World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King

Beta Report Part 2: Achievements, Inscription, interface, haircuts.

We've already covered the big class changes coming to World of Warcraft in the imminent Wrath of the Lich King - or the even-more-imminent Echoes of Doom patch that will precede it in the next couple of weeks. We've also romped through the incredible Death Knight intro. Over the next six weeks we'll explore Northrend and the expansion's new player-versus-player options - but before that, we have some nitty-gritty to attend to.

When an MMO is updated on this scale, major changes aren't restricted to the headline-grabbing chunks of landmass, reams of quests, swathes of features and millions of unbearably tempting experience points. There are the subtler changes, the options embedded deep in the game that will still rewrite the day-to-day experience, and like as not, have just as big an impact on how you play. That's even more true when a game is as ubiquitous and overwhelmingly familiar as World of Warcraft.

Some of these are coming to all players, regardless of whether or not they buy the expansion, in Echoes of Doom, which is currently expected to hit in mid-October. Most significant of these are probably the new class talents, covered in our Worldwide Invitational write-up. But there are more, some of WOW's most long-awaited features among them.

Something for the weekend, sir?

The inclusion of barbershops is simultaneously the silliest, and the longest sought-after. Goblin-run barbers will appear in the major cities of Azeroth - Stormwind, Ironforge, Orgrimmar, Undercity and Dalaran, the capital of the new conteninent Northrend - as well as in Area 52 in Outland. At these, you can change your hairstyle, hair colour and one other facial feature (facial hair, jewellery, tusks and so on).

There's a simple interface: sit in the chair, browse the possible changes, click OK and you're done. The cost is 3 gold and change, so if you want a complete makeover, it'll cost you just shy of 10g: pocket-money to a level 70, expensive for younger characters - but then, they're less likely to be bored or embarrassed by their look.

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We couldn't find a "teen emo" style, even though this shop was in the Undercity.

Barbershops' most welcome surprise is the inclusion of a new range of hairstyles that's not available at the character-select screen. In many cases these are a good deal better-looking, and possibly more polygon-rich than the original, four-year-old styles. It'll be a mohawk and Victorian-patriarch sideburns for our troll please, in white, if you don't mind.

You can laugh, but your character's look is critical to anybody's enjoyment of an MMO, and WOW's avatars have always had more charisma than actual, customisable flexibility - something Babershops go a little way to fixing.

Here comes the hero to save the date

Interface utility is something Blizzard has been improving since WOW was launched - albeit usually one or two steps behind the game's mod community - and Lich King does boast a few nice features, albeit not quite on the enormously useful and relieving scale of last year's Gods of Zul'Aman patch. Most noticeable on the interface is a calendar - a large, round button on the edge of your minimap (and accompanied by, at long last, a proper clock).

The calendar has a big, bold one-month view and allows you to see in-game events - be they seasonal festivals, fishing challenges or visits of the Darkmoon Faire - as well as raid resets, active raid lockouts and which PVP Battleground is currently enjoying Call to Arms incentives. More importantly, if you have guild rank, you'll be able to use it as a scheduler for events that everyone in your guild can view; you can even send invites, track sign-ups and monitor class balance for your raid.

It's not as powerful or deep as the guild management system in new rival Warhammer Online, but it's more pretty, polished and usable, and answers a very real need, so it's still more than welcome. Being a social feature, it's a definite plus having it integrated as standard in the game, rather than needing to get everyone in your guild running the same add-on.

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Note to self: beer tastes better in real world.

Nevertheless, we feel Blizzard could have gone further in overhauling the game's interface for Wrath of the Lich King. The quest interface in particular is an area WOW has never excelled at - being free of directional indicators and organisational tools, and offering only the most basic on-screen tracking - and it's now getting left far behind by newer MMOs, WAR's map-marking and Tome of Knowledge being a particular case in point.

World of Warcraft is also getting a handsome visual upgrade for the new expansion. As with the Burning Crusade, this mostly comes in the form of sumptuous effects, textures and artwork in the new zones, of which more in a later article. But a couple of things will be noticeable everywhere, particularly the arrival of fully detailed shadows, and a vastly increased draw distance.

You can't overstress the impact of the latter on the game. WOW does natural majesty and the wonder of world-exploration better than, arguably, any videogame ever made. The foggy curtailment of its vistas put the only dampener on that, and now that's gone, lifted like a veil from your eyes. It's wonderful touring old areas to check out the newly-expanded views, never mind exploring the stunning Northrend, and it doubles the already-strong urge to explore.

There's a cost, though. Put shadow detail and draw distance on maximum and WOW isn't quite the technical pussycat it used to be - this four-year-old game (which was undemanding even in 2004) is now capable of taxing a mid-range PC, just a little. But that's with every setting maxed out, and the results, it must be said, are worth it.

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