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World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King Review

By Jeff Buckland, 12/2/2008

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If you were actively playing World of Warcraft leading up to the launch of this latest expansion, then you don't need this review. It's almost impossible to resist the promise of new levels, loot, dungeons, and story in the world's biggest MMORPG. This review is hardly even written for those players, as they probably already know everything I'm about to say. But as someone who has spent some time away from the game since playing it that first day of launch, and one who was away from the game leading up to the expansion, I feel like I can speak to those gamers who are thinking of coming back to the game to give them a good perspective of what they can expect in Wrath of the Lich King.

In a word: fun. If you're level 70, you probably remember your journey from levels 60 to 70, if not 1 to 70, fairly well. Lots of quests (at least, in The Burning Crusade) but also lots of tedium. Kill 10 of these, collect 8 of these. Run over here, then back over here, click the thingy in your inventory, run back to the quest giver before the story part even finishes because, hey, that time could be better spent working on the next quest! I've been there. Multiple 70s, lots of PvP and wondering why I'm grinding for gear just so that I can grind for more gear as a reward, fighting to find a guild, dealing with loot drama and idiots. Much of that is still here in Lich King: Blizzard can't make that seemingly inordinately large amount of players who act immaturely actually behave, nor can they fix what the anonymity of the internet does to a teenager's mind when he realizes he won't likely get in trouble with his parents when he acts like a jerk online.

Nor can Blizzard stop so many guilds from imploding within a month of formation. And I imagine that at least a good chunk of gamers might come back to WoW with this new expansion only to find that all the good people in their guild left or transferred to some other server, or that they have no tag above their head at all. But if you have a solid guild, one that you might have spent some time away from, one that is fun to hang out with and kill stuff together with, then I say you should get Lich King and go rejoin them, even if it's only for a month or two. The game gives you a ton of great quests in the process of leveling from 70 to 80, and it's easier than ever to at least jump in with your raiding buddies even if you're behind in progression.

This is possible through Blizzard's focus on making sure that the difference between "tiers" of raiding is more of a ramp than a set of steps. From the ability to wear a tabard to gain one of several key reputations when doing any level-80 dungeon to Normal and Heroic versions of all the dungeons (even the raid ones) and 10- and 25-man versions of the endgame raid zones as well, it's just plain easier to jump in, play, and come out with good stuff. The most hardcore players will find this to be off-putting, as there is less of a perceived reward for being more dedicated, serious, and skilled. But the benefit is certainly obvious when it comes to leveling up a new character, bringing a friend into the game from scratch, and getting caught up if you take some time off.

The Lich King includes a new character class, the Death Knight, that is available to both Horde and Alliance players. As long as you have another character that's level 55 on a server, you can then create a DK - which starts at level 55 - and get it to 70 fairly quickly. And that's because leveling has been sped up in the Burning Crusade zones, much like what we saw back in the original game's zones last year. Don't be surprised if you fly from 55 to 70 in less than a week. DKs themselves are a very powerful melee class that can be damage dealers or tanks, and at this point they're arguably the most powerful class in the game. It seems inevitable that Blizzard will be toning them down, but for now they are very tough to kill and dish out some impressive damage.

Although Blizzard introduced flying mounts for level 70 characters in The Burning Crusade, they've disallowed them for players who haven't made level 77 in the new lands of Northrend. Once you make 77, a charge of 1000 gold will get you flying again, although if you didn't have a "very fast" flying mount back in TBC, you will still have to spend the full 5,000 to get them here. (Making money is even faster here than before, so that 5000 gold will come a lot quicker than you might remember from a year or two back.) Some of the game's new areas are made for those who can fly, and these massively vertical areas with quests that have you riding on the backs of dragons and dwarven airplanes are a real joy. Not to trash Warhammer Online or its decidedly larger focus on PvP, but the story and quests over in WoW are vastly more fun and amusing.

It's not that Blizzard is ignoring PvP, of course: not only is there a new battleground, but there's also a new PvP-only zone nestled near the middle of Northrend. This whole zone requires you get off your flying mount and flag yourself for PvP, and a battle starts every couple of hours for plenty of gamers to jump into. I think this is a great trend reversal for Blizzard, who have been focusing on smaller and smaller-scale fights ever since the introduction of the 40-vs-40 Alterac Valley instance more than three years ago. That being said, the PvP seasons and arenas rage on, forcing most players to have to fight in the high-pressure 2v2, 3v3, and 5v5 arenas to keep up on gear. Sure, there are now other avenues for getting PvP gear, including the crafting skills, but from what has been seen so far, you will still have to do plenty of arenas to finish the best possible PvP set.

All of this has been done with only a modest increase in system requirements. The game will still run on older laptops with integrated video and only a gig of RAM, and while you may have trouble if you were playing pre-Lich King on the original bare minimum, the vast majority of players will not need to upgrade their computers to play this. That being said, Blizzard's art design and ability to do so little with so few polygons is phenomenal. What they lack in special effects or superb texture quality, they make up for in charm and wondrous design. From the well-decorated cliffs of Howling Fjord to the snow-covered Storm Peaks and lush jungle of Sholazar Basin, World of Warcraft looks better than ever.

As far as raids go, so far we've seen some of the game's best guilds actually finish all of the content that's currently available in the game inside of the first two weeks since launch. But that should not be a concern for the vast majority of raiding players, as these guilds have been practicing these zones in the beta for months. Don't worry: by the time your guild finishes Northrend's initial raid zones, Blizzard will have released plenty more for you to do in the coming updates. And the focus on making raids more accessible and easy to figure out - some of this comes by way of the game's v3.0 patch a month or so ago and its calendar system - really does help.

It's unfortunate that the developers are a little behind the current raiding trends and happenings, though, so there are problems with raids right now that are excluding certain classes from working at their maximum potential due to arbitrary limitations. Blizzard will fix it, but in a round-about way weeks (possibly months) after most raid groups have given up and worked around the problems. And those workarounds may involve things like not bringing Affliction-spec Warlocks to the raids, since they put too many debuffs on bosses and can overwrite other important debuffs. It's a mess, and Blizzard needs to get faster and better about fixing these kinds of issues.

If you've been away from WoW for more than a couple of months, there are some features added in v3.0 that will probably take you by surprise here in The Lich King. Mounts and non-combat pets now go into a separate interface away from your inventory so you have more room in your bags, there are 10 new talent points and new talents for all 3 trees in each of the 10 character classes, a huge amount of achievements have been added for people to attain, and there's been a good round of revamps to many little bits of the game that needed it. The game has simply never been more convenient or rewarding to play, and while it will be easier than ever to get hooked, it'll be up to you to find that balance between addiction and real-life needs.

That being said, Blizzard is still a ways behind in a few areas of player convenience. Both Age of Conan and Warhammer Online this year stopped trying to give people directions to find the next quest area in the quest text, and opted instead to show you directly on the map where to go. The Lich King does not do this, even though some ambitious modmakers have solved it with some very interesting addons (specifically: QuestHelper and Carbonite Quest). Beyond that, Blizzard's default user interface is still missing several key elements for raiders, so there will be the usual round of mods that will likely be required by many guilds to raid. But at least the mods we need can still be made: World of Warcraft still has one of the most robust systems for modding seen in an MMORPG, and the community is going strong.

Put simply, World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King is MMORPG gaming at its finest we've seen yet. The hefty $40 price tag may seem like a lot for an addon, but once you start the quest to ride on the back of a Storm Giant and destroy pretty much a whole zone full of Scourge by stomping on them, you'll know where your money went. If you've got a stable guild that's asking for their older players to come back, then now is as good a time as any: The Lich King is one of the best expansion packs in the history of PC gaming. You can't ask for much more.

Overall: 93%



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