World of Warcraft - The King Is Back!

December 8, 2008

Destined to lead its 11 million subscribers into battle, World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King marks the second expansion for Blizzard’s online war machine. Teasing at a whole new continent to explore and a brand new class to play, for the faithful, the decision has already been made. But should non-believers and expatriates submit—and subscribe?

(Note - the following add-ons were used in the evaluation and capture process of this review: Atlas, Atlasloot Enhanced, Cartographer, QuestHelper)

With the level cap raised and the masts hoisted for travel, it’s au revoir to Outland and hello to Northrend: the icebound bastion of Warcraft III’s hero gone bad, Arthas. Ten new zones of world content await, glittered with new quests to be completed, instances to plunder, and a new profession--inscription--to master.

Unlike Burning Crusade, the carrot at the end of the stick is a bit more tangible this time around. Progressing through each zone unravels discernable plot arcs that deal with the immediate threat of the fallen prince and his vast scourge army, drawing on an interesting mix of narrative and quest design to keep the spirit of the hunt strong.

One of the ways that Lich King accomplishes that is through the new phasing mechanic, which gives players an instanced account of pivotal story moments involving the big wigs of the Warcraft universe. The payoff for these uniquely scripted events are admittedly more gratifying for lore buffs, but even casual fans are sure to appreciate the heightened level of immersion and quest variety.

The much-anticipated vehicular combat and destructible buildings make their respective appearances in the game’s two new player-versus-player scenarios. Strand of the Ancients is a Normandy-like battleground, and Lake Wintergrasp is an open-world squabble that plays out in matches spread throughout the day.

Rolling into battle on a steam tank is, quite literally, a blast, and the stakes are higher too, with revamped incentives to keep the conflict going around the clock. If you still prefer PvP without wheels, the two new arenas provide some stiff new grounds for combat, with moving platforms and gushing water jets to keep players on their toes.

Outside of the new vehicle, PvP, and story elements, World of Warcraft’s various standbys remain in fine fighting shape, bolstered by a slew of new content and tweaks to streamline the experience.

The new raids and instances continue the series’ stalwart effort of balancing accessibility and effort, bringing a number of challenging boss fights to the five-man scene, while giving raiders the option to tackle 10- or 25-man versions of the same end-game dungeon. While 10-man efforts aren’t quite as handsomely rewarded, at least now even the layman can get to experience the inevitable encounter with Arthas without having to commit to hardcore guild raiding.

And though introduced before the release of the expansion, the newly implemented achievement pane neatly collects personal progress, records, and stats into one convenient place. With enough moxie for medals, even grizzled war veterans will find reason to step back into old content to fill in those last, uncompleted achievements.

There’s quite a bit of content to wade through in the long, snowy trek to level 80, and it’s a carefully constructed experience from the moment you set upon Northrend’s shores. If there’s a shortcoming, it’s that nearly all of Lich King’s content caters specifically for characters of level 55 and over. It’s not as great a launching pad as Burning Crusade, but longtime WoW heads won’t have a problem jumping right in.

Ten new levels mean ten more talent points to invest in, and each class has benefited from some interesting skills trickling down to the 51-point talent mark. And though tricking-out existing characters with stronger abilities will remain the primary focus for most, the game’s newest class, the death knight, is sure to draw a substantial crowd.

Played like a mix between a warrior, rogue, warlock, and paladin, the death knight easily earns its cred as a hero class with its vast list of options. But with the power comes a price: players can only dip into the dark side if they have a pre-existing character over level 55, and even at that, only one death knight can be made per server. But once the threshold has been lifted, players will find a unique new class that, despite sharing a handful of influences from other classes, has an entirely different vibe of its own.

For one, constituents like mana and rage find their way as runes to power the death knight’s move set, which includes the nefarious death grip--a ranged pulling maneuver that makes use of WoW’s newest addition to combat physics. Other class-defining features include the ability to tank with a two-hander, ghoulish pet minions, stat-altering presences, and the solo-friendly ability to heal yourself through vampiric strikes.

Thus far, the death knight has proven to be a powerful ally and adversary in combat, finding comfortable niches to fill in PvE and PvP alike. Though it remains to be seen what will become of the class once balancing kicks in, its core mechanics are sound, its play style is solid, and for all of its complexity, it’s genuinely fun to play.

Like most of Lich King’s content, the death knight is mostly a “big kids only” perk, but given the numerous changes to accommodate for faster leveling, pretty much all players who want a death knight will eventually have one. The death knight is a worthy centerpiece for the expansion.

For a land so fixated on death, Northrend is a continent that pulses with life. The flora and fauna breathe with whimsical believability, and its environments draw upon a darker medieval palette tinged with Norse influences and architecture. The new creature and race designs stay true to Warcraft’s unique style, and even generic quest gear slapped together looks great. The graphics are a noticeable step up in design and ambition from past titles, and perhaps a sly wink towards what may be the start of a complete renovation of the engine.

What will remain the same, thankfully, is the fine orchestral score, which draws upon similar motifs to match its Nordic inspirations. The solemn battle hymns and desolate ambience pieces paint a dreary yet beautiful side to war; an aesthetic that largely describes the expansion and its impressive artistic effort as a whole.

World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King delivers an expansion that’s nothing short of high quality. Northrend is a land that many will spend a lot of time in, and though most of its content leaves newer players out in the cold, at least they’ll know full well of the experience that awaits. If you’ve got that 70 collecting dust, now is a good time to unfreeze that account. The king is back.