"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.
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.
All WOW's races exist in a moral grey area - the Horde, even the frankly unpleasant Undead, are just misunderstood - so this is the first opportunity there's ever been to go over to the actual dark side. It's a heady experience. You're given quests asking you to steal horses, torture soldiers for information with red-hot pokers, turn an entire navy's cannons against them in a bloody massacre, and kill civilians 10 levels below you who, in any case, are too terrified of you to fight back. If you don't exercise self-control, you will find yourself cackling uncontrollably at your keyboard.
Because this is the only place you can start a Death Knight, you'll be doing all this in the company of many other players, all running amok, lending the whole enterprise a glorious sense of unhinged blood lust, of being part of an evil undead army on the rampage. This brilliant device turns the most serious threat to immersion in the new hero class into the exact opposite. Blizzard has even acknowledged that the first thing most players will want to do is duel each other, by creating a quest which rewards you for doing just that.
There's superb characterisation and an uncommonly light touch throughout the writing and quest design. There are very large helpings of crowd-pleasing and showboating, too, as the WOW team falls over itself to showcase Wrath of the Lich King's new visual effects, physics and interactions. The entire zone is instanced several times over, allowing Blizzard to take you through several stages of set-pieces.
The possibilities for the latter have been exploded by the expansion's new technology, which brings up new controls and skill-sets for anything you mount (a stolen horse, a cannon, a skeletal drake), and generally allows for much more flexible rules and quasi-arcade playing styles. Blizzard stops at nothing for spectacle in the Death Knight intro, inviting dangerous amounts of slowdown in places through the sheer abandon with which it's stretching the technical limits of the game. Even in beta, though, it may stutter, but it doesn't break.
By the end of the intro your level-57 Death Knight will be decked out in armour as fancy-looking as a level-70 hardcore raider's - shedding that for Outland "greens" will have to be done through gritted teeth. And, inevitably and slightly regretfully, you will have left the Scourge behind and switched sides. We won't reveal how this happens, except to note that the ground-shaking climax really makes sense of the hero-class concept, and is the best realisation yet of Blizzard's ambition to put the player "on the ground" in a Warcraft RTS, a tenet that's been central to WOW since work began on it some ten years ago.
Some of the Death Knight intro is too easy, and in a couple of places - where it wanders furthest from traditional MMORPG play, into the realms of blockbuster twitch gaming - it's frustratingly difficult. There will undoubtedly be tuning between now and release, but in any case, a smooth and rewarding challenge is hardly the point of this zone. The point is context, sheer entertainment, and grand storytelling done the MMO way - en masse, not in a single-player bubble. On those grounds, it's a roaring success.
Roll up, roll up: Blizzard, gaming's great circus ringmaster, has outdone itself again. We can only hope that Northrend, the real meat of the expansion - for which this amazing intro is no more than a curtain-raiser - can live up to it.