Flying out to Blizzard's California headquarters this week to see the second World of Warcraft expansion, we felt neither apprehension nor any great excitement. After the reinvention and reinvigoration that was first expansion The Burning Crusade, Wrath of the Lich King seemed a more workmanlike sequel: ten more levels, a new continent, a new profession, a new class, a new battleground, all as expected, little of it pulse-raising. Fine; Blizzard had earned the trust that it would get it right, and the right to stop driving itself so hard.
We should know better. A lot more detail and a little more time on Lich King remind us that laurels - and Lord knows there must be a mountain of them stored somewhere in this clean white campus - don't get rested on at Blizzard. A stunningly brave revamp of raiding is the big surprise; every raid dungeon in the expansion will be playable with either 10 or 25 players, opening the full sweep of the game to far more people.
Then there is the new vehicle combat technology. And the fact that the Death Knight, the new hero class, will grant a 55-level head start on any server. And a raid encounter which changes over time.
And the deft handling of its grand narrative (the war against the Scourge and its Lich King, the former hero Arthas). And the further leap in the quality, variety, detail, and entertainment value of the quest design. And the seamless blend of dramatic high adventure with the lyrical and humorous tone of the early levels of the original game. And the sheer, electrifying beauty and scale of it all.
Scale is the first thing that hits you. Northrend is considerably larger than The Burning Crusade's Outland, and is composed of nine immense zones. Dragonblight, situated between the two starting areas - Borean Tundra in the west and Howling Fjord in the east - is the largest zone the WOW team has ever built.
Don't expect the desolate expanses of the bigger areas of the original game, though. Setting off on a cross-continental hike, we discover a far richer variety within single zones than you can find anywhere in the existing game. A greater sense of spectacle and a more evocative sense of place, too, which is no mean feat. Blizzard's world-builders remain in a class of their own.
Howling Fjord, familiar from last year's BlizzCon unveiling, is a wooded plateau above towering cliffs, peopled by angry ten-foot Vikings (the Vrykul). It's connected by boat to Borean Tundra, a vast, otherworldly wilderness with rolling dunes and a haunted shoreline plunged into an eerie, grey, flickering half-light. Here, we help out the Tuskar walrus-men and join D.E.H.T.A. - Druids for the Ethical and Humane Treatment of Animals - in their campaign against the rapacious dwarf hunter Hemet Nesingwary, eventually riding a mammoth into battle and deploying its devastating charge, trample and bellow attacks.
This is also where you'll find The Nexus, a new instance with level 70, level 80 and raid wings. This airborne spiral of ice, crackling with lightning, is home to the evil Blue Dragonflight, and one of its wings will use the vehicle combat system to allow whole parties of players to fly drakes through it, bombarding the enemy. As with The Burning Crusade, the aim is for 5-man "levelling" dungeon wings to take a lunch break-friendly hour or less to complete. Blizzard is working on providing more context for them too, leading toward them with strong questing storylines, as it did with the low-level Deadmines dungeon in the original game.
As admirable as all this is, you have to feel that the re-use of a couple of "classic" dungeons is a little cheeky. Stratholme returns as a new Caverns of Time instance, replaying events from Warcraft III, while Naxxramas has been transformed from the hardest raid in the original game to the easiest raid in Lich King, for all those who didn't catch it first time around.
Many more will, thanks to the new raiding structure. Following the huge popularity of the 10-man dungeons in Burning Crusade, all raids in Lich King are available for 10 or 25 players. These two tracks work similarly to Burning Crusade's Normal and Heroic modes for 5-man dungeons (which also return); they both offer a full progression in difficulty, but 25-man raids will find better loot, and more of it. It's a brave move, and a brilliant one, granting admission to the greatest challenges and narrative climaxes in WOW to more than just a committed hardcore.