On October 28th of 2008 – just under four years after its launch – Blizzard announced that World of Warcraft had reached eleven million subscribers around the world. To put those numbers in perspective: there are more people playing WoW than there are living in Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai, or New York City. If Azeroth were a country, it would be the 75th most populated country in the world (right after Greece). With appearances on Jeopardy and South Park – to name a few – World of Warcraft is as much a cultural phenomenon as it is a game, and this November, it celebrates its four-year anniversary with its second expansion pack: Wrath of the Lich King.

If you’re one of the eleven million WoW players, this review isn’t really for you – for a more in-depth look at Wrath of the Lich King, head over to our sister site, WarCry. Plus, you’ll probably buy it anyway. However, if you used to play and are wondering if you should return, or are still standing on the sidelines, scratching your head in confusion over all the fuss, and wondering if now might be a good time to start, then read on!

Returning to Azeroth…

Let’s get this out of the way: Wrath of the Lich King is an expansion, not a brand-new game, and at its core the game is still WoW – anyone who was expecting otherwise is in for a disappointment. However, with Lich King, World of Warcraft is by leaps and bounds the best it has ever been.

As with the first expansion, The Burning Crusade, Blizzard has retooled and streamlined the different character classes, though this time around the changes are significantly more sweeping and dynamic than they had been in Crusade. It isn’t just the classes that are seeing changes, though: Blizzard has taken up the chisel to overhaul the game’s core mechanics, and the game is better off for it.

The meat of WotLK is the brand-new continent of Northrend, where the eponymous Lich King, Arthas, set up his headquarters after the end of Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne. Northrend’s various locales provide hunting grounds for adventurers of level 70 and above, eventually leading players directly to Arthas’ proverbial doorstep. It cannot be stressed enough – Northrend is absolutely beautiful. Sure, the WoW engine has never been exactly top-of-the-line, but Blizzard keeps pushing its own envelope, and compensates for lackluster technical specs with absolutely fantastic art direction. From the towering cliffs of Howling Fjord to the luminescent foliage of Crystalsong Forest, WotLK looks great (and is a welcome change from the bleak, war-scarred landscapes of Outland).

Lich King takes everything that Blizzard has already done in WoW and makes it better. While there are still the standard “Kill X enemies, gather Y items” quests, there’s more variety and higher quality than ever, and many of the quests tie in to the storyline in a way that players rarely saw in Burning Crusade. Blizzard has also pushed its own bar higher with the new dungeons – enemy encounters are more creative, engaging, and just plain fun than ever before.

While WotLK makes the core WoW experience better, it does bring some new features beyond the continent of Northrend – the most prominent of which is the addition of the game’s first new class since its launch in 2004, the Death Knight. Death Knights start at level 55, though players will have to already have a character at least at level 55 on any given server in order to create one. The Death Knight is a great addition to the game’s roster, and their class mechanics – focused on constantly regenerating magical Runes and afflicting their foes with diseases – are pretty unique, and most importantly, very dynamic and fun. Blizzard deserves special credit for the Death Knight starting area and accompanying storyline, which is worth starting a new Death Knight just for the experience; it’s arguably the best three or four hours anywhere in World of Warcraft.

For former WoW players who have since hung up their swords, it might be worth checking out Lich King for the Death Knight experience alone – but the quality of the new content in Northrend easily eclipses all but the best parts of Classic WoW and Crusade both. It may just be time to indulge that devil on your shoulder, if only to get a taste of the improvements.

…or Thinking About Visiting?

Something that drives many players away from MMOs – or prevents others from starting in the first place – is the “grind” factor. WoW has always been comparatively light on the grind compared to many other MMOs, though there’s no question that it still exists. Lich King takes further steps to curtail the time-sink requirements, and while some hardcore players might lament what they see as WoW catering to casual gamers, to put it bluntly: these changes make it a better, more accessible game. Perhaps the most significant change is the decision to let players tackle the end-game 25-man raid dungeons with a group of 10 (scaling the enemies and encounters accordingly) – after all, it’s much harder to get 24 other people together than it is to find 9 friends. The 25-man version will still offer superior rewards for the truly hardcore, but this option means that more players will have access to the complete Lich King experience.

For those who have never played the game but have friends or family who do (and really, who doesn’t?) or who have just been curious, … well, the thought of getting to level 80 is a bit more daunting than getting to 70, let alone 60. Burning Crusade came with two new races for level 1 players to start with, but almost all the great new content in Lich King is for high-level characters, and even the Death Knight requires someone to have a level 55 character already. So why start now with Lich King?

Even though changes like the overhauled class and game mechanics or the introduction of more robust interface and graphic options affect all characters and players across the board, it’s true that most of the content in Wrath of the Lich King is aimed at veteran players. Since the launch of Burning Crusade, though, Blizzard has worked on polishing the old-school content, and the trek from 1 to 60 is both quicker and smoother. With Lich King, the journey from 60 to 70 will be similarly sped up, and the brand new Achievement system is an entertaining diversion that old-timers didn’t have.

Furthermore, the leveling experience – questing, discovering new storylines and exploring new zones – has always been one of WoW‘s strongest points since the beginning, and that hasn’t changed. For a new player, the journey should be as fun as it’s ever been. For everybody else, the end-game at level 80 is better than it was at level 70 or 60, and getting there is just as fun.

Wrath of the Lich King is a tremendously more ambitious – and tremendously more successful – expansion pack than Burning Crusade was, and feels like a return to the roots of Warcraft. It’s more WoW, but it’s a better WoW in essentially every way imaginable. No game is flawless of course, but Lich King is a title worthy of the Blizzard name and reputation. It might just remind people why exactly there are eleven million people around the world playing the game today. The Kool-Aid has never tasted so good.

Long live the King.

Bottom Line: WoW has never been better. It’s more accessible, there are more options for players than ever before, Achievements and Siege weaponry are awesome, and the Death Knight introduction is phenomenal.

Recommendation: With Wrath of the Lich King, there’s been no better time to start, resume, or continue playing World of Warcraft.

John Funk can’t decide if he wants to get his Night Elf Druid or Troll Mage to level 80 first, but is stocking up on Mountain Dew anyway.

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