World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King (PC)
Gather 'round the campfire, children, and hear this tale of a hero of the Alliance. He wasn't the best at his class, or the first to gain a Legendary weapon or armor. He wasn't exceptionally skilled at fighting the Horde -- although he had won his share of fights. But he is a hero because, no matter how often he failed, he pressed on. And even now, he continues on slowly to his goal. He is Artdarkist, a Draenei Hunter of little renown on the realm of Aerie Peak, and member of Clan Mail Enhancement. His story begins in the Borean Tundra of Northrend?
This is a travelogue of sorts, chronicling my journey through Northrend to unravel the mysteries of the frozen north and how Arthas, Azeroth's errant favorite son-turned-Lich King, plans to channel John Romero and make all of us his bitch.
I made up my mind early that power leveling through the World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King expansion was not for me. I wanted to explore, hear the stories, do a little hunting and fishing, maybe even love a few critters.
The week before the expansion came out, Blizzard instituted an Xbox Live-style achievement system. As achievements are earned, they are announced to your guild, and server firsts are announced realm-wide. I partly decided to take my time because I found myself hooked on getting extra achievements. These are integral in keeping original content alive for the casual player, as numerous achievements are tied to exploration, quests and dungeons in the original game and the first expansion. It's a cool twist to offer rewards in a form other than Epic gear for only the most hardcore raider.
This travelogue is not designed for the hardcore player, but neither is Wrath of the Lich King. Blizzard seems to have made a conscious effort to appeal to the more casual side of its 11-million-user fan base in providing a challenging experience that will not turn most players off. Less than a week after the game was released, one hardcore guild had enough players at level 80 that it was able to defeat the hardest dungeon in the expansion and literally complete all the dungeon content. (Harder content is expected in future content patches, when new instances and raids are open and more of the world is revealed.) Be warned: If you consider yourself hardcore, then what's here is not for you.
I first entered Northrend through the Borean Tundra. In Northrend, Blizzard has revealed a vibrant new continent, rich in backstory and visual majesty. Whether you take the Nordic boat from Stormwind to the Tundra, or the more traditional ship from Menethil Harbor to the Howling Fjord, you are treated to tons of eye candy as you approach the dock, as well as incredible music that changes by zone and situation. With two starting zones on opposite sides of the continent for Alliance and Horde, there is an element of variety here that wasn't in either the last expansion or the original game.
The Tundra has no instances, and appears to be designed to give the player a feel for the expansion. Yes, it is more grinding -- kill 12 of these, fetch this, kill this named mob -- but the non-player characters have more personality and more compelling stories than in the last expansion, The Burning Crusade. I found myself actually caring about their stories and pushing forward with entire quest lines before moving on to other quests.
Since I was taking a more casual approach this time around, I did a bit of fishing and cooking to raise my skill, before setting off to explore. The goal: get as many exploration achievements as possible, and also unveil as many of the flight paths as possible, for ease of travel later on. I made my way through the Tundra before heading into Dragonblight, a frozen, snowy zone full of dragons where a huge battle is being waged between the blue dragons and the other wyrms.
Grandeur is an essential element throughout the expansion, particularly as you go deeper, into massive zones and immense buildings and creatures that dwarf your character. You are in the land of titans and giants and mythical beings, waging an epic war both for and against the Lich King. But it's also present in the gameplay. The Dragonblight storyline is epic in nature, to the degree that the ongoing story of the advance of the Scourge and their attempt to wipe out the living almost takes a back seat. After completing an incredibly long quest chain in this zone (when I returned at around level 75), I got one of the most compelling, crap-your-pants moments that I have had in a game in a while. The event was truly inspired, and shows off Blizzard's ability to provide different content for players who have and have not completed the quest.
After fully exploring the zone, I made my way into Grizzly Hills, a zone designed to recreate logging country and the great outdoors. (Of course, it happens to be a great outdoors with undead trolls, bear gods and humans that aren't what they appear to be.) The zone has daily player-vs.-player quests in which you can get tokens used for gear upgrades. While this is a particularly nice concept, the gear rewards seem rather limited, and I was able to get the gear I needed after only two days of doing the quests. More gear offerings are definitely needed, because as of now, I have no reason to go back.
Unlike the other zones, Grizzly Hills seems schizophrenic, as there are numerous quests available, but maybe only one or two that apply to the overarching story. Most of the quests just seem to add flavor to the world as a whole, with little impact on the world's events.
From Grizzly Hills, I made my way into the Howling Fjord, the other starting zone in the game if you chose to come from Menethil Harbor instead of Stormwind. I personally found the Howling Fjord -- a tribute to the Nordic myths with an inspiring Scandinavian feel to it, and music to match -- more compelling than the Borean Tundra because of the look and feel of the quests. After exploring the whole zone (and linking my flight paths from one end of the continent to the other), I continued my quests here.
My progress? Four zones fully explored; my fishing, cooking and mining skills increased respectably; and about three-fourths of the way through level 70.
I got my first taste of the new instances in the Howling Fjord. Calling upon members of my guild (thanks, Mail Enhancement), we stormed into Utgarde Keep, a huge Norse-style dungeon that would have made Erik the Red and Leif Ericson proud. The instance was quick and not that difficult, as many of us were still in our Epic gear from farming level 70 instances in The Burning Crusade. But it showed how Blizzard has tried to tune the instances for a more casual approach. The strategies for bosses are less intricate, and can probably be accomplished easily by new level 70s in non-Epic gear with minimal difficulty. (Of course, what made this zone for me was the quest that allowed me to ride "surf-style" on a harpoon back to my base -- definitely out of the ordinary.)
Being an anal achievement whore, I didn't leave Howling Fjord until I had hit level 72, become friendly with some walrus folk, and completed all the quests. OK, I missed one quest -- where you have to fly an airplane and pick up sacks on the ground -- which was either buggy, or I was incredibly inept. I'll go with buggy. It was my first look at the new mechanic that allows players to utilize "vehicles": In other zones, players can ride mammoths, hop on the backs of giants, or ride dragons; each "vehicle" has its own unique attacks and abilities. In PvP, players can use tanks or gun emplacements. These provide a novel layer of involvement that breaks up the level grinding.
Later, I found that a few guildies had made their way into Dalaran, the new neutral city of the expansion. Normally, you can't get into the city until you hit level 74, but if your group leader enters you in a battleground from the city, you are teleported to the city once you leave the battleground -- a quirky little trick that allowed me to enter and explore Dalaran at level 73. Among Dalaran's offerings are silly little achievements that can keep you busy for hours (yes, I maxed out my fishing trying to gather all the coins in the fountain).
Perhaps my favorite zone has been Dragonblight. It's here that you begin to get a feel for the epic nature of the storylines involved, and the sheer size of the buildings and creatures -- which make you, a supposed hero, feel incredibly small in comparison. (Storm Peaks and Icecrown -- where the story begins to focus on the Lich King and the war to defeat him -- are also tremendous in size and scope, with creatures about 10 times your size and buildings and mountains so huge it takes a while just to fly over them.) The sub-stories and plots here also become more compelling, and if you care anything about the history and mythos of Azeroth, you are driven to complete them. It's hard to go into detail without spoilers, but some of the quests make you a more integral part of the story without seeming cheesy.
With only two levels to 80 (side note: Once you hit 77, you can regain your flying mount abilities for a mere 1,000 gold), I wanted to check out Sholazar Basin, home of Hemet Nesingwary and his band of big game hunters. The zone pits two rival factions against each other, and the player must choose sides for specific faction rewards. The choice of faction isn't permanent, however, as completing a daily quest in a different way can immediately shift your standing to favorable with the other faction. When I had completed the zone, I was only two bars from level 80, and was able to pick those two bars up with a few quick quests in Icecrown.
As we bring this story to a close, there is still much to explore, including the PvP zone of Wintergrasp and a deeper understanding of the story revolving around Arthas. It took me about 10 days to hit 80 at a somewhat leisurely pace, allowing me to also max out my fishing, first aid and mining skills, and become an expert in unarmed combat (yes, it was an achievement). Blizzard has provided an incredible amount of depth in this expansion, with more ambiance and interesting gameplay than in the original and first expansion combined. And for the casual WoW player who wants to get a feel for everything and not just blast through to the end game, this expansion is well worth the $40.
Now if you'll excuse me, Artdarkist is needed in Icecrown. I'll be sure to send some letters from the front.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game purchased by the reviewer.