Four years and well beyond 10 million subscriptions after the release of World of Warcraft, Blizzard's phenomenally successful massively multiplayer online role-playing game is barely recognizable as the same game that sold almost a quarter of a million copies in its first 24 hours. The game has been in a near-constant state of evolution since 2004, and up until last month, the steady flow of new features and improvements had all been patched in for free, with only one exception: the Burning Crusade expansion pack that's required to play Wrath of the Lich King. The recently released second expansion pack doesn't boast as many back-of-the-box bullet points as its predecessor, and it doesn't offer anything for new players, but if you're still playing WOW or you're looking for an excuse to get back into it, this thrilling new adventure is not to be missed.
All of the new content in Wrath of the Lich King comes with a character-level requirement. You can't play the new death knight hero class until one of your existing characters reaches level 55, and you can't attempt any quests in the new Northrend continent until you're at level 68. The most significant exception to this rule would have been the new inscription-crafting profession, but that ended up being patched in shortly before the expansion's release alongside new talents for every character class in the game, an Xbox Live-style achievements system, barbershops, an extremely useful in-game calendar, and numerous user-interface improvements. There's new content for low-level players, but you don't need the expansion pack to get it.
Regardless of where you choose to start your Wrath of the Lich King adventure, it'll quickly become apparent that considerable effort has gone into making the new content compelling. There are still plenty of fetch quests, and there's certainly no shortage of non-player characters looking for heroes to kill a certain number of whichever species or faction they have a beef with. Liberally sprinkled in among those genre requisites, though, are some quite different challenges that not only add some much-needed variety but, in some cases, also do a great job of immersing you in Warcraft's rich lore. Previously, WOW relied on you reading the briefings that bookend quests for its storytelling, but in Wrath of the Lich King, it's often the quests themselves that get the job done along with a handful of in-game cutscenes. You might go into the expansion not knowing your Arthas from your elbow, but after questing in Northrend for a while, you'll inevitably gain some understanding of just why the world of Warcraft needs so many heroes.
Playing through the death knight's starting area also exposes you to some interesting Warcraft lore, and doing so is recommended even if you have no intention of playing the new class beyond that point. It's only fair to warn you that death knights can be tough to put down, though; not only are they very powerful and fun to play, but they also start at level 55, they get a free epic mount, and they're fully decked out with great-looking blue (rare) gear by the time they leave their starter area at level 58 or so. It's unfortunate that you need to gain another 10 levels playing through Burning Crusade content before you can accept any quests in Northrend, but the death knight is such a powerful class with so little downtime that you can get through it relatively quickly. Players sticking with their nonhero classes will almost certainly feel compelled to tell you that your new death knight is overpowered at some point, and they're right, at least as far as leveling and questing is concerned. The death knight is also one of the more complex classes to play well, and unfortunately it's too soon to comment on how they fare in player-versus-player scenarios.
When your death knight or one of your preexisting characters reaches level 68, you need to get yourself to Northrend as soon as possible. Not only is the new continent epic in scale and more impressive-looking than any of the game's previous locales, but it's also bursting with hundreds of quests to complete for the numerous new races and factions that you'll encounter there. To give you some idea of just how many quests there are in Wrath of the Lich King, you need to complete at least 875 of them to unlock the questing achievements scattered across all eight of Northrend's major regions. There's so much new content that you could conceivably level two characters from 70 to 80 without having to repeat many of the same quests, though some of them are so good that you'll want to.
New in Wrath of the Lich King are numerous quests in which you complete objectives at the controls of a mount or vehicle. Quest-specific rides include dragons, mammoths, airplanes, bipedal mechs, and even a giant. The controls are slightly different for all of them, but they're never complicated and they're always clearly displayed onscreen as soon as you climb aboard. Another gameplay mechanic that's used frequently in new quests is phasing, which lets you see areas of the world differently from other players. Similar to how the world appears in gray scale when you die and have to run back to your corpse as a ghost, phasing quests often apply some kind of visual filter to the environment and let you interact with NPCs in different ways. Wrath of the Lich King takes this idea to a whole new level. By completing certain quests, you trigger dramatic changes to the environment that are the same for all players who have completed said quest, but for players who have yet to do so, the world still exists in its original form. Whether this is achieved though technical wizardry or just straight-up magic is unclear, but its integration is seamless, and it's incredibly satisfying to feel like your actions are having a significant impact on the world around you.
However, not every quest in Wrath of the Lich King is so fulfilling, mostly because the vast majority of them simply aren't challenging. When accepting a quest, you rarely have to question if you can complete it; you just need to figure out when you can fit it into your jam-packed hero schedule. There are quests for which you need to group up with other players, but even these aren't nearly as challenging as similar offerings in the pre-Lich King game. It's no secret that Blizzard wants to make content that's accessible to the vast majority of WOW players rather than just to those in elite raiding guilds, and in this regard the new expansion is undoubtedly a success, but at times the new content feels a little too easy. There are a dozen new dungeons designed for five players, and every one of them can be beaten in about an hour by a reasonably good group. To get your hands on the best loot dropped by bosses, though, you need to play through those same dungeons on the heroic difficulty setting, which makes all of the enemies tougher and is available only to players who have hit the new level-80 cap.
In addition to the heroic-difficulty dungeons, there are a handful of larger "raid" dungeons for groups of 10 and 25 players that are designed to cater to more experienced players. The challenge ramps up considerably in raid dungeons, and if that's still too easy for you, there are achievements you can unlock by, for example, defeating bosses in less than three minutes, with a small group, or without letting a single player die. Some of the achievements in Wrath of the Lich King come with tangible rewards such as titles and tabards, and a few of the most challenging ones earn you mounts that can't be obtained any other way. So if you're an elitist, don't worry, there are still plenty of opportunities for you to distinguish yourself from the crowd.
If you're more interested in player-versus-player encounters than in quests and dungeons, Wrath of the Lich King has you covered, too. There are a number of PVP-oriented quests scattered throughout the world for which you can earn experience, honor, and gold on a daily basis. There's also a new attack-and-defend battleground that incorporates siege weapons, and then there's the icing on the PVP cake: Wintergrasp. Large enough to support battles between hundreds of players simultaneously, Wintergrasp is a region that exists solely so that the Horde and Alliance can fight for control of a large fortress in a battle that rages for up to 40 minutes every three hours or so. The goal for the attackers is to knock down the walls of the fortress using siege weapons, get inside the keep, and activate a titan orb (read: large glowing ball) within the 40-minute time limit. The goal for the defending faction is to stop them. When enough players show up to make the battle worthwhile, it's arguably the most fun you can have in Wrath of the Lich King. Unlike traditional WOW battlegrounds, Wintergrasp is designed in such a way that even players who haven't reached level 80 yet can contribute, and if your faction is underrepresented on the battlefield, you'll automatically receive a buff that keeps things competitive.
Besides being a blast, there are plenty of incentives for participating in the battle for Wintergrasp. The faction that controls the fort gains exclusive access to rare-item vendors and to a small one-boss raid dungeon. Furthermore, while your faction controls Wintergrasp, every dungeon boss in the expansion will drop Stone Keeper's Shards, a form of currency that can be used to purchase powerful items, in addition to their regular loot. A similar feature was introduced in the Burning Crusade expansion, but the associated PVP goal wasn't as fun, the shards dropped in only a handful of dungeons, and the items that you could exchange the shards for weren't nearly as desirable.
Among the usual assortment of rare items, epic items, and exclusive PVP mounts that you can exchange your shards for, you'll find a number of items that look identical to armor and weapons that you might have used in 2004 but that are actually very different. These "heirloom" items are unique not only because they bind to your account rather than to an individual character, allowing them to passed around, but also because they can be used at any level and their stats scale appropriately. Heirlooms are a great idea for anyone who has a high-level character and is looking to start a new one, though it's unfortunate that they look so dated and generic alongside newer items.
In fact, the look of most of the non-epic armor pieces and weapons in Wrath of the Lich King is disappointing. If you've spent any amount of time acquiring good gear in Burning Crusade, then you're probably heading into Northrend wielding a wonderfully ornate weapon or two and dressed to kill. That gear will likely last you for a few levels, but inevitably you'll have opportunities to upgrade it as you progress. Is that sword made from two pieces of stone held together with string really more powerful than your blade that looks like it belongs in the hand of a god, though? Yes it is. Armor items in Northrend have a similarly improvised feel, and to make matters worse, it's entirely possible for you to upgrade them several times en route to level 80 without ever getting an item that looks different or that isn't the exact same model with slightly different coloring.
The armor and weapons are an acquired taste at best, but there's no disputing the fact that their design is very much in keeping with the rugged nature of Northrend itself. The continent's harsh environments are inhabited by half-giant warriors, woolly mammoths, and plenty of other creatures whose appearances suggest that they're well-equipped to survive there. A few of the models are recycled and showing their age, but as always, the quality of the animation breathes life into them and makes their rudimentary geometry easy to ignore. Northrend's environments are more epic and detailed than any that have appeared in World of Warcraft previously, but it's the believability of the behavior of the characters and creatures that makes them really come to life. For example, bears have always featured in World of Warcraft, and they don't look any different now than they did four years ago. Nevertheless, it's only in Wrath of the Lich King that they've learned to fish for salmon and to be protective of cubs. Similarly, herds of animals can be fascinating to watch; males will fight each other and are the first to respond to any threat from players, whereas females and their young will flee at the slightest hint of danger.
Adding significantly to the appeal of even Northrend's most foreboding environments is an original soundtrack that, when appropriate, is every bit as grand as the scenery. Having an orchestra play alongside a male voice choir in the background while you ride on a fire-breathing dragon high above the snow-capped mountains of Dragonblight feels truly epic, and the rustic Celtic-sounding fiddle track that plays in the less fantastical Grizzly Hills region as you round up horses or hunt for bears is equally appropriate and even more impressive.
If you're in a position to enjoy what Wrath of the Lich King has to offer, then let's be honest, you're probably doing so already. The expansion's launch was successful enough that players on high-population servers had to wait for hours at a time to log on, and the most common complaints were simply that some quests were difficult to complete because so many players were trying to do them simultaneously. The queues are mostly a thing of the past, and now that things have settled down Northrend is an absolute joy to explore. If you're not level 68 yet, we suggest you double your efforts and hop on a boat or a zeppelin there as soon as possible.