Expansion packs for the massive, and massively popular, “World of Warcraft” are an epic event in the videogame world. “Wrath of the Lich King” offers the game’s 11 million-plus players more of what they love, with new areas, quests and character types focused on frigid northern climes, all highly polished and designed to compel. But “Lich King” particularly stands out for the ways it welcomes less experienced players into the fold by making the best experiences easier for them to access immediately. The game has already sold more than 2.8 million units and will likely sell more as it welcomes even more players into “Warcraft’s” addictive embrace.
It’s been less than five years since “World of Warcraft” revolutionized the game business by turning the formerly niche genre of massively multiplayer online gaming, in which players form groups, socialize and go on quests in a persistent virtual fantasy world, into one with mass appeal. Since then, it has not only garnered a record number of paying subscribers around the world, but also has become one of the most financially successful entertainment products ever, leading to a recent merger of with Activision that valued its former parent company at more than $8 billion based almost entirely on Blizzard’s success.
“Lich King’s” story picks up a plot left dangling by 2002’s “Warcraft III” in which young prince Arthas, obsessed with defeating an undead villain, falls prey to ambition and becomes the Lich King, a towering villain pitched somewhere between Darth Vader and Sauron. Blizzard ably reworks genre tropes here, peppering the plot with pop culture references while injecting it with just enough new life to make the proceedings nicely balance the fresh and familiar.
Riffing on Arthas’ conversion to evil, the game gives the player a new character class called Death Knight who starts his or her afterlife in the service of the dark lord. The Death Knight’s versatility as a damage dealer, armored bruiser, magic user and necromancer will make it quite popular, especially to veteran players who have tried and tired of all the other classes. Their most attractive trait, however, is that they start their lives at level 55 (out of possible 80), letting experienced players skip over old content they probably don’t care to revisit.
Though it’s geographically larger than 2007’s “Burning Crusade,” the first “World of Warcraft” expansion, “Lich King” doesn’t feel quite as varied; its limited by the continent’s snowbound theme. It largely overcomes this shortcoming through sheer grandeur, however. Areas feel more sprawling and quests frequently allow players to take to the air atop dragons, airships and player-controlled fighter planes. The landscape appears more organic than in the past and new graphical flourishes like real-time shadows add emotional resonance, such as the imposing darkness that covers the player when a dangerous dragon soars overhead.
In the game’s early days, most “World of Warcraft” players experienced major plot points from the periphery only, toiling in obscurity while hardcore devotees earned the glory, witnessed the coolest content and reaped the greatest rewards. “Wrath of the Lich King” continues a recent trend away from that elitism, letting the average punter cross paths with the story’s major players and writing them into several run-ins with Arthas himself as they explore Northrend. Many early quests are story-driven set pieces that unfold in grand settings rather than mundane dungeon crawls. Many are consumable in pairs, rather than organized groups of five or 10, making them more accessible to players who haven’t yet joined organized guilds.
The hardcore, however, are still amply served. An entire new zone, Wintergrasp, is dedicated to massive player-vs.-player battles involving new siege weapons like catapults, steampunk tanks and player-piloted flying machines. Endgame dungeons like the floating necropolis of Naxxramas challenge 10- and 25-player teams with intricate, drawn-out boss battles. Perhaps inevitably, however, even these toughest challenges were conquered in just a few days by “Warcraft’s” most extreme players, leaving them already hungry for the game’s next expansion.