievement system. Similarly, AoC’s great selling points include PvP fortifications and the construction of siege equipment. In Northrend, such armament is possible as well as other new innovations like multi-player vehicles.

Comparisons aside, what has impressed me most about WOTLK thus far is the Death Knight. Hearing rumors of the prestige class beforehand, I was skeptical. The concept of the DK character type wasn’t particularly inspiring to me, though I do recall the Death Knight had the best complaint from Warcraft II: “This is why I ended it all!” Or perhaps that was Teron Gorefiend specifically, it’s been a while. Nevertheless, I was pleasantly surprised despite my doubts. That is not to say that the introduction of WOTLK in general and the Death Knight in specific has been devoid of shortcomings. With its release, the game world and Hellfire Peninsula in particular, were swarmed with legions of new Death Knights. You couldn’t throw a stick without hitting a dozen of them. I imagine in those first few days, that the DK starting zone was a region of intense overcrowding and extreme vexation. Fortunately, I had the restraint and wisdom (or so I’d like to think) of waiting a week before buying my copy of the expansion. By the time I experienced the DK sequence the starter region was no more crowded than any other zone. Such a shortcoming with any game as popular as WoW was largely unavoidable. A similar affliction was the hour long wait time to log in the first couple days. Yet that was a temporary annoyance and is not a slight against the expansion itself.

With the Death Knight introduction, Blizzard provided an experience that is rare, if not unheard of, in the MMO genre: the creation of a true character story (see my previous article series “The Death of Story” for a discussion of this). It does have the unfortunate shortcoming of being a character story that all Death Knights share. However, as I witnessed the redemption of Morgraine and then ran through the streets of Stormwind to the heckling cries of its populace I experienced character depth on a level I’ve never seen before in an MMO. I could actually feel what my character was going through: a scion of good, twisted toward evil by the magics of the Lich King and now offered a chance of redemption for a people who didn’t understand. That is high drama! True, these experiences exist in single-player games like the classic Baldur’s Gate. They are the very bedrock of a good pen-and-paper RPG and in MMOs can be externally induced by a creative player. But this is the first time I’ve ever seen an MMO use the tools at its disposal to truly assist in the endeavor. I actually deleted my first DK so I could play the starting sequence twice (though that was largely because I arrived at the scene of the final confrontation after Mograine had been defeated by Fordring and I wanted to participate in the battle). Some gamers, highly attuned to our society’s 30-second commercial attention span, may complain that the dialogue following the battle dragged on forever. It was admittedly longer than most but was far briefer and more interesting then, say, a gryphon ride from Darkshore to Gadgetzan.

The second impressive facet of the Death Knight concerns the design of the character class itself. WoW, by nature of being an older game, is steeped in the overused classic character roles of DPS, Tank, Healer, etc. and truly breaking free of that would require a revamping of the entire system (of course, most new games are stuck on these same old roles). That being said, the DK skill set demonstrates a goal of providing a new technique of game play that, if it doesn’t break out of the class roles, at least blends them in a unique fashion. Character classes almost categorically are based around one of three mechanisms. The most common is a mana pool. The other two involve either a power system that diminishes (WoW’s Rogue, LOTRO’s Hunter) or a power system that grows (WoW’s Warrior, LOTRO’s Champion, pretty much every non-magical WAR class). The only variation comes in the specific nature of finishing moves or spells, and their cool down times. Enough already! The DK is a member of a new breed of character class that put life into an old methodology (it shares this distinction with the Warden and Runekeeper of LOTRO’s Mines of Moria). The technique is achieved through three pairs of runes with set timers that judge all available actions, forcing a player to cycle between action types. This works in conjunction with a classic growing (Runic) power bar and is enhanced by a corresponding Talent system that magnifies the effect. For example, with the Blade Barrier talent it actually pays to use up the two Blood Runes because of a nice parry bonus. The talent tree is also arranged in a fashion less specific to character roles as compared with most classes. For example, a paladin who focuses on Holy will predominantly be a healer, Protection is a tank, and Retribution is DPS. Instead, the three trees focus more on styles of play. Blood is a good choice for someone who likes to dish out melee damage and is aided by various attack-related healing skills. Frost is the choice for people who prefer to inflict burst damage through a blend of melee and spells. It also has a few defensive perks. Unholy, on the other hand, focuses on debuffs, spells, and pets. Doubtless as time goes on there will be certain templates that conventional wisdom will decide are best for certain tasks, but in general the DK trees are much more flexible than the norm.

The only frustration I’ve encountered with the DK relates to crafting. A starting L55 Death Knight is fully proficient in first aid (an interesting concept considering they’re dead), but has no other skills. Therefore those players interested in pursuing trade skills must resort to long hours in low level zones to build up the skills. This also has tended to bloat some of the auction houses, wreaking havoc with some prices. As far as stories go, it is also unfortunate that the fine character development of the starter zone ends with its completion. From that point on a DK is just as faceless as any other class. I suppose the expectation of a total revamp in that department is unrealistic, but at least I take pleasure in the fact that WOTLK has provided an excellent narrow case study of what is possible for future games.

Wrath of the Lich King is an impressive addition to the WoW universe. From the beginning of what it offers players are directly linked to the renewed battle against Arthas rather than the more diffuse experience of Burning Crusade. It adds a few new perks like barbershop customization, achievements, not to mention the new inscription trade skill. Far and away the most impressive addition is the Death Knight, both as a new viable character class and especially for the advancements made in character stories.

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