World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King

Going North.

Few games have been as exhaustively detailed ahead of their release as second World of Warcraft expansion, Wrath of the Lich King. After Blizzard failed to plug the leaks from early testing, it resigned itself to the inevitable and lifted any and all non-disclosure restrictions from the public beta test. The insatiable hunger for information of 11 million fans was just too great a force to resist, even for a company as powerful and protective as Blizzard.

The result was a tidal-wave of detail on wikis, databases, fansites and forums across the internet. Even the five hands-on previews we've published in the last seven months barely scratch the surface. The voracious WOW fanbase seems to have chewed up and spat out this expansion, two years in the making, before Blizzard has had a chance to serve it.

So how come it feels so new?

It really ought not to. This is essentially a four-year-old game, after all, as ubiquitous and familiar and over-exposed as they come in the live-fast, die-young world of videogames. And on the surface, Wrath of the Lich King doesn't seem to be the most adventurous expansion. Compare it to Lord of the Rings Online's Mines of Moria, out this week; it's taken Blizzard twice as long to serve up the same number of levels, half as many new classes, and answer Turbine's game-changing Legendary item system with one percentage-playing profession, Inscription. Oh, and the ability to get haircuts. There's Achievements of course - but LOTRO already had those.

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The Tuskarr race are the most lovable new faction.

Wrath of the Lich King ought to be stale - but it inspires wonder. It ought to feel dated - but it makes WOW's newest rivals look clumsy. It ought to seem derivative and formulaic, one step behind the curve - instead, it takes the bar WOW set for quality in MMOs and casually lifts it far out of reach.

Blizzard hasn't repeated the excitable, haphazard and slightly barmy revisionism of first expansion The Burning Crusade. Instead, it has brought to bear every ounce of its legendary perfectionism, craftsmanship and attention to detail. It has made the world's best MMO better, and - here's the remarkable thing - it has done so in a way that works for almost everybody, in almost every situation.

The character classes might be the best example of that. The original nine were always one of WOW's strongest suits. They weren't just great MMO class design, they were some of the best RPG class designs ever: flexible, powerful, clearly defined, conceptually strong, they bounced off each other well and (for the most part) scaled from solo to large group play effortlessly. A few weak or over-specialised character builds here and there, a few useless skills, a few periods in the doldrums for certain classes; it was ever thus in MMOs, to be expected, and a small price to pay for such an excellent line-up.

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For the most part it's pure high fantasy, but Blizzard indulges its love of steampunk and sci-fi with the Titans.

But it turns out Blizzard thought that price was too high, and its designers have enjoyed a miraculous moment of clarity in Lich King. Restrictions have been shrugged off left, right and centre. Sensational new utility has been added across the board, from fundamental reworkings of the most basic early-level skills to the new top-tier talents and level 70 to 80 skills. Every class, and virtually every build of every class, has been sharpened, empowered and granted one or two logic-defying super-abilities that seem to defy all sense and balance (but don't, naturally).

The most single-minded and dry designs - Protection-spec Warriors, for example - have overnight been granted the same colourful and gratifying exuberance as everyone else. Every class is more fun to play now than it was before, and that's even before you start levelling. It's an amazing, improbable achievement, and it may never be repeated, so enjoy it while you can.

Alongside the classic classes stands the Death Knight. It's a testament to the strength of that line-up that Blizzard has only dared make one addition in four years, and the first Hero Class doesn't let the side down. This heavily-armoured undead warrior is perhaps Blizzard's strangest hybrid yet - magical damage through melee attacks, summoned creatures, and a complex resource system that attempts to combine strategic interplay of skills with a more rhythmic build-and-release style of play. It has no right to work. It does, serving up depth with a side-order of cackling satisfaction. Admittedly, it's something of a loose cannon at the moment, but it will find its place.

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