There are some sensational new abilities coming for most of World of Warcraft's character classes in second expansion Wrath of the Lich King: of course there are. As much as every player of Blizzard's massively multiplayer monster can't wait to tear across Northrend, delve into its dungeons and batter its new battleground - all of which we discussed in detail in last month's preview and interview - there is a part of you that cares about nothing more than new toys to trash with.
The level 70-80 skills themselves are still largely under wraps, but we did get to explore the new talent trees at Blizzard's Worldwide Invitational event in Paris this past weekend, and some of them made our eyes pop: Fury Warriors dual-wielding two-handed weapons and a breathtaking demon form for Demonologist Warlocks in particular. Deeper changes were discussed at a developer panel, including a complete revision of the Hunter pet system that gives pets their own talent trees. More on these later. But there was one skill that, for us, eclipsed even these, and it doesn't come at level 80, or the top of a maxed-out talent tree. It comes at level 55, for a freshly-minted Death Knight, Lich King's unholy new hero class: the Death Grip.
In the grip of death
Death Grip warps space to instantly teleport an enemy to the Death Knight's position, from up to thirty yards away. It then forces the enemy to attack the Death Knight for three seconds. In the parlance, it's a ranged pulling and aggro spell, extremely useful for tanking (soaking up damage and protecting your allies).
But that's a dry and utilitarian description that doesn't remotely cover the outrageous, hilarious sense of power you get from simply plucking hapless monsters out of the ether and dumping them under your sword. It's the Death Knight all over: no cast times, no tricksy positioning, just instant gratification, tanking without pain, slaughter without pause.
Designed to address the shortage of tanks in the game - due to the necessity for classes like the Warrior and Paladin to decide between doing decent amounts of damage, and taking it - the Death Knight is designed to do a balance of both and, simply, make this crucial and demanding group role more fun. Based on our very limited hands-on with the class at WWI - we could take level 55 Death Knights for a run around the Eastern Plaguelands with their handful of starting skills, and no talent points to spend - it should do that with ease. Death Grip alone seems to guarantee it.
Ultimately, Death Knights will have their own adventuring zone to start in, and a home town called Ebon Hold they can teleport to at any time, though these weren't in the build of Lich King at WWI. They also start ready-equipped with a mount - an 'epic' one at that, a Death Charger (zombie horse) with the full 100 percent speed boost and the riding skill to go with it, easing cash drain considerably when you start. Any race can be a Death Knight; Tauren, Orcs and male Draenei have an imposing mass in their heavy black plate armour, although nothing beats the extraordinarily ridiculous sight of a Death Knight gnome, which looks something like a super-deformed, medievally-themed LEGO Darth Vader.
Although it's closest to the Warrior and Paladin in role and equipment, being heavily armoured, the Death Knight plays something like a Rogue. Most of its magical effects are linked to melee attacks, most of its abilities are instant cast, and it has an elaborated version of the Rogue's complex and rhythmic twin resource mechanic - regular abilities are cast out of a small, fast-recharging pool (in the Death Knight's case, runes) with more powerful finishing moves available by building up and unleashing a secondary reserve (in the Death Knight's case, runic power).
In the long run you will be able to alter your line-up of six runes - effectively customising the availability and frequency of your abilities - but in the build we played we were stuck with two each from the blood, unholy and frost schools. They recharge fast - Death Knight play will ultimately not be about how much power you have, but which powers, and when.
A quick scan of the Death Knight's talent trees gave a glimpse of the class' future: summonable runic weapons that repeat your attacks, unleashing blood worms, lots of spell deflection and minor self-healing, frost-based crowd control, turning yourself into a controllable Ghoul for 45 seconds when you die, exploding enemy corpses and swarms of unholy insects. We already know that later skills include the ability to summon Ghoul minions and even resurrect players as Ghouls they can control, with Ghoul abilties.
Starting at level 55, however, the mechanics were simple and the pace a touch slow, but it's obvious these concerns will melt away in the space of a handful of levels - the rune system pretty much guarantees depth. But depth isn't the problem. What the Death Knight needs to achieve to revive the art of tanking in WOW is a gratifying sense of power coupled with easy-access utility, and it's immediately, patently a success, thanks to Death Grip if nothing else. We've no doubt that WOW's first new class in four years will be another classic from the masters of class design.
It's hard to know which of the challenges that face Blizzard is harder; introducing a new class to such a stable and strong line-up, or developing the existing ones without either imbalancing or them or undermining their personalities. On the latter, it's harder to tell if Lich King will be a success, with only talents to go on at the moment.
It's certainly true that some talents shout a lot louder than others. Fury Warriors get Titan's Grip - the ability to hold a two-handed weapon in one hand, although it slows your attacks - and it's not even their top talent, that being a Heroic Leap that slams, damages and stuns enemies in a small area where the warrior lands, sounding almost like the Barbarian skills shown in Diablo III on the same weekend. Protection Warriors are also well looked after, with free Shield Slams and a Shockwave that damages, stuns and aggros enemies in a cone in front of them.
None shouts louder than the Demonologist Warlock's Metamorphosis, known within Blizzard as "Illidan Form" because it transforms the player into a demon for 45 seconds that shares the same - absolutely beautiful - character model as the Burning Crusade raid boss. You get full health and mana, 360 per cent armour and a limited line-up of demon abilities: a charge, a shadow bolt, fire area-of-effect damage around you, multiple-enemy melee attacks and a fear spell.
Other show-stoppers are Enhancement Shaman's ability to summon spirit wolves, Shadow Priests' ability to disperse into pure shadow to massively reduce damage taken, Holy Priests' Guardian Spirit that follows party members and dies in their stead, Fire Mages' transformation into living bombs, and Balance Druids' Starfall, a rain of up to 20 stars that do both direct and area-of-effect damage.
Less showy but more intriguing top-tier talents include Subtlety Rogues' Shadow Dance, which instantly pops them into stealth every 3 seconds for 9 seconds, and will probably cause howls of rage for every other class in PVP; and Restoration Shaman's Spirit Link, which distributes damage between a friendly target and its nearby allies, a very interesting threat-management skill.
In terms of the more profound changes discussed at the panel, the Hunter seems to be getting the biggest overhaul in Lich King, with the new pet-training system. This dispenses with pet skill points and replaces them with a trio of talent trees for Hunter pets, one that enhances tanking, one that increases damage, and one that improves all-round utility. Could pet tanking in a group become truly viable as a result?
Also interesting were that Shaman totems would be streamlined, affecting the entire raid rather than just the party, and the class would also be given an emergency crowd-control spell called Hex. Meanwhile, Rogues will be allowed to sap beasts, dragonkin and demons as well as humanoids, giving them a lot more utility in dungeons.
Our look at Lich King's content last month left us deeply impressed. When it comes to class content - the new skills and systems doled out by the expansion, and how they'll affect the game's dynamics and social ecology - it is naturally much harder to read. It all sounds quite exciting, with a decent balance of toys and fixes, but only a good long spell of bedding-in on the beta will prove if Blizzard has done the right thing. And it might take a little longer than it should - because everyone, but everyone, will be playing a Death Knight...