Our Man In Northrend

By Alec Meer on November 13th, 2008 at 8:42 pm.

Also, I took a ride on a giant harpoon. Whee!

Today, as most of the internet is all-too aware, is Wrath of the Lich King release day. I’ve been playing it for far too many hours now, despite having sworn at least eight times over the last few years that I would never, ever, ever, ever, ever play World of Warcraft again.

I’m primarily back in Azeroth for work, but that’s not the only reason. I genuinely want to know what WoTLK does differently and how it stacks up to what is (or at least was) its strongest competition: Warhammer Online. I have no idea what WAR’s audience is like at the moment, but, well, I no longer know anyone playing it – myself included. This is in sharp contrast to its launch week, when everyone I knew was playing it. What’re people’s (non-shouty) thoughts about that? Has WAR held up, or has the bloom come off its rose?

I have a lot of problems with WoW, mostly involving the extent to which its endgame (and the militaristic mentality its endgame forces its players into) leaves me cold, but what today’s tentative foray into new continent Northrend did hammer home was how much character it has. I used to love its funny hats. Maybe I can again.

I didn’t realise quite how much WAR falls down on the character front until I revisited WoW. My lady gnome rogue doesn’t look all that different from most other lady gnome rogues, but she feels like mine in a way my Chaos Marauder never managed. Maybe it’s a short thing. While he runs around in the same armour as every other Marauder of the same level, each piece of my Rogue’s mismatched clothing has a story behind it, my hotch-potch of poorly thought-out talents make me a proud mongrel rather than simply a template… Of course, the customisation of skills and character pales to almost nothing compared to Eve and City of Heroes respectively – but it is a treat to be back, even if it’s only for a little while. Collecting 40 wolves’ nipples will never be my cup of tea again, but Azeroth really is a charming place to visit.

Oddly though, the general player excitement today seemed slightly muted. Perhaps it’s because I missed the morning rush, instead logging on just after lunch, perhaps it’s because the recent beta meant most folk were already pretty familiar with WOTLK, but certainly people just seemed to be getting on with the levelling and looting as they always had, rather than jabbering excitedly about all the cool things they’d seen or collected. Bar a confused half-hour retraining my muscle memory with my old hotkeys – my poor hands were now accustomed to typing out a different number key rhythm in WAR – I did exactly the same. Old habits die hard, and WOTLK doesn’t seem, at its core, to be interested in changing those old habits. It would be mad to, of course, but it was a little galling to be immediately faced with a straight kill x of x quest the second I arrived in Northrend.

At least that’s what I found during my first foray there, visiting the Borean Tundra, one of Northrend’s two starting zones. It was absolutely rammed with players, all trying to kill the same zombies and burn the same grain sacks, and I immediately thought “this should be a Public Quest”, a system that only exists in WAR. Waiting for respawns the second you’re off the boat is completely disheartening – but of course it’ll quiet down in a few days, once the initial rush has passed. Which is why that zone being a public quest would perhaps have ultimately hampered it, even if today’s ghoul-bashing would have been a lot less miserable – tread onto a WAR server now and if you’re not at the same approximate level as the bulk of the player base, the PQs will be empty and useless. You can grind the first stage for Influence, but you’re unlikely to ever complete them alone.

WAR really needs a second influx of players, a big pack of enthusiastic newcomers hitting the servers together rather than in fits and starts, and I worry it’ll struggle to manage it unless there’s some really huge change or announcement. By contrast, the chat channels in WoW were buzzing with word that WoTLK was sold out, leaving some folk unable to access the new stuff. Guild chatter offered tales of left-out members touring every game shop in town, desperately hunting for a copy. Was this deliberate on Blizzard’s part? I don’t know. WoW itself sold out initially, meaning its second run of copies a few weeks later was a really big deal, ensuring a whole swell of new players – but that seemed a result of under-estimating the potential audience rather than a dark plan. This time though, it seems arranged. Copies being in short supply (if it really is the case that they are: there’s every chance I’m just being a paranoid loon) will build demand, and hopefully means later new players will turn up in busy waves rather than lonely dribbles.

Anyway, after I’d spent a short while feeling a bit too harried in Borean Tundra, a chum logged on and announced that he was headed to the other starting zone, Howling Fjord, because he’d already played through the Tundra in the beta. So I set off to join him, which proved to be a long-winded but oddly pleasing 45 minute journey up the coast and catching a sequence of boats from eerily quiet villages. I didn’t see another player the whole time. An odd turn of events for launch day, but it did give me that sense of exploration I always crave from WoW. It felt like I was catching a random train to the last stop on the line, with no idea what I’d find there. Adventure!

What I found was a lot of giant barbarians and a lot less players. You can get to Howling Fjord direct from Menethil Harbour near Ironforge, but as it’s not a capital city it’s not somewhere that players frequent. To get to Borean Tundra, on the other hand, you sail from a new dock area in the human city of Stormwind – so that seems to be where most people piled into Northrend from one. Howling Fjord was busy, but not too busy – it felt more like the place I’d naturally continue my adventures from, rather than the artificial frenzy of the other zone. And so I quested a while, doing much as I’d ever done, quickly winning easy loot that put my old level 70 kit to shame (I never made it to any raid or PvP gear), but bemoaning the general tedium of the same old quest structure.

Which is when we stumbled into a timed mission inside some catacombs. The objective sounded familiar- go grab some rare artifact. To do this, we were blessed with magic shields, which I presumed were simply some damage absorption buff. Not so. It was a special anti-zombie shield, as we discovered when WoW suddenly went all Left 4 Dead:


Waves and waves of the gibbering things, unable to touch us and screaming in pain whenever the bubbles around us brushed against them. WoW has its limitations, unable to ever quite leave its basic rules behind, but Blizzard really do try to wring everything they can out of its fixed infrastructure. It was genuinely jarring to be in the midst of that many monsters; it’s a situation you’d never otherwise find yourself in in this game, but also it’s hard to resist the urge to start fighting them. Fighting monsters is what you do in WoW. This, though, was like the climactic scene in The Birds. Just keep walking. Get to the end.

Just one ingenious vignette amongst a lot of fairly humdrum questing perhaps, but WoW kept on trying to wow, visually at least. An unexpected jaunt aboard a gnome jetship offered a spectacular tour of the seas surrounding Northrend. I saw penguins. I saw gigantic ice floes. I saw an attack ship on fire off the shoulder of a cliff face:

For what purpose? None, probably. Only to look awesome. Finally, I saw Big Shirl:

A magnificent, huge orca-like beast, swimming calmly through the vast ocean beneath my smoke-belching craft. She was a beauty. And she instantly became my Moby Dick. “I’m coming back for you”, I thought. Big Shirl is a reason to reach level 80. I have no doubt the grind will get to me before too long, or that the thought of repeatedly running the same dungeons or battlegrounds come level 80 will turn me off all over again. For now, it’s a second (well,third. Well, fourth) honeymoon. Yeah, WoW plays by the rules, remaining very much the archetypal MMORPG. In these early days though, before everyone in it knows everything, it’s an explorer’s paradise. That’s why I play MMOs.

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49 Comments »

  1. someone says:

    I never played WOW but I enjoyed reading your story.

  2. Gladman says:

    It’s things like this that make me wish I got into WoW before it was too late and everyone had already ranked up a bunch of level 70 characters.

  3. DigitalSignalX says:

    “I saw an attack ship on fire off the shoulder of a cliff face” nice Blade Runner reference! (= but count this reader in the having antipathy toward WoW column. Reading about it imho is more fascinating then playing it. Same with EVE. *ducks for cover.*

  4. cheeba says:

    Regarding the need for extra influxes of players in game like WAR, the sensible option would seem to be the occasional free trial week now and again. All the buddy keys/invites in the world can’t bring new players onboard in such giant waves.

    Look at stuff like AoC. Regardless of the quality of the game itself, pushing it as a full price + subscription model is always going to reap diminishing returns, as the diehards willing to stump up that much cash for an experience they haven’t even been able to try diminishes pretty bloody rapidly as time goes by.

    Still, I’m sure WAR will follow suit, once they’re quite happy they’ve gouged what they can out of the early adopters.

  5. Kieron Gillen says:

    Re: WAR. I suspect there will be an influx with the two new classes, if only because a load of people will be rolling alts.

    KG

  6. Gorgeras says:

    I agree on that EVE comment. When I and other EVE players talk about EVE, we talk about the best of EVE.

    No one talks about EVE fondly in terms of mission grinds, industrial alt mules and the travesty that is 0.1-0.4 sec space. CCP has focused on them because a ridiculous hardcore PvE demograph has been holding the game hostage for about two years now.

    No, we talk about freedom, complexity, politics and frontiership. They are the golden glitter of EVE which few experience and CCP refuses to listen to all advice to improve it, instead resorting to a remedy that’s worse than the disease for fear that the PvEers will abandon if they are forced to play the actual game.

  7. Larington says:

    Kieron – Check your e-mails if you haven’t already in the past, ooh, hour or so.

  8. Dreamhacker says:

    Honestly, if WOW hadn’t been made and PC gaming had remained an obscure garage hobby for all time, I would have been totally fine with it…

  9. Erik says:

    I’m hoping the title of the article’s a Pulp Fiction reference, that’d make me almost proud or something.

    As for WoW, been there, done that. It’s highly unlikely I’ll ever come back no matter what they put in their expansions, to me it’s just… new items, dungeons, bosses, it just equals grinding. The gear you have worked so hard to get in the past, is just suddenly worthless. I just can’t stand this item-centric system anymore.

    I’m not a fan of levels, XP or item-centric games in the way WoW is, but at least, it would’ve been much better, IMHO, if you could get gear at level 40, that was still great at level 70. Because as your character progressed in XP and thus level, he would do more damage wielding the same item. I’d feel much better about spending a lot of time and doing hard work to get that item if that was the case, instead of knowing that as soon as I hit a certain level, or as soon as the game gets new items, my current items are reduced to scrap metal.

  10. MA6200 says:

    I haven’t logged in to WAR for a while, but I have no desire to return to WoW – raiding is a terrible, terrible thing IMHO. I’d probably pick WAR back up if they could fix the imbalance between ranged and melee dps, as well as stop people from only playing one scenario in their tier, over and over, ignoring RvR, questing and public quests.

  11. Unrein says:

    *sigh* I wish WoW had not gotten so damn boring. If they opened up a new, fresh RP-PvP server I’d be back in an instant…

  12. Nimic says:

    My WoW-crazy cousin keeps trying to get me to play WoW again. I’ve barely played since BC. I was in a good mature guild before BC, and we were having great fun doing BWL and AQ. Then BC came, and even though I was already a little weary of the change, I got the game and played all day and night. Then I didn’t play for months. I’ve played a bit since then, and I think my mage is 63 or 64, but I’m not sure I’ll ever start playing again.

  13. cyrenic says:

    I had to quit playing WAR because of a mixture of not having enough time and not having a system that could really play the game. I imagine its going to take a huge hit in subscribers between WotLK and all the other big holiday games.

    I’m guessing WAR will get some subs back early next year as people tire of WoW again and the new classes get released.

  14. Plinglebob says:

    I’ve sadly stopped WAR playing mainly for the same reasons Alec gave. I know its supposed to be a war-torn land and while graphically its impressive, the only places with any real character are the dwarf/orc lands. That, and whenever I try to run a media player in the background my PC crashes.

    I’m tempted to try and get back into WoW as I enjoy raiding (holy priest) and now the playing field is leveled again so getting into a guild will be easier.

  15. Iain says:

    Have you rolled a Death Knight yet, Alec? There’s a surprising amount of fun to play – quite similar to a Paladin, but with proper DPS and depending on the spec you take (I’m going Unholy right now) you can tank, DPS and even have a pet ghoul.

    Their opening area is nicely designed and shows off the new aerial combat very well – I went from level 55 up to level 58 in under two and a half hours. I wonder how many Death Knights will be wandering around Outland tonight?

  16. FP says:

    I’ve just played the Death Knight start zone and really enjoyed it, very few “kill x mob” quests, lots of more interesting stuff, and great use of instancing to make the world change as you play. I was hoping Northrend would be like that too but it sounds like it might not be, still looking forward to it though, always loved the world itself even if I have no interest in the end game.

  17. Larington says:

    I played WoW up to level 52 during 2 months after release of the game before I realised I was really bored and that the game was in a way pretty much just a button pressing contest that I wasn’t finding at all compelling anymore. I haven’t returned.

    As for these Death Knights, if they are great, isn’t there a risk that sooner or later people will start complaining and then the nerf bat will heavily thwack it into being not so great anymore?

  18. Paul B says:

    I played WoW up to about level 40 once it came out but, like some naive fool (or junky, but didn’t want to make that comparison), am going back for a second fix this Christmas. The grind got me the first time round but I’m going to try one of the spell-casting classes this time, and see whether it’s more bearable second-time round. If only so I can get my own horse again – I miss my horse.

  19. Spenceroo says:

    Honestly I was part of a random full warband tonight which capped almost all T3 Keeps, mutilated some order on the way and generally had a jolly good time.
    The last WAR pach fixed the problem with only one SC opening and upped the rewards for RvR. That worked miracles at least on my server. Everybody is out in the lakes these days. And while it still has a bunch of issues, for me WAR is so much better than the next tiresome grind. Call me a fool, but I’m happy.

  20. The Hammer says:

    Played Wrath in all my spare time today. Too late to get into any detail, but…

    ACES ACES ACES!

  21. PleasingFungus says:

    Erik, have you been reading about Lord of the Rings Online lately? The upcoming (?) Mines of Moria expansion might suit your fancy.

  22. Liatach says:

    I Play,

    Tho i too have quit a few times.
    came back just pre expansion and got to run a whole lot of endgame content i had never seen before. will be touring northrend as of tomorrow.

    to address a couple of comments above.
    constantly replaced gear….
    Heirloom items have just been introduced, they are the new badge gear and they are
    “Bind to Account” So you can send a nice lvl 80 purple headpeice to your lvl 10 alt, that will have an instant and massive stat reduction but it will improve with the alt as they level.

    if your thinking of coming back to the game, i recommend picking up your old toons where you left them rather than starting afresh, XP req. to level bettween 20-70 has been drammaticly reduced, and xp rewards from quest have been increased. and the new content is better designed and more fun overall.

    Oh and you can get your mounts at lvl 30 now :)

    peace

  23. the wiseass says:

    QUOTE: his is in sharp contrast to its launch week, when everyone I knew was playing it. What’re people’s (non-shouty) thoughts about that? Has WAR held up, or has the bloom come off its rose?

    Well I dunno, but my feeling is that WAR is in constant decline. I’ve put up a little comparison based on google trends over at my blog. Have a look at it, it may be interesting to read:

    http://wiseass.freakbase.net/node/113

  24. Ben Abraham says:

    …and Outlands becomes all but deserted.

    I don’t get why Blizzard think this expansive movement of players from one set of zones to another is just par for the course… it’s so… eco-unfriendly. =P

  25. PHeMoX says:

    I really don’t get all those WoW addicts… with all due respect, but the game sucks so bad for many reasons…

  26. PHeMoX says:

    @: the wiseass: I seriously doubt your statistics and information about ‘returning WoW players’ is accurate. I constantly here people quiting WoW and try out the other MMORPGs instead…. Most even played the latest WoW expansion. So… either people play both or multiple MMORPGs, or that data just isn’t right.

  27. Carra says:

    My copy should arrive tomorrow or on monday :)

    Couldn’t get to play War when I figured out I can’t remap my keybings to the numpad. And I always play using the numpad!

  28. Harlequin says:

    Awww, did PHeMox ever bother considering that maybe that Google trend data posted might have something to it, and that he is just a hater?

    :D

  29. Dean says:

    Hmm.
    Long term WoW player. Got bored recently, dived back in for the new expansion and well: hmm.

    The setting is wonderful and full of character and story but it all feels a little dull. One thing TBC added was a ton of new abilities for each class. LK adds just two, most of which don’t really change how the classes play at all. I think it’s a combination of this and the the fact that a lot of the shiny new quest mechanics from TBC have just been recycled ad nauseum too.

    It’s not bad, but I’m left somewhat underwhelmed. It’s just missing anything on par with that truly awesome moment of stepping through the Dark Portal the first time.

  30. skalpadda says:

    I have a lot of problems with WoW, mostly involving the extent to which its endgame (and the militaristic mentality its endgame forces its players into) leaves me cold, but what today’s tentative foray into new continent Northrend did hammer home was how much character it has.

    The atmosphere and charm of the world, and the fact that I’ve managed to find such lovely people to spend time with in the game are what’s been bringing me back to WoW.

    I’ve barely had time to check out the new starting areas, but one thing I’ve noticed is that the whole story for Northrend seems to have much more focus and direction than that of Burning Crusade.

    A whole new continent to explore is sure to keep me joyfully occupied for the next couple of weeks at least :)

  31. JM says:

    On one of the most popular servers in the world, kill named mob quests are a nightmare.

    WOTLK is pretty – you’d expect nothing left – but it’s huge for no paritcularly good reason, there’s a lot of mostly empty space, and the first two instances (Utgard Keep and The Nexus) are rubbish. I’m unimpressed so far.

    DK stuff is good, though.

  32. Ian says:

    Well for me I only came along at the start of the year, so after I’d hit 70 and achieved the things I wanted (reputation armour, some of the instances, flying mount, engineering gun and mount, etc.) it wasn’t long before WotLK came along so while some of the grind still grates I’ve not really had time to properly get sick of old stuff before new has come along. It’ll be interesting for me how long I keep playing (before the next inevitable expansion) once I’ve achieved my WotLK level 80 goals and run a DK.

    Man, that sounds like a lot of stuff.

  33. Stitched says:

    (to first image)

    A Undead Speederbike? Really? Really?

  34. The Hammer says:

    but it’s huge for no paritcularly good reason

    Now, you see, I was having this discussion with someone yesterday.

    I actually value places which have no real PVE relevance in the game world. Much like the stuff that Jim’s Exploration article delved into, a lot of the time it’s very rewarding to see things that the developers have snuck in not because it’s going to help you advance through the game, but because they didn’t want their entire world to be a lesson in the artificial, where every single little bit had a reason for existing. That was, I think, one of the things that I saw as being negative points about the old WOW – that you’d come to everywhere anyway, not because you’d want to explore it, but because you were sent there. I think it’s a lot more immersive when there are areas of no real gain for you, because to me, that presents a much more realistic, and varied, world. It’s not clinical.

    Not to everyone’s tastes, though!

  35. The Hammer says:

    (Incidentally, now that I’ve got a bit more time…

    The expansion is great. The entrance may not have the glamour and ooomph of going through the iconic Dark Portal, but once you get to your bases, it’s clear that this is a step above everything else. More more story, much more dialogue, and many, many new buildings, models, and…

    Well, the sheer -scale- of the place is mesmerising. A massive waterfall in the Fjord is probably the highlight so far, but a night-time ride on a boat, which lasted ten minutes, was pretty great, too. Overall, <3.

  36. DraconianOne says:

    I believe that a couple of hours is not enough to get the most out of this expansion. After all, there are new siege weapons and mounted combat in the PvP zone, multi-person mounts, zones (like the DK starter area) that fully implement the phasing technology so that the zones change over time depending on what quests you’ve completed and where you are in the story.

    I also gather that Blizzard are trying to make the endgame more accessible to the casual player (like myself! I completed my first ever raid in a dumbed down Karazhan run on Wednesday night) by having raid instances be accessed by either 10 person or 25 person groups. I gather also that the reputation grinds have been made less of a chore and more of something you do as you go along but have yet to see this confirmed.

    Also, there are motorbikes.

    All that being said, I’m back in Outland doing quests to level until the post-release mad rush to Northrend has died down because there’s nothing worse than queuing up to kill a quest mob.

  37. Ian says:

    I agree that there doesn’t need to be a “reason” for huge worlds. Small zones that are chock-full of quests and enemies don’t appeal to me as much as big zones where things are spread out and you can walk three foot without aggroing something.

  38. Jetsetlemming says:

    If Wow just but had a tourist class so I could properly explore the world without having to worry about those damn monsters and other players, I might play it.

  39. Doug F says:

    What you said about Howling Fjord is what I’ve been telling my guildmates all week – and on top of being the more remote zone, it is also much better looking.

    I also have to echo what DraconianOne and others have said about improved endgame accessibility – I “quit” WoW in January of this year, and it was the thought of being able to see all of the raid content with 9 friends, rather than the usual 15-20 friends and 4-9 obnoxious morons that brought me back.

  40. Flint says:

    I’ve been loving Wrath immensely. Questing and exploring is the reason why I play the game (outside the obvious like the addictive character development) and I certainly haven’t been disappointed. I started straight out in Howling Fjord because it looked better in the pictures and its more ‘remote’ location seemed good, and seems like I made the right choice. I’m just a really happy panda now, exploring a brand new world with my favourite character (and his trusty bear) who can get a bit further again.

    Oh and the music in the expansion is great. Want the soundtrack.

  41. Fleethof says:

    I’m honestly blown away by this expansion. My jaw was dropping during the entire Death Knight starting zone. I don’t think I’ve EVER said “holy cow!” or “oh my goodness!” while playing this game before, but I certainly was during my 3-4 hours doing the Death Knight starting zone. I can’t wait to get to Northrend and see what else they have in store!

    The highlight for me so far has been the phasing technology. I think Blizz can REALLY do alot of cool stuff with that.

  42. Zyrusticae says:

    Eh. WoW just didn’t ‘click’ with me. Maybe it’s the atrociously dated graphics. Maybe it’s because I’ve already played the grinding game before (several, times, in fact). Maybe I just didn’t like the emptiness in the newbie zones. Either way, WotLK has absolutely no appeal to someone like me. Which is just as well, I suppose. Very few MMOs are capable of hooking me in anymore.

  43. Harlequin says:

    I played for about two hours last night and I noticed something. I was actually enjoying the quests. Maybe it’s the “new game smell”, but I really like Northrend so far…and I haven’t even gotten around to making a Death Knight yet.

    I reserve total judgment for a few weeks, but so far it is off to a good start. I’m not even going to say now it’s all uber and amazing, but it just feels well constructed.

  44. skalpadda says:

    The first sets of quests seem a lot more and engaging than the ones you started out with in the previous expansion. There’s this feeling of momentum that wasn’t really there when I first set foot in Outland. Also, I’m not spending my first day in the game in an orange coloured desert killing orange demon boars and orange orcs.

    Oh, and the norse mythology influences are amazingly funny. Playing horde in Howling Fjord feels as if the zombies are invading Norway :)

  45. malkav11 says:

    My interest in WAR is indeed flagging a bit – not because the game itself is any worse than it was originally, but because I can’t seem to stick with MMOs for that long. WAR’s already doing quite well in keeping me this long. The other thing is that a perennial lack of tanks is preventing me from successfully doing the dungeons and PQs I’d like to – our four or five healer, one DPS groups are very impressively capable and all, but there are limits.

    However. WAR need not fear competition from WoW in *my* case. Blizzard lost my business before Burning Crusade even came out. Not because I disliked WoW. Heavens, I loved it. But because I am out $80 (my WoW CE) because of Blizzard’s extraordinarily poor customer service. Not going to hand them more of my money for another account to arbitrarily strip me of, thanks.

  46. Flint says:

    Okay, the Wrath Gate questline and especially its finale (including both the Wrathgate finale and the final quest of the continuation line afterwards) = one of the best and most epic quests ever in WoW.

    Expansion luff.

  47. DBeaver says:

    Erik: I’m pretty sure the title is a reference to the book “Our man in Havana” by Graham Greene, and so was the quote in Pulp Fiction.

    I enjoyed reading the article, even though I don’t tend to play MMO’s much. My problem with them is that the game worlds are, for technical reasons I think, usually rather bland. Both the need to create huge areas and the fact that those areas have to be rendered together with some hundred player models on an average computer have kept the pixel count rather low. I like immersion when I play, and therefore usually go for FPS’s. But reading the last part of the article made me curious. How much detail and beautiful small ideas are there, if you look closer?

  48. Kai says:

    What quest is that where you go through the catacombs with the bubble? Is it alliance only? I quit WoW several months ago in favor of finishing my thesis, but have a friend who’s trying to find that quest. And I’d like to see it, too.
    I must say, having becoming thoroughly unimpressed with WoW since Burning Crusade came out, WotLK is much more engaging. I absolutely love the new mechanics they’re trying to get working with the old system and keep requesting that my friend show me when she gets to certain parts, i.e. the Wrath Gate and the battle for the Undercity.
    Too bad I’d have to buy and play through Burning Crusade to get any of the goodies from WotLK, though.

  49. j says:

    If you take a put a piece of shit in a box and slap a guarantee on it you still have a piece of shit with a guarantee!

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