So far we've brought you the latest on the Death Knight and a look at one of the starting zones in the new continent of Northrend, Howling Fjord. Now that World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King is finally in beta, we've been able to sit down for an extended period of time with the new content and have plenty to report back on. So far we've spent most of our time in the Borean Tundra--the second starting zone, which has plenty of quests to get experienced players going from the current Burning Crusade character-level limit of 70 to the second expansion's level limit of 80. First off, a caveat. Because this is a beta, many things are subject to change. Oh, and another caveat: We were playing as the Horde this time around. The next preview will be from the Alliance point of view, but this look at Wrath of the Lich King comes through the eyes of a troll.
Getting to Northrend is a simple affair for Horde citizens: Jump on a zeppelin from the new landing tower near the gates of the orc capital Orgrimmar, and you will soon find yourself gliding peacefully into the very heart of Warsong Hold, the Horde's foothold in the Borean Tundra. If you opt to get a zeppelin from the new tower by Undercity, you will find yourself in the Howling Fjord, which we saw at BlizzCon last year during our first proper look at this expansion.
The first thing to note about the Borean Tundra is how large it feels, especially considering that no one--not even those people who have shelled out several thousand gold to max out their riding skill at level 70--will be able to fly around Northrend as they arrive. The intemperate weather requires specialist training, apparently, and this will not be available to those fresh off the proverbial boat. The zone contains six flight paths and more than that number of distinct areas and factions seemingly fighting for control. The central Horde fort, Warsong Hold, is under siege by the spiderlike creatures of the Scourge, which are running rampant through the surrounding quarry, while the coast is shrouded in dense fog and sees battles between the walrus-esque Tuskarr race and mysterious raiders from the mist.
To the far west the Blue Dragonflight hold an island called Coldarra, under the watchful eyes of both red dragons and the mages of Dalaran and Kirin Tor. North of the Red Dragonflight's base of operations you have another quest hub in the form of a smaller Horde village, itself under attack by a number of restless spirits angry at the passage of a caravan over an ancient burial ground. To the west of them is a ruined temple that overlooks a Murloc encampment, now ruled by a well-meaning druid in a Murloc suit originally there to do some anthropological research. Among the ice floes off the coast near these friendly Murlocs are a number of more hostile ones, not to mention an orca or two out to make your life that little bit more confusing.
Moving across you have a crashed Scourge ziggurat in the far north, spewing out undead to make war on the Mechagnomes and their mechanical defenses who occupy a good chunk of the region's hot springs. The Nerubians--those spiderlike Scourge creatures--hold a good chunk of the springs too, sandwiched between the Mechagnomes, a number of elementals born from the steam itself, the Horde village, and an Alliance airstrip.
On the eastern coast there is a wrecked Tuskarr village--complete with the misty raiders from earlier--as well as, in the far northeast, an ancient temple city that has been overrun by the Scourge.
Completing the circle back toward Warsong Hold you pass through one of the richest areas of wildlife--a lush, dark-green zone filled with elephants, caribou, and yet another little group called DEHTA--Druids for the Ethical and Humane Treatment of Animals. These druids are an offshoot of the Cenarion Expedition and are in Northrend with the specific aim of protecting the wildlife there. This means that if you have recently killed a beast in the zone, you'd better stay away, because the mark of blood remains on you for a few minutes after killing a creature--even if you're provoked or attacked--and DEHTA doesn't take kindly to that. If you go near these druids without washing that blood off your hands first, you're in for a shock. They are, as you might guess, completely opposed to every World of Warcraft player's favorite dwarf, hunter Hemet Nesingwary and his hunting cronies, who have moved on from their big-game hunting expedition in Nagrand to go for the really, really big game Northrend has to offer. While we have yet to encounter the little man himself, attacking and thwarting his minions is an important part of the DEHTA quests, which also include such tasks as sabotaging traps, freeing trapped baby elephants, and other such acts of kindness. We're not yet sure if doing quests for Hemet Nesingwary later on will decrease your standing with these more ethical folks, but we'll let you know as soon as we find out.
While on the topic of ethical questing, some of the quests in the Borean Tundra do raise a number of interesting ethical points that seem like a departure for the game. One in particular involves beating up a guard who is a member of a certain faction until he is nearly dead, dragging him back to the faction (the mages of Dalaran, in this case) by a chain, and then proceeding to torture him for them--using a charmingly named item called a neural needler--to extract useful intelligence on the whereabouts of a recently kidnapped colleague of the mages who sent you out in the first place. We did the quest--we needed the experience points, and it offered a useful reward--but it did leave something of an odd taste in the mouth.
To give you an idea of the size of the zone and the number of quests contained within it, questing only in this zone has got us from level 70 to halfway through level 71, with several of the above hubs still having a significant number of useful quests to do. This means that not only do you have a wide range of useful quests to choose from, but everyone else does too--and remember that there are two entire zones to start from as you embark on your quest to level 80. While these areas will always be fairly crowded when the expansion is released, it is good to see such a significant amount of choice being offered to try to spread the questing hordes out a bit.
While so far we have seen only a few truly new mechanics in Lich King, a few changes did jump out at us. First up is the emphasis on quests that do not require a group. These were not prevalent in the Burning Crusade's starting areas, but they appear to be even less so now. There are a significant number of quests that are faster if you're hunting in a party, but the vast majority can be completed solo without problems. Secondly, there is a new questing mechanic that has already been alluded to: the chained escort. In one case this involves hunting a baby dragon, harpooning it, and dragging it back for experimentation--another quest with a moral question mark over it, some may say. Another example is the aforementioned guard-snatching quest. One other nifty little change is obvious almost the moment you step into the quarry outside Warsong Hold. The Nerubians have grabbed soldiers from the hold and have spun webs around them. If you free the soldiers, you'll have an ally of roughly equivalent power to yourself to fight alongside you. These are primarily shamans, mages, and warriors, and while their assistance is short-lived--once they repay their debt to you they return to the hold--their sheer numbers mean it is possible for a single player to be supported by four or five computer-controlled equivalents as they exterminate the Scourge infestation.
Overall, we are very taken in by the new content we've seen in Wrath of the Lich King. It is varied and engaging, and while none of it is revolutionary, the signs are good at this relatively early stage.
We will report back soon with more on the Death Knight class, the other zones throughout Northrend, and anything and everything else you can expect from World of Warcraft's second expansion pack between now and its release--which is currently scheduled for the fourth quarter of this year.