Believe it or not, it’s been four years since World of Warcraft opened its awaiting arms to would-be adventurers, and nearly two years since its first expansion, The Burning Crusade. Regardless of this slightly languid release schedule, WOW continues to be wildly popular, and thus Blizzard are willing to swing the punch of an expansion at the most competitive time in gaming.
Expectations have been high, otherwise respectable people are already forgetting to use the toilet and eat, and over 11 million subscribers have been desperate to hit the icy terrain of Northrend. Which is why it’s slightly awkward to deliver this review. Wrath of the Lich King, while a phenomenally tight, well-built expansion, lacks the killer instinct and wow-factor (acronym and adjective) that both WOW and The Burning Crusade had. Depending on what character you’re using, WOTLK starts off with you either at odds with or working for the Lich King. And if you have a level 55 character, you’ll be able to create a Death Knight, WOW’s first hero class.
Beginning at 55, the initial experience of being a Death Knight introduces you to the class through a few hours of heavily story-driven quests, beginning above the Eastern Plaguelands in a necropolis known as Acherus: The Ebon Hold. This gigantic floating skull-palace houses your quests, your class-trainers, and the new rune forging (read: Death Knight-only buff application) system. Through these quests you level from 55 to 59,and acquire as many talents as you would from level 10 onwards.
These quests are well-written, fun, and reasonably dramatic, ending with a large-scale battle against the forces of the Light, who eventually free you from the thrall of the titular undead demigod, carefully explaining how you can join the goodie-two-shoes Alliance. You’ll even find yourself experiencing a little guilt as you do dirty work for Arthas (the titular Lich King) – killing innocents, stealing horses, and generally doing true, no-nonsense evil. This is refreshingly grim in comparison to some of WOW’s somewhat reserved content, and will no doubt create a fair amount of grumbling among the moralistic.
Lich King is also an example of how well Blizzard does boxed-in, instance-based content. The instance that you (and other new Death Knights) work within constantly changes as you advance, with once-beautiful countryside becoming plagued and charred. You have a real connection to the world as you progress, gaining gear, levels, talents and a rather dapper steed, which causes dissonance when you reach the end, to be thrown back into the static, yet enjoyable, content of The Burning Crusade. Sadly, once you’re past the initial stages, you’ll have to move up to level 68 to enter Northrend. And, face it, in the last two years, we’ve already grinded ourselves enough alts to 70 to get tired of Outland.
Nevertheless, the Death Knight is an endearing, playable and endlessly resourceful class, as his ability to (when specialized in Blood Talents) solo makes Outland that bit more palatable. That, and those of you who need to catch up to 68 to hit the icy waters will have a slew of grumpy new friends to level up with.
Entering Northrend is done by zeppelin or boat, depending on whether you’re Alliance or Horde, to either the Howling Fjord (accessed by Menethil Harbour or the Undercity) or Borean Tundra (accessed through Stormwind or Durotar). The Fjord’s Valgarde houses the Alliance dangerously close to the newly-awoken Viking giants, the vrykul, while the Horde end up doing more bitch work for the Forsaken at New Agamand. In the Tundra, the Horde’s Vengeance Landing is immediately accessible, as is the impressive Warsong Hold, while Valiance Keep is all that stands between the Alliance and a swift reaming by the ever-more-bold undead Scourge.
In comparison to the demonic, explosion-filled war zone that The Dark Portal had waiting for you, your entrance to the north is actually rather relaxed. You’ll slip in somewhat unheralded and begin collecting quests and go to work trying to establish your side’s agenda. Wherever you choose to land, it seems that old habits die hard – The Forsaken are up to new and unusual ways to make members of the Alliance suffer, while the goodie-goodie humans are trying to get along with the locals and protect their supply routes.
In fact, you’ll find a great many of the initial quests eerily similar to your experiences in The Burning Crusade, with kill X of Y quests, pick up X of Y quests, and bombing runs against large groups of otherwise unreachable opponents. It’s not that these aren’t fun or well balanced, it’s more that they lack the furious extremes of Outland. While two years ago you were fighting hellboars on charred terrain while juddering devices of the Burning Legion fought overhead, a great many of your first hours in Northrend are spent killing the wildlife or scuffling with the locals. This is an expansion of exploration, and feels more like an expedition, not an adventure.
The best example came from our personal experience jaunting around the Howling Fjord in our first few hours. Feeling the advantage of jumping off the beaten track, we sought out Winterhoof, a camp of both Tauren and Taunka (apparently their ancestral cousins), thinking that it would be ripe for the adventuring. On arrival, we received a quest that had us picking up hippogryph feathers around generic, icy/green terrain, amongst a few others involving the killing of elementals and wildlife. we threw up our hands – hadn’t we left this shit behind in the Hinterlands?
This isn’t to say that Wrath of the Lich King is a litany of repetitive boredom – far from it. There are some wonderfully intricate, atmospheric and well-done quests within the Frozen Hell. Zul’Drak, the home of the ice trolls, is simply one of the coolest environments in fantasy lore. You’re sent into gigantic troll ruins at the request of gods (gigantic Totem animals), fighting vicious ice trolls protected by eerie dancing tiki masks with floating spears. Lightning crackles in the sky, and Blizzard do their best to build on the lore started rather briefly in WarCraft III expansion The Frozen Throne.
In fact, the best parts of Wrath of the Lich King seem to be when Blizzard breaks away from making a successful MMO and focuses on pure, unfettered adventure. Be it the Death Knight quest line, the battles between the Skybreaker and Orgrim’s Hammer, insulting a vrykul’s mum, or fighting a Scourge Veteran and an army of skeletons alongside a Horde Hero, WOTLK shines when it doesn’t feel like it’s setting up the treadmill for generation after generation. Lake Wintergrasp is a great example of this. Only accessible past level 77 (when players are able to learn Cold-Weather Flight and mount their respective winged beasts), it’s high-level PvP chaos that rewards good teamwork. Either the Horde or the Alliance takes control of Wintergrasp Fortress, where they must destroy the enemy’s siege engines and workshops before they can blow the fortress to smithereens.
Unlike your average battleground, Wintergrasp rewards coordination and smaller groups protecting siege weapons, weakening walls, or baiting groups of players into the path of one of the long-range siege weapons’ guns. It’s important to realize that you can’t really win Wintergrasp reliably without playing as a team – have-a-go heroes on their lonesome find themselves torn to shreds, even at 80. No matter how many hours you’ve denied your spouse or your work life, you’re not going to win in a fistfight with a Demolisher.
This is a refreshing take on PvP, but disappointingly closed-off for the average player. Many will (reasonably) assume that this is a counterpoint to the PvP-centric Warhammer Online, only to find that out of the box they’re not going to be able to travel there – especially if they don’t even have a flying mount to begin with. What could have been a drop-in, drop-out PvP war zone is now a fun little club for the elite to hang out at – which is, now especially, not what it should be in the face of what Mythic has to offer.
Wintergrasp isn’t the only bizarre geographical choice that Blizzard made with Northrend. Before release, it was stated many times that the continent wouldn’t be made up predominantly of icy caverns and different kinds of yeti. While this is certainly the case, much of the continent feels put together seemingly at random. Lush plains roll into barren wastelands that in turn roll into Scourge-infested terrain that then subsequently rolls back into icy expanses.
The Borean Tundra and Howling Fjord are the worst examples, and feel rather like eight or nine zones stuck together with varying degrees of success, but much of Northrend lacks coherent artistic direction. Once you leave the loving arms of the Tundra and the Fjord (which takes far too long, in comparison to the transition between Zangarmarsh and Hellfire in The Burning Crusade), progression becomes a little more interesting, but it lacks a vigorous, adventure-like buzz. It’s more of a stroll through a series of well thought-out ideas that aren’t held together as well as they should be.
In all fairness, WOTLK does everything that WOW has always done very, very well. Zones in and of themselves are always dramatic, and at times stunning, particularly Icecrown and Zul’Drak. A great deal of effort has been made to make zones feel bigger than anything Blizzard has created before, as is evident from the vertigo you’ll get on flying towards the flying city of Dalaran (see ‘Swoop, magic, swoop’). Character models are still cartoony and lacking in detail compared to Age of Conan and Warhammer Online, but environments are still ahead of the competition.
This makes scoring this expansion rather painful. There is so much love for the lands, the lore, and the characters in the Warcraft universe, and so many fantastic ideas that exist to go into the Northrend Saga. Somehow, Blizzard managed to take potentially the least interesting idea in history – an entire continent made of ice – and lace it with fascinating ideas, quests, and areas to explore. The problem is that these ideas aren’t held together very well, and players have to push through more ho-hum content than we’ve yet seen from a Blizzard product. We hasten to add that it isn’t bad content, but we’re now four long years into WOW.
If you’re on that boat, and want to continue playing a game that is enjoyable and addictive yet, ultimately, doing the same bloody thing it did on its release, then be our guest. You will love Wrath of the Lich King, because it does exactly what many want it to – it elongates a successful game model in a pleasing, easy-to-consume package, much like various successful sports franchises. The instanced content is excellent, the Death Knight is a well-balanced war machine that looks good in black, and the storyline – once you hunt it down and wring it out of Northrend – is crafted well enough to sate even the most die-hard lore nut.
But by any standard, this far into the development of an MMO, and with two years since your last expansion, the envelope should be pushed a little. Blizzard could’ve shaken up the genre here. Wrath of the Lich King has had two years to innovate, build and refresh WOW, but all it seems to have done is prolong the same experience that people have been waiting to continue for years. Whether or not that’s a bad thing is up to you.
Nov 17, 2008