The 12 Games of Christmas: Wrath of the Lich King

By Alec Meer on December 23rd, 2008 at 3:02 pm.

What has tinsel got to do with Christmas anyway? I’m pretty sure Bethlehem wasn’t big on coloured foil. No matter – what does matter is what game lurks beneath its festive glint.

For the ninth game of Christmas, my true blog gave to me…

Eighty levels of orc-bashing.

Yep – it’s World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King. Which, honestly, if you’d have told me we’d be including in our games of the year list a few months ago, I would have laughed at you. Then beaten you up and stolen your lunch. This was a superficially cynical expansion for an MMO that seemed fatally tired – yet it turned out to directly address half the stuff we’ve been complaining about WoW for over the last few years. Spooks!

Rather than yet another essay about Warcraft – there’s more than enough of those in the world – I hereby present Postcards from Northrend, a photo diary that will hopefully explain why I had such a good time in WOTLK. Go pictures!

Oh – if you haven’t yet played the now-legendary Wrathgate questline in Lich King and have any intention of doing so, scroll quickly past the first four pictures. There are a few spoilers for various quests throughout, too. WE ARE SO MEAN.

The climax of Wrathgate (if you’re playing Alliance) is a scripted pile-on into the Undercity, which has been invaded by rogue undead. You’re fighting at the side of the humans’ major champions, and while you know full well every bugger gets to do the same thing, it’s one of few times throughout the entirety of WoW that you feel like you’re truly involved in the fate of the world rather than just collecting bat teeth for a lazy bloke. Epic stuff.

For a brief, beautiful moment it looks as though the Alliance and Horde might finally kiss and make up, and it’s all thanks to you. Unfortunately, status quo has a horrible habit of re-establishing itself…

FMV? In the middle of a quest? Why, yes. And a big important one that essentially explains what’s going on in Lich King as a whole. It’s all terribly earnest, and remarkably bewildering if you don’t have a working knowledge of Azeroth’s major lore – but again, it’s that deliberate approach of making you, Johnny Everyplayer, feeling entirely involved in the fate of the entire world. It’s hiding a singleplayer game inside a multiplayer one – and while that’s ripping out some of the anything-goes explorative nature of MMOs, it definitely rescues WoW from the grind doldrums.

Dragons used to be WoW’s ultimate beast. In Lich King, they’re ten a penny – yet still an incredible sight for it. Seeing a whole bunch of these mighty bird-lizards shadowing the skies is the sort of top-notch epic fantasy that only a developer quite this confident would risk pulling off.

World of Warcraft still wins at hats.

Arthas – the fallen human prince who became Head Meanie the Lich King during Warcraft 3 – is all over this expansion. Various quests delve into his story, even retelling the events that led to his ‘orrible betrayal of humanity, complete with full speech. Normally, WoW tells its lore with endless reams of text, so taking a vested interest in relating the tale to players other than obsessive fans with an excessive tolerance for word-gabble makes a huge difference.

The engine gets a spot of spit and polish – the new lightning model made the headlines, but it’s the Imposter tech that increases the number of on-screen characters with canny cloning that probably makes the bigger difference.

As does this on-the-fly instancing tech that basically redraws sections of the world just for you. Other people may be wandering through the same area here, but they’ll just see some blokes stood around, and not the enormous skeletal dragon my quest is having me fight.

The slightly anachronistic sci-fi of Burning Crusade is pretty much left behind in favour of a – whisper it – more closely Warahmmerian vibe. Instead of spaceships – steamtanks!

Nothing beats being chased by something absolutely massive. Lich King does a lot of this, and more for mood and atmosphere than for challenge. Though I’ll be back for this big lad later, clearly.

The Northern Lights, but with more dragons and alabaster spires.

Top tip – turns out fantasy games can do forest types either than Green, Autumn, Snowy and Dead after all.

That is by far the biggest pair of leather hotpants I’ve ever seen. This guy’s cool as all hell.

At that embarrassing wedding I wrote about a while back. Names deleted to protect the innocent, and illiterate.

Arthas T. Lich King hisself, looking all mean and moody. He’s surprisingly short, however.

It’s worth rolling a Death Knight just for the introductory quest chain, which essentially throws every trick’n'gimmick the game has at you in the space of a couple of hours. It’s a game within a game, and its story even has a distinct and satisfying conclusion.

More of that zone-altering tech. Every Death Knight on this stage of the quest is ordered to go kill an innocent, who turns out to be a chum from before he got all spooky-voiced and dead-eyed. Only there’s a whole bunch of NPCs in the room in question, and it’s only the one of the same race as you who’s your victim-to-be. Any other Death Knights in this room would go talk to someone completely different, cutely.

That Imposter thingy at work. Yeah, they may look like plastic soldiers, but flying overhead a genuine army is quite the sight. Torching them with dragonbreath is even better.

In the new barber’s shop. Losing the bright green pigtails Samsa here’s had for about four years was oddly heartbreaking – but it was time for a change.

The key reason WOTLK looks so great is that Blizzard realised trying to make zones as outlandish as possible wasn’t the best course of action after all. Instead, they’ve focused on making a consistent, coherent world, and coming up with most possible visual depth for a traditional fantasy setting. Setting a forest aflame makes for something more spectacular and more in-keeping with the universe than the giant neon mushrooms and whatnot of Burning Crusade.

By contrast, the instances I’ve run so far haven’t been particularly interesting. Though the upside-down energy snow of the Nexus was quite pretty. It was a dreary experience, unfortunately.

Despite all these pretty screenshots, this is more representative of what I generally see. As a gnome rogue, my staple sight is staring up at a tall guy’s back, with a spew of numbers all over the screen. That’s why it’s good to sit back and take in the beautiful sights of Northrend from time to time.

A splendid quest: being fitted inside a robot scarecrow suit. Complete with rocket boosters. Impossible not to giggle delightedly at this one. Blizzard really have tried to add life and variety to their previously dour quests.

A visit to the spirit world reveals a horde of giant barbarians planning something hideous. It was a spooky experience – I could see them but they couldn’t see me, which meant I wove in and out of a vast crowd of towering guys who’d gladly murder me given the chance.

Oh, the aching post-modernism of it all. A quest that confusedly combines Big Lebowski and Robocop Six Million Dollar Man references: it’s so massively geeky that it’s embarassing. Yet also hugely charming.

One more gigant-o-poser for the road. Forunately, this one’s on my side.

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34 Comments »

  1. James G says:

    Yay! I’ve still managed to guess every game before the clickthrough, with the exception of Mass Effect on Day 1 when I hadn’tnoticed that there even was a game obscured by the snowflakes.

  2. l1ddl3monkey says:

    As the manager of an IT Helpdesk I can earnestly say that this release has contributed to more days off “sick” among my staff (weak willed MMORPG obsessed zombies that they are) than the winter vomiting virus. It is a sad indictment of life in the UK when people who are so sick they can hardly stand will come to work (so as not to bump up their Time Off Sick stats – at least WoW gives them a healthy respect for IRL stats) but gleefully pretend to be ill so they can sit at home pretending to be a sodding elf. Bah humbug etc etc

  3. Lars BR says:

    I think you mean 4.3 Million Euro Man in lieu of Robocop.

  4. Kua says:

    Alec, Apparently you just coined a new adjective. Good work.

  5. Seniath says:

    In other news, they just announced that they’ve broken the 11.5 million subscriber mark. What’s more interesting, however, is that they’ve “only” sold 4 million copies of Wrath (source).

  6. Schmung says:

    Things I will never understand number 2344 : WoW. I lived with a guy who played it and I just watched bewildered as he played it utterly unable to grasp how it was fun. Our office has at least four confirmed WoW addicts, but I suspect we may have some others still stuck in the closet.

  7. Pags says:

    It’s impossible for me to comment on any WoW related story without sounding completely condescending, so I just won’t (besides this comment). I did enjoy the Big Lebowski reference in that picture though, even if it was an achingly obvious one. Oh, and it was a 6 Million Dollar Man reference, not Robocop.

  8. Ixtab says:

    On a minorly related matter tinsel is supposed to represent the web of a spider that was woven over a cave entrance while Baby Jesus and Mary were inside so King Herod’s soldiers passed them by. Or atleast so I was told.

    On a more related note my brother recently got WoW and I still don’t really see the appeal of MMOs. Often I’ll think the idea is wonderful but when it comes to actually playing it is seems so lifeless. I guess plenty of people must like it though if it’s doing so well.

  9. AndrewC says:

    I heard that spiderweb story in relation to Mohammed. It’s a funny old world.

  10. Larington says:

    Hasn’t LOTRO been doing FMV mid quest for some time now (IE, since release), thus that isn’t particularly revolutionary for me at least…

  11. Meat Circus says:

    Once again, the Twelve Games of Christmas is poisoned with the foul taint of Meerpinion.

    There should be laws against this sort of thing.

  12. John Walker says:

    Once again the comments thread is poisoned by the aimless, tiresome trolling of Meat Circus. It’s Christmas, you miserable fuckface.

  13. Meat Circus says:

    Hey, it’s not my fault that I’m made of hatred.

  14. Donald Duck says:

    “Once again the comments thread is poisoned by the aimless, tiresome trolling of Meat Circus. It’s Christmas, you miserable fuckface.”
    Hahahaha

    Oh and merry Christmas and thanks for the bestest blog in the whole wide world!

  15. cullnean says:

    rofl

  16. The Hammer says:

    Personally, I’ve really enjoyed/am enjoying Wrath! It’s got a massive sense of scale, and the vast majority of new stuff is of a very high content. Some things, such as the early instances, the lack of variety in gear models (It has to be said though – that the looks of the levelling gear are simply fantastic. It’s just a shame they’re repeated so often), and some lack of continuity doing questing, are disappointments, but my love for WOW, my favourite game, has been renewed, partly because of the return to grounded fantasy, partly because of the new PVP and PVE concepts, and partly because of how much enthusiasm people have for the game. The latter bits of Burning Crusade were dreary (ugh. Quel’Danas…), but by gods, all is forgiven.

    Currently, my game of the year. It even beats Minotaur China Shop.

  17. chesh says:

    Incidentally, the first bits you talked about with the epic storylines are much of what keeps me attached to Final Fantasy XI, this many years out. Conversely, the mangled pop-culture references at the end are a great deal of what pushes me away from WoW. I find it immensely gratifying that, once we finally got actual /dance animations a year ago, all races do the same four dances, which are inspired by (but not copied from) traditional real dance, but each with their own particular mannerisms.
    All that said, I had no idea about the storyline aspects of WotLK, which is almost enough for me to consider trying it. Pity about the grind I’d need to get up to the interesting stuff.

  18. Jon says:

    I happen to like Meerpinion. And now love Walkercomebacks.

  19. Jochen Scheisse says:

    Meerpinions include liking Oblivion because parts of it were fun.

    This indicates that Meerpinions about music might include the sentence: “All in all I did not enjoy ‘Teen Bitch Pop Musical 5 – OST’ a lot, but to be fair: The mixing and mastering has been done very professionally and all of the musicians seem to be technically more than able to deliver the stale and uninspired rythms. ”

    LIPSTICK ON A CORPSE, MEER! WHERE R UR SUNGLASSES! God sorry for that, I don’t know…I’m just so angry recently…

  20. malkav11 says:

    Goddamnit. Stop making me want to go back to WoW.

  21. Sam says:

    As with others in this thread, I do wish I could enjoy playing WoW. Somehow, it just doesn’t work for me…

  22. The Unshaven says:

    Tinsel has nothing to do with christmas and everything to do with the ritual where you slay folks from an enemy village and display their coily innards on trees as if to say “Come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough, but you are not, for these are guts. Festive guts. Don’t be festive gut donors. Because we’re that hard. GUTS.”

  23. Timofee says:

    I’m pleased to say I finally beat my WoW addiction after reaching level 76 on my main and the fairly dour Zul’Drak zone.

    Zul’Drak didn’t help after the beauty of Grizzly Hills, but I had something of an existential crisis about what was the point of ploughing hours and hours (4hrs and up each day) into a game where I didn’t really enjoy the day to day gameplay, more just the materialism of getting new stuff. Plus I was excited about WotLK as I came to the WoW thang late after Burning Crusade was already out and so this was finally my chance to be amongst the top echelon of players in terms of gear etc, but unfortunately having to hold down a real job meant I was already seriously behind after 3 or 4 days.

    I terms of the Wrathgate questline; I really wanted to like this, and on some level I did, but contrary to the experiences of Alec and a lot of others was, for me, a feeling of being completely disconnected. Unfortunately when I did it no others were in my instance (or phase or whatever they call it) but even so it was obvious that I wasn’t really needed so I pretty much spent my time watching lots of guys pile on Thrall. Plus as a ‘lock the general enemies died far too quickly for me to really do anything useful so I ending up spamming hellfire and waiting for another group to die.

    I genuinely feel I’ve reclaimed a large chunk of my life by quitting WoW, it’s fantastic.

  24. Rei Onryou says:

    As a non-WoW player (one of the few WoW-virgins), I can’t help but get a distinct Guild Wars feeling from those screenshots and what was stated above. The Eye of the North expansion was a snowy setting, had a burning forest and is full of pop references. Plus, from what your saying, the most important questlines have a degree of instancing.

    Am I wrong for making these connections? Admittedly, every fantasy setting has attempted the themes mentioned anyway, but it appears to me that the only way to make a truly compelling “you’re a hero even though your surrounded by 11 million other heroes” is to involve a form of instancing?

    I really do want to see a developer attempt a new version of EvE and see how that works out. At least then the game evolves to the players whims and things remain interesting. Or at least it makes good reading thanks to Jim’s reporting.

  25. MeestaNob! says:

    I’ve never gotten into the whole WoW thing. I tried a 10 day trial and really didn’t get much out of it.

    Lemmie ask: if I were to find a group of WoW players (WoWzers?) and play with them, would I find it more enjoyable? I only ask because I feel I may have gone about my trial all wrong, as tooling about solo in WoW seems equivalent to playing TF2 by myself.

  26. cuc says:

    Setting a forest aflame makes for something more spectacular and more in-keeping with the universe than the giant neon mushrooms and whatnot of Burning Crusade.
    To be fair (and nitpicking), the giant mushrooms first showed up in WC2 expansion pack, just not neon-coloured.

    Even though I don’t play WOW, I still kinda want to see those green Draenor seas in WOW, as well as more oil-based technology (AND dragon-releasing air carriers, which didn’t even made it into WC2). It’s as if Blizzard has retconned an entire type of natural resource out of existence!

  27. Nick says:

    What was with all the screenshots of WAR?

  28. malkav11 says:

    To clarify – I loved WoW a lot. I got bogged down in the mid-40s (pre-Burning Crusade) and was increasingly out of sync with my guild so I quit for a while. But I would have liked to go back, check out Burning Crusade, all that. And with the supposedly sped up pre-60 levelling I would probably be able to get past 43 or so (where I left off) by now. But….

    Sometime during that period of downtime, Blizzard decided to ban my account. My $80 Collector’s Edition account. If they notified me in any way, I never got it. And when I tried to dispute things when I found out about it, I got brushed off without explanation. So as much as I would sincerely love to play more WoW, I can’t help but feel that investing further money in an MMO run by them would be a decidedly foolish thing to do.

    So quit making me want to go back. ;P

  29. Caiman says:

    Fortunately the game failed to install for me, even after swapping for another new disk, and after a full re-install I discovered the reason for the failure was not having downloaded all the latest patches… something I would have thought was on the WotLK DVD – at least enough to actually prevent an install failure! I then discovered it would take about 3 days to download all the mammoth updates since BC (since I’d just done a full reinstall) and I ended up giving the game to someone else as a Christmas present thus saving myself from another completely wasted three weeks. Thank you Blizzard, because I was able to play the completely excellent King’s Bounty instead.

  30. Flint says:

    My game of the year. A shining example on how to make an expansion pack as well as how to make a MMO to actually tell stories instead of just doing the stereotypical lightly disguised grinding.

    And the soundtrack is utterly, utterly gorgeous.

    An unbelievably epic expansion.

  31. Catastrophe says:

    I’m in a similar situation to Timofee. My main is lvl73 and I’m kinda burnt out with all the grinding and gameplay I don’t really enjoy, only to get new “pixel stuff”.

    I enjoy playing along side a leveling partner but only have my sister who plays occasionally and her main is Alliance where mine is on Horde. (Level 73 Tauren Druid).

    I play a Draenai Shaman (lvl65) alongside her Mage.

    I just can’t stand the solo grind on my main at the moment.

    I feel most of the “fixes” and “additions” added in WOTLK that have been brought to Blizzards attention over a year ago should of been rolled out in free patches. Not wait over a year for a paid expansion to include a calendar!

  32. Leelad says:

    Worth mentioning that for a cheeky £12 you can cut the cock of your favorite toon and become a tranny. I actually am enjoying my new found pervertedness.

    Considering that you get a name change thrown in too and you can change everything aside from race and class it’s worth paying double if you where going to shell out for a name change.

  33. The Hammer says:

    @Catastrophe: The calendar is free. It came out with a free patch.

  34. Required says:

    “Forunately”?

    Ever heard of spell check?

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