Wrath of the Lich King is a culmination of six years of lore that Blizzard has crafted and released to fans. It began in 2002 with Warcraft 3 and its expansion The Frozen Throne.
The human prince Arthas and Night elf Illidan forged deals with evil and became the central antagonists for most of the entire Warcraft series. In 2004 Blizzard released World of Warcraft. While Arthas and Illidan did not make appearances in its release the repercussions of their actions was present in many of the environments players could run around in. Three years later Blizzard released the first expansion, The Burning Crusade, and gave groups of players a chance to bring down one of Warcraft’s main baddies" Illidan (now a half-elf, half-demon hybrid of considerable powers)
However for many fans Arthas has always been the one. At the apex of Warcraft lore, Arthas is one character with the most screen time remembered by most fans.
It began when the King of Lordaeron sent his son, Prince Arthas, to investigate an unknown plague. Once identified, Arthas sought to purge this evil from his father’s lands. But when arrogance and pride got the better of him his thirst for justice transformed into a quest for vengeance. After murdering his father he declared himself King Arthas. He lord over a vast army of undead called the Scourge, and with his army laid waste to thousands of his kinsmen. Ironically Arthas became the greatest enemy to his people. However the true source of Arthas’ power called him back to the icy continent of Northrend. Once there Arthas sought to save his master from certain destruction. After successfully defeating his enemies Arthas merge himself with a helmet, and sword called Frostmourne. In that moment he fused with a powerful spirit called Ner’zhul and ceased to be known as Arthas. Ner’zhul and Arthas became one and in joining they become the Lich King.
The Burning Crusade, the large content patch called Fury of the Sunwell, and Wrath of Lich King has been Blizzard’s attempt to bring closure to the saga between the last remaining Scourge generals: Illidan (Burning Crusade), Kil’Jaeden (last Scourge lord), Kael’thas (crazed ex-leader of the Blood Elves), and finally Arthas (the malevolent Lich King of Northrend). These story arcs must come to an end before Blizzard can proceed forward with the series.
In Beta Blizzard has been adding content, testing, and tweaking the various classes. They recently raised the level cap to 80 (from 77). It appears Blizzard will make changes all the up to launch. So while aspect of the expansion may be constant flux what is definitely known is the large continent of Northrend, a level cap increase to 80, and a new class called Death Knight.
The new crescent-shaped continent of Northrend contains ten zones, and has a landmass larger than Outland. Two of the zones, Borean Tundra and Dragonblight, are enormous and comparatively bigger than some of Outland’s largest zones. The environmental theme through-out most zones is of a rural and arctic tundra feel. One only has to look up and note the aurora borealis to know this is not Outland, or even old-world Azeroth. There are small pockets of urbanization but most are kept to small areas giving most zones an untouched and vast feel. While previewing the expansion the Lich King’s domain of Icecrown was unavailable. However in the northwestern part of Dragonblight the enormous Wrathgate which will eventually open to Icecrown was visible. This gate is massive and looks like the Black Gates from Lord of the Rings, only with a motif akin to the Lich King’s famed helmet.
Northrend also has otherworldly qualities such as the zones of Crystalsong Forest, Zul’drak, and Coldarra. Crystalsong is where the floating kingdom of Dalaran is located (Dalaran replaces Shattrath as the new sanctuary city for Northrend). A triangle-shaped object is position on the ground below Dalaran and will allow players to teleport up to Dalaran. You can also reach Dalaran via a flight path. And once you reach level 77 you can learn cold weather flying and fly to Dalaran on your own. Crystalsong’s ground around Dalaran is full of tree-shaped crystals that have been forming for hundred of years. Some have even broken off and seem to defy gravity as they hover near their trunks. The entire zone of Zul’drak is one big ancient Troll kingdom now overrun with Scourge and scourge-controlled Zul’drak Trolls. The zone architecture feels new and familiar at the same time. Finally Coldarra is a large island located in northwestern Boren Tundra. The area feels common except for the central cornerstone. There the Nexus exists. This broken hunk of snow and ice gushes forth blue magical energies from a temple below like some sort of broken oil well (not withstanding a very similar occurrence within Dragonblight).
A noticeable and reoccurring characteristic of Northrend is the extensive use of height. Outland had many areas where height felt unnatural, but within Northrend height is realistically portrayed with natural cliffs, ledges, and even scaleable mountains (yes, mountains you can climb). The zone of Howling Fjords demonstrates height best with areas such as the dragon-etched rock formations that elevate players up and down, draw-bridges than span fjords cliffs, and The Ancient Lift that ferries players back and forth between the main Howling Fjord lands and the island of Spears.
Howling Fjords and Borean Tundra are the only two zones that introduce three new races. The first is an extremely tall Viking-like race called the Vrykul. Their locations, titles, and names share much in common with Scandinavian language. The other two races are the Tuskarr (a walrus-like race eager to aid both the Alliance and Horde) and the Taunka (distant cousins of the Tauren and aids to the Horde).
Perhaps the most vocal complaint has been the level cap increase from 70 to 80. For many an expansion erases hard-work when Blizzard basically resets the playing field. To offset Blizzard has significantly reduced total experience points needs between levels 60-70 (a welcome change for those wishing to create a Death Knight and quickly reach Northrend). In my experience my Death Knight went from level 60 to 65 in a couple days of casual play. By the time I reached 70 I had skipped half of Zangarmarsh and Netherstorm, and entirely skipped both Blade’s Edge Mountains and Shadowmoon Valley. Unfortunately Blizzard increased the XP needed to level from 70-80 by 80%. It is unknown if this is Blizzard’s way to force beta players to fully explore, and test, all zones, but I personally hope this percentage is lowered before launch. 80% seems a rather large increase.
Regardless of increases and decreases to XP, know that level 70 epic gear will become obsolete by level 73. What replaces your armor and weaponry is very different than anything from old-world Azeroth and Outlands. The central design theme is a hybrid of Viking and Native American styles. When it comes to size "you haven’t seen big" seems to apply here. Many of the uncommon two-handed weaponry looks on par with some of the latest arena season weaponry, and even cooler once Death Knights runeforge them.
In beta all classes are evolving, but Death Knights are considerably tweaked from patch to patch. In one patch Blizzard made them gods, and in the next they are weak. On the tanking totem Death Knights are somewhere between Paladin and Warrior. Death Knights are billed as the anti-spell tank, but there’s a little more to it than that. Like other classes Death Knights come with three talents: blood, frost, and unholy. On paper you could say blood is for solo-leveling, frost is for tanking, and unholy is for PVP. Given Blizzard’s constant changes to Death Knights it has been hard to truly identify which talent is best suited for what style of play. A few weeks ago a blood Death Knight was an overpowered mess who could take down same leveled elites with health to spare" now the blood talent feels broken. Of course "broken" is used loosely because Blizzard is still tuning the class. At the time of writing this preview the current talent flavor is Frost, however this may change. There are some aspects of Death Knight that seem stable from patch to patch. Mind Freeze is a nifty defensive spell that can be used on any target while they’re casting their spell. It will prevent that spell, and any spell within the family, from being used for four seconds.
Aside from the constant changes, Death Knights are still World of Warcraft’s first hero class. As such they get the red carpet treatment with their own starting zone and a cool intro very similar to the other races. To unlock the Death Knight class you just need a level 55 character anywhere on your account (doesn’t matter about realm). The class is available to any race, male or female. If you’re wondering if you can switch factions and create a Death Knight on the other side, the answer is yes. However you are only allowed to create one Death Knight per server. This rule applies to any realm types (normal, PVP, role-play, and so forth).
The following paragraph may contain spoilers. Feel free to pass over it.
The Death Knight starting zone is a large raid-level instance that is broken up into phases. This area is a sanctuary, and in this instance you are not a part of the Horde or Alliance. You are a conscripted into the service of the Lich King. Phase one is your introduction to the class, and a meeting with the Lich King himself. You also get your first foray into an area called Ebon Hold. The course you’re put on is one in which the Lich King has demanded the destruction of the area. Once half of Ebon Hold is conquered phase two automatically begins. In this new phase you, and other Death Knights, must push with-in the Scarlet Crusade’s stronghold. Phase three begins with you basically destroying the stronghold. At this point you are still a loyal servant of the Lich King. He commands you to meet with his commander for an all-out assault on the armies gathered at Light’s Hope Chapel in Eastern Plaguelands. Once you speak with the commander the battle begins in five minutes. The timer is there so that other players within the stage three instance can join you, and the army. Once the battle begins everything turns into an epic-level battle. And by epic I mean you receive epic level powers and are able to hit for 7,000 – 12,000. Once the dust settles an in-game cut-scene basically shows you’ve broken your bond from the Lich King and from there you venture out into the main world and back to your faction of course. Thus begins the long journey from level 58 to 68 and finally to Northrend.
When you leave the Death Knight training zone every piece of armor and weapon is rare. You also have a cool epic Deathcharger mount. I going to venture a guess and say the level 51-60 Battlegrounds will likely be full of Death Knights in their shinning new blues atop their loyal Deathcharger steeds.
Fast forwarding to Northrend"
One of the new story arcs introduced in Northrend is the war between the Dragon Aspects. This is not in the cinematic but it currently consumes half of the expansion content. The epicenter of this war occurs in the zones of Dragonblight and Coldarra; Malygos’ fortress. For the first time you’ll be able to see three of the dragon aspects in one zone: Alexstrasza (Queen of the Dragons), Ysara (sleeping away in the Emerald Dragonshrine) and Nozdormu (a brief encounter within the Bronze Dragonshrine). Malygos (Lord of Magic) in Coldarra has turned hostile towards all magic-wielding mortals and declared war on the other aspects. The only other aspect not present is Deathwing although his Obsidian Dragonshrine exists in northwestern Dragonblight.
On the topic of game play the big different between this expansion and the current game is mounted combat. In Wrath of the Lich King there are many quests that require mounted combat on dragons and vehicles. Nearly every race gets a signature vehicle. Demolishers, Forsaken Catapults, Siege Engines, Flying Machines, Bombers, and Goblin Shredders all exist within small areas for quests. But they will play a much larger and important role within the automatic PVP zone of Lake Wintergrasp as well as the new battleground The Strand of the Ancients. Each vehicle has its strengths and weaknesses that will need to be learned to ensure victory for your side.
Worth noting the zone of Grizzly Hills feels like another PVP zone. In Grizzly Hills there are five or six pocket areas where battles between Alliance and Horde NPCs run amuck. Each faction has quest givers. When you take quests from these quest givers you are automatically flagged for PVP and told to go kill a bunch of opposite faction NPCs or players with-in certain areas. You are free to travel outside the area, but the PVP flag will stay active as long as the quest is in your log. I imagine this zone will transform into the go-to zone for roaming groups looking to kill players by the score. The zone isn’t like any other in World of Warcraft. It’s dense with trees and has extreme sloping hills (think the Planet Endor from Return of the Jedi).
Speaking of quests there are lots of classic fetch-this, go-kill-that quests. But most focus on the battle with the Lich King’s armies, as well as the war between the various Dragon Aspects. Notable side quests include the Scarlet Onslaught (a racist and more devoted sect of the Scarlet Crusade). Nerubians have a really large part as well. You’ll be able to explore the Nerubians’ underground kingdom of Azjol-Nerub as an instance in the western part of Dragonblight. Fans of the Frozen Throne will likely enjoy this. I’ve heard no mention of the "Faceless Ones" within Azjol-Nerub but it’s likely they will make an appearance soon enough.
Blizzard is up to its old tricks with little subtle spoofs. For example in Grizzly Hills you’ll encounter a human named Harrison Smith inside a tomb. When you try to escort him out a big snake shows up! That’s the obvious stuff. Blizzard added subtle and darker forms of humor within this expansion. I don’t want to give them away; you’ll have to discover them on your own. I will say the Undead are totally crazy in this expansion with their plagues and contagions. It is as if they were let out of the dank dark of Undercity and brought to the icy lands of Northrend where all that cold did something to their collective minds!
Achievements have been a nice and subtle addition to the Wrath of the Lich King expansion. Some players have taken it upon themselves to try and achieve every single one available. Others are simply ignoring them until they happen. I’ve opted to ignore them until they occurred. My response has been "Oh. Well that was cool. What else can I achieve?" Until I realized some are not worth the effort… so I returned back to playing until another achievement pops. Overall gaining an achievement feels about the same as leveling. As an added bonus whenever you gain an achievement this news is broadcasted to your guildmates via guild chat so that they can "congrats!" you.
Blizzard recently announced they would issue a new content patch in the coming weeks ahead of the expansion. This patch bridges the current game with the new expansion. Highlights of the patch include new spells and talents, barbershops in all capitol cities, Stormwind harbor, an in-game calendar, revamped Hunter pet skills, and the new profession: inscription.
Wrath of the Lich King brings a lot of new lore and gameplay mechanics to the table. It also brings more of the same. Whether or not this is a good thing is up to fans and new-comers to decide. This expansion, like The Burning Crusade, likely will not make the anti-WOW crowd join the game. For all intents and purposes this expansion is meant to expand the current game. While I have reservations about certain aspects overall the expansion has been very fun, and is shaping up to be a great addition to the World of Warcraft universe.
Reviewer Ryan Allen has spent quite a lot of time exploring the beta world, currently set for release later this year. If you would like to see some of the world yourself as Ryan conquers it, please enjoy these videos he made, like home movies of his exploits.