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.
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.
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.
The biggest change coming to all players with Echoes of Doom is the new profession - Inscription - and the ability-altering Glyphs that it creates. Inscription is such a major addition that, unlike Burning Crusade's Jewelcrafting - which only really came into play in Outland - it's being included in the regular content patch instead of held back for expansion purchasers. Any player can equip Glyphs, and Burning Crusade owners can take Inscription up to a skill of 375 (appropriate to their maximum level of 70).
Glyphs are an extremely powerful new form of customisation for every character. You can equip major and minor Glyphs - three of each at level 80, though the slots are unlocked as you progress. Major Glyphs typically add important functionality to one of your core skills, or increase its power or efficiency by some 20 per cent; they're equivalent to one of the higher-ranked talents.
Scribes create Glyphs by gathering herbs and using milling - similar to Jewelcrafting's prospecting sub-profession - to turn the herbs into ink, which is then applied to parchment from a vendor. They can also create the familiar Scrolls, with their temporary buffs, the same way, as well as several other intriguing items: decks of random tarot cards that give item rewards when matched in a set; deeds of ownership that will allow hunters to rename their pets; teleport maps that serve as a back-up hearthstone; off-hand books with stat bonuses for casters; and random Darkmoon Faire cards.
There's also a "research" skill that gives Scribes a chance of discovering new Glyphs - freeing them, to some extent, from chasing after rare and expensive recipes - and most importantly, vellum. Vellum can be sold to Enchanters, who can then store their enchants on it for easy trade and sale at the auction house. This is going to make trading as an Enchanter much more lucrative, and enchants much easier to access for every player.
But it's Glyphs that will have the biggest effect. These enhancements are even more powerful and essential than enchants, and every player will want to keep the Glyph page of their spellbook full at all times. Scribes are going to make a lot of money, and everyone else is going to spend a lot - but a quick flick through the possible benefits suggests it'll be worth it.
O to the C to the D
The one item covered in this preview that won't arrive with Echoes of Doom, and will be kept back for Wrath of the Lich King on November, is the Achievement system. Again, Blizzard is playing catch-up here, trotting down a path paved by Lord of the Rings Online's Deeds, WAR's Tome Unlocks and, more to the point, Xbox 360. And at first sight, it's not doing anything very special with the idea.
(Correction: the news passed us by but, like the other features listed here, Achievements will in fact be available for evey player to enjoy in the Echoes of Doom patch. Should keep you busy until November 13th.)
The interface is, as you'd expect, logical, fast and easy on the eye: a button brings up a large window listing Achievements on one tab, and an astonishing nerd-gasm of lifetime statistics for your character on another (gold spent on postage, number of times rebirthed by a druid, total number of facepalms). There are no secret Achievements (excepting the oddball Feats of Strength, which aren't worth points), there are very clear progress bars, and Achievements can be tracked on screen. Some Achievements have cosmetic rewards - a tabard, say, but usually a title - but unlike other systems, none have an impact on gameplay.
A pedestrian implementaion? It sounds like it, but any 360 owner will tell you Achievements are all about the design: creative challenges that broaden your playing style, rather than simple grinding. WOW's selection has its fair share of novelty entries (Leeeeeeeeeeroy! - kill 50 rookery whelps within 15 seconds - earn the title "Jenkins"), but its true triumph is in its breadth. Every single style of play is featured, from PVP to fishing, and generally it's completism that's favoured over number-crunching grind - uncover every section of map, take down every boss, complete every quest in one of the game's great chains.
Despite relying on nothing but an obsessive-compulsive nature and a points score (hardly a long shot), the Achievement system is a very well-judged incentive to look out over the top of whatever gameplay trench you're in - questing, raiding, PVP - and explore the other styles of play WOW has to offer, the best of its content that might have passed you by. It's simply astonishing to look through it, as a jaded max-level player, and realise how much you haven't done. If the aim is to dissuade players from boredom, from feeling like they'd seen it and done it all, then it looks very likely to work.
Lich King could be the first MMO expansion in history to send players scurrying enthusiastically back to the game's early days. Whether they'll do that, of course, depends on the strength of the newest content, and we'll return to examine that soon.
World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King is due out for PC and Mac on 13th November.