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A Norse is a Norse (of Course, of Course)

When last we left our intrepid spell-flinging hero (me), I had logged off in Vengeance Landing in the Howling Fjord to wait out the all-too-frequent server crashes. Well, as it turns out, Blizzard’s poor overworked server hamsters just can’t keep going for very long, and – at least for the moment – Northrend crashes are a simple fact of life in the WotLK beta. Just something to work through, y’know?

I decide to make the best of the momentary uptime, poking around the quests available for me in Vengeance Landing. There weren’t many – and at this point, I haven’t actually done most of the available ones, so I don’t know if this changes or if the quests are just spread out more around different hub areas – but it was worth giving some of them a shot, right?

The Vengeance Landing houndmaster asks me to help feed his plaguehounds, lamenting that since he’s now a walking corpse, live dogs no longer trust him … so these demon hounds are an acceptable substitute. It’s an interesting sentiment and there was a moment or two for sympathy – but quest XP waits for no man!

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Plaguehounds apparently like to eat crow meat, so it’s awfully convenient to have a flock of crows right outside the encampment. Unlike other quest-specific pets (for example, the Skyguard Nether Ray), the plaguehound can actually fight and assist you in killing said crows, and I have to admit I relished the feeling of having a semi-proper combat pet while on the quest; it was a neat little touch. Despite the obvious difference, though, I had assumed that the plaguehound would function similarly to the Hungry Nether Ray for the Skyguard quest, and was puzzled when it wasn’t going to feast on the carcasses as the two of us culled the Howling Fjord’s burgeoning crow population.

Then, I discovered that each crow was dropping “crow meat,” which was useable – I had to feed the devil-dog manually. Oh, the perils of auto-loot. Once that was done, I returned the hound to his master, who asked me to take it out again – only this time, it’d be searching for clues for something or other like a rotting, undead Scooby-Doo, and I’d have to follow it (ostensibly like a pajama-clad, Mohawk-sporting Shaggy).

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Unlike certain other hounds quest-givers ask you to follow that take all day to wander leisurely around the area and half the way to Darnassus before revealing that the spot they were looking for was about ten feet from where they started (I’m looking at you, Fei-Fei, you blasted mutt), the plaguehound immediately takes off running North along the shore. I follow, and we essentially keep making a beeline North before encountering a cave. Now this is no ordinary cave … well, okay, it is an ordinary cave, but it’s the only thing around as far as I can see and there’s a map on the ground that I can click and interact with, so this is obviously our destination.

Unfortunately, clicking on the map spawns a big burly Viking who seems protective of these secret plans that they just left lying in a cave, and he tries to smash my head in with an axe. Which would be unfortunate, but we live in a world of Hit Points, so sucks to be him. After a thorough burning, I return to Vengeance Landing (my plaguehound having scurried away at first sign of trouble – “Mage’s Best Friend” my blue Troll ass) and point out to the High Executor that Vengeance Landing is marked with a skull on the map. As we all know, skull means you kill it first – so this probably isn’t a good thing. Apparently, we at Vengeance Landing have made enemies of the local Vikings.

Just like the Green Bay Packers!

…huh, tough crowd.

There’s some other thing going on with a battle with some Alliance forces over yonder or whatever, but I decide I’ll get to that later, because I’ve been contacted by a Druid I’m acquainted with from the WoW General Forums – goes by the name of Emuslayer here, but there he’s Noobu. Hi, Noobu! You get to be in a writeup! 😀

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Er, yes. I’m contacted, and we decide to go run some of the new dungeons. Unlike the ragged, malnourished hamsters running the Northrend world server, the critters powering the beta instance servers are fresh, energetic, and ready to dance. My sincere apologies if you now have the Hamster-Dance song running through your head, and I think I’ve overextended that metaphor anyway so let’s just toss it.

So! What with their improved stability, instances are pretty nice to check out as far as the beta goes; it’s far less likely you’ll find everything going kaput than you will outside. Of course, the downside is that when the server does crash, everything’s respawned. Fun times.

We quickly get a group together and make our way to Utgarde Keep, a stronghold looming over the center of Howling Fjord. I have a surprisingly hard time figuring out how to get down to the entrance, and eventually decide to just cheat and Slow Fall down – but I’m sure there’s probably a more proper way that I simply overlooked.

Oh, one thing I’d forgotten to mention: the Druid They Call Emuslayer tips me off to a new console command players can look forward to in WotLK: /console extShadowQuality [#]. This command enables a brand-new graphical feature in the expansion: Dynamic Shadowing. When activated (0 is disabled, while 4 is the intended maximum), objects and players … actually cast shadows. I don’t mean the little black blobs that we call shadows currently in the game, but real shadows. Shadows that depend on the angle of lighting, shadows that reflect what your character looks like and what they’re wearing, shadows that reflect what you actually do – if your character waves, so does your shadow.

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Dynamic Shadowing is hardly a brand-new concept, of course, but it adds a visual depth to WoW that is really hard to explain without actually seeing it first hand – personally, I’m incredibly glad that I’m no longer playing the game on an underpowered and ill-powered laptop, but finally have a PC capable of running it on max settings (level 4 Dynamic Shadowing does require more than a bit of graphical power). Even so, like almost everything else in Lich King, full shadowing looks really, really good. Even if it is a bit buggy at the moment. But that’s what beta’s for, eh?

Sorry, tangent. Anyway: it’s dungeon time!

Utgarde Keep

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I suppose the official name for the level 70 wing is actually Utgarde Catacombs, but for now we’ll just go with Utgarde Keep (and refer to the level 80 dungeon as the Pinnacle, whenever that gets implemented). Though I haven’t done much of the story as of yet, the arrival of outsiders from both the Alliance and Horde has ticked off the local population of Vikings. Okay, yes, they’re actually called “Vrykul,” but really, Blizzard, who do you think you’re kidding?

To be fair, the Forsaken aren’t exactly the world’s most pleasant neighbors, and having a bunch of plague-ridden Abominations running around is bound to drive market prices down, so I can see why they’d be annoyed with the Horde. As for the Alliance? I dunno, I guess they just don’t like Gnomes.

Whatever the reason, though, these Vikings are eeeeevil and not quirky and awesome like Blizzard’s earlier trio of Mislaid Norsemen. Plus, I think they’re still in Uldaman. So to stop the Viki-sorry, “Vrykul”-from destroying and pillaging as they’re wont to do, it’s up to adventurers like us to stop them! As many times as it takes to get the drops we want, anyway.

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Zoning into the Catacombs of Utgarde Keep, there’s a questgiver immediately inside the instance portal. Apparently, this Blood Elf (well, Dark Ranger, so… Undead Elf?) was part of a reconnaissance group, but since they weren’t awesome like we are, they all got killed except for her. According to her, since the Vrykul are so relentless and fearless in combat, the one way to disrupt them is to go for their leader, Ingvar the Plunderer, and kill him.

Hey, works for me.

Perhaps this isn’t quite working as intended, but for being such “relentless fighters” with “savage tactics,” the Vrykul aren’t very quick to notice and/or react when their nearby drinking buddy gets turned into a sheep. We mercilessly slaughter our way through Utgarde Keep, very quickly coming to the “furnace room” featured in promo screenshots and videos. Yes, it looks pretty. This is not much of a surprise. The fire does hurt if you stand in it, but as you kill the groups around the forge, one by one the jets of flame go out until you can safely make your way around. I’m not quite sure why the furnace’s operation is apparently tied to the very lives of those around it, but let’s not look a gift Dreadsteed in the mouth, right?

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You know, as good-looking as Lich King is, other than the one furnace room, Utgarde Keep is surprisingly visually uninteresting. Don’t get me wrong, it certainly doesn’t look bad, and is pretty damn atmospheric … but for the most part, it’s almost entirely just dark, enclosed hallways mixed with large wooden stairways. They’ve done better (and DO better, as I’ll get to), so it’s sort of a let-down from me.

Continuing through the instance, we encounter Proto-Drakes, which look like a cross between … well, a regular Dragon crossed with the bipedal Drakonids crossed with … well, I don’t know, but it ain’t pretty. They give an absurd amount of experience, though – this might just be a beta thing, but who’s to say? – while rested, one kill gave me more than five thousand XP. There are a few of them, too, so leveling in instances is fairly quick.

After more indiscriminate slaughter, we come to the dungeon’s first boss, Prince Keleseth – I haven’t done it for myself yet, but I’m told he’s involved in the Death Knight starting quest, so it looks like the Vrykul are buddying up with the Scourge. Probably not a good thing. There’s a four-pull of guards before him so some CC is nice to have, but not necessary. At the time I first ran this, they weren’t linked – but this has been changed as of writing, and Keleseth will aggro immediately after the fourth Vrykul is killed. Consider yourselves warned.

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Keleseth himself is an … interesting fight. He’ll occasionally summon a group of skeleton guards, so my “2” key got a workout as I spammed Arcane Explosion. The other thing he does is freeze a random party member in a block of ice where they take damage over time. The ice can be targeted by your allies, much like the Demon Chains in the Illhoof fight back in Karazhan. It doesn’t have much health, but it’s important to react quickly when he freezes someone.

Anyway, we killed him – and lo and behold, he dropped a pretty damn nice one-handed dagger with a hefty amount of spell power on it (considerably more than the Ring of Blood staff I was currently using), so I rolled for it. Unfortunately, it was an upgrade for our Priest as well, and he rolled too – and won. Blast it all. I’m rather wary about the whole “Spell Power” change that they’re implementing in this expansion, and fully intend to touch on it later … but this is already going to be a long one so let’s just move on. In the meantime, I’ll just say that it’s slightly silly that they call something that big a “dagger,” so a Priest can somehow wield it when they don’t have the ability to use, say, the much smaller Inventor’s Focal Sword.

Bah, humbug.

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We went on, and I had fun figuring out that I could Spellsteal the Runes that the Vrykul casters use on themselves, because some of them give fairly nice buffs (100% increased damage or auto-Fireball, for instance). Furthermore, the spell graphic was actually very cool – unlike the current shield bubbles in the game that are really just flat images rotated to match the viewing angle, these are actual, 3-D bubbles. A nice touch.

After a bit of stair-climbing, we met the Keep’s second boss – or rather, bosses – Skarvald the Constructor and his Necromancer pal, Dalronn the Controller. This is a very simple and straightforward fight: Skarvald will Charge random targets, and Dalronn will, uh, cast magic of some sort. We killed the Necromancer first, but after he drops his shade sticks around, continuing to spam magic until Skarvald dies too.

And… that’s pretty much the fight. Really nothing special at all, unless there’s something I was missing. They dropped a pretty nice leather chestpiece, though.

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Some more killing and more climbing stairs finally brought us back outside, so we could once again appreciate everything being really, really pretty. It was interesting to note that when fighting a Proto-Drake Rider, you can target either the rider or his mount, though I’m not sure if killing either first makes much of a difference. Still, from what I know, that’s a mechanic we’ll see more of in the future so I’ll let you know how it turns out.

A few pulls later, and we were staring at the final boss of Utgarde Keep, our assassination target – Ingvar the Plunderer.

Ingvar is a significantly more complex fight than the previous two bosses in the instance; he’s also a lot more fun. There are two phases to the fight, both of which have two (similar) abilities worth mentioning. During the entire first phase, he will periodically use Staggering Roar, which does a fair amount of damage (about 3k) to everyone within range, interrupting spellcasting for six seconds. It is possible to avoid this by using the pillars around where Ingvar stands, much in the same way as you would in Sethekk Halls against Talon-Lord Ikiss, or in a high-rated Arena match. The other ability is Smash, which does a tremendous amount of physical damage (more than 20k before armor mitigation) to anybody in a cone in front of him. It’s possible to outrange the cone, but probably much safer if the tank keeps him faced away from the rest of the group.

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Since Smash can hurt even a beefy, well-armored tank, it is possible with proper positioning to duck behind one of the pillars as he casts it – it may also be possible to try and run out of the cone area, but I’m not sure how well that works. Either way, good healing is necessary.

After a good amount of stabbing, burning, and all that other stuff, the Vrykul commander dropped … and I admit to being momentarily perplexed, because there weren’t any shiny happy loot sparkles on his body. After a few seconds, though, there was a purple-black Beam of Evil hitting the corpse from the sky – a Valkryie-ish thing by the name of Annhylde the Caller. She yells something about him serving the Lich King, and that’s … probably not a good thing.

She raises Ingvar and then flies off for some … unexplained reason (you’d think she’d help him against us, seeing how we, uh, just killed him once already) leaving us to square off with the Zombie-Viking for round 2. Er, Phase 2. …you know what I mean.

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His abilities are similar to that of his living incarnation, though naturally more powerful. His AoE is now a much quicker cast (all but impossible to avoid through LoS), does about a thousand more damage, and increases all shadow damage taken by 5% – so in effect, this becomes a bit of a DPS race, because it keeps stacking every time he does it. I’m not entirely sure what Dark Smash does that’s different from the not-as-Dark version, but whatever it was, it killed our tank pretty damn dead.

In the end, it came down to our Rogue and healer, but since the Rogue had a Warglaive he was clearly entirely too overpowered and we won. Hooray!

There is a shortcut back to the start of the instance, though there’s a bit of a bug with it at the moment. Ideally, players jump down a shaft and fall into water like in Wailing Caverns … however, as it currently stands, you fall through the floor right before the exit shaft, and instead of safely landing in water painfully land on a large wooden rafter. If you’re at full health, you should be fine, but it’s still something I’d hope they fix before it goes live. Unless, of course, the evil Vikings intended for it to be this way as a trap – I guess they’re just “Thor losers.”

I think that … may well be the worst pun I’ve made in these journals yet.

After turning in our quest, we decided to continue on and check out some of the other dungeons in our level range … but, since this is once again longer than anticipated, I’ll leave those tales for another day.

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So, Utgarde Keep. It’s got some cool things, and it’s certainly by no means bad in any sense of the word, but it’s definitely not the best dungeon they’ve done. For the most part, it’s just not all that impressive, with the exception of the final boss fight (which I found pretty damn fun). I suppose the first boss, Keleseth, is a fun encounter too, but all-told there are better instances in the game.

Thankfully, however … there’s stuff that more than makes up for the lackluster Catacombs of Utgarde Keep, two of which we’ll get to very shortly – Azjol-Nerub and The Nexus are coming up next, so stay tuned!

See you next time!

-TMTCJ(z)

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If you’re one of the lucky few to get into the Wrath of the Lich King Closed Beta Test – and stay tuned since we might have something on that front soon – come join Jayne(z), the Awesome Brigade, and the <Evil League of Evil> on the Northrend (PvE) server! We’d love to have you!

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