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.