You could call it The Long Walk. I'm sitting in a near characterless training room deep within Blizzard's headquarters, ready to jump into the latest version of Wrath of the Lich King. We're fresh off the zeppelin, moored at Northrend's eastern tip. This is Howling Fjord, one of two landing zones available for level 70 players to enter Northrend.
It is nothing short of spectacular: giant cliffs hug a long lake, paths cut into their sides. Across the chasm lies a crashed zeppelin, perpetually ablaze. Buzzing the chasm are orcish dragon riders, flinging boulders at the villagers below. The path into the fjord begins at Vengeance Landing, a small harbour cut into the southern edge. Vengeance Landing is a Forsaken town, the race of undead allied with the Horde. The Forsaken have never had their own architecture in World of Warcraft; they've always squatted on or under Alliance villages or castles (see: the Undercity). You could see Wrath of the Lich King as their coming-out party: they've finally got their own look (a cross between mad-scientist plasma orb chic and spiky metal goth), and they'll be leading the Horde fight against the Undead Scourge.
The Scourge are at the heart of Lich King's story. At the northernmost tip of Northrend sits Arthas, a former prince who lost his mind during the events of Warcraft III. In the opening scenes of that game, he betrayed his father, his friends and his humanity by bringing the undead plague to the human capital of Lordaeron. Eventually, he fled to Northrend, sat behind a great big magic wall called a Wrath Gate, and joined with a god to become the Lich King. Now, finally, the combined might of the Alliance and Horde are setting out to bring him down, once and for all.
That story begins immediately: the very first Horde quest chain in Vengeance Landing sees you fighting off an Alliance ambush. Your first job is to visit a line of gunners, popping off shots at a small Alliance camp. The Horde soldiers aren't making any progress, because of the cannons perched atop the fortifications. To help the infantry, you're sent by bat to the navy, under attack offshore. The Horde sailors are suffering under the same ambush - your second quest is to clear their decks to make room for the support guns to fire.
The last part: back to dry land, and a quest to drop flares on the Alliance defences, to aid the sighting of those naval guns.
Already, the improvement in Wrath of the Lich King's design is clear: the questing has rhythm and momentum: just one more objective...
But the follow-up quests can wait. We're here for the tour, remember? The path from Vengeance Landing starts with a lift that rises up into the cliffs - a metal chain extending from a carved-out dragon's head. At the top, a small Horde force are in perpetual battle with local warlords: the viking-ish Vrykule. We ignore the fight and start stalking the paths, looking for signposts pointing into the valley below.
There's one ahead: and sitting atop it, a raven. Cute. Then the raven flaps his wings and flies off. It joins another, circling the forest canopy. Blizzard have been busy adding small atmospheric touches here and there. The zeppelin on fire hanging above Howling Fjord is another.
At the base of Howling Fjord is the first Lich King five-man dungeon, Utgarde Keep. You enter it through a giant stone skull, bashing your way through the Vrykule villages that flank the entrance. Inside, the Vrykule are offering up their hardiest warriors to the Lich King. You'll fight them through three separate instances: a level 70 five-man, Utgarde Catacombs (expect zombies), a level 80 five-man (Utgarde Pinnacle) and a 10- and 25-man raid dungeon.