Since shortly after its release in late 2004, World of Warcraft has held the position of the most popular MMO, quickly outstripping predecessors such as Everquest and Ultima Online, and continuing to hold the lead despite competition from contemporaries and newer offerings, like Warhammer Online. When World of Warcraft's first expansion, The Burning Crusade, was released, it built on an already rich world by using feedback from players and two extra years of design experience to work on condensing the game to focus more on the best parts. Now, with the release of Wrath of the Lich King, Blizzard seems to have gotten themselves ahead of the curve; in addition to the many changes intended to remove the "grind" aspect that is so prevalent in this genre, they've gone on to effectively put themselves in the player's shoes and ask, "What would make this more fun? Wouldn't it be cool if..?" Read on for the rest of my thoughts.
- Title: World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King
- Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
- Publisher: Activision Blizzard
- System: PC
- Reviewer: Soulskill
- Score: 9/10
The first thing you'll notice as you set foot on the expansion's new continent, Northrend, is that the art is extremely well done and the vistas are visually impressive. During the first expansion, the primary mode of travel shifted from land-based mounts to much faster flying mounts, and it's clear that the designers of Northrend kept this well in mind. The size and scope of everything has been ratcheted up, from soaring spires and mountains to massive icebergs to spacious valleys and canyons. One of the early zones, Howling Fjord, starts you off looking up at incredibly high cliffs with nothing but a rickety wood-and-chain elevator to help you reach the top. While doing quests at the base of the cliffs, you can't help but wonder, "What's up there?" Later in the zone, you'll find grassy fields and misty forests gradually giving way to snow, ice formations, and new buildings that are a big step up, artistically, from what was seen in the original game, or even the first expansion. The various creatures you encounter are new and more detailed as well. Sleek, aggressive-looking Proto-drakes circle lazily above a burning forest and enormous Storm Giants stomp through the plains, catching unsuspecting adventurers by surprise and leading to more than a few untimely deaths. Fan-favorite Murlocs have undergone a transformation, appearing all the more ready to make a meal of you. Even the seas have gotten more detailed; icebergs look like nothing that could have come out of the original game, and the waters are now teeming with Warcraft-ized orca, hammerheads, and walruses.
Each zone brings a unique art style. Soon after finishing the starting zones, you'll enter Dragonblight, where the skeletons of giant dragons litter the frozen tundra and battles between dragonflights rage overheard. Again, the kinds of things you'll see in Wrath of the Lich King just didn't happen in the original game, and rarely in The Burning Crusade. There are plenty of spots where the design team clearly said, "Ok, let's set this up so the players will just get here and stare at it for five minutes before remembering what they're doing." If you enjoyed exploring earlier parts of the game, Wrath of the Lich King will blow you away. One of the later zones, Storm Peaks, is exactly what it sounds like; a dark, snowy mountain range in which you'll find yourself traveling up and down as much as side to side. The absurdly high mountaintops give the area an epic feel, but Blizzard didn't stop there. Rising up from many peaks are ancient structures, or ruins in some cases. They do wonders for arousing curiosity, and you clearly get the impression that Something Big was here. The northern part of the zone where the dungeons are located is a stronghold for giants, originally built for the Titans, according to Warcraft lore, and it definitely looks the part.
One of the major headlines of Wrath of the Lich King was the introduction of the game's first new class — the Death Knight. Dubbed a "Hero Class," it is only available to players who already have another character at level 55 or higher, but the Death Knight itself starts at level 55, rather than level 1. This is partly due to the class' level of complexity, which is slightly higher than most others, and also to encourage players to try them out by not requiring the time involved to go level up from the very beginning. The Death Knight's resource management system is based on runes and runic power. You start out with six runes available, and using your abilities will consume one or more of them. The runes will then refresh themselves after 10 seconds, giving you the opportunity to use them again. Abilities also generate runic power, which can be used to fuel other spells. Death Knights can wear plate armor, and are intended for use as a "tank" class as well as dealing damage. They use big, two-handed weapons while tanking, rather than a one-hander and a shield, and they're stronger than most against magic. The class was balanced quite well by the extensive beta testing, though minor tuning is still underway to bring each of the three talent trees in line with Blizzard's goals. If you do nothing else in this expansion, it's worth starting a Death Knight and going through the introductory quest line; the story and visual effects are amazing.
Wrath raises the level cap from 70 to 80, so you'll spend most of your time questing and (should you choose) running dungeons for your first few weeks (depending on how much you play, and to what lengths you're willing go for efficiency; the first player to reach level 80 did so only 27 hours after the expansion launched). Gear has effectively been reset again, but not as severely as it was in The Burning Crusade. Powerful level 70 items will last in some cases all the way to level 80, but they should be replaced quickly once you start doing "endgame" activities. Actually getting to 80 isn't a problem; you should make it there with hundreds of quests to spare. Much like the first expansion, Wrath packs quests quite densely throughout most of the zones, so you needn't feel compelled to finish quests that don't interest you or do group quests when you'd rather fly solo (although the rewards for such are often good). The quests themselves are as much a step up from The Burning Crusade as it was over the original game. Many still follow the standard MMO format of "Go slay 10 demonbears," or "Go collect 10 cow eggs," but the quests tell stories, ranging from small and self-contained to grand and overarching. They paint a very clear picture of what's happening in Northrend, and what its inhabitants are doing to fight the Lich King.
In addition to those basic quests, Blizzard did quite a bit to spice things up. One of the most popular quest lines of the first expansion was an arena event in which you and your comrades fought off an increasingly difficult series of enemies. Wrath has three such events, each with its own story and flavor. Bombing runs are back, but they now usually make use of a new vehicle system which lets you hop on a creature or contraption and control its unique selection of abilities. One quest gives you a tank you use to rampage through a field of thickly packed undead, using the buzz-saw on the front to cut down any in your path. Another has you riding on an airborne troop transport, dropping smoke flares by the harpoon launchers of an enemy encampment to protect your allies as they are deployed to fight. One of the more epic quests lets you take control of a massive Storm Giant and use it to take out an even more colossal boss while crushing swarms of skeletons underfoot. Another way Blizzard found to keep things interesting is what they call "phasing" technology. One of the long-standing complaints about the MMO genre is that there is very little permanence to a player's actions. When Player A rescues a princess from an evil wizard's tower, he's very shortly going to turn around and see her back in the tower, waiting for the next player to do the same quest. Either that, or when Player B comes along, the princess is already saved, and he missed out on that content. Blizzard's solution was to implement different "phases" of an otherwise static zone. You'll start out in the beginning phase, during which, for example, a town is under attack. Completing a quest to fight off the attack bumps you into the next phase, where the town is safe and its fighting force is going on the offensive. Now, a player who hadn't done that quest could come from the same place as you, and stand where you're standing, but you and he would see two different things. His town still needs saving, yours doesn't. This is used to great effect in Icecrown, one of the later zones. You get the feeling as you do quests that you're really taking over parts of the zone; towns spring up, one-time battles are fought, and the appearance of the zone at the end is quite different from at the beginning. Another great use of this technology is for an invasion of one of the old capitol cities. You ride to its defense alongside faction leaders, participating in a good balance of plot and action.
The instanced dungeons in Northrend are also a step up over their predecessors. As with the outside world, they've gotten bigger and more impressive, often setting the group's path against an expansive backdrop to make it seem like you have a ton of room, even when you don't. Blizzard whittled down the length of most instances, aiming for a start-to-finish time of roughly an hour. The "trash" mobs between bosses are typically few and varied; the progress made since the original game in that regard is quite evident. You no longer have to worry that hopping into a group with random strangers could turn into a three-hour affair. Blizzard has gone out of their way to create new and interesting boss scenarios as well. An instance called "The Oculus" is a disjointed series of platforms which can only be accessed by flying. After finishing off the first boss, you free a group of NPCs which offer you a choice in Drakes to ride — Red, Yellow or Green — each of which has its own abilities. It behaves like a vehicle; you direct its flight path and choose when to fire off spells, and it carries you from platform to platform where you'll find later bosses. For the last boss in the instance, you actually use the drakes to fight, battling with spells far too powerful for a normal character to control. In another instance, one of the bosses hops on his flying mount and heads outside while you fight your way through a gauntlet of smaller NPCs to reach the end of a hallway. Periodically, he'll drop down and blast one side of the hallway with ice, making an already hectic fight even more dangerous. When you reach the end of the hallway, you'll find harpoon launchers which you use to shoot down his mount and force him to land and fight. One of the instances in The Burning Crusade had a boss which would use mind-control to make your group fight each other for a brief time before resuming the battle as normal. Wrath of the Lich King takes this one step further; the last boss in one of the new instances casts a spell which will dump each player into his own phase and spawn copies of that player's groupmates. The copies then try to kill him. Each player is tasked with killing their own group to survive. As they succeed, they're shunted into other players' phases until they're all back in the original, at which point they re-engage the boss.
Heroic Dungeons return in Wrath, giving players the option of a harder version of an instance that results in better loot. They're tuned better this time around; Blizzard wanted to make the transition from normal dungeons to heroics to raids a smooth one, and they've done a much better job than at the beginning of the first expansion. They've also expanded the "heroic" philosophy to raids as well. Now each raid dungeon has two settings; a "normal" 10-man version, and a "heroic" 25-man version, each tuned appropriately for the size of the group. Wrath launched with four introductory-level raids, and more difficult ones are planned for the next few content patches in the coming months. As we discussed previously, the current raids have been conquered already, but unless you're willing to devote many, many hours to playing the game, reaching the end of the content before more is released won't be an issue for you. Blizzard revisited Naxxramas, a raid instance hailed as the best in the original game, but one that only a few percent of the World of Warcraft population ever got to see. It's now the primary starter raid, tuned to be much more forgiving than it was in 2006, but still able to make unprepared groups struggle. The other raids are quick, involving one boss each, compared to the 15 in Naxxramas. The fight against Malygos is an encounter where Blizzard shows off just how cool they can make a boss fight; if you don't mind spoilers, you can take a look at a video and explanation of the fight from the folks at TankSpot. One of the other raid bosses, Sartharion, lets the players decide how difficult they want the fight to be. Sartharion is a dragon, and in his lair, there are three drake mini-bosses which can be quickly and easily killed beforehand if the raid so chooses. If they aren't killed, they join in the fight when the raid takes on Sartharion himself. You can choose to leave one, two, or all three drakes alive, effectively giving the fight four difficulty settings. The more difficult the encounter, the better loot you'll receive. Very few raids can manage the fight with all drakes alive at this point. Blizzard has stated that we can expect to see more of this type of selective challenge. It allows them to tune the raids such that more people can see and complete them, but still give the more hardcore players something tough to work on.
Blizzard has done a number of other things to make the game more player-friendly. Professions have been revamped in several ways. First, all professions will, in some way, make your character more powerful, either through crafted gear or through passive bonuses. Second, those bonuses are available sooner, so you don't necessarily need to drop thousands of gold grinding out the last few points in order to get that upgrade. Third, recipes are mostly easier to obtain now. The developers have instituted an interesting system for Jewelcrafting in particular: Each day you can do a quest once which will give you a currency token. You can then spend those tokens to purchase many different recipes. This does two things; it guarantees that all of those recipes will be attainable eventually for minimal work, and it lets you choose which ones you want to get first. They've also made other, PvP-related recipes available by simply engaging in PvP. A few still drop in various spots around the world, but they're much less rare than the ones in The Burning Crusade . Others drop at the end of instances, and yet more are made available by increasing reputation with some of the factions scattered around Northrend. Virtually everything you do will make progress toward filling out the profession. Other professions have similar mechanics, but aren't as fleshed-out. Alchemy and the new profession, Inscription, have "discovery" abilities which will allow you to learn new things, but have a lengthy cooldown. As with Jewelcrafting, it's nice that you'll get everything eventually, but in this case you have little control over which "discovered" recipes you learn. Inscription itself is interesting; you essentially enchant your spells and abilities to behave in a slightly different manner. Often you can sacrifice an unimportant aspect of a spell to make it better in another way; for example, one of the Mage glyphs increases the damage on their Frostbolt spell, but removes the slowing effect placed on the target.
Tanking has received a huge make-over in Wrath. No longer is the focus on building threat; it's more about mitigating damage. This removes a lot of the headaches involved in grouping with strangers. Tanks also do quite a bit more damage than they did in the past, making it more fun for people who like to see big numbers. The success of instance groups used to rely almost exclusively on the tank and healer, and while they're still very important, the focus has shifted more to include the damage-dealers. Many fights are significantly easier with better damage output (and some are almost impossible without). It's a welcome change; all members of the group should contribute to its success. Reputation grinds have been made easier as well. Instead of using the method of the first expansion where running dungeons in a particular place increased your reputation with a particular faction, they now use a "championing" system. Wearing the tabard of whichever faction you choose will allow you to gain reputation with that faction regardless of which dungeon you enter. So, you can always run your favorite instance, or do a different one every night while still working toward whatever reward you'd like. That seems to be one of the major themes of Wrath; putting choice back into the players' hands.
PvP has been a bit slow to get started, since many players are still on their way to the level cap. The next arena season is due to start in a couple weeks, after which I'm sure we'll see a round of minor nerfs and buffs to smooth out any issues that arise. Wintergrasp is alive and thriving, however, as the first dedicated world-PvP zone. The concept is simple; one faction controls the central keep while the other tries to break through the walls and capture it. Fighting and scoring kills will increase your rank during a battle, which will allow you to drive increasingly powerful siege vehicles. You can use them to knock down walls, chuck barrels of poison vast distances, or to try to run over enemy players swarming around your wheels. Defenders can man turrets as well. Blizzard has tried to address faction imbalances with a buff called "Tenacity." It essentially makes you more powerful the more your faction is out-manned. In extreme cases, it can turn players into the equivalent of raid bosses — ones that know to take out your healers first. The faction that controls Wintergrasp also has access to a raid dungeon, and the boss inside drops PvP gear. It's a fun, quick way to cap off a victory. One of the things I like best about Wintergrasp is the spacing between the battles. A battle lasts for a maximum of 40 minutes, and when it's over, it's over. A new one won't start for another couple hours, so there's little reason to stick around. The new battleground, Strand of the Ancients, also makes use of vehicles and an attacker/defender relationship. It's definitely a break from the old battlegrounds, but a welcome one. Honor point rewards for both are pretty good — unfortunately, if the costs for PvP gear from the beta are to be believed, the effort involved to build a PvP set will be the last serious grind left in the game.
When Blizzard first announced Wrath of the Lich King, there was speculation about whether it would continue the success of The Burning Crusade or if the World of Warcraft juggernaut would finally begin to run out of steam, as MMOs often do several years into their life. With the early previews and later throughout the beta, we got hints that such was not the case. Now that we've had time to explore the finished version of Wrath (or at least as "finished" as any MMO project ever is) it's clear that the legendary "Blizzard polish" is there, in addition to a great deal of innovation within a single game. They're not just releasing the equivalent of new maps and models and skins — the whole game is evolving into something much more consistent and coherent than the original game. If any company in the MMO game industry could afford to rest on their laurels, it's Blizzard — but they're not. And I already wonder what they'll have in store for the next expansion.