World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King Reader Review
It's probably a bit early to stick the knife in totally with Wrath of the Lich King, I mean, it's not exactly dead yet. There is still one more raid instance to come, and of course a few months still to go before Cataclysm arrives and the mass yiffing of Worgen begins. But as an addict to the world of Azeroth, it's time for me to do what I do best - kick it whilst it's down.
Reviewing - or rather, looking back - at WotLK is a mixed bag of brief highs and sadly, some rather catastrophic lows as well. Which isn't to say it's been a waste of my time, on the contrary I personally think an MMO is the perfect thing if you're like me and can burn through the latest releases in a few days. It's just that compared to Vanilla and indeed, The Burning Crusade, WotLK hasn't been the shining star that perhaps Blizzard hoped we'd look back at it as.
I think the best place to start is at the beginning of the expansion, and the levelling from seventy to eighty, no small feat. Unless, of course, you were cheating. And cheat people did, finding some amazing bugs. Within hours of going live on day one, you started to see server first achievements as people exploited and abused their way to an easy victory, and were subsequently punished. Many hard-working people were left powerless to obtain this feats of strength, which soured it for many. Server First achievements may indeed have seemed a good idea in theory, but in practice it was a complete disaster and people were annoyed and saddened that they would lose out by playing the game as intended.
At 80, heroics began and the instances were slightly smaller, faster but filled with achievements and challenges that would bring a smile to any gamers face. Some achievements would be easy, some would prove to flummox even the most ardent of player (hello Less-Rabi, and goodbye). This intoxicating blend of tasks to perform, making encounters much more challenging, would amply reward players with a flying mount - sadly, these days, it's just not a challenge any more with the gear on offer. But more on that story later.
The first raid encounter most of us would undertake was Naxxramas - which proved something of a disappointment for those of us who did this back in Vanilla. Rather than prove a challenge to most, Naxxramas seemed heavily dumbed down and basic - encounters made more forgiving to try and hook people into the raiding, but at the same time alienating old-time raiders from previous years by being barely more challenging than any heroic instance. All you needed was ten or twenty-five players, and guilds have rarely had issues pulling that off. The achievements were nice, and more doable as raid gear flooded in, but never really proving to be as dramatic a challenge as Blizzard had promised.
The same could be said of The Obsidian Sanctum and indeed, The Eye of Eternity - the latter a lore-shattering blow to the accepted canon, as the Guardian of Magic fell to the might of a ragtag group of adventurers. You could make it harder, but the base encounter was rarely a challenge beyond players in even the most basic of gear. It was a muted and disappointing start to the new expansion, and one that Blizzard were quick to move on from.
The next main content patch brought in Ulduar, a raid set in a Titans stronghold. What initially seems like a stronghold quickly transpires into a prison, and one that could not hope to hold the evil contained within. Yogg-Saron, an Old God - a parasitic being tied to the planets life force - was using his tremendous powers of telepathy to seduce, corrupt and control those who were meant to keep him imprisoned, in a place both ancient in feel but with a very science-fiction, forward-looking edge. Ulduar, be in no mistake, was a triumph of raid design. It was suitably huge for the gigantic titans, with some of the most interesting boss designs (and one of the worse, I'm sorry but Ignis' painfully-placed pot of molten iron was like a bad YMCA reference) and indeed, some of the more challenging achievements. Progressing through, the keepers themselves had secluded themselves in their own themed wings - and the breathtaking transportation to Mimiron only went to show that sometimes, releasing the reins on the established canon and going a bit mental can create some of the most breathtaking experiences. It does, however, cause a bit of a problem though with the established lore - in the process, you discover that Azeroth cannot live without the Old Gods, that their parasitic tendrils are set too deep that if removed, the world as we know it would end. And yet, kill Yogg-Saron you must. It is, however, one of the most amazing boss encounters I've experienced in any MMO - just the right blend of challenge, risk, attention and glimpses of what has happened, what is happening and indeed, what will come to pass. To cap it off, you can also provoke the ire of another Titan failsafe - Alganon the Watcher, who has judged that the races of Azeroth have deviated too far from the Titans blueprints and the world must be hard-reset back to a previous incarnation. Huge, lore-breaking challenges that will come back to haunt Blizzard's writing department I am sure - but encounters that will be long remembered as the high point of this expansions two years of play.
This was also the moment they seeded in something for the next content patch - The Argent Tournament. The Argent Dawn are noted for their righteous defence and almost zealous drive to exterminate the Scourge from the world. Their aim - Arthas, the current incarnation of the Lich King. To find a force worthy of facing this threat a Colosseum, a proving ground, began to take shape...
Third content patch. The Tournament arrives, and the Colosseum is finished. To test the heroes of the world, two instances arrived. One, a battlefield proving yourself against the finest of the Argent Crusade - with one rude interruption, of course. The other - a no-holds barred raid, pitting our heroes against the most horrific creatures the Argent Crusade and the native Taunka could get their hands on in Northrend, as well as much showboating between the Alliance and Horde as King Varian Wrynn and the Warchief-in-training, Garrosh Hellscream, could not contain their dislike for each other. It is in this that the scene is set for Cataclysm, as two leaders cannot forgive or settle their differences for the common cause. Aside from a revamp of Onyxia's Lair, The Trial of the Champion is perhaps the most basic raid environment yet. It is one circular colosseum, with one entry hatch for the beasts to be let loose in. Many felt cheated that after waiting so long, this was the best that Blizzard could come up with - and whilst challenging on heroic mode, so many found the basic modes to be a little too easy after the trails endured in Ulduar. Beating this on heroic mode barely two weeks in is where I set the game down for a while, realising - as so many of us did - that this content patch was doomed to be a bit of a let-down, that it was perhaps time to take a breather and come back when it was time to go after the big prize - Arthas, the Lich King.
So go back I did, and sure enough, Icecrown Citadel provided a worthy challenge. It is a large and deeply disturbing environment, but it's very much traditional and by-the-book; there isn't quite the wow-factor that Ulduar inspired in so many players. The bosses themselves, however, are quite another matter. From the huge skeletal Lord Marrowgar, made from the skeletons of dozens of fallen heroes and champions, to the annoyingly brash and loud Lady Deathwhisper through to the emotive Deathbringer's Rise fight, and the light comedy relief of Rotface and Festergut and their two "puppies" Precious and Stinky, Icecrown was certainly not short of entertainment. And yet, for all of this and the forced pacing to ensure no longer could a raid be truly finished on the first day, it felt like too many ideas had been stuck in. The comedy seemed a little out of place in what is, ostensibly, the last bastion of the Scourge - a legion of soulless, relentless undead dead-set (groan) on wiping all life from Azeroth. Some encounters are truly inspiring, such as The Green Dragon, and yet countered soon after by a boss that recycles much from bosses we killed in Naxxramas, and to Arthas himself - an encounter which, after the pain suffered to reach him, on normal mode isn't really the final showdown you'd expect and hope for. It's a mixed bag, and the three new instances put in place make sure if you've been out of the game for any length of time, within a week you'll be battle-ready for the raid.
It's not nice to say Wrath of the Lich King was a total waste of an expansion. Northrend is servicable, though perhaps not quite as inspiring as Outland was. Much of the lore has been rewritten, abused or plain ignored to try and make things work in the current context of the game. And indeed, Death Knights - the "hero" class of the expansion - have been a mixed bag of ups and downs, of one minute being overpowered, then underpowered, then back to overpowered.
Which is more or less a fitting epitaph for this expansion. "It had it's good points, but was mostly a bit of a let-down." The Ruby Sanctum - still to come, a precursor to the events of Cataclysm to provoke Dragon Queen Alexstrasza's ire, looks set to at least end the expansion on a positive note. But it's been a mixed bag of some nice ideas, but the only time things got good is when they ignored the current theme and let their imaginations run riot with Ulduar, a raid instance that will live on long after Northrend is abandoned and empty. The limited nature of the fight against the Scourge, and the mounting tensions between Garrosh and King Wrynn, have just kept it ticking over.
Wrath of the Lich King is, however, another wildly successful expansion because, as ever, it's always the most polished. That is what makes World of Warcraft such a success - and what very few new MMO's ever get the chance to do. This has taken time, of course, from the early days when WoW was just like any other MMO - nice, but shonky in places. But with such limitless supplies of revenue from subscriptions and a playerbase hungry for the next juicy item, be it a raid epic or a sparkling My Little Pony mount, WotLK couldn't fail in that regard. What it did fail on is keeping things fresh, exciting and vibrant for the raiders. Arena was scaled back completely, and the PvP content was hampered with items being too readily available to players, so this too was hampered by being underplayed, whilst players not interested suffered as Blizzard struggled to balance that with the raiders, who needed just enough to achieve their goals.
Blizzard said that Wrath of the Lich King was going to be about a years worth of content, but stretched over two years, it's probably easier to pick holes. Had it been a years worth of content, briskly turned out, it would have been harder to find faults. But stretch anything too far and it is inevitable the fabric will tear, and in Wrath of the Lich King, the seams are worn and the playerbase is looking for a new set of clothes to play with. It has, unlike Burning Crusade, outstayed its welcome and we just want it to leave before our new friend arrives and gives us, arguably, what we want - a change, more variety and a lot more drama.
Roll on Cataclysm. You cannot come soon enough.