Logging into The Wrath of the Lich King feels just like logging into normal World of Warcraft. Things don't start to get a little bit different until you travel to a major city for, what else? A shave and a haircut. When you see the red and white barber's pole, you'll think "Why not? I've had this mullet for 70 levels. It's time for a change!" So you'll sit down in the barber's chair to flip through hairstyles, hair colors, and facial-hair dos just like you would in the character-creation screen; except that this time, your new look will cost at least a dozen gold. Now, before we go any further, we must warn you that this preview may contain spoilers on the expansion's new content. Also, please note that our impressions are based on an unfinished beta version of the game, so all information here, haircut-related and otherwise, is subject to change.
Once you settle on a new look (Good-bye, comb-over; hello, red Mohawk!), you'll be ready to introduce your new self to the new zones. You're free to travel to either the Borean Tundra or the Howling Fjord, but you should definitely check out the Howling Fjord first. The quests here tend to run a level lower than they do in the Borean Tundra. They're also more concentrated around their respective horde and alliance strongholds. Once you've gained three to four levels in the Howling Fjord, you'll easily breeze through everything in the Borean Tundra for another quick and easy level or two. That's the beauty of having two starting zones; you'll always be ahead of the level curve if you complete them both.
The Howling Fjord is a zone dominated by the Vrykul--huge Viking men with terrible manners. Though there are many factions, none of them are friendly. As you make your way through the Howling Fjord quest lines, so too will you make your way through each Vrykul village. In many cases, you'll simply kill a set number of them, but in others, you'll burn their towers, blast their structures, and kill their dogs. Some of the best quests, though, involve a pirate stronghold known as Scalawag Point. The first two characters you meet are a Blood Elf-worshiping artifact collector and a beefy Tauren bookie. The quests of these two characters intersect because the collector owes the beefy bookie money; so don't be surprised if, when turning in a quest to the collector, another player comes in and kicks his butt.
You'll also meet the pirates' second in command, who won't let you get a word in edgewise before she assumes you're there to kill her boss; then she tells you how. You'll track him to a cave, where you'll face him and his giant bear pet. Both are tough as nails, so make sure to bring friends. Other quests in the Howling Fjord have you freezing contaminated spores, as well as shattering them, hunting critters with your brand new falcon pet, and running around in the body of a reactivated rune golem. This, in turn, will get you ready for the siege weapon warfare in Lake Wintergrasp and Strand of the Ancients.
Lake Wintergrasp is not a battleground or an arena. Rather, it's an entire world zone dedicated to player-versus-player combat; the first in World of Warcraft. The basic idea is that one faction will defend a keep and the other will assault it. Each battle will last a set amount of time, with both honor points and arena points on the line. Also, as you gain honorable kills, you'll gain ranks and access to siege weapons. At the first rank, you will only be able to make a simple catapult, but assuming you are able to kill enough of the enemy, you'll gain access to siege engines and flying machines. While the siege weapons will be balanced like rock-paper-scissors, it is less clear how Blizzard intends to balance the zone itself. Because this is an open-world PVP zone, it is likely that in any given battle, one faction will be able to field more troops than another. Blizzard is considering ways to equalize this, such as bestowing bonuses on a faction that has lost several battles in a row or on one that is fielding far fewer combatants. When we know more about the subject, you will, too.
But while the new battleground and the new world PVP zone will go through changes in the future, the Borean Tundra already seems ready for retail. This is another starting zone on the other side of Northrend from the Howling Fjord. This area is beset by both green giants (decidedly not jolly) and the scourge. You'll fight cultists, purge the undead, and beat back the mean greenies as they emerge from their warships. The best confrontation in the Borean Tundra, though, is between Nesingwary's Expedition and a group of animal rights activist druids. Nesingwary, as always, wants you to kill animals to bring back pelts, tusks, and claws. However, as soon as you kill a critter in the Borean Tundra, you become marked for death by the druids for a few minutes. Assuming you haven't recently killed anything furry or feathery, you can approach the druids for quests that involve saving trapped animals and attacking hunters. You can easily choose a side or play one against the other for even more gold and experience.
Regardless of the starting zone you choose, you'll quickly come in contact with members of the opposite faction, and if you're on a PVP server, that means a fight. When the beta began, certain classes were unbelievably powerful; it seemed like paladins could kill you just by targeting you. Then, things shifted around a bit, and rogues were destroying everyone with instant poisons. Most recently, warlocks became PVP gods with a massive buff to a talent that had previously been comically lackluster. Things have been changing so much so rapidly that it is impossible to tell what the PVP landscape will look like when the game actually retails. Only two things are apparent: There is still a long way to go, and when we finally get there, we'll be able to blast each other on foot, in tanks, or from the air.
Aside from all that, the actual business of leveling a character in Northrend should be very familiar. You'll talk to non-player characters in town, then head out into the wilderness to kill bad guys, wreck plague spewers, and hunt condors. If you've been leveling a character on one of the live servers and enjoying the accelerated pace of the experience gains, you should know that leveling in WotLK is currently very slow. Each level will take a great deal of time and effort; you won't simply zoom all the way to level 80. Then again, doing so would rob you of enjoying all the wonderful effort Blizzard put into the new areas it has crafted and the thousands of lines of clever dialogue it has written. You should stop and smell the peace bloom because every new zone in Northrend is full of amazing sights, such as a giant, overturned tree in the Grizzley Hills.
Overlaying all of Blizzard's efforts in Northrend is a patina of new graphical quality. This new layer is one of detail and sophistication. You're still definitely looking at World of Warcraft, but the models and environments all look slightly more realistic than before. It is as though, before your eyes, WoW is evolving from a cartoon into an impressionist painting. Where the old graphical style used broad strokes with simple colors, WotLK features finer details on everything from trees to orcs. If you can imagine the original World of Warcraft being painted by a nice, fat brush, WotLK has been colored by one with a much finer tip. And then, floating above it all, is a beautiful rendition of aurora borealis. WotLK doesn't push any graphical envelopes, just stylistic ones.
Of course, this preview hasn't taken into account the new trade skill, Inscription, or any of the new dungeons, but each of those assets warrants its own full preview. And even if we could reveal all the secrets of Northrend to you, we wouldn't want to do so. This article has exposed but the very tip of Northrend's iceberg, with an entire mountain of adventure, gear, and PVP content waiting underneath its surface. In the meantime, we'll keep chipping away at Blizzard's ever-growing massively multiplayer online role-playing game, and we'll let you know as soon as we unearth more.