World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King

Beta Report Part 1: The Death Knight zone.

"A hero. That's what you once were. You stood boldly against the shadow, and purchased another dawn for the world - with your life. But the evil you fought is not so easily banished; the victory you claimed not so easily held."

When Blizzard's writing is good, it's really good. These words are intoned over the Death Knight intro movie, after you've clicked "create" on one of the resurrected warriors belonging to World of Warcraft's first-ever hero class. Only, that's something of a misnomer, because the Death Knight is in fact an anti-hero class. Indeed - in what must be one of the most memorable and entertaining introductions to any RPG, MMO or otherwise - it starts out as a full-blown, thieving, torturing, pillaging, genocidal villain.

We covered the basic mechanics and playing style of the Death Knight in our Worldwide Invitational impressions, and ran through the exhaustive feature list of next WOW expansion Wrath of the Lich King in a full preview a couple of months back. We'll come back to all of this in more detail in future beta reports, but we used our first hours on the beta test this week to investigate the Death Knight starting area for the first time. Despite having been warned that it was something special, we couldn't believe our eyes and ears for the entirety of it.

That entirety is not very long or large, however. The Death Knight zone - not even a zone in its own right, it's a smallish area located at the eastern edge of the Eastern Plaguelands - will take you through two levels, from the Death Knight's starting point of 55 to 57. It'll do so in double-quick time, too, taking just a few hours - maybe one solid evening's play - to get through. What an evening, though.

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"Troll Death Knight = le fail," a Blood Elf informed us. While mincing like a pansy.

As beautifully orchestrated as WOW's best dungeons are - not to mention the fantastic Draenei and Blood Elf introductions from the Burning Crusade, spanning 20 levels apiece - Blizzard has never attempted such a concentrated and extravagant piece of staging, of high showmanship, as this before. It's startling, spectacular, and most surprisingly of all, it's consistently, laugh-out-loud funny. It even makes a great virtue of having dozens of freshly-minted Death Knights in identical armour running around.

The first shock is landing straight in front of the expansion's star and ultimate end boss - Arthas, the Lich King himself - and seeing the quest-giving exclam above his head. You've been resurrected as part of his undead army, the Scourge. You begin by learning your way around the floating necropolis of Acherus, The Ebon Hold, and learning how to Runeforge your weapon. Runeforging does not, as previously thought, allow you to change the combination of runes Death Knights use for spellcasting - now it's essentially a free and endlessly modifiable enchantment, complete with pretty glow.

After that, you're sent down to the ground, where the Scourge is busy slaughtering a community of Scarlet Crusade zealots. WOW players will know that the Crusade are far from good guys - in fact, the darkly funny propaganda leaflets you pick up from their corpses verge on the politically sensitive - but the Scourge is worse. The Scourge is perhaps the ultimate evil in the Warcraft universe, and you're part of it.

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