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World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King
WarCry’s Official Review
By John Funk

Nobody could have predicted World of Warcraft.

Before November 2004, the MMO industry was in a very different place than it is today. Sure, Blizzard had quite the track record and reputation, and had years of experience working with online games, but Battle.net was hardly comparable to a full, genuine MMO. Behind the scenes, the developers were hoping for subscription numbers of a few hundred thousand or so – quite reasonable at the time, given that only the industry frontrunners like EverQuest and Final Fantasy XI dared to dream of breaking one million.

At the end of October, Blizzard announced that WoW had reached eleven million subscribers – that’s people currently playing the game, by the way, not counting inactive accounts. There are almost as many people playing WoW as there are people who live in the state of Ohio. Nobody expected these kinds of numbers, least of all Blizzard themselves. Part of the reason for Warcraft‘s unprecedented success was its mass-market appeal: more than just grabbing people who were already playing other MMOs, WoW hooked people who’d never played a Massive game before in their life, from librarians and lawyers to executives and mechanics.

There’s no doubt that WoW is the most important MMO of this generation – perhaps in the history of online gaming. People who cut their MMOG teeth on Warcraft have gone on to play other Massive titles, and in just the last year alone two titles – Warhammer and Age of Conan – broke the million-man-mark right out of the gate. Though Warcraft may have brought more people to MMOs, it’s also increased expectations for new titles. Mythic CEO and WAR Lead Developer Mark Jacobs said that one of the primary reasons for Warhammer‘s delayed release was the launch of the first WoW expansion, The Burning Crusade, because he’d felt that the bar had once again been raised.

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On November 13th – almost exactly four years since World of Warcraft first launched in November of 2004 – Wrath of the Lich King, the game’s second expansion, will hit shelves. Burning Crusade may have set the bar higher than classic WoW did, but WotLK eclipses even that standard: Blizzard has really and truly outdone itself here.

For all of the “too long; didn’t read” types out there, here are the bare facts: Wrath of the Lich King is an expansion, not a new game. This is more World of Warcraft. If you don’t like WoW, then this probably isn’t for you. That being said, with Lich King, WoW is far and away the best that it’s ever been. WotLK is a tremendously more ambitious expansion pack than The Burning Crusade, and also more of a triumphant success. Almost every aspect of the game – the new environments and quests, the new PvE dungeons and raids, the new PvP additions, the crafting, and so much more – is better than ever. There are many talented developers and many great games out there, but Wrath of the Lich King shows that Blizzard is second to none.

If you’ve never played World of Warcraft, if you used to play but took a break, or if you’re unfamiliar with MMOs in general, head on over to The Escapist for a review tailored more to your tastes. If you’re a current WoW player (hardcore or otherwise), then … well, let’s be honest here, you’re probably going to get Wrath of the Lich King anyway. For a more in-depth look at what’s in store, though, read on!

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Go North, Young Murloc!

If Wrath of the Lich King were a dinner course, the continent of Northrend would be the entrée. With ten brand-new zones and assorted dungeons to explore, Northrend is the training ground for adventurers on the road from level 70 to the new level cap of 80. Players who were around for the launch of Burning Crusade might remember the server crashes and lag that were the inevitable result of entire realm populations funneling through the Dark Portal and into Hellfire Peninsula. With WotLK, though, there are two level 70 starting zones instead of one – Howling Fjord in the east, Borean Tundra in the west – which should somewhat alleviate the technical issues.

While Outland did have some zones like Terokkar Forest, Zangarmarsh, and Nagrand to balance things out, many of the zones in Burning Crusade (or hell, in classic WoW for that matter) were blasted, war-torn landscapes. Northrend, on the other hand, feels significantly more inviting. There’s an extremely wide variety of environments to be found up in the north, from the sweltering jungle of Sholazar Basin (thankfully, Devilsaur-free) and the towering cliffs of Howling Fjord, to the serene redwood forest of the Grizzly Hills and the bleak but hauntingly compelling ice fields of the Dragonblight.

They’re also all gorgeous. Blizzard continues to push the limits of the aging WoW engine, and where the game falls short in technical power, it more than makes up for it with absolutely brilliant art direction. It really cannot be stressed enough: Northrend is beautiful, and the average quality of the new zones is higher than it’s ever been. Not only are the new landscapes breathtaking, they’re pretty big to boot. While we aren’t talking “Barrens” big here, most of them are at least as large as, say, Hellfire Peninsula in Outland.

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With a few exceptions here and there, the background music for Classic WoW and TBC was never really worth writing home about – sure, they provided great ambiance, but they weren’t exactly crucial to the whole experience. While you could turn the music off while adventuring through Northrend, you’d really be doing yourself a disservice, because the music in Wrath of the Lich King is exceptionally well-done. I’ve parked myself in Wintergarde Keep and minimized the game while do something else, just so I could listen to the haunting piano melodies of the Dragonblight, something I haven’t ever found myself doing before anywhere in WoW. The soundtrack for the game is exceptional, and does a great job at contributing to the atmosphere of Northrend’s various locales.

There’s plenty of substance to complement the visual and aural style of Northrend. Yes, WoW is still an MMO, and there are plenty of quests that ask players to kill 20 zombies or bring them 10 wolf pelts, or something along those lines. However, mixed in with the slaughter, collection, and Fed-Ex type quests are some fresh ideas for a wider variety of tasks to accomplish, and even the old standards tend to have fresher, more entertaining approaches. Killing a truckload of Scourge is a lot more fun if you’re doing it in a Siege Tank – who’d have guessed?

Characters won’t be able to use their flying mounts until they reach level 77 and are able to train the Cold-Weather Flying skill, and at first it’s admittedly pretty disappointing to find yourself suddenly grounded. In the end, though, it was a wise decision, because the quest progression is very natural and does a great job of slowly unfolding the various storylines of Lich King. It might be a frustrating change, but the choice to prevent players from skipping huge swaths of content via flying mounts ultimately makes for a better experience.

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With a whole new continent and 10 more levels comes another helping of NPC factions that players can gain reputation with. WotLK introduces the concept of “Championing,” which essentially allows characters to wear the tabard of a particular faction in a dungeon, gaining reputation with them as they quest and conquer – as opposed to having to do a specific instance to improve one’s standing. It’s an interesting idea that seems almost like a no-brainer at first glance, but it’s a bit too early to pass judgment.

Many of these factions are located in the floating magical city of Dalaran, which is to WotLK what Shattrath was to TBC: a neutral hub for both factions in the new continent. Dalaran seems much more intelligently laid out than Shattrath, with all the profession trainers in one district, all the PvP and arena-related NPCs in another, and so on. It’ll probably still be rather laggy, but these changes (and the lack of squads of training Draenei soldiers) should make it more bearable than Shattrath was.

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Dungeons & Dragons (and Undead, and Trolls, and…)

Players who opt to start off in Howling Fjord will likely be introduced to the WotLK PvE dungeon scene via Utgarde Keep (you can find our video guide here!), and while it’s by no means a bad dungeon, it’s… kind of average and unremarkable. Thankfully, Utgarde Keep doesn’t set the standard for the rest of the instances, because the quality only goes up from there. Like the outdoor zones of Northrend, the dungeons are beautifully done with some really fantastic visuals, with particular praise going to places like the Halls of Stone in Uldum, or Ahn’kahet in Azjol-Nerub.

They’re also some of the most entertaining and interesting dungeons Blizzard’s managed to create in four years of WoW. Many of the boss fights feature completely new mechanics (I’m still trying to figure out exactly how the Herald fight in Ahn’kahet works), or put a new spin on older, more established ones.

When it comes to endgame raiding, the big change, of course, is the option to tackle every raid in a 10-man or 25-man group. While there are still some “hardcore” players who lament the change, it’s a wholly positive decision. Karazhan and Zul’Aman are two of the most popular raids in TBC, and letting smaller guilds have a shot at fighting Kel’Thuzad or Arthas by removing the “find 24 other people” requirement is really just a no-brainer. It’s a choice that makes content more accessible to more people, and for the hardest of the hardcore, not only will you earn better loot, but you have some optional challenges as well (for example, leaving all three guardian drakes alive in the Obsidian Sanctum will result in a much harder fight, but the boss will drop more loot as well as a guaranteed special mount – much like the four-chest run in Zul’Aman). Meanwhile, Naxxramas makes a return as the introductory raid dungeon a la TBC‘s Karazhan, and while it’s been appropriately scaled down from its original sprawling 40-man self, it’s still got some of the coolest encounters in the game, and survives the transition fairly faithfully.

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The Dark Knights

Aside from Northrend and the new 10 levels, the biggest addition that Wrath of the Lich King brings is the game’s first new class since its launch – the Death Knight. Players will be able to start a new Death Knight character on any given server as long as they already have a character at least level 55 on that server already, and the class gets its very own starting area and questline all to itself.

Without spoiling too much, the Death Knight beginner area is easily three or four of the best hours anywhere in World of Warcraft. The quests are great, it’s very fun to watch the storyline unfold, and Blizzard has done a fabulous job at making you feel like an evil, soulless minion of the Lich King – which, let’s be honest, you are. Even if you have no intention of playing a Death Knight to 80, you might want to consider starting one out if only for the experience.

The Death Knight class plays like a fusion of a Rogue and a Warrior, balancing a constantly regenerating resource – Frost, Blood, and Unholy Runes – with Runic Power, which goes up as you deal damage with your basic moves and powers further skills. They’re also the first class to have a primary focus on Disease-type debuffs (a la Warlocks with Curses and Rogues with Poisons). While it’s too early to judge how the class will feel six months from now once the novelty has worn off, the Death Knight feels like a very fun and engaging class – now let’s just see how well Blizzard can balance in it PvE and PvP alike.

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Just a Phase?

“Phasing Zones” are possibly the single coolest feature in WotLK that nobody’s talking about, and they feature predominantly in the Death Knight starting zone. Blizzard has actually made multiple instances of almost every new zone and overlaid them on top of each other, but players will only be able to see one at a time. As players complete quests, they’ll be “phased” through different zones, allowing the world to actually change with them – for a good analogy, think about how someone who has Detect Invisibility cast on them can see an Invisible Mage, but the Mage can also then see him; that player has been “phased” into the invisible world. So, for example, a player who has completed a quest to burn down an enemy village would always see the village as burning whenever they rode past, but someone who hadn’t done the quest would see the village completely intact.

With this, it actually lets players feel like they’re affecting the world around them. That’s certainly a welcome change for a MMORPG, and I’d be ecstatic if more companies followed Blizzard’s lead.

Player vs. Vehicle

Sure, the new PvE content is great, but there’s a large and vocal segment of the WoW playerbase that loves PvP, and Blizzard hasn’t left them out in the Northrend cold. As far as world PvP is concerned, the developers seem to have learned from the mistakes of TBC. With PvP objectives in four zones, the carnage was spread thin, and it was often hard to find a good fight. In Lich King, PvP-oriented goals are limited to two zones: Grizzly Hills and Lake Wintergrasp.

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Grizzly Hills is also a full-fledged questing zone with hubs, NPCs, dungeons, and all that jazz, but it’s got some nice PvP options as well. The Alliance and Horde clash over the various logging camps in the giant redwood forest, and players of both factions will be given daily quests to capture broken Goblin shredders, heal wounded NPC soldiers, and kill players and guards of the enemy faction. It’s worth noting that every single one of these quests can be completed without ever engaging in PvP, which means that you’ll never be stuck if the other side doesn’t feel like fighting on that particular day. However, since many of the quests directly conflict – healing guards vs. killing them, for instance – and you’ll be automatically flagged for PvP, clashes are almost inevitable. Further downriver, there’s Venture Bay, which, like Halaa in Nagrand, can be captured by either faction for access to vendors and further quests.

Lake Wintergrasp, on the other hand, is an entire zone devoted to PvP. The objective of Lake Wintergrasp is to take Wintergrasp Keep, and to do so the attacking faction will be able to employ a wide variety of vehicles from Forsaken Catapults to Flying Machines and bombers. If the attackers take the Keep, or if the defenders hold out for the duration of the fight, they’ll be given control for the next three or so hours, at which point the zone will once again become contested territory.

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Whichever faction controls Wintergrasp Keep will be given a buff all across Northrend that lets them collect Stone Keeper’s Shards, the WotLK counterpart to Terokkar’s Spirit Shards, that can be exchanged for goodies and upgrades. There’s also a special PvE instance inside the Keep that can only be accessed if it’s in your faction’s hands. The concern here, and where Blizzard is going to have to pay attention in the coming months, is to make the Stone Keeper’s Shards actually worthwhile – or else eventually as the Wintergrasp gear loses its luster, players will just pile up Shards in their bank much like they do Spirit Shards now. On a positive note, though, even if the goodies aren’t that good, it’s possible that Wintergrasp might simply become the place to find PvP even when it isn’t up for grabs, much like the bygone era of Tarren Mill vs. Southshore.

There’s also a new battleground in WotLK, Strand of the Ancients. Like Wintergrasp Keep, Strand of the Ancients is an assault/defense scenario, with one team controlling a well-defended position and the other storming the beachfront with siege weaponry. If the attackers capture the Titan artifact, they win – if time runs out, they lose. Either way, the teams switch sides for a second round. It’s actually possible for Strand of the Ancients to end in a tie (or at least it was in the Beta build), if both factions score a win.

While Wintergrasp and Strand of the Ancients were pretty enjoyable, and the vehicles were fun to toy around with, time will be the ultimate judge on whether or not it’ll still be fun once the novelty wears off. Lich King‘s PvP options aren’t quite up to the level of, say, Warhammer, but it’s definitely better in that regard than it’s been in quite some time.

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The More Things Change…

All in all, WotLK seems to revel in offering players more choices: there’s more love for PvPers as well as PvE-lovers, people can tackle endgame raids with 9 or 24 friends, and can improve their standing with whatever faction they choose via Championing. With the new Inscription profession, players are given more options to customize their spells, whether it’s removing the reagent component on spells like Slow Fall or Rebirth, or making your Polymorph spell turn the target into a Polar Bear cub or a Penguin.

With the tweaks and adjustments made to some of the core mechanics of the game – how tanks generate threat, the Paladin Seal system, or the consolidation of Spell Damage and Healing into one Spell Power stat, just to name a few – many players have expressed concerns that the game and the classes are becoming too homogenous. They may well be right, and it’s something that Blizzard will have to walk a very fine line on. Even that, though, comes down to the desire to give players more choices, and to move away from certain classes and talent specs being absolutely mandatory (where if Jimmy the Shaman can’t show up, people might cancel the raid rather than go without, say, Windfury). It’s an admirable goal, and with 30 potential talent builds vying for 25 raid spots, it’s understandable that the developers would rather let guilds bring who they wanted to bring to an encounter, rather than who they had to bring.

There’s so much to cover in Wrath of the Lich King, and even in this (pretty lengthy) overview, I’ve barely scratched the surface. The new zones are fantastic, the music is beautiful and actually worth listening to, the quests are great, the dungeons are fun and engaging, and the storyline is a gigantic treat to people (like yours truly) who love the Warcraft lore. Blizzard has always been known for its extremely high standards, and the pride, effort, and commitment that went into WotLK is obvious from the very beginning.

This is more WoW, there’s no getting around that. It’s more of the same. But it’s “more of the same” style, wit, quality, and polish that Blizzard is known for. The “same” is better than ever, and Wrath of the Lich King makes World of Warcraft the best it’s ever been.

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John Funk has become entirely too obsessed with getting Achievements on his Druid.

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