Easy mode. That's what MMO veterans of EverQuest and its ilk like to call World of Warcraft, and to some extent - when it comes to death penalties, ease of soloing and generous quest rewards - they're right. Warhammer Online has stripped things back even further, with instant respawns, easy teleportation around the world map, and content carefully sculpted into a non-stop waterslide of experience points. Could the next WOW expansion, Wrath of the Lich King, go any further?
Well, yes and no. In Blizzard's enthusiasm to clean the slate and put every player back on a level playing field for the expansion, early Lich King quests shower you in gear that easily replaces all but the best Burning Crusade equipment. Furthermore, there's the controversial move to make all high-end raids accessible to teams of just ten players. But there's one area in which WOW has always been uncompromising: travel and exploration.
WOW is an explorer's game. With its huge, exquisitely crafted play-fields, minimal instancing or invisible walls, and insistence on lengthy real-time travel, it always has been. Wrath of the Lich King is no different. More so than the Burning Crusade's Outland, more so even than some of classic WOW's two landmasses, the new continent of Northrend has been created as a journey. No, scratch that - an expedition.
The twin starting zones at the eastern and western extremities of Northrend, Howling Fjord and Borean Tundra, are already well-documented. But the choice between them isn't an easy one. Howling Fjord is home to the lowest-level dungeon - Vrykul fortress Utgarde Keep, quite reminiscent of Hellfire Ramparts - and it arguably has the more densely-packed, sophisticated and rewarding quest lines. Despite the zone's size, it's efficiently crammed around the spectacular, intimidating Utgarde where it plunges from the Fjord's high cliff-tops to the sea. The fight focuses on the struggle with the warlike Vrykul.
Borean Tundra is a vast, open expanse of coastline, windswept moorland and hot springs, more thinly populated than Howling Fjord, but more easily navigable. Questing centres on the struggle with the wilderness and helping out the Tuskarr, the friendly and adorable race of walrus-men whose giant sea-turtle transports connect the Tundra and the Fjord via the vast Dragonblight zone between them.
You'll also encounter the mages of Dalaran here, and the first stages of the fight against the Blue Dragonflight and its mage hunters, who aim to stamp out all magic use from the world. This battle centres on the offshore island Coldarra and the Nexus dungeon, an obscenely pretty, crystalline structure containing some of the most breathtaking sights in WOW to date. Overall, the Tundra seems less structured than Howling Fjord, but offers a more powerful, alien atmosphere that's quite distinct from anything in the game to date. If you're more bothered about a sense of the new than speedy progress, this is the place to be.
What you won't be doing is pressing straight on to the new capital city Dalaran, and establishing a base of operations there. Although there is a shortcut involving the services of a friendly mage, Blizzard is quite deliberately withholding any sense of being at home in Northrend from players; Dalaran is mostly inaccessible until the mid-70s at the earliest. Instead, you'll be returning to the main Alliance and Horde bases in Howling Fjord and Borean Tundra, and from there using regular transports back to the mainlands to trade and train. There's some inconvenience involved, but the ports have most services you need - and you feel very much like you're clinging to the edges of this new continent, pushing into it with your allies.
The vast new zones are very liberally scattered with flight paths, even to the smallest settlements, and there are fewer neutral towns and common quest lines; the division between Alliance and Horde was nebulous at best in Burning Crusade, but has been reinforced this time around. With no handholding questing indicators, adventurousness and good orienteering are still prerequisites, but once you've done your initial exploring, backtracking and tedious travel times are reduced.
After the two initial zones, players from both ends of the continent are led towards Dragonblight. This, in many ways, is the heart and soul of the new continent, and the largest single zone Blizzard has created to date. A mixture of melancholy, snowbound forest, iced-over dragon graveyards and the shrines of various dragonflights, Dragonblight is also where the fight against the Scourge begins in earnest with the epic Wrath Gate quest lines, culminating in players' first encounter with the Lich King himself.
Every storyline and theme of the expansion meets here, including the steady unveiling of the secrets of the Titans, creators of the world. In the early-to-mid-70s, Dragonblight is where you'll be spending all your time. In addition, there are the underground dungeons of Azjol-Nerub, where the insectoid Nerubians are struggling to free themselves from the Lich King's control, and high-end raid zone Wyrmrest Temple.
The next two zones are perhaps the two most familiar and conventional in the expansion. Sholazar Basin in the west is a tropical crater recalling Un'Goro in the classic game; Grizzly Hills, as we remarked when we first previewed Lich King, is almost an all-in-one homage to the mountain ranges and forests of classic WOW. It's the music that conjures a new atmosphere in these two zones, more so even than the rest of the continent, although the score is superb throughout. Grizzly Hills' lilting bluegrass fiddle themes are pure North American nostalgia.
Between Grizzly Hills and Sholazar is Crystalsong Forest, Northrend's smallest and prettiest zone. Over this violet-tinged, petrified forest of glass trees is where you'll find the flying capital city, Dalaran. This society of magicians has transplanted itself to the skies above Northrend in order to answer the threat of the Blue Dragonflight.
Mages - who also have the only class trainer in the city - are able to teleport to Dalaran after a quest obtainable at level 71. They can learn a portal at level 74, and then can transport anyone to the city. Other than that, you'll need to be level 74 to learn to use the teleport crystal in Crystalsong Forest to get there, or 78 to learn how to use flying mounts in Northrend's cold climate, and fly there direct.
It's a bold decision, restricting access to the new capital city until so late in the expansion's levelling curve, and burying it so far from the entry points to the continent. It might be frustrating for many players, although it neatly coincides with Wrath of the Lich King's division into two distinct "acts", the first of which culminates with the events surrounding the Wrath Gate in Dragonblight. Blizzard has clearly sunk a lot more effort into thematic, geographical and narrative coherence this time around - while at the same time, not impeding players' freedom to explore (expanding it, in fact).
Dalaran is a very charismatic and charming city, much more so than The Burning Crusade's Shattrath. It's quite compact; the main influences are Silvermoon's beauty, Stormwind's homely alleyways and Undercity's efficient radial design. Instead of the baffling division between the Aldor and Scryer factions in The Burning Crusade, we simply get Horde and Alliance districts, each furnished with a huge inn and a full suite of battlemasters and portals to battlegrounds and capital cities. There's also the Underbelly, a shadier underground town located in the sewers, where you'll find another bank and inn as well as the city's new Arena; and The Violet Hold, a high-end prison dungeon, hopefully more interesting than Stormwind's Stockade.
You can't use flying mounts in Dalaran. As with the entirety of the expansion up to level 78, Blizzard wants to keep players' feet firmly on the ground, creating a sense of bustle and exploration. Some will complain, but it's one of the smartest decisions in the expansion, necessary to pull players off the deeply-ingrained path of least resistance and bring some dynamism and sense of life back to the world.
Beyond Crystalsong, three zones remain. And as gorgeous in their detail as the opening trio of Howling Fjord, Borean Tundra and Dragonblight are, it's in these final three that Blizzard unleashes the raw spectacle of which its world-beating environment artists are capable.
Zul'Drak, joined to Grizzly Hills by the Drak'Tharon Keep dungeon, is a vast Ice Troll civilisation: essentially, a zone-sized city, building in one giant ziggurat toward a second dungeon, Gundrak. Its scale and ruined grandeur, and the linear struggle to climb through its stages toward the foreboding final plateau, give it a sense of drama few MMORPG zones can boast, even in WOW.
The Storm Peaks, meanwhile - a craggy mountain range on the roof of the world - is the most vertical zone Blizzard has made to date. Flying mounts will be essential to fully explore its plunging valleys, soaring ridges and monumental, classical Titan architecture. This is where the majority of the Titan storytelling is done, in the Ulduar instances and the huge, mysterious machines - the "engine of the world" - buried inside the rock.
And then there's Icecrown. This is the location of the Lich King's seat of power, Icecrown Citadel, which we know will not be included in the expansion itself but in a future free update. Once again, like Zul'Drak, this is not so much a zone as a path, a curving glacier bed punctuated with immense fortress walls guarded by bosses. It's so inhospitable that the main Horde and Alliance towns are, in fact, giant airships that restlessly prowl the skies over the action; only the Argent Dawn faction is brave enough to attempt a foothold in the far eastern corner of the zone.
If you ever doubted Blizzard's commitment to involving all players in a single narrative thread, a single titanic struggle to best the Scourge, Icecrown will silence your doubts. It's an entire zone given over to one thing: climax. It's so outrageously, almost comically evil that its soundtrack actually features reverberating organ chords. There's no doubt that it will deliver a mighty payoff, even for solo adventurers, although there is a price; unlike every other zone in Wrath of the Lich King, it's not really a place you want to hang out in.
There's one zone we haven't discussed, Wintergrasp. Since it's specific to player-versus-player siege warfare rather than exploration, we'll return to it at a later date. As for the rest of Northrend, the conclusion is very simple: it's more epic and far more beautiful than classic WOW, more exciting and far more coherent than Outland. The only competition Blizzard's artists have as world-builders is themselves, and they're going to have to go a long, long way to top Northrend.
World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King is due out for PC and Mac on 13th November.