World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King Preview

We take a detailed look at a few of the new zones from Blizzard's upcoming World of Warcraft expansion.

We all knew it was coming. Then it was rumored it was coming. Now it's here: the next World of Warcraft expansion, titled Wrath of the Lich King. Among the announced features, the additions include new battlegrounds, quests, items, zones, and a new Death Knight hero class. It's a deceptively basic list, but World of Warcraft has always been a game that really has to be played to be sold on.

To save precious demonstration time, Blizzard had a full array of level 70 characters available to rent out for the day. I chose a prefabricated Undead Mage, who came equipped with piddly blue items and a purple mount, the Yaris of the Warcraft lot. The thing kept breaking down at all the wrong times, with boars and Viking-men repeatedly dismounting and punishing me for my carelessness, eventually rusting my armor to the point of no repair. As a result, my playtime consisted of a set of multiple excursions to all corners of the Howling Fjord zone, where I would inevitably encounter some new level 72 enemy that would do my poor Mage in. This preview is an account of these doomed trips, like an apocalyptic version of National Geographic.

My initial trek lead me from the basic grassy knoll of a starting area to a long rope bridge extending between two land masses, with a vast precipice below. Looking out away from the bridge, I spotted a row of dragon heads far off in the distance, some kind of gargoyle-esque display. Moving in that direction I came upon the camp of Nifflevar, where mounted enemies riding on the backs of dragons circled overhead, and men wielding giant axes stood defending the various tents. Being the Undead daredevil that I was, I rode straight through the dangerous fort, issuing a cry of "olo" as I charged. However, without a map to guide me, I found myself stopped at the edge of a cliff, with no way down and a train of angry Vikings on my tail. I leapt into the air in desperation, only to be saved by a well-placed ledge. Impossibly stuck, surrounded by death on either side, I prepared myself for a meeting with the Spirit Healer.

Fortunately the ledge turned out to be a series of ledges, seemingly designed for the purpose of saving silly players like myself. Slowly working my way down with careful jumps, I finally noticed what I was heading toward. There below me was Daggercap Bay, an impressively large body of water surrounded on three sides by tall sheets of rock. On one side of a cliff the form of a skull had been carved into the face, and below it lay a tunnel leading to who-knows-what. Above the bay, a surreal, eternally-burning pirate ship hovered in the air, precariously suspended by the cliffs via chains attached at the bow and stern. As I swam across the bay toward a nearby town, I began to feel a distinct sense of dread. I knew this particular journey wasn't going to last much longer.

A hungry shark on my heels, I arrived on the shore in a hurry. Relieved to finally be back on land, I took a few quick steps toward the safety of the town--and suddenly felt like another swim. My zombie avatar had wandered right into the middle of the Alliance town of Valgarde. Before I could turn to make my escape they were on me--filthy Alliance dogs, and a few guards as well. All the Blinks and Frost Novas in the world couldn't save me. As my corpse of a corpse hit the floor, I decided it was time to head in another direction.

Back at the woodlands of Howling Fjord, I made sure to consult the compass before heading out again. Choosing a new course for my next attempt, I set off into the forests of Balaheim. Its ashen pines were lit with the glow of soft moonlight, and the canopy was shrouded in a mist that weaved in and out between the trees--not spooky, but ethereal. The forest gave way to another woodsy area, this one full of endlessly burning timber, like Smokey Bear's private hell. A flaming Ancient tree-monster stood alone, a sad figure amongst the ruin--although if it had attacked me, I probably would have kicked its ass.

Emerging from the cinders I found myself at the peak of another cliff, this one serviced by a towering elevator named Westwind Lift. After entering the transport--which was adorned by a rock sculpture in the shape of a gryphon--it was a long ride down to the ocean shore, a zone called Garvan's Reef. Past the shoreline several circular icebergs of all sizes floated on the water's edge, arrayed in a stepping-stone configuration. Not one to pass up the excitement of platform jumping, I made for the nearest berg, leaping up onto it with timed jump. After bopping from float to float I was feeling pretty good about myself, until I ran smack into an invisible wall like a Loony Tune. Of course, unlike our world, the World of Warcraft is flat. Reaching this depressing conclusion, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of hopeless finality. With nothing left to explore, I ducked my head under the plainly-textured water, and promptly committed suicide.

Back at Howling Fjord. My playtime was beginning to feel a lot like Groundhog Day, but without the comedy. Devoted to completing the expedition, I forged ahead, returning to the rope bridge of my first adventure. Crossing it in the other direction, I saw a massive structure in the distance, a spiraling stone fortress of some kind. It turned out to be Utgarde Keep, one of the new instances. Some people at the demo stations near me were just then attempting to group up for a run of the dungeon, but like me, they had a hard time finding the entrance. Northrend is turning out to be full of void-like pitfalls, and one wrong jump on your descent can mean a fast death, which I demonstrated with a base-jump that ended in a sickening splat.

I only had one more direction left to head in--to the north of Northrend, into the frozen wastes. After plowing through another Dragonflayer camp, I eventually arrived at the base of a tall mountain. The snow had begun a while back, and now the ground was covered with a thick coating, the isolation and general creepiness of Northrend giving this a wholly different feel from zones like Winterspring. An enemy camp full of strange miniaturized soldiers sat at the foot, so I made for the summit as fast as I could--but not fast enough. Knocked off my mount, I was accosted by a band of monsters, who were previously ringing a spectral necromancer in its defense. The zealots were chanting, "My life for Ymiron!" over and over as I ran toward, rather than away, from their icy cave. I wanted to get a closer look at this Ymiron--but a giant zombie creature called a Spectral Wight soon ended my view of the ritual.

These new zones may have been interesting to look at, but will they offer any new experiences that we haven't encountered already? It's hard to tell. The only new music currently consists of an eerie celtic tune, which fit the feeling of the frosty expanse and its Viking-like inhabitants well. The game is in an early state, and the few quests I grabbed were the standard offerings of "kill these things a lot" and "burn this many corpses."

While one could ask whether the game will meet expectations, the better question perhaps is what those expectations are. How much are Warcraft fans expecting? Will siege warfare, a new class, more instances, and some new zones be enough to satiate the masses? Probably. As for what I've seen, the new continent is an effective re-imagining of Warcraft III's northern battlefields, and it's difficult to say any more at this point. Look back later in the year as Blizzard releases more details, and removes some of those annoying boundaries.

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