Preview: World of WarCraft: Wrath of the Lich King hands-on update

All raiding dungeons will have 10- and 25-man modes! The Death Knight can summon a minion! You will not be released from your addiction!

The chat screen text when you enter the new World of WarCraft expansion says it all: Welcome to Northrend, land of the ghoul and home of the undead!

Ten million gamers have immersed themselves in WoW, which has consumed almost the entire PC gaming audience since its release three and a half years ago. Part video game, part sociological experiment, part alternative lifestyle and part pure crack, nothing before WoW has captured the imaginations of gamers on such a massive worldwide scale, and its hungry fans have been salivating for more since the release of the first expansion, The Burning Crusade, early last year. With the world waiting to see what Blizzard will do next, the curtains have been raised on several stunning aspects of the second expansion, Wrath of the Lich King.

We headed to the sprawling new Blizzard Entertainment campus in Alton, CA for a media hands-on day with WOTLK expansion, and the headlines came fast and furious as we took an airborne tour over Northrend in Blizzard's spiffy 40-seater theater, accessed through their formidable museum, which is overstuffed with Game of the Year awards. Building a Better WoW

If there was a consistent theme to the day, it was that the Blizzard developers have learned from their mistakes, and their successes. Jeffrey Kaplan, lead game designer of WOTLK, walked us through an airborne tour of Northrend while dropping huge news updates like he was on a daily bombing run.

We arrived in Vengeance Landing, the Horde starting point in Howling Fjord, one of two entry zones into Northrend. A boat path connects this area to the Borean Tundra, the other starting zone. Two entry points gives players plenty of options and variety. Capital cities in Azeroth will connect to different landing points in Northrend.

We took a pass over the Ice Caverns, a level 70 five-man dungeon that's part of a cluster of instances. This run will include four bosses and, like all of the WOTLK dungeons, is designed to be completed in about an hour. Kaplan explained that Blizzard is very pleased with the success of the heroic mode system introduced in Burning Crusade, and so all of the dungeons will have these harder variations. And not only will they be expanding the Badge of Justice system, but now all heroic dungeons' loot will be itemized as its own tier.

We continued our tour over scenic Northrend, finding old friends wherever we turned. There's the Grizzly Hills, a redwood forest-type zone where the Venture Company have begun deforestation. There's the Scarlet Onslaught, the next iteration of the Scarlet Crusade, fresh out of their famous monastery. There's Sholazar Basin, the sister zone to Un'Goro Crater, with gigantic pylons sporting power crystals. These were apparently built by the Titans, the unseen catalysts of WoW lore, whose storyline will be expanded in WOTLK. And more old friends will be returning: the furbolg, murlocs and werewolveser, sorryworgen all gain expanded storylines, including the return of worgen patriarch Arugal and a new village with a furry secret. You'll also meet the Ice Trolls and their mysterious city of Zul'drak, and discover what dark secret these new trolls are hiding that has enabled them to fight back the Scourge. The Ice Trolls are a major part of WOTLK's storylineyou'll find out where the trolls' bat and raptor mounts come from, fight a gigantic T-Rex boss and fight your way through an entire zone designed around the majestic peak of Gun'drak. Let's just hope Blizzard figures out a way for players to slip 'n slide through their massive aqueduct...

It's nice to see all of these familiar characters that we left behind for the Outlands, but you can't mistake this for classic WoW, because all of the inhabitants of Northrend are being corrupted by the evil of Arthas' Scourge. Hovering Necropolises over the lands are an ever-present reminder of their threat. And there are plenty other new elements in WOTLK... Rise of the Death Knight

The much-ballyhooed Death Knight is the first heroic class in WoW. A player is able to unlock one DK slot on each server where they have at least a level 55 toon. The DK can be any race and starts at level 55 with a series of quests that explain the DK's storyline and introduce you to his powers. The DK seems designed to zip up to level 70, thanks to stronger starting capabilities and free basic and epic Deathcharger mounts.

The DK, designed as a tanking or DPS class most effective against spellcasters, uses a rune system as their resource mechanic. The player customizes which six runes they have available from Unholy, Frost and Blood types. These runes allow them to use special abilities and they replenish over a period of time, like a rogue's energy bar. Spent runes also generate runic power, which works like a warrior's rage, and allow them to cast spells like the trapping Chains of Ice or Plague Strike, which inflicts disease upon their enemy. They can also execute combination attacks based on how many disease buffs they've inflicted. Grip of Death is a sort of tractor-beam spell that yanks the DK's enemy toward him as a method of pulling. The DK also can choose between Unholy, Frost or Blood presences, which grant buffs to specific roles in combat, like a warrior's stances.

The most exciting aspect of the Death Knight, however, is his ability to raise a ghoul guardian from nearby corpses to fight by his side. The big news here is that he can also raise ghouls from friendly bodies, and the player of his party member will be able to control the risen ghoul and use all of their abilities.

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Hugh Sterbakov

GamePro (online)
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