World of Wacraft: Wrath of the Lich King is the perfect example of what happens when a monopoly gets endangered. The very reason for which it’s ideal to have two major balanced parties alternating governship. The very reason for which prices drop and quality rises when the concept of potential competition appears.
Up to now, World of Warcraft established itself on a throne of MMOs and hasn’t moved an inch. Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures was proudly announced and eagerly awaited, just so it could swiftly die out shortly after launch, labeled as a „pricey beta”, suffering from numerous flaws, despite a few interesting concepts. Tabula Rasa was promptly retired shortly after „General” British (Richard Garriott) walked through space. Guild Wars was received relatively well, both by the community and the critics, but it never struggled over the same demographic as WoW. Lineage 2, despite acclaimed design, proved to be much too grind-reliant not to sorely deteriorate the immersion. Until a couple of months ago, Blizzard’s cashing mammoth was lethargic, hibernating on its throne.
Recently, more „dangerous” titles started surfacing. Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning is perhaps the first MMO to rub shoulders with WoW, winking every now and then and hoping to one day reach its subscriber base. Aion: Tower of Eternity, an MMO with a lot of grip in the asian market and anime enthusiasts is knocking on Europe’s gates starting with the 2nd trimester of this year. Even Guild Wars 2 was announced, sadly without a launch date, but I wonder, despite still paying for my WoW subscription and not regretting it yet, how much will its graphics engine last? Its pattern? The Lore? The motivation?
The answer to that lies dormant, somewhere, at the core of this new expansion, a solid effort on the producers’ part that gives meaning to everything they’ve built so far, patch after patch, instance after instance, addition after addition.
North by North-west
As any screenshot, poster, trailer, ghetto gossip or octogonary grandma will confirm, WotLK opens the gates to Northrend, known to many from Warcraft III: The Reign of Chaos and its expansion, The Frozen Throne. The backstory revolves brings Arthas, the fallen prince, under the spotlight, while the Alliance and the Horde advance towards the Icecrown region, fiercely fighting off icy beasts to reach a „wandering son”.
The adventure begins, for most, at a minimum of level 68, when they put on all their fluffy clothing and embark towards one of the two starting zones in Northrend: Borean Tundra or Howling Fjord. It’s worth mentioning that having two starting areas partially fixed the crowding issue at launch. Naturally, the first day of live server activity had its fat share of players who waited around for other people to finish certain quests so they could get their turn, but the situation wasn’t nearly as bad as with the first expansion, The Burning Crusade. Just like in TBC, however, you’re thrown in the middle of a warzone, flaming buildings on the horizon and wave after wave of soldiers throwing themselves foolishly in the front lines, swinging their swords around, until they get hit by some bomb right in the teeth.
The landscape is desolate in the starting areas – but not in a bad way. Getting out of the Hold you initially reach in the Borean Tundra, the scarabs and Nerubian Crypt Lords slash their way out of countless tunnels and attack everything that moves. In the Howling Fjord, the base of Vengeance Landing is continuously assaulted by the Alliance. There is something hostile in the cold, while progress implies you sabotage, pillage, assassinate and gather war provisions from abandoned trenches.
After a few brief glances, you realise the design is now somewhat more meticulous. While the graphics engine is the same, the architecture has considerably changed since TBC. There’s a dark fantasy atmosphere breathing heavily here and there, massive buildings with gothic nuances and intimidating shapes sprinkled throughout the new continent, compared to the SciFi allure of the former expansion. The addition of a more complex lighting system adds to the whole depth, and some portions make you forget just how old this engine really is.
The civilisations you meet in the new content aren’t as eccentric as the factions in TBC: the Vrykul are obviously inspired by Norse mythology, a demonic version of the warriors that get ressurected at Ragnarök, the Tuskarr are basically humanoid sea lions that lead lives much like esquimos do, and the mage city of Dalaran, seen from above, through the fog, during nighttime, is reminiscent of Netstorm, Stratosphere or Darkside of Xeen, illustrating medieval architecture in a fascinating frame (the city is actually floating above the sparkling area of Crystalforge). Dalaran is the capital of the new continent, much like Shattrah in The Burning Crusade, and like it, no members of the opposite faction may be attacked while inside.