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World of Warcraft: An In-Depth Look at the Death Knight

Posted Fri, May 09, 2008 by Cody Bye

By Cody “Micajah” Bye, Managing Editor

At last year’s BlizzCon, the entire MMOG industry was abuzz with rumors and thoughts on what new pieces of content the developers of World of Warcraft would be announcing at the show. Would they be creating a new race like they did with Burning Crusade? Or would we see a new class? What about another expansion? With the questions floating on the lips of everyone attending the show, the Blizzard developers let it be known that they were in the midst of creating a new expansion, Wrath of the Lich King, and that expansion would include a new playable class, the Death Knight.

Everyone was thrilled with the announcement and the sort of changes the implementation of the new class would make to the intricate meta-game nuances that are already part of the WoW experience. Since BlizzCon, however, we’ve heard relatively little about the upcoming class and where they direction of the game was headed. Although the collective WoW community is eager to hear any news about the Death Knight, the developers didn’t want to release any information about the class until things were more concrete.

Wrath of the Lich King Logo

Thankfully, the time for more information has arrived. In a series of press events that have spanned several days, the developers at Blizzard stepped forward and offered us our first intricate look at the upcoming content for Wrath of the Lich King along with an in-depth explanation of the Death Knight. Spearheading the talk on the Death Knight was Tom Chilton, the game’s co-lead designer and the man in charge of the new classes design. 

For the presentation, Chilton began by cutting straight to the point and giving all the press an update on what it takes to receive a Death Knight character. “Since BlizzCon we’ve gone through a lot of discussion and iterated on some different ideas,” Chilton said. “The place we’re at right now is that if you have a level 55 character on your account, it unlocks the ability to create a Death Knight.” Along with this announcement, Chilton also mentioned that the Death Knight can come from any of the races.

This opening statement took the gathered press completely by surprise, because when the class was announced at BlizzCon last year, it was explained that players would have to progress through a quest to actually attain this class. Obviously the developers changed this scheme, and it seems like a much easier goal to attain now for most players.

With that big announcement out of the way, Chilton continued the dialogue with the press, giving examples of how exactly this sort of system will work. “You’ll be limited to one Death Knight per server that you play on,” Chilton stated. “Players will be able to make multiple Death Knights, but they’ll have to do so over multiple servers rather than just one. If you have friends playing on another server and you have a level 55 character somewhere, you’ve unlocked your Death Knight. You can then go and create a Death Knight on their server, join up with them, and be able to play alongside them. It gives you a little bit of a head start.”

In effect, this allows players to have a character that they can easily start and be end-game viable within a relatively small amount of gameplay time. While some players may not want to be one of the thousands of new Death Knights crowding servers, the introduction of the Death Knight also gives Blizzard a chance to view how introducing higher level classes will affect the overall gameplay of WoW. If this addition is viewed as a success, we may see more “heroic” classes introduced in future expansions.

A concept artist's depiction of the Death Knight.

However, many players may also be concerned with the decision to simply have the Death Knight unlockable by attaining a certain level in the game rather than completing a quest. Chilton was quick to continue the conversation concerning that point and explained what the development team has done instead.

“In the past we wanted to have a quest that allowed you to unlock the Death Knight class,” Chilton added. “What we’ve done is taken that quest line and put it at the beginning of the Death Knight process. Once you’ve created your level 55 Death Knight, you’ll immediately launch into a new Death Knight starting experience. You’ll start off in a new area created specifically for Death Knights. They’ll have their own quests and you’ll go through that quest line to learn how to play as the class along with picking up some early abilities, gear, and learn a bit of the storyline behind the class.”

And it’s utterly important that players have a chance to get a grasp on WoW’s latest class before they’re flung out into the wide open world. Throughout the rest of the presentation, Chilton explained to us the intricacies of the Death Knight class and how different – and similar – it was to classes that already exist within their game.

“One of the ways we distinguish characters classes in World of Warcraft is by making sure they have distinct resource mechanics,” Chilton stated. “For example, the Warriors use the Rage mechanic while the Rogues use Energy. We thought it’d be appropriate to start off with a completely new mechanic with the Death Knight.”

With that, Chilton directed our attention to the presentation screen, where one of the developers had logged into a geared out Death Knight. Immediately upon viewing the user interface, I noticed that the standard box that typically holds a character’s portrait, life, and energy bars was quite different with the Death Knight character.

Although the character portrait and life bar remained the same, the energy bar had been replaced with three pairs of colored symbols that were integrated into a graphic of a nasty-looking, flared sword. Knowing that we’d instantly notice this change, Chilton was quick to explain the existence of the colored symbols and the terrifying sword. According to Chilton, the Death Knights use a two part resource mechanic: runes and runic power.

Your Death Knight will probably need to fight through the Nexus at some point in time.

The vast majority of a Death Knight’s abilities use runes and are represented by the three pairs of colored symbols that have replaced the energy / rage / mana bar. Each pair of runes represents one of the three different types of runic power: Blood, Frost, or Unholy. Each of the three types is represented by a different color so that players can easily discern what runes are available to them. Although our example Death Knight had three pairs of runes, players will have the ability to choose from any combination of runes to draw power from. If a person wants four Blood and two Unholy runes, that's perfectly acceptable.

When a players uses one of their abilities, they use up one or more of their runes. The example Chilton gave us was the Death Strike ability, which costs one blood and one frost rune in order to activate. Once the rune(s) have been used, they must cool up (recharge) over a period of ten seconds in order for the player to use that rune again. “The primary mechanic behind using abilities is trying to optimize using your runes as efficiently as possible,” Chilton added.

However, any time you use a runic ability that has an enemy as the target, it’s going to build up runic power. Runic power is an energy that fills up on your weapon, and you can easily see it on your UI around that nasty-looking sword that serves as the background for your portrait. If a player chooses not to use their runic power, it slowly deteriorates over time, like a Warrior's rage bar.

At any time you can unleash all of your runic power into one of your runic power abilities. An example is the “Death Coil” ability (which Chilton described as iconic to the class), which requires runic power and unleashes it all causing up to 600 shadow damage to a non-undead enemy target or healing up to 900 damage on a friendly undead target.

“With this power, the Death Knight really has some finishing capability,” Chilton said. “Sort of like the Rogue, with the primary difference being that runic power is on the Death Knight itself and not on the target like the combo point system. The abilities also have quite a number of differences as well.”

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