When World of Warcraft launched in the fall of 2004, it did so hot on the heels of the critically acclaimed expansion Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne. Fans of the venerable RTS series will likely remember the name Arthas, as his tragic tale helped shape much of the world of Azeroth when it was first experienced in MMO form. Yet in the first iteration of World of Warcraft, there was little direct reference to the Lich King himself apart from the purple Arthas' Tears scattered about the Plaguelands or an excellently crafted easter egg found while taking a ghostly trip through Lordaeron's throne room.
It's in this sense that Wrath of the Lich King, WoW's second expansion, feels somewhat like a homecoming of sorts. Not only does the expansion seek to bring some form of closure to many of the plot points left open at the end of The Frozen Throne, but it also marks a return to a much more story-driven experience – something that's arguably been lacking from the game thus far. Though a similar attempt was made with The Burning Crusade, many players felt that key moments or characters were too far out of reach, reserved for only the hardcore raiding crowd. Lich King attempts to change all that, and for the most part it succeeds.
And A Hero Shall Rise
Players will be able to see the consequences of their actions in real time.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the initial quest chain for WoW's first hero class, the Death Knight. Not only will a newly created Death Knight be given ample opportunities to interact with the Lich King himself, but for the first time in the game you'll be left with the impression that your actions are able to alter the world around you.
One of the new things Lich King brings to the MMO table is it's use of phasing, which is a form of open world instancing in which players will seamlessly transition between different states in a given area without ever having to see a loading screen. This gives the illusion that your actions have an actual impact on your surroundings, and all without it tarnishing the experience for anyone playing through the same content afterwards. Simply put, it's an elegant solution to one of the many design problems players have been posing to developers for years.
The Death Knights tend to feel slightly overpowered when compared to the NPCs of these early quests, but this only further serves to let the storyline take a leading role in gameplay. Since you'll also be earning your talent points by completing quests rather than having them handed to you all at once, it helps ease you into the class's unique mechanics. By the end of the quest chain you'll earn a full blue armor set and an epic mount, which will all come in handy for your trip to Outland and thankfully won't be instantly replaced by the first green drops you find there.
All told, the introduction to the Death Knight class is one of Lich King's strongest moments, though unfortunately I was one of those unlucky players mentioned in TTH's Death Knight First Impressions to have it end on a somewhat sour note. The much talked about climax at Light's Hope Chapel simply never occurred, leaving me scratching my head and wondering what all the fuss was about. Adding insult to injury, a few quests later found me unceremoniously dropped at Thrall's feet in Orgrimmar with little more than a pat on the back and a sense of dread as I realized that I'd be forced to play through The Burning Crusade's content again before ever taking my Death Knight to Northrend. To a degree I can understand why the class starts at level 55 rather than 65, as it serves to help spread server populations out and avoid overcrowding issues. On the other hand it feels like you have to play through a ten level intermission before picking back up on the main storyline, all the while wondering if Arthas is such an immediate threat after all.
That said, I'd still highly recommend playing through the Death Knight intro quests even if you don't intend to continue with the class all the way up to level 80. If nothing else, it will serve as a solid backdrop to the lore of the expansion, and may help to answer a few questions for those players unfamiliar with the Warcraft RTS series who may wonder why they'd be heading to Northrend in the first place. Getting there is as easy as hopping on the next Zeppelin out of town, though I'd have loved to see an introductory quest chain similar to that of the Death Knight's for the other classes that could have possibly told the same story from a different perspective. For now, I'll simply chalk that one up to missed opportunities.
We're off to see the Lich King
Many of the new zones are truly epic in scale
Visually, the new environments of Northrend are some of the best the game has to offer thanks in part to some of the minor enhancements made to the game's graphics engine. Zones have a much more open feel, with subtle changes in terrain making the transition between areas much more seamless and believable. Explorer types won't be disappointed, as climbing to the top of any of the various snowcapped peaks rewards players with some truly stunning sights. Granted, the graphics in Lich King aren't a major leap forward from the aesthetics of the original game, but at the same time I found them to be a bit more painterly vs. having a cartoonish feel. Or, to put it another way, the strength of the original concept art shines through much more than usual.
Wrath of the Lich King’s gameplay doesn't stray too far from the formula established in the original game and The Burning Crusade. The notable exception is that it seems players are given much more overall freedom with how they choose to approach the next ten levels' worth of content. Given the game's massive popularity, it's not like Blizzard needed to reinvent the wheel, though in most cases they did manage to help that wheel turn much more efficiently and feel as though each rotation serves to drive forward the greater whole. These subtle changes can be felt in nearly all aspects of gameplay, be it a much improved faction system, a more streamlined progression to crafting or even with the greater variety of quests available to players.
The mechanic of gaining reputation with various factions makes its inevitable return in Lich King, and on the whole the system has been vastly improved over previous incarnations. The reputation gains from completing quests have the potential to not only increase your standing with a specific faction, but in some cases it will reward you with smaller gains to an associated, larger group. This gives players much more freedom in terms of how they choose to experience the new content as well as helps lessen some of the grind involved in raising each faction separately. This isn't always the case of course, and more often than not normal questing will still only take you so far with a faction before you're forced to do repeatable, daily quests if you want to gain access to the best rewards they have to offer.
Much like the Argent Dawn and Cenarion Circle before them, the factions from The Burning Crusade are nowhere to be found in Northrend. Gaining reputation with a fresh group of factions may have been made easier, but you'll still be starting over from scratch yet again. It would have been nice to simply work towards a new, higher rank within preexisting factions rather than starting over. Unless you find some of their offered rewards to be “must have” items or enjoy chasing down some of the new Achievements linked to reputation gain, it tends to give factions a bit too much of a “here today, gone tomorrow” vibe.
Crafting for (Advanced) Dummies
At the Runeforge in Ebon Hold, the Death Knight's home away from home
Much like other aspects of Lich King's gameplay, crafting in Northrend has been made slightly more accessible when compared to previous tiers due in part to a slightly more streamlined list of materials, as well as a wealth of new recipes more tailored to the notion that crafting is one of the game's more individualist pursuits. While training up my Leatherworking for example, I was pleasantly surprised to discover not only more complete sets of craftable armor, but that I could swap out the introductory green set pieces with their higher level blue counterparts and still retain the set bonus for doing so. These sets could then be further enhanced by any number of new armor kits, each catering to the needs of specific classes.
Plenty of other recipes are locked away as higher rank faction rewards, which is great for those players who don't mind jumping through a few repeatable, daily hoops to obtain them. In some cases, I'm not sure I see the reasoning behind which recipes were selected as rewards, such as a bigger Leatherworking bag recipe which seems like it should be a part of standard training progression considering it's only going to be of any value to other Leatherworkers.
The ! Factor
To say that improvements have been made to questing would be a gross understatement. While some will still essentially be your standard kill ten rats and FedEx types, on the whole I found a much greater overall variety offered. Better still is that most quests seem to have been written specifically with the overarching theme of the expansion in mind, keeping players continually aware of much larger goals and rewards to be found further along in their advancement.
Siege weapons open up a lot of interesting new quest possibilities
Other improvements to the continually expanding list of quest types include the use of some of the newly introduced siege weapons, which play a key role in the open PvP zone Wintergrasp (which, by the way, is a vast improvement over the very one-sided battles commonly found in TBC's Halaa outpost in Nagrand).
If there's a cloud in this silver lining, it would come in the form of a page taken directly out of The Burning Crusade's play book. With few exceptions, questing will also boil down to an inventory management mini-game. In nearly all cases I was asked to complete a task either involving the use of a device automatically placed in my inventory, or else the collection of X number of items (and sometimes both). I get the impression that this mechanic was introduced as a means of minimizing the tendency for players to simply hit a new outpost and accept all available quests in one go. Yet as fun as some of these quests may be it can become a tad frustrating to juggle all of the extra items involved, especially if bag space is already at a premium thanks to the necessity of carrying a quiver or soul bag plus a dedicated crafting bag. It's a trend I wasn't too happy to see return, and left me scratching my head once again as I wondered why there hasn't been an expandable quest bag added to the UI similar to the keyring. Here's to hoping that one will eventually make it into the game.
Upward vs. Outward
Overall, Wrath of the Lich King is truly an expansion made with long-time fans of the game in mind. In fact, it offers no playable content for anyone just starting their adventures in Azeroth, though all things considered the original game plus TBC should be plenty to keep those people busy for quite some time. However, this also means the expansion offers little in terms of replay value beyond it's self-contained ten levels of content. That's not to say Lich King isn't expertly crafted and a worthy addition to the long line of titles that's helped Blizzard become such a recognized name in the industry and beyond. On the contrary, my experience so far has left a very positive impression, but at the same time I can't help but wonder if Blizzard isn’t painting themselves into a corner with their approach to expansions. Only time will tell if Lich King is simply another stepping stone along the path to an even higher level cap, more obsolete factions and even larger shoulder armor. For now though, I consider it a very worthy purchase for anyone who's already a fan of the game, in which case you've quite likely already been spending your past few weeks in Northrend.
(4.5 / 5 Hammers)
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