A basic rule of thumb you'll need as you explore the Land of the Dead, the Egyptian-esque new area due to expand the world of Warhammer Online later this year: if it's big, you can bet it's going to take a pop at you sooner or later. Whether it's a giant, apparently long-dead skeleton, a mighty obelisk with a strangely glowing light at the top or a skyscraper-sized statue of an evil pharaoh, it has little interest in simply being architecture. The Land of the Dead aims to impress, and few things achieve that more successfully than giant stuff coming unexpectedly to life and clobbering you.
It's part of a clear attempt on developer Mythic's part to paper over one of WAR's more glaring cracks: a lack of sense of adventure. WAR in its current state is a grand old time of crazy fighting, but everything's so compartmentalised; you flit between fairly small conflicts that seem to take place in something of a vacuum. Much as the endless bloodshed is thrilling, there's not all that much discovery or surprise to be had. Additionally, the much-adored Realm-versus-Realm combat, the well-intentioned Public Quest system and the general player-versus-environment quests never quite tie together. While there's crossover in terms of rewards, it's almost like several games existing alongside each other rather than one giant romp.
In Land of the Dead, however, PVE, RVR and PQs are interconnected. Ownership of the zone - as dictated by RvR conflict, which is activated and open across the entirety of the new area - grants access to most of its goodies, including dungeons and public quests. So there's a very real reason to snatch the area back from your foes, outside of the willy-waving, point-grinding and vague, unlikely dream of city invasion that the game as a whole offers.
Inside the Land of the Dead are a series of linked PQs and mini-dungeons, which in turn open up a giganto-dungeon, The Tomb of The Vulture Lord. His Tomb is chock-full of goodies, baddies and adventures, and essentially everyone roaming the rest of the Land of the Dead will want into it. This is reasonably straightforward for the realm currently in control of the zone, as upon death they respawn in their faction camp in the south of the map. Anyone from the non-controlling realm, however, will find their resurrection happens miles away, back in their capital city. This is why even devoutly PVE-only players will have a vested interest in their entire faction doing well, and it will hopefully lure them into more engagement with the open-world RVR in general.
Land of the Dead, you see, also introduces a new meta-element: resources. These are generated by Tier 4 RVR hi-jinks throughout the game - capping zones, killing enemy players and the like - so the faction that's doing best generally wins full access to the Land of the Dead and the benefit of that respawn point. To prevent the winning side immediately losing such prizes, resource gathering freezes for a half-hour after one realm comes up trumps.
So, while Land of the Dead is, in theory, just a bit on the side rather than an extension to WAR's endgame, quite clearly it's where the vast majority of the playerbase will converge. You can enter it from level 25, but don't realistically expect to get very far unless you're a reasonably well-kitted level 40. In a lot of ways, it's a reward for all those long hours you've put in to date - ad that includes visual reward.
Land of the Dead is comfortably WAR's most gorgeous and distinctive zone, and a massive leap forward from the drabness of some of the older areas. The architecture is a towering mix of splendour and ruin, the enemies (a new faction known as the Tomb Kings) are an ornate collective of skeletons and variations upon the animal-headed Egyptian gods, and the bosses are weird and sinister. Sadly, the non-combative NPCs seem to retain WAR's characteristic static lifelessness, so there'll still be no believing that this is a living breathing world - but, all told, the update will certainly be a dramatic boost to the game's visual character.
Approaching the Tomb of the Vulture King from the desert is easily the most impressive sight in the entire game: sand swirls in front of you, eventually parting to reveal a giant pyramid, looming unnervingly. Again - this is an expansion that turns WAR into an adventure. It's Indiana Jones with orcs. This extends to the challenges and well as the aesthetics - in some of the new mini-dungeons (lairs, as they're known), you'll find yourself jumping between ruined pillars to progress, side-stepping blades that pop from the walls, or dodging giant laser beams fired from on high. A Public Quest sees you teleported inside a series of history books (kind of like that rubbish Macaulay Culkin Pagemaster film), temporarily replacing the endless desert with murky Skaven lairs or lush fields, and only restoring you to the real world once you find and retrieve the lost book. A book within a book? Best not to question how, really.
Obviously, the meat of the game is very much still pressing the same number keys time and time again, but now there's a refreshing spot of Tomb Raider-lite in there too. The Land of the Dead brings unexpected but very welcome variety to a game that is, let's face it, otherwise pretty much about one thing - the bloody conquest of your foes. If these are the kind of lengths Mythic is prepared to go to for a free update, the first full-on paid expansion, whenever that might be, could be a right old barnstormer. It had damn well better have playable Skaven, though.
The Land of the Dead update to Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning is scheduled to go live in June.