World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King Hands-On - New Zones and Death Knights

We check out a plethora of new content in Blizzard's upcoming expansion pack for World of Warcraft

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The last time we had a look at Blizzard's upcoming World of Warcraft expansion, Wrath of the Lich King, was at last year's Blizzcon. The expansion will offer players a new land to roam (the frosty Northrend), an intimidating big bad (Arthas, the surly antihero prominently featured in Warcraft III's Frozen Throne expansion), and a dense mound of new content. We recently had the chance to go down to Blizzard's Southern California office and spend a meaty chunk of time rolling through several of the new zones in the game. In addition, Blizzard offered up details on the Death Knight class, a fundamental change to the raiding system, and some new quest types.

The mysterious Death Knight will be a gimme for anyone who has a character at level 55 or higher. If you have a 55 or higher character on any server, you'll get the option to create a Death Knight with any race. Obviously, there are some caveats: Players will only be able to create one Death Knight per realm per account. Once created, your undead rebel will be level 55, be able to summon a regular mount, and have a set series of quests designed to fill you in on how to use their unique abilities, as well as bring you up to speed on their backstories.

While we weren't able to play as the new class, we were treated to a brief demo showcasing the knight's finer aspects. The standout element of the knight is its rune-powered spell system. A series of six rune slots will rest beneath a Death Knight's life bar and hold any combination of the three rune types needed to cast spells or power their unique abilities: unholy, frost, and blood. The exact configuration of runes is customizable by players, although doing so will require you to go to a specific locale. We reckon this will work something like talents, in that you'll have to visit a trainer of some kind to let you respec your rune setup. It also seems like a player's rune configuration will vary based on the spell and ability types he or she favors.

Once used, a rune will have a cooldown time so your rune configuration can enable you to use or cast several of the same spells and abilities in quick succession if you set them up properly. While the specifics of the spells and abilities are still being sorted, we were shown a sampling to give us an idea of what to expect. We saw the death-coil spell, an area-of-effect disease, an ice-based shackle, and a wicked snare that yanked a spellcaster into striking range (which we imagine is going to be a really bad thing for casters). A complementary by-product of these rune powered abilities is "runic power," which will be generated every time you use one. You'll be able to store the power, such as a warrior's rage, and unleash a powerful ability that will depend on the amount of power you have stored. The only catch is that, like rage, it will bleed away over time. On top of all that, the knight will have three different "presences"--blood, frost, and unholy. Like a paladin's aura, these presences will offer a unique buff, but we didn't manage to find out what these would entail. During the presentation, Blizzard reps noted that the knight is designed to be a viable tank or magic user.

As if all the above wasn't enough to ruin Christmas, he gets a pet too. The knight can summon a ghoul from the corpse of friend or foe. To be fair, the ghoul will only last for a short period of time, but it looks like its brief life will be a serious problem for enemies of the knight. In addition to the standard pet commands that will let you toggle among aggressive, defensive, and passive states, the ghoul will be able to apply disease to enemies, as well as perform other assorted spells. Summoning a ghoul will also be an option while in battle. If you summon ghouls out of friendly targets who've recently died, they'll get an onscreen prompt for revival, not unlike a standard res. If they accept the res, they will return to the action and play as the ghoul for a short period of time with full access to their various abilities. The team is well aware that that this may seem a bit overpowered and that balance is going to be key to the Death Knight fitting in to the game. Thankfully, aside from death coil, the Death Knight won't really be able to do much healing, so all Death Knight groups will likely not work out.

The other big news is the way raiding will change in the Lich King. Due to the positive response to the heroic dungeon setting introduced in the Burning Crusade expansion, all five main dungeons in the Lich King will have a heroic setting. The potentially unsettling news for more hardcore players is that all of the Lich King dungeons will have 10- and 25-man versions to allow more players to see endgame content. While you'll find separate progressions for both raid types, they are not dependent on each other, so you'll be able to go between both. Another interesting perk is that you won't have to get keys or attunements in 10-man raids to participate in the 25-man raids. While this may sound like madness, we're told that there will be higher level rewards for the 25-man runs.

The last bit of info we'll discuss before we dive into the zones are the new quest types. We saw a demo of a rescue mission that segued into a unique twist on your typical escort. The demo followed a Draenei paladin who rescues a human from captivity. In order to escape, the former captive hops on a horse and heads off to safety. As he does, the Draenei actually mounted the same horse, sitting behind him, and went along for the ride. While the ride was obviously on rails, it was possible for the Draenei to perform a small selection of attacks on the enemies swarming to stop the escape. This feature is tied to the new vehicle mechanic for siege weapons that will also add action functionality when you're on certain flying mounts as well. Another mission we saw was a rescue that had you piloting an airship and dropping a rope down to aid non-player characters. Even more insane is the fact that it appears miniature dogfights may be possible with some of the flying vehicles, a move which could definitely mix things up.

Now as far as the new zones go, we were impressed by the sheer scope of what we were able to see and play across the massive continent of Northrend. We saw the Howling Fjord zone and Utgard Keep from Blizzcon (which had seen some tweaks and refinements). We were also able to check out Borean Tundra, Coldarra, Dragonblight, Grizzly Hills, Valliance Keep, Zul'Drak, Sholazar Basin, Utgard Pinnacle, an instance called Nexus, and Drak'Tharon Keep. We spent a fair chunk of time playing through locales in the Borean Tundra, which reminded us a bit of how the Wetlands were structured in the original WoW. You'll find a vast, varied landscape with pockets of quest givers strewn throughout. The quests were still being smoothed out, but we were pleased by how neatly everything interconnected. Most significant is the overall locale variety, which featured everything from the expected snowy mountains to lush redwood forests. We were able to get a sense of how densely packed the locales will be, thanks to part of the demo that flew us through many of the areas with the in-game camera.

Our tour also included a look at some faces that are new to the series lore. A race of short, squat walruses named the Tuskarr was shown fighting on an icy beach. The newcomers are cute to the extent that they border a bit at the Ewok level of cuddliness. Thankfully, their facial hair and menacing spears add a touch of aggression. While we didn't see them, the Wolvar will also be around. Blizz reps noted that the Wolvar are a race of miniature wolverines. A potentially new face to the game's cast of NPCs are the Oracles, a race of evolved Murlocs that form one of two factions you'll juggle with as you play. This time out, it appears that you'll be able to juggle favor between the two groups as opposed to the permanent allegiance you had to make between the Aldor and Scryer factions in Burning Crusade. You'll also see many familiar faces that stretch back through the lore of the series. Furbolgs, worgen, and jungle trolls will all be around, as well as part of quest lines that shed more light on their backstories. The trolls are prominently featured in Zul'Drak, a massive ziggurat that's central to one of the story elements in the expansion. It seems that the jungle trolls are effectively combating the scourge threat, which leads both the alliance and horde forces to investigate the source of their power. The secret sounds like it's a pretty dire solution to the scourge problem--the sacrifice of the jungle trolls' animal gods. The level even has a massive tyrannosaur boss.

Other elements from the lore that show up include the dragonflight, which appear through the land. The noble blue dragons are now threatened by Arthas' corruption of their leader, as well as his unsavory use of their remains. The arachnoid Nerubians are on hand to cause trouble for the orcs. Naxxramas, the floating citadel of the evil Kel'Thuzad (which was last seen as endgame content before the Burning Crusade) is back and will be a new instance to run.

Speaking of instances, the team is hard at work to ensure veteran players will find a good mix of challenges. You'll find two instances immediately open for level 70s: Utgard Keep and the Nexus. However, they'll also contain areas that you'll only be able to access once you've gone up in level. We're also anxious to try one of the outdoor instances that will have you fighting your way up a massive spiral on flying mounts that will let you perform an array of combat actions. We poked our heads in Nexus--which was housed on the snowy isle of Coldarra just off the coast of the northeastern corner of the Borean Tundra--and were promptly kicked in by some very large dragonkin that didn't seem too big on visitors. However, before our horrible deaths, we were treated to a nicely detailed crystal interior big on the magical lighting.

Our time exploring through the game also gave us the opportunity to bump into some familiar faces in a new setting, thanks to a run-in with DEHTA (or Druids for the Ethical and Humane Treatment of Animals). The splinter group of animal activists is hell-bent on putting everyone's favorite quest-giving dwarf, Hemet Nesingwary, out of business. It seems that he's popped over to Northrend to have a look around and assign some chores to the leveling masses. However, this time a pack of druids have followed him over and doled out quests designed to thwart his wildlife-poaching ways.

Overall, we've been impressed by the content we played and saw demoed. Lich King appears to be benefitting from the lessons Blizzard has learned from both WoW and the Burning Crusade. The quest flow seems much smoother, and the plethora of content offers a great deal of variety. We're especially pleased to see little details being added in to ensure the game stays interesting for those leveling multiple characters. You'll find two starting areas to choose from for both the alliance and horde factions when you arrive at Northrend. The game will also feature more interactions early on with Arthas to make him more of a presence than Illidan--who you could only mix it up with very late in the Burning Crusade.

We're not totally thrilled by the fact that the flying mounts we scrimped and saved for in Outland are out of commission from levels 70 to 77. Apparently, at 77, you'll be able to access them again through a quest line and possibly a gold payment. While you'll actually have many opportunities to fly around via mounts during quests and when travelling between flight masters, it's a shame you can't take to the air on your own mount as soon as you hit Northrend.

Besides all of what we just covered, we still had to ask about a number of elements that our time with Lich King didn't show. The inscription profession, while still coming, wasn't really shown; although, we did find a vendor who sold a quill and parchment for you to make a scroll that you'll presumably use to enhance spells in some way. We also got some clarification on how the profession will work, which will help prevent players from going crazy with the spell enhancing. Basically, players will only be able to enhance specific spells, possibly something along the lines of only one from a specific school. The vehicle system had us intrigued, although it wasn't properly shown. From the sound of it, the basic mechanic of two or more people riding on a vehicle while dueling with others is a nice complement to the fun and frustration of the current player-versus-player action in the game. Finally, though, it should go without saying, Blizzard will also be tweaking all the existing classes for the expansion. This includes new additions to the skill trees for each class to accommodate the new level cap of 80 and the points you'll earn along the way.

The visuals in the expansion pack offer a throwback to the variety and detail of the original areas in WoW but with a very different tone. Although Northrend is obviously heavy on the snow, the developers are cramming an inventive amount of variety into the new land mass to keep things interesting. The areas we saw had a nice feel to them and included some of the very cool landscape transitions that were more prominent in the original WoW. The shift from snowy hills to a redwood forest and ravaged farmlands was nicely done. We're also very taken with the dwarf city that looks like a sister city to Ironforge--with the exception of the earth elementals who are trying to squeeze the dwarves out with overgrown trees that have pushed into the city from all directions. The elementals are also engaging in some more straightforward intimidation and can be seen looking down at the city interior from massive cracks in the roof. Sholazar Basin is another cool analog to a WoW area--Ungoro Crater--and offers a lush tropical rainforest in the midst of the icy weather, thanks to mystical pylons. However, in keeping with the game's new tone (which feels like an extension of the under-siege feel of many areas in Burning Crusade), one of the pylons has fallen and unsavory elements are making their way into the sanctuary.

Based on what we played, Wrath of the Lich King is shaping up to be a promising expansion pack. Though what we played is far from done, there was a respectable amount of polish in the quest flow, as well as an already impressive sense of scale and variety. But we're understandably cautious on the whole Death Knight issue because as it stands right now, the class is pretty burly and could easily break some fundamental elements of the experience. We're hopeful that Blizzard will be keeping an ear to the ground as the information on the class hits and will make some adjustments once it starts hearing from the fans. Look for more on World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King in the months to come.

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