10 million gamers have immersed themselves in World of WarCraft, which has consumed almost the entire PC gaming audience since its release three-and-a-half years ago. Part video game, part sociological experiment, part alternative lifestyle and part pure crack, nothing before World of WarCraft has captured the imaginations of gamers on such a massive scale - and its hungry fans have been salivating for more since the release of the first expansion, World of WarCraft: The Burning Crusade, early last year. With the world waiting to see what Blizzard will do next, the curtains have been raised on several stunning aspects of the second expansion, World of WarCraft: Wrath of the Lich King.

We headed to the sprawling new Blizzard Entertainment campus in Alton, CA for a media hands-on day with the World of WarCraft: Wrath of the Lich King expansion, and the headlines came fast and furious as we took an airborne tour over Northrend in Blizzard's spiffy 40-seater theatre, accessed through its formidable museum, which is overstuffed with Game of the Year awards.

Building a Better World of WarCraft

If there was a consistent theme to the day, it was that the Blizzard developers have learned from their mistakes - and their successes. Jeffrey Kaplan, lead game designer of World of WarCraft: Wrath of the Lich King, walked us through an airborne tour of Northrend.

We arrived in Vengeance Landing, the Horde starting point in Howling Fjord, one of two entry zones to Northrend. A boat path connects this area to the Borean Tundra, the other starting zone. Two entry points gives World of WarCraft: Wrath of the Lich King players plenty of options and variety. Capital cities in Azeroth will connect to different landing points in Northrend.

We took a pass over the Ice Caverns, a level 70 five-man dungeon that's part of a cluster of instances. This run will include four bosses and, like all of the World of WarCraft: Wrath of the Lich King dungeons, is designed to be completed in about an hour. Kaplan explained that Blizzard is very pleased with the success of the heroic mode system introduced in Burning Crusade, and so all of the dungeons will have these harder variations. And not only will they be expanding the Badge of Justice system, but now all heroic dungeons' loot will be itemised as its own tier.

We continued our tour over scenic Northrend, finding old friends wherever we turned. There's the Grizzly Hills, a redwood forest-type zone where the Venture Company have begun deforestation. There's the Scarlet Onslaught, the next iteration of the Scarlet Crusade, fresh out of its famous monastery. There's Sholazar Basin, the sister zone to Un'Goro Crater, with gigantic pylons sporting power crystals. These were apparently built by the Titans, the unseen catalysts of World of WarCraft lore, whose storyline will be expanded in World of WarCraft: Wrath of the Lich King. And more old friends will be returning: the furbolg and murlocs all gain expanded storylines, including the return of worgen patriarch Arugal and a new village with a furry secret.

You'll also meet the Ice Trolls and their mysterious city of Zul'drak, and discover what dark secret these new trolls are hiding that has enabled them to fight back the Scourge. The Ice Trolls are a major part of World of WarCraft: Wrath of the Lich King's storyline. You'll find out where the trolls' bat and raptor mounts come from, fight a gigantic T-Rex boss and fight your way through an entire zone designed around the majestic peak of Gun'drak. Let's just hope Blizzard figures out a way for players to slip and slide through their massive aqueduct.

It's nice to see all of these familiar characters that we left behind for the Outlands, but you can't mistake this for classic World of WarCraft; all the inhabitants of Northrend are being corrupted by the evil of Arthas' Scourge. Hovering Necropolises over the lands are an ever-present reminder of their threat. And there are plenty of other new elements in World of WarCraft: Wrath of the Lich King.

Rise of the Death Knight

The much-ballyhooed Death Knight is the first heroic class in World of WarCraft. A player is able to unlock one Death Knight slot on each server where they have at least a level-55 toon. The Death Knight can be any race and starts at level 55 with a series of quests that explain the Death Knight's storyline and introduce you to his powers. The Death Knight seems designed to zip up to level 70, thanks to stronger starting capabilities and free basic and epic Deathcharger mounts.

The Death Knight, designed as a tanking or DPS class most effective against spellcasters, uses a rune system as their resource mechanic. The player customises which six runes they have available from Unholy, Frost and Blood types. These runes allow them to use special abilities and they replenish over a period of time, like a rogue's energy bar. Spent runes also generate runic power, which works like a warrior's rage, and allow them to cast spells like the trapping Chains of Ice or Plague Strike, which inflicts disease upon their enemy. They can also execute combination attacks based on how many disease buffs they've inflicted. Grip of Death is a sort of tractor-beam spell that yanks the DK's enemy toward him as a method of pulling. The Death Knight also can choose between Unholy, Frost or Blood presences, which grant buffs to specific roles in combat, such as a warrior's stances.

The most exciting aspect of the Death Knight, however, is his ability to raise a ghoul guardian from nearby corpses to fight by his side. The big news here is that he can also raise ghouls from friendly bodies, and the player of his party member will be able to control the risen ghoul and use all of their abilities.

Smaller groups

As our aerial tour of Azeroth continued, we found the floating necropolis of Naxxramas, the legendary final frontier of the original, pre-expansion WarCraft world. Naxx, widely considered to be one of Blizzard's coolest dungeons, was elite for most players to reach, so the developers wisely decided to move it to Northrend and repurpose it as the level-80 starter raiding dungeon. It was here where the day's biggest news was delivered: all raiding dungeons in World of WarCraft: Wrath of the Lich King will support 10- or 25-man parties.

Every high-end dungeon will be tuned for either size, and players will be able to participate in both types of runs each week without locking out the other. And 25-man raiding will not be dependent on 10-man achievements; there won't be any attunement or keys necessary to get into the big raids. But the 25-man dungeons will have their own distinct loot tables, itemised one tier higher than their 10-man counterparts. This loot will use the same texture art with a colour shift, and, similar to current PVP gear, set bonuses will be granted across both versions.

This is huge news for smaller guilds that don't want the drama and politicking of the 25-man raids, because any 10 like minded folks will be able to advance all the way to Arthas at the endgame.

Take shotgun

New 'vehicle tech', developed for World of WarCraft: Wrath of the Lich King's new siege weapons, promises to create a bevy of new opportunities for gameplay mechanics. We watched as a player hopped on the back of an NPC's horse and stunned assaulting Scourge enemies by dropping explosives while the NPC guided them to safety. Blizzard listened to the feedback of fans who enjoyed the bombing runs in World of WarCraft: The Burning Crusade, and we can expect more vehicle-based missions, including aerial combat.

After we completed our tour of Northrend, we were given some hands-on time with the game. We trolled around Howling Fjord, infiltrating the downtrodden Wyrmskull Village as it was being pilfered by Dragonflayer Vyrkul. We took my trusty frost mage (a pre-built character with mediocre level-70 blue gear) into the Utgarde catacombs, an open-world dungeon beneath the Utgarde Keep instance, and found a battle ring where we faced three opponents to reclaim a tablet. Then we headed back up, freed some imprisoned enemies of the Vyrkul, and found a diving quest that wasn't too hard once we equipped a helm with a breathing tube. We headed back to Valgarde, the nearby town, to turn quests in, and decided it was time to explore further. We ascended a cliff wall to reach the higher level of the zone.

World of WarCraft: Wrath of the Lich King: Specs

  • Internet connection and a time-travel machine (World of WarCraft: Wrath of the Lich King is yet to be released)
  • Internet connection and a time-travel machine (World of WarCraft: Wrath of the Lich King is yet to be released)

OUR VERDICT

We left the hallowed halls of Blizzard salivating, but take comfort in the fact that progress is being made. How much? How far? Rumour has it that friends and family are already in pre-beta testing; word on the street is that the game is in a solid alpha, but the company line is that World of WarCraft: Wrath of the Lich King will be ready when it's ready.

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