PARIS--We've seen a fair bit of what's to come in Wrath of the Lich King, the second expansion to Blizzard's mammoth MMO World of Warcraft; we've slain foes in Northrend in a recent visit to Blizzard's Southern California offices, run through the Howling Fjord at last year's BlizzCon, and heard all about the changes to the raiding system. We'd also heard a lot about the game's new class, the Death Knight, but hadn't been able to actually play with one--until now.
Before we get into the heart of the matter, let's recap. When you get into the expansion, you will be able to create a Death Knight if you have a character of level 55 or higher, but you will only be able to have one per account per server, according to the latest information from Blizzard. Unlike other classes, this character can be any race you wish--which is likely to annoy those who take their lore seriously.
After creating a Death Knight you're dumped into in the middle of the Plaguelands, the scourge-ravaged area home of the ruined city of Stratholme, to the east of Tirisfal Glades, home of WOW's undead.
Your Death Knight starts life at level 55--that's five levels below the pre-Burning Crusade level cap--with a selection of mostly uncommon gear (greens), with a rare (blue) weapon. The selection of spells is limited; you have one "presence" available, blood, which boosts damage by 15 percent and heals you to the tune of 4 percent of the damage you do. The most obvious difference as you enter the world is your character portrait; surrounding your portrait and health bar is the blade of a vicious-looking sword, with six glowing, coloured runes embossed on the blade beneath your health bar.
The runes represent the three new types of spell castable by the Death Knight, as we'd previously been told. These are essentially global cooldowns for those classes of spell, with two bites at the cherry--in the initial setup, at least. Some hybrid skills use runes from different schools, and ensuring you're using all your runes as much as possible looks likely to be the key to maximising damage with your Death Knight.
Of the skills we got to try during our play session, Death Grip was probably the most novel and useful. While it dealt no damage, it acts as a lasso--cast it on enemies within 30 yards and they are instantly teleported next to you and taunted into attacking you for the next three seconds.
When you first enter the world with your Death Knight you have no talent points to spend and a very limited array of skills, but thankfully this is rather rapidly corrected as you reach Light's Hope Chapel and meet the Death Knight trainer--the aptly named Siouxsie the Banshee--along with a few other associated NPCs. You won't have to walk all the way, though; as a Death Knight you start life with a summonable epic mount. Tooled up with 45 talent points to spend you can take advantage of the three skill trees, though there aren't many additional skills available until you clock up a few more levels.
At level 55 the play mechanic for all three trees is fundamentally the same; you will still do most of your damage at melee range, with a small number new skills available from each talent tree. We found the Frost route to be the most effective at level 55, with talents to increase your critical strike chance and attack speed in abundance letting you tear through enemies at and just above your level with relative ease. Frost Strike will become your weapon of choice, as it converts your next melee swing into a powerful frost blow. The area-of-effect Howling Blast is useful when you're in a tight spot, as it deals treble damage to frozen targets, and deals frost damage to all hostile targets in a large radius.
The Frost tree also lets you give your weapon a temporary icy enchantment, which adds frost damage to your attacks and gives your melee blows a chance to lower your enemies' frost resistance, as well as imbuing your weapon with a nifty blue glow. This, combined with the red glow imbued from one of the speed-boosting talents, makes the Death Knight a rather impressive-looking foe as he slashes those before him.
The Blood tree is more useful in parties, with abilities to improve your Blood Presence, boosting your total health and those of your party, as well as granting the useful Mark of Blood. This spell will have particular use in instances and party running, as it grants your entire party 10 percent of their maximum health when a marked creature dies, as well as transferring 5 percent of the healing done to the marked creature to all your party members.
Health is a particular focus of talents in the Blood tree; Blood Gorged boosts your damage by up to 10 percent when you have over 75 percent of your maximum hit points. There are also talents that boost your attack power based on your total armour, and ones that increase the health and strength of you and your party when your Blood Presence is activated.
The top of the Blood tree also provides some fun bonuses. Heart Strike reduces your target's health by 20 percent for 30 seconds, and Dancing Rune Weapon can double your melee damage for a certain amount of time by creating a replica of your main weapon that mimics your attacks for up to a minute without the need for any additional runes or action on your part.
The final tree we got to play with was Unholy. This is reminiscent of the skills attributed to the Necromancer in Diablo II, and looks likely to come into its own at higher levels when you can summon minions to fight by your side. It brings back the old favourite spell Corpse Explosion, as well as boosting the strength of you and your summoned minions and increasing the damage and effects of your disease-related spells.
Runic Power is the one new mechanic with the Death Knight we are yet to cover. It is essentially a hybrid between energy and combo points and is required for a range of impressive moves. It is displayed via a small arc-shaped meter to the right of your character portrait. When the meter is full the entire blade that backs your portrait and rune bar glows blue to let you know it's time to unleash all hell on whatever poor beastie you're beating.
Runic Power decays with time and is generated as you burn up runes when casting spells--with talents available in all trees that boost power gain from certain skills--and is used up as you call in certain skills. These either consume all Runic Power available in one hit--Death Coil converts it all into a powerful shadow blast--or drain it slowly to maintain a spell's effect. One such slow-draining skill allows you to summon a gargoyle from the heavens that exists for as long as you have Runic Power available (or up to a minute). Combined with skills that boost your speed and critical strike chance as you fight, these skills look likely to make the Death Knight a fearsome force once he or she gets going.
We look forward to sitting down with the game for an extended period and reporting back on the next 25 levels' worth of skills and talents, and how the gameplay changes for the Death Knight as you become more powerful. Stay tuned for more information.