on 26 May 2016
Four years ago Blizzard launched World of Warcraft, a massively multiplayer online RPG that abruptly snatched the spotlight from former genre heavyweight, Sony Online's EverQuest, and went on to enjoy a degree of success few could have predicted. With 11 million subscribers worldwide, the cultural impact of Blizzard's creation is difficult to accurately measure. It's spawned its own lexicon, countless Internet memes, appeared as the focus of an episode of South Park, and has dominated industry discussion about online games since its release.
Games like this like this aren't one-shot, linear run-throughs or exercises in melding gameplay with abstract artistic themes; they're services. You pay a subscription fee and in return you get stable servers to play on, constant bug fixes, updates to game systems, added content, and customer support lines.
It's a much different experience from other media, such as movies or books, particularly when trying to assess some kind of worth. You don't fault a movie for crashing, for instance, you fault the projector. A paragraph in a novel will never glitch out, requiring you to close and reopen the pages to reset it. A massively multiplayer online game has so many more moving pieces and potential complications that having a company like Blizzard working behind the scenes should inspire confidence. It's got the quality assurance staff and support to ensure its products are remarkably polished, perform well, and actually work across a range of desktops and laptops with wildly varying hardware configurations. Also, the fact that there's such a large player base means this virtual world isn't getting shut down anytime soon, a danger with this type of game as most recently demonstrated with NCsoft and Tabula Rasa.
Wrath of the Lich King is the second expansion to Blizzard's game, something the player base has already snatched up in great quantities. This kind of release schedule, with an expansion roughly every two years, differs from what Sony Online did with EverQuest, a game that just received its 15th expansion in just about 10 years. What you get with a Blizzard expansion is an incredible amount of content, some of the more prominent features being a new level cap, a new continent, the first added player class since the game's launch, and a general assurance it's all going to work correctly.
Simply having plenty of content and stability isn't enough to make the game worthy of your dollar however. You could, for instance, have a magazine subscription where the product is always on time, in good condition, and is full of pictures and text, but in the end it's still just another issue of Sawdust Quarterly. As most gamers out there know already, World of Warcraft is a remarkable product. From the entertaining, strongly defined classes with wildly diverse functionality and generally solid feel and timing of activating skills, to a gigantic, beautiful open world and myriad ways to spend your time leveling up professions, coordinating large-scale attacks against powerful dungeon bosses, or engaging in player versus player battles ensures you'll find something to like.
While the previous expansion, The Burning Crusade, offered quite a bit for new WoW players back in January 2007 with two new playable races and accompanying level 1 – 20 starting zones, Wrath of the Lich King is geared more for high level players. The level cap has been bumped up to 80, and the new continent of Northrend isn't accessible until you've got a higher level character, so if you're new you'll need to move through the original release content as well as territory from the first expansion, both of which are required to play Lich King. That being said, Blizzard made the leveling process up to 70 much more rapid through patches released before The Lich King's arrival, so those who activate now won't spend nearly as much time in the original release territory or Outland from The Burning Crusade as those who dove in when the content was still new.
With the majority of the player base at or very much on their way to the level 80 cap at this point, any green players won't really experience the full degree of the community and social strengths of the game until later on. Even longtime players will have to retread some old content since the new class, the Death Knight, starts at level 55.
Provided you've got a high enough level character you can roll one of these demonic melee fighters as Horde or Alliance and experience right away one of the expansion's major strengths; a stronger narrative cohesion. Unlike the other classes, Death Knights get their very own introductory quest lines that have you working temporarily for Arthas, also known as the Lich King. In all it's about 49 quests that start out with your character battling against the forces of light, killing citizens, infiltrating operations, assaulting strongholds, and flying frost wyrms over battlefields to reign death on those below. Through a few in-game, voiced character interactions alter you'll witness some dramatic events that provide a nice narrative context for the class within Blizzard's alternately self-serious and flippant fictional world.
After the introductory sequence you take a bit of a detour though Outland as you'll need to level up to the requirement for entry into Northrend before rejoining the story of Arthas. At least Blizzard didn't make players restart at level 1. While it's difficult to say at this point what kind of role Death Knights will carve out in raiding groups and what kind of PvP strategies will be developed, they're certainly an entertaining class to play. Compared with the other nine alternatives in World of Warcraft, Death Knights have a distinct rhythm to their play styles, a result of two unique resource systems used to pull off moves. Death Knights start off fights by consuming different types of runes to activate skills, all of which have an accompanying cooldown sequence. Using these skills also builds runic power that makes available other skills, meaning the flow of fights with Death Knights alternates between managing rune cooldowns to trigger abilities and counterbalancing that with those that consume runic power.
Talent trees of course strengthen different aspects of the class. Depending on how you've allocated your points you can be more effective at generating and maintaining runic power, make yourself more resilient in battle, dramatically boost your damage output and unlock a number of interesting skills. The Death Knight can, for instance, briefly come back to life as a ghoul after being killed, project a stationary anti-magic zone to dampen incoming magical damage, call down a gargoyle to inflict damage on foes, blow up corpses like Diablo II's Necromancer, and even summon a ghoul companion. Considering the class wears plate armor it's certainly a force to be reckoned with, and is particularly noticeable in PvP because of its death grip ability, which yanks targets from a distance to the death knight. It's been a long wait for a new class to toy around with, and what Blizzard has delivered provides players with a fresh set of distinct, entertaining skills to put to usewhile playing solo and grouped.
One criticism that tends to get leveled at MMOs like WoW is that there's no strong central narrative. Something like BioWare's Mass Effect has a powerful story and characters, the endless nature of the MMO and the need for the developer to keep players engaged so they'll keep that subscription active means there can't really be a true termination, even if there are climactic events, though games like Turbine's Lord of the Rings Online try to address that. That being said, Blizzard has built in much more narrative across the zones of Northrend, anchored by frequent appearances by Arthas, which makes the leveling process a more interesting endeavor.
Like in the Death Knight opening sequences, players will get plenty of opportunity to interact with the Scourge's heavily armored leader. He tends to show up all over the place, after seemingly mundane quests in the Howling Fjord to the finale of a dungeon run through Drak'Tharon Keep on the borders of Grizzly Hills and Zul'Drak. He'll spout sinister lines with a Dr. Claw-like cadence and whether you take him seriously or smirk at his overwrought malevolence, you can't help but pay attention when he raises his sword, Frostmourne, to single out a victim or emphasize a point. One of the more involved questlines in a zone called Dragonblight fleshes out more of Arthas' history, his transformation from noble prince to embodiment of evil, and culminates in a lengthy cut-scene surrounding the Wrath Gate (Black Gate?) that gives players a better sense of what's going on in the world at large, and with a follow-up questline that spans the old world and provides a nice connection between the new and existing content.
What's perhaps more effective for narrative delivery is how Blizzard's implemented localized changes in the game world depending on your actions. This can be as subtle as a bed of flowers popping up around an NPC after you turn in a quest, to more large scale alternations. After the Wrath Gate event, for instance, the landscape in front of the entrance is encircled by fire and screaming citizens run every which way and it stays that way afterward. In the Death Knight opening scenario, you'll travel back and forth between the land and a floating necropolis, and between each journey to and fro there'll be no load times yet the landscape below will shift from idyllic human town to a roaring battlefield over which frost wyrms soar. These types of transitions, though sometimes subtle, really work to enhance the notion that you're affecting the game world in a meaningful way. Coupled with the in-game cut scenes and you've got a World of Warcraft with far more narrative direction that has been previously seen.
Yet you've still got to drop in the caveat that it's a good story…for an MMO. It's something that those ensconced in Azeroth will absolutely adore, but won't win over those who put the game to the side years ago or those who never took any interest in the genre in the first place.
Another step forward for Blizzard is their overall zone design. Northrend not only looks far more appealing than any of the old world content but also contains a wider variety of quests. It's an important development as many tend to complain about how getting quests to kill X number of mobs, pick Y bits of random crap off the ground, or collect Z collectibles off of corpses can make you want to tear your hair out, and rightfully so. Those types of quests are boring, and in Wrath of the Lich King Blizzard has not only strengthened storytelling, but it's greatly improved the quest structures.
You'll still spend time killing and collecting but quest chains are mixed up with vehicle missions, like running dragon battle daily quests at Wyrmrest Temple where you blast fireballs at other winged reptiles. There's sequences where you swoop around battlefields to snatch up survivors as well as numerous instances where you put on disguises to infiltrate enemy installations and quest for monsters which all work to alleviate the drooling stupor you might fall into after doing the same type of quest for hours on end. Some of these sequences don't work all that well though, like a giant-riding section in Zul'Drak and a defense sequence on a mountainside in Icecrown, but the glitches hardly affect the overall experience.
The zone designs contribute to the sense of variety as well through complex geographic layouts like the sprawling canyons of the Howling Fjord to the jungles of Sholazar Basin. The highest level zones of Storm Peaks and Icecrown are even more impressive, as they cater to players with flying mounts. In Icecrown, for instance, a quest hub floats over the zone in the form of a battleship. Not only does it make for an interesting setup as you fly up to receive tasks and can explore the innards of the ship, but builds on the notion that this is an epic conflict and allows for some gorgeous vistas as you fly out over the railing and behold the frozen wastes and Tolkien-esque black barbs of Icecrown Citadel and its snaking gates.
Then there's of course the instanced dungeons in which players battle tougher content but are rewarded with better items for their character. From the starting 5-man endeavors into The Nexus and Utgarde Keep to higher level instances like Gundrak, Wrath of the Lich King's basic dungeons are all fairly accessible and brief, meaning there aren't droves of mobs to battle through to get to the loot yielding bosses. We were moving through with pick-up groups in roughly 45 minutes, and that was without anyone having previous knowledge of the layout or boss attack patterns. The more involved raid dungeons in Wrath of the Lich King can be entered in either 10 or 25 man groups, yet again lowering the bar for players who may be intimidated by the more organized, team-oriented styles of play.
Beating on AI controlled bosses and leveling your character isn't the only option in World of Warcraft; there's also quite a bit of player versus player combat to be had. On open PvP servers you can slap around anyone of the opposing faction, but Blizzard has gradually added a number of more ordered systems to its game over the years, something expanded upon in Wrath of the Lich King. Wintergrasp, a zone dedicated entirely to PvP, lies buried near Northrend's center. It's an attempt by Blizzard to give more structure to larger scale conflicts, as players can enter the zone and after a timer counts down attempt to assault or defend a fortress. It's not something that's going to elevate the game's open PvP element to the level of Mythic Entertainment's Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning, but it's still a nice change of pace from leveling or bashing bosses since, in addition to engaging in large-scale team battles, you can commandeer siege equipment armed with rams and destructive projectiles to break apart pieces of the stronghold, adding another element to the PvP gameplay.
The culture surrounding this new zone hasn't really matured at this point, though there's certainly potential. Something that's a little more measurable is the Strand of the Ancients battleground arena, a new type of set player limit see-saw battle where teams take sides storming a series of gates with siege equipment. It fits in with the general philosophy of the expansion pack where Blizzard takes what their player base enjoys and adds to it, in this case socketing another cog in the overall PvP machinery.
Plenty of smaller scale changes have been implemented on top of this, not the least of which is another new profession, Inscription, that among its many functions allows players to power up existing skills. Other profession systems have been adjusted as well. With Enchanting, one of our main character's professions, it's possible toenchant rings, though only your own. An achievement system has also been built into the game, evidence that Blizzard took a note from systems whirring in something like Microsoft's Xbox 360, where simply by virtue of adding in a goal, let's say kill a number of turkeys within a time limit, the company can keep its player base busy sometimes even without a reward beyond a higher achievement point total.
Not to deny the player base a fancy new hangout, Wrath of the Lich King includes a new capital city. Called Dalaran, the metropolis floats over the sparkling forests of Crystalsong on Icecrown's border, and comes with portals to other major cities, access to battlegrounds and Wintergrasp, and even its own instance, the Violet Hold, where groups fend off wave after wave of powerful enemies and bosses.
Dalaran, like the rest of the zones, is quite pretty thanks to graphical effects recently added into the game including real-time shadows and more detailed models. Pairing those upgrades with the more interesting zone designs and a return to more realistic settings, a refreshing change after the alien zones in Outland, and you've got a game that still manages to impress with scenes of occasional beauty. And of course you get character animations practically unparalleled in the genre, and a diverse range of spell and ability effects that easily allow players to identify another's class as soon as something's cast. Many of Warcraft's sounds will be familiar to players, but the music and effects are still of the highest quality. While running around Northrend you'll be treated to a score that works to enhance the overall feeling of the zones, and it's always great to listen to the Lich King's spiteful verbal barbs.
With Wrath of the Lich King, World of Warcraft's play style has been tweaked to be more accessible, addictive, and deeper. Any longtime player is sure to be pleased with what Blizzard's done here since it gives the higher level population a wealth of new content for play as well as improves the overall look of the world. And let's be honest, if you're going to spend hundreds of hours in a virtual space, it helps if it's pretty. It's an MMO system that works, as the game's success underlines, but you've got to ask yourself after four years how long this kind of momentumcan last. Perhaps within the next two years, or by the time the next World of Warcraft expansion is released, there'll be a clearer answer.
As for now, Blizzard is more than content to build on World of Warcraft's formula, improving and refining nearly every aspect of the game, delivering new quest systems, a better and more focused narrative, loads of new goals to chase by yourself or with friends, and made acclimating to its world's complexities a process generally free of the headaches of something like CCP's EVE Online. Those who've yet to jump in should absolutely do so; it's hard to imagine anyone being disappointed with such a well-run, polished product that offers so many reward strata and diverse styles of gameplay.