Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
I was in somewhat of a pickle when Wrath of the Lich King, the second expansion to World of Warcraft, came out. A proud geek, I needed to play it as soon as possible. Unfortunately, I was working on a post-doc in France, where retailers only sell expansions for the European version of the game. My parents bought the game, e-mailed me the CD key so I could upgrade my account, and then sent the actual disks by snail mail. The package could take a month to arrive, and I couldn’t stand the wait, so I started looking for an online copy, figuring it wasn’t pirating if I bought the game. Luckily, I found a premature link Blizzard had accidentally posted to download a digital version of the game from their site. A dozen hours of download later, I was up and running.
As in the previous expansion, Wrath of the Lich King uses a well established character as the bad guy. It introduces to the only community Northrend, a land ruled with an iron fist by Arthas, whose army of undead minions, the Scourge, is poised to attack the rest of Azeroth. The story of how Arthas became the titular Lich King is told in Warcraft III. However, for those who haven’t played the latter game, the character is re-established through frequent interactions as you level up in Northrend, and his arrogance really builds up your desire to kill him.
A new element is added to player versus player: the world battleground known as Wintergrasp. Previously, players had to queued up to join a battleground. Wintergrasp battles occur roughly every two hours in a zone everybody on the server can join. As long as you meet the level requirements, you can participate in an epic siege for the Wintergrasp fortress. The winner gets access to a short raid dungeon, a good opportunity for extra loot.
Unfortunate changes have been made to the arenas in Wrath of the Lich King. Previously, an arena match was like a game of chess between teams of two, three, or five players. It had moves and countermoves, and players had to rely on healing and perfectly coordinated attacks. All of this has gone out the window. Now, arena matches are all about burst damage. Whoever can inflict the most hurt the fastest wins. That seems to be the theme of this expansion: make everything easier for the casual player.
Consider the new dungeons added for players between levels seventy and eighty. Although their lore and visual design are great, they all suffer from a fatal flaw: they’re much too easy. These dungeons are a snooze even in heroic mode, when they’re supposed to require skill, teamwork, good equipment, and a little luck. My friends and I were able to complete every heroic dungeon as soon as we reached level eighty, with horrible gear and no prior knowledge of the encounters. Once our characters got better gear, the dungeons stopped providing any challenge or entertainment.
Raiding in Wrath of the Lich King is akin to a roller coaster ride, not because it’s full of thrills but because it’s so uneven throughout the game. Each raid requires either ten or twenty-five players. I have mixed feeling about this. Smaller raids are easier to organise, so you spend less time figuring out the logistics and more time playing. However, in terms of the lore, small raids feel underwhelming. The Lich King is built up at a great menace. He’s killed many legendary heroes. Sending only ten adventurers against him seems off.
The raid dungeon available at launch, Naxxaramas (or Naxx), is a recycled level sixty dungeon from the original World or Warcraft. The first Naxx was intensely challenging. This revamped version is so easy we got bored after about a month: no hard bosses to bang our heads against, no need to develop a strategy, no opportunity to push ourselves to the limit. Incidentally, the name “Naxx” refers to a flying fortress from which one of the Lich King’s most dangerous servants, Kel’thuzad, attempts to invade of Azeroth. This is why, of course, it’s floating above Northrend, a continent already controlled by the Scourge!
On the other hand, Ulduar, which was released six months later, represents the pinnacle of the raiding experience in World of Warcraft. You really get a sense of progression as you fight your way in, then delve deeper and deeper until you reach the Maw of Madness, where an epic battle with an Old God awaits you. The artwork is magnificent. Also, boss fights are varied and feature many new mechanics. This includes hard mode encounters, which allow players to make the fight extra hard for extra loot. The way you initiate hard mode differs with every boss, adding to the originality and uniqueness of each encounter.
The next raid dungeon, the Coliseum, is probably the worst ever conceived. Instead of sending every able-bodied man to fight the biggest threat it’s ever known, Azeroth decides to test its warriors and weed out the weak by killing them in a gladiator arena. There is no sense of progression. Standing in one spot, slaying different bosses coming at you, is mind-numbing. Even access to hard mode is made less exciting. You click on the option before beginning the raid. Whoopee.
The final raid dungeon, Icecrown Citadel, is the home of the Lich King. As in Ulduar, the developers have tried to give a sense of progression as you creep deeper and deeper into the citadel, but the walls are covered in ice, so everything looks the same. Access to hard mode is once again changed, this time prompting the option before each boss. Later, Blizzard would claim players were confused about hard mode. I wonder why. Still, although the dungeon has its weak points, finally killing the Lich King after all this build-up is incredibly rewarding.
The biggest blow to the World of Warcraft community is the introduction of the dungeon finder. The new feature allows you to queue up for a dungeon and matches you with people from different servers. This brings anonymity back to the game, grouping players with people they will probably never see again and freeing them to act like jackasses again. In addition, it reduces interaction with gamers from your own server.
The full impact of the dungeon finder is felt more in the next expansion, Cataclysm, but the strongest part of World of Warcraft, the community, took a huge hit in Wrath of the Lich King. There’s no server wide event. It makes no difference whether players participate in the various quests, even the weird Coliseum bouts. I guess the quest givers were hoping that the Lich King would look out of Icecrown Citadel, see players joust the Scourge with their little wooden spears, and die of laughter.