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Review: World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King

February 17, 2009


At this point in the game’s lifespan, a betting man would be wise to wager that you the gamer have played, or at least trialed, World of Warcraft. It’s also safe to assume that even if you’ve avoided the cyberscapes of Azeroth, you know at least one person suckling the Warcraft teat. Blizzard’s flagship title with its 11.5 million players is a testament to the staying power of this particular MMO, and the new expansion, Wrath of the Lich King, is an all-out effort on Blizzard’s part to keep it at the top.

“But Aaron,” some may inevitably ask, “why would I play the same game after it’s already been stomping on its competitors for the past four years? It’s not going to change that much.” That’s a reasonable question, for sure. They may also assume World of Warcraft is like any other MMO, with a never-ending series of expansion packs aimed primarily at the hardcore, top-tier players with enough time on their hands to complete the numerous, escalating challenges presented. This was what happened with the previous expansion, The Burning Crusade. Fortunately, Wrath is more new than it is old, and while being true to the golden formula of  [1 engaging quest system + rapid combat * (mountains of loot)²] that Blizzard created with vanilla WoW and BC before it, the bottom line is, simply, Wrath is the most fun I’ve had playing an MMO in many, many years.

Current subscribers to the world of Azeroth fall into two separate categories outside of the typical labels of hardcore, roleplayer or casual (the mileage of each definition varies with the individual, of course). Specifically, if you’re a hardcore player, you still either care a lot about the Warcraft mythology and how the MMO advances the storyline from the original RTSes, or you would rather ditch the writing and focus on what loot can be obtained through the massively multiplayer experience. Both mindsets have room to coexist within the game, but consider which team you’d want to bat for before going into the new content, as your outlook truly matters and can maximize or minimize the integrity of the entire expansion. When I say Wrath is fun, I’m saying that it hits upon what I feel is missing from most MMOs: a well-written storyline finely chiseled through a series of enjoyable quests.

The Discovery Channel-esque views of Grizzly Hills

The Discovery Channel-esque views of Grizzly Hills

Wrath of the Lich King rewards Warcraft story devotees while simultaneously providing a more solid, tuned and enjoyable MMO experience. What isn’t there to like about the new system in place? Leveling to the new cap of 80 is, first and foremost, easy. Yes, it is, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. While the short skip and hop to the new level cap takes away a certain feeling of accomplishment that was obtained when you first hit level 60 and later 70, Wrath isn’t trying to keep its player base tied-up in leveling woes for three months. Sure, it was easy for some day-one douches to literally hit 80 at launch, but the overall effect of letting the less-devoted players see new content so soon was a great idea on Blizzard’s part.

You’ll level up a main character, which can be done almost entirely solo even if you aren’t an independent class like a hunter, hybrid-healer or caster, and then immediately get to work preparing for heroic difficulty dungeons, epic raids, new player versus player battlegrounds or leveling your poor, neglected alternate characters. At times this expansion can be overwhelming because of the amount of freedom you have, whereas before you would almost feel chained to one character for the next 10 levels of content. The additions to talents and spellbooks are, as always, debatable and constantly changing. Class balance is a dynamic beast, and one that I won’t go into. At the very least, I enjoyed my Shaman’s new skills on the speedy road to 80.

Unfortunately, "Penguin Party" isn't an achievement

Unfortunately, "Penguin Party" isn't an achievement

But just because leveling from 70 to 80 (and even levels 1 to 70 due to lowered experience requirements) is fast doesn’t automatically mean it’s wonderful. No, the true joy of leveling in Wrath comes from the highly entertaining quests and the perfectly executed cinematic elements Blizzard found a way to implement into a cartoony, four-year-old game. This is where your interest in Warcraft’s history becomes very important.

As the title might suggest, Wrath of the Lich King ratchets up the presence of one Arthas Menethil, otherwise known as the Lich King to the unaware (I sincerely hope that wasn’t a spolier for someone), who was once a noble human paladin as well as a prince. Anyone who played through Warcraft III and its expansion, The Frozen Throne, saw the downfall of Arthas at the hands of both his insatiable rage and the sword called Frostmourne. For the last five years (when Frozen Throne was released), those eager to learn what really happened after Arthas assumed the title and throne of the Lich King have waited for Blizzard to throw out some scraps. Bits and pieces of his existence were sprinkled around in the original WoW and BC, but until this expansion nothing has come close to the surprisingly intimate and frequent encounters with Wrath’s titular character. Outside of Death Knights, being the former BFFs of Arthas, the familiar classes of WoW see a lot of the Lich King. Hopefully you like the guy, or as much as you can like a mass-murdering, patricidal, undead maniac.

Truly though, the storylines and quests involving Arthas are some of the best ever crafted for the WoW universe. The writing has been much more focused, clear and logical. Players are taken to events that correlate back to the Warcraft strategy games, which is a treat for longtime fans. You get to see Arthas and his dwarven pal Muradin find Frostmourne and witness the prince’s downfall, in-game, and not with a limited viewpoint like in Warcraft III. For non-lore nerds this will mean little, but like I said before if you care about the stories and the mythology, you begin to realize that Wrath is more of a fan service expansion than anything else the company has done in recent years. So far, Arthas has shown up in most of the eight quest zones (Wintergrasp, the outdoor PvP section, doesn’t count). The in-game cutscenes with Arthas are fully voice-acted and incredibly cinematic. His raspy, deathly cold voice adds a lot to the experience. For the first time I felt like I was participating in a piece of the Warcraft universe, witnessing some integral event unfolding before my character. For example: You get to touch the Lich King’s former heart, his last aspect of humanity, which is floating hundreds of feet beneath his Icecrown Citadel. Classic.

Frostmourne hungers...

Frostmourne hungers...

Obviously I’ve gushed the most over Wrath’s superb execution of the typically weak story development seen in older World of Warcraft efforts. Outside of story, it has to be mentioned that the art and audio direction in this game almost make me wish I had purchased the Collector’s Edition. Blizzard’s portfolio has, for me, been a source of many childhood drawings, tracings and other artistic musings. I remember when I brought the Diablo instruction booklet to school with me multiple times, reading the background of the world and characters over and over whenever I had the chance. So it means a lot to me when I say that the art in this game is the best they’ve ever done. The soundtrack is equally fantastic, and I have not once turned the music off while playing the game, even months after release.

A random dancing pirate!

A random dancing pirate!

It’s actually humorous to think of doing a review, especially this far into the post-release period, of an MMO’s expansion. Regardless of the game, committed players are going to purchase the new content because it’s practically required to do anything of merit. But this review isn’t to persuade those who haven’t made the plunge. Instead, it’s written to highlight what has been an evolution in the MMO spectrum. Say what you will about WoW addictions, time wasting and so on, but I’m hard-pressed to find any true flaws in Wrath. A gaming experience, when done correctly as it is here, is important regardless of genre. Yet, you either like MMOs or you don’t — that’s really what it boils down to. But for me, playing through a new chapter in the Warcraft story has been worth the time and monetary investment, and I’m sure some of those 11.5 million players feel the same way.

Recommended for

  • MMO players feeling dismayed by thinly sliced storylines seen in other games and previous World of Warcraft titles; a redemption of immersive storylines.
  • Tastes that lean toward the appreciation of the Warcraft lore and its continuation.
  • Gamers interested in seeing what an MMO can do “right.”

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