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Our Man In Northrend

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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