It's day one of the second BlizzCon in Los Angeles. Warlocks, elves and a particularly shaggy owlbeast are ambling around a convention centre next door to Disneyland, posing for photos. Korean mentalists are playing StarCraft at a rate of 300 actions per minute.
In the main hall, the second World Of Warcraft expansion Wrath Of The Lich King is being announced, and the several thousand people present are going, for the want of a better word, batshit. This despite the fact that the majority of them must have read this news when it leaked on to the Internet two days ago. BlizzCon has that effect on people. World Of Warcraft has that effect on people. And to some extent, Arthas Menethil has that effect on people.
Those of you who played Blizzard's RTS classic Warcraft III will know that Arthas was a human crown prince who fell under the spell of the undead Scourge, and became one of its Death Knights. Ultimately he fused with the necromancer Kel'Thuzad to become the Scourge's terrifying Lich King.
This pretty much makes him an Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader who went on to become Emperor but never lost his looks. It's probably the most compelling and well-told story in the Warcraft universe, and he's many fans' favourite character. He's certainly Blizzard's favourite.
"We're more excited about Wrath Of The Lich King than anything else we've worked on," explains WOW's amiably crazed lead designer Jeff Kaplan, alias Tigole, a former EverQuest guild master recruited by Blizzard. "Arthas is our boy, you know?"
Kaplan is determined to make him the star of the new WOW expansion, something he acknowledges they failed to do with Illidan, the villain of The Burning Crusade.
He promises that, rather than just being a remote end boss that only hardcore raiding fanatics will see, the Lich King will make his presence felt by all players, from the moment they set foot on his turf, Northrend. We don't know how exactly, but we suspect he'll follow them around and somersault over their heads while yelling "LOL N00BZ" in general chat. Or something to that effect.
You'll also be able to get under Arthas' skin by following in his footsteps and becoming a Death Knight yourself. But more on that later, because you've got ten new levels - the level cap is being raised to 80 - and a whole continent to fight across before you can get that far.
That continent is Northrend, Azeroth's chilly northern landmass. In a new twist, you'll have the choice of two entry points to Northrend and two different starting zones: Howling Fjord in the east and Borean Tundra in the west.
Blizzard is doing this partly to ease stress on the servers, but also to encourage players to take the trip twice. "Our technology team was pretty freaked out that there was going to be one zone that all the players funnelled into with Burning Crusade," says Kaplan. "It also makes for a better experience, as you can choose where you want to explore first. And when you bring that second character up, you can choose the other zone."
We got to explore Howling Fjord in the hands-on demo. It's an area of high, rolling plateaus hanging over dizzying cliffs, and the location of the Utgarde Keep instance. The Keep is the impressive stronghold of the Vrykul, a race of brutal Viking giants. We also saw clips of three other zones: the unstable Borean Tundra, with its lovable Tuskarr walrus-men; the forests of Grizzly Hills, home of the Furbolgs; and Dragonblight, a treacherous wilderness of ice where another major adversary - the Blue Dragonflight - resides.