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.