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.