Four years and well beyond 10 million subscriptions after the release of World of Warcraft, Blizzard's phenomenally successful massively multiplayer online role-playing game is barely recognizable as the same game that sold almost a quarter of a million copies in its first 24 hours. The game has been in a near-constant state of evolution since 2004, and up until last month, the steady flow of new features and improvements had all been patched in for free, with only one exception: the Burning Crusade expansion pack that's required to play Wrath of the Lich King. The recently released second expansion pack doesn't boast as many back-of-the-box bullet points as its predecessor, and it doesn't offer anything for new players, but if you're still playing WOW or you're looking for an excuse to get back into it, this thrilling new adventure is not to be missed.
All of the new content in Wrath of the Lich King comes with a character-level requirement. You can't play the new death knight hero class until one of your existing characters reaches level 55, and you can't attempt any quests in the new Northrend continent until you're at level 68. The most significant exception to this rule would have been the new inscription-crafting profession, but that ended up being patched in shortly before the expansion's release alongside new talents for every character class in the game, an Xbox Live-style achievements system, barbershops, an extremely useful in-game calendar, and numerous user-interface improvements. There's new content for low-level players, but you don't need the expansion pack to get it.
Mounts and vehicles feature in a number of the new quests.
Regardless of where you choose to start your Wrath of the Lich King adventure, it'll quickly become apparent that considerable effort has gone into making the new content compelling. There are still plenty of fetch quests, and there's certainly no shortage of non-player characters looking for heroes to kill a certain number of whichever species or faction they have a beef with. Liberally sprinkled in among those genre requisites, though, are some quite different challenges that not only add some much-needed variety but, in some cases, also do a great job of immersing you in Warcraft's rich lore. Previously, WOW relied on you reading the briefings that bookend quests for its storytelling, but in Wrath of the Lich King, it's often the quests themselves that get the job done along with a handful of in-game cutscenes. You might go into the expansion not knowing your Arthas from your elbow, but after questing in Northrend for a while, you'll inevitably gain some understanding of just why the world of Warcraft needs so many heroes.
Playing through the death knight's starting area also exposes you to some interesting Warcraft lore, and doing so is recommended even if you have no intention of playing the new class beyond that point. It's only fair to warn you that death knights can be tough to put down, though; not only are they very powerful and fun to play, but they also start at level 55, they get a free epic mount, and they're fully decked out with great-looking blue (rare) gear by the time they leave their starter area at level 58 or so. It's unfortunate that you need to gain another 10 levels playing through Burning Crusade content before you can accept any quests in Northrend, but the death knight is such a powerful class with so little downtime that you can get through it relatively quickly. Players sticking with their nonhero classes will almost certainly feel compelled to tell you that your new death knight is overpowered at some point, and they're right, at least as far as leveling and questing is concerned. The death knight is also one of the more complex classes to play well, and unfortunately it's too soon to comment on how they fare in player-versus-player scenarios.
Death knights look overpowered from day one for a reason.
When your death knight or one of your preexisting characters reaches level 68, you need to get yourself to Northrend as soon as possible. Not only is the new continent epic in scale and more impressive-looking than any of the game's previous locales, but it's also bursting with hundreds of quests to complete for the numerous new races and factions that you'll encounter there. To give you some idea of just how many quests there are in Wrath of the Lich King, you need to complete at least 875 of them to unlock the questing achievements scattered across all eight of Northrend's major regions. There's so much new content that you could conceivably level two characters from 70 to 80 without having to repeat many of the same quests, though some of them are so good that you'll want to.
New in Wrath of the Lich King are numerous quests in which you complete objectives at the controls of a mount or vehicle. Quest-specific rides include dragons, mammoths, airplanes, bipedal mechs, and even a giant. The controls are slightly different for all of them, but they're never complicated and they're always clearly displayed onscreen as soon as you climb aboard. Another gameplay mechanic that's used frequently in new quests is phasing, which lets you see areas of the world differently from other players. Similar to how the world appears in gray scale when you die and have to run back to your corpse as a ghost, phasing quests often apply some kind of visual filter to the environment and let you interact with NPCs in different ways. Wrath of the Lich King takes this idea to a whole new level. By completing certain quests, you trigger dramatic changes to the environment that are the same for all players who have completed said quest, but for players who have yet to do so, the world still exists in its original form. Whether this is achieved though technical wizardry or just straight-up magic is unclear, but its integration is seamless, and it's incredibly satisfying to feel like your actions are having a significant impact on the world around you.
Dungeons and the huge bosses inside them are more accessible for casual players than ever before.
However, not every quest in Wrath of the Lich King is so fulfilling, mostly because the vast majority of them simply aren't challenging. When accepting a quest, you rarely have to question if you can complete it; you just need to figure out when you can fit it into your jam-packed hero schedule. There are quests for which you need to group up with other players, but even these aren't nearly as challenging as similar offerings in the pre-Lich King game. It's no secret that Blizzard wants to make content that's accessible to the vast majority of WOW players rather than just to those in elite raiding guilds, and in this regard the new expansion is undoubtedly a success, but at times the new content feels a little too easy. There are a dozen new dungeons designed for five players, and every one of them can be beaten in about an hour by a reasonably good group. To get your hands on the best loot dropped by bosses, though, you need to play through those same dungeons on the heroic difficulty setting, which makes all of the enemies tougher and is available only to players who have hit the new level-80 cap.