Believe it or not, it's been four years since World of Warcraft opened its awaiting arms to would-be adventurers, and nearly two years since its first expansion, The Burning Crusade. Regardless of this slightly languid release schedule, WOW continues to be wildly popular, and thus Blizzard are willing to swing the punch of an expansion at the most competitive time in gaming.
Expectations are high, otherwise respectable people are preparing to forget to use the toilet and eat, and over 11 million subscribers are desperate to hit the icy terrain of Northrend. Which is why it's slightly awkward to deliver this review. Wrath of the Lich King, while a phenomenally tight, well-built expansion, lacks the killer instinct and wow-factor (acronym and adjective) that both WOW and The Burning Crusade had.
Depending on what character you're using, WOTLK starts off with you either at odds with or working for the Lich King. And if you have a level 55 character, you'll be able to create a Death Knight, WOW's first hero class.
Beginning at 55, the initial experience of being a Death Knight introduces you to the class through a few hours of heavily story-driven quests, beginning above the Eastern Plaguelands in a necropolis known as Acherus: The Ebon Hold. This gigantic floating skull-palace houses your quests, your class-trainers, and the new rune forging (read: Death Knight-only buff application) system. Through these quests you level from 55 through to 59, and acquire as many talents as you would from level 10 onwards.
These quests are well-written, fun, and reasonably dramatic, ending with a large-scale battle against the forces of the Light, who eventually free you from the thrall of the titular undead demigod, carefully explaining how you can join the goodie-two-shoes Alliance. You'll even find yourself experiencing a little guilt as you do dirty work for Arthas (the titular Lich King) - killing innocents, stealing horses, and generally doing true, no-nonsense evil. This is refreshingly grim in comparison to some of WOW's somewhat reserved content, and will no doubt create a fair amount of grumbling among the moralistic.
Lich King is also an example of how well Blizzard does boxed-in, instance-based content. The instance that you (and other new Death Knights) work within constantly changes as you advance, with once-beautiful countryside becoming plagued and charred. You have a real connection to the world as you progress, gaining gear, levels, talents and a rather dapper steed, which causes dissonance when you reach the end, to be thrown back into the static, yet enjoyable, content of The Burning Crusade. Sadly, once you're past the initial stages, you'll have to move up to level 68 to enter Northrend. And, face it, in the last two years, we've already grinded ourselves enough alts to 70 to get tired of Outland.
Nevertheless, the Death Knight is an endearing, playable and endlessly resourceful class to both play with, as their ability to (when specialised in Blood Talents) solo makes Outland that bit more palatable. That, and those of you who need to catch up to 68 to hit the icy waters will have a slew of grumpy new friends to level up with.
Entering Northrend is done by zeppelin or boat, depending on whether you're Alliance or Horde, to either the Howling Fjord (accessed by Menethil Harbour or the Undercity) or Borean Tundra (accessed through Stormwind
or Durotar). The Fjord's Valgarde houses the Alliance dangerously close to the newly-awoken Viking giants, the vrykul, while the Horde end up doing more bitch work for the Forsaken at New Agamand. In the Tundra, the Horde's Vengeance Landing is immediately accessible, as is the impressive Warsong Hold, while Valiance Keep is all that stands between the Alliance and a swift reaming by the ever-more-bold undead Scourge.