Not merely content with announcing World of Warcraft's second expansion, Blizzard made the upcoming Wrath of the Lich King available to play at Blizzcon. While the areas open to exploration are a bit restricted, we got enough of a taste of the first zone's unique Norse flavor to reveal some of what awaits you in the Howling Fjords.
The crescent-shaped continent of Northrend will ultimately have two entry-level zones, according to Blizzard, and Howling Fjords is one of these. At the southeast edge of the continent, the zone is nearly bisected by a deep fjord that gives the zone its name. Playing as Alliance, we hopped on a ship from the Night Elf port town of Auberdine and sailed through the fjord to the settlement of Valgarde. The first impression you get of the zone is that it's a rugged, ancient place; the steep cliffs of the fjord tower, high above the water as you navigate inside, and the hills looming over Valgarde are largely occupied by the impressive, slightly malevolent Utgarde Keep in bright, white stone. Valgarde clings to the very edge of the land, but is under constant siege from unknown foes. As soon as you step off the boat, you're conscripted into aiding the resident forces push some of the raiders off.
The enemies, called Vrykul, you'll find laying waste to the town are entirely new to the expansion. The new foes are huge, Viking inspired threats who are accompanied by worg hounds. The Vrykul are men, but giant men--well-muscled and well-detailed, you can see hair curling on their arms and chest as they mercilessly try to chop you down. The worgs have a passing similarity to wolves but an even more ferocious appearance, with high front shoulders and lowered heads full of teeth. You fight them alongside the guards of Valgarde, who often call to each other, speaking of world events and heroes they've fought alongside, lending a bit of extra flavor to the fray. Once you thin the numbers of invaders a bit, you're sent into the surrounding pine forest to check for lost scouts.
When you find the scouts, they're cruelly impaled on huge, awful-looking blades and scattered over the ground, still clinging to life. It would appear that the Vrykul are a pretty barbaric sort that camp in Wyrmkill Village on the very outskirts of Valgarde, and with a bit of further investigation, you learn that they're lead by a fellow called Ingvar the Plunderer, who's well ensconced in the halls of Utgarde Keep.
Utgarde Keep is a five-man instance and one of the first in this new expansion, so we were eager to peek inside and see what dangers would await. The keep itself has the look of an old Viking longhall, with huge dark beams of smoke-weathered wood joined with stone in a way that somehow made us thirsty for mead. The initial pulls in the instance were small pulls of 2 or 3 Vrykuls each leading into the first chamber, which was dominated by a giant furnace spewing flames against the walls. The flame effects for the long columns of flowing fire were new and looked good, but they were also totally impassible until we started killing enemies in the room, which caused the flames to cease burning so we could sneak by.
The second chamber was a small stabling area, holding pale proto-drakes and their Vrykul masters. These small dragons are similar to drakes found all over Azeroth and Outland, but the proto-drakes are almost entirely white, and it's unclear at present what their origins are or what their relation to the Vrykul are beyond mounts. Once we cleared through this room in three or four pulls, we climbed a small stair, where we found ourselves staring at the instance's first boss, Prince Keleseth the San'layn. The room held a bunch of enemies that charged as we entered, and after we'd dispatched them we were free to hit up the boss himself.
Keleseth was decked out in what looked like tier 6 warlock gear, complete with the horns and wings, and skeletons continually ran in from the next hallway while we were fighting them, the first hint that the hand of the Lich King reaches even into Utgarde Keep itself. We were beset with a crippling (but dispellable) disease from the skeletons, an unremoveable ice tomb that would lock party members in a block of ice and gradually leech their health, and shadowbolts from the boss himself. When defeated, the boss offered up no clues to expansion loot, but gave us 5 items that are ordinarily rewards from the World of Warcraft trading card game: Bananas, the monkey pet. We were all hoping for epics, of course--but hey, free monkey.
Once you complete a few quests for the good fellows at Valgarde, they send you by griffon to warn the outpost of Westguarde Keep that the Vrykul are planning an attack. Westguarde Keep sits high on the very edge of the cliffs that surround Northrend, and looks out onto seas dotted with listing, gleaming glaciers. There was a quest here to bomb pirates in the bay from the deck of a zeppelin ("borrowed" from an extremely unhappy goblin), and this quest was marked as "Daily", meaning that it's a repeatable quest for rewards like gold. We also gained reputation with the Valgarde faction all throughout our journeys in the Howling Fjords, though there weren't any hints as to what the faction rewards might eventually be.
The landscape that we saw seemed varied even in this one zone, from the steep walls of the fjords and the pine forests at their base, to some grasslands at the top that were patrolled by odd creatures with elaborate antlers, to villages misted green with undead plague, and an area filled with proto-drake eggs and whelps located in the middle of a burning forest settlement. Invisible walls kept us from trying to catch a glimpse of lands of the walrus-like Tuskar or wandering too far afield.
Though we only got a very basic idea of the content that will be available in Wrath of the Lich King, we find ourselves already pining for the fjords. There's still a lot for us to learn about this expansion, including more details about the long-awaited Death Knight hero class, so keep watching this gamespace for the latest updates as they become available from Blizzcon and beyond.