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Thursday, September 27, 2007

World of WarCraft: Wrath of the Lich King Preview

We're still playing far too much of The Burning Crusade -- but, for some reason, Blizzard vice president of creative development Chris Metzen seems to be apologizing for it. "It had a lot of high-concept ideas, high-concept environments," he says, calling to mind the psychedelic mushrooms of Zangarmarsh, the tragic majesty of Tempest Keep, "but other than some really nice moments, there was nothing really personal about it." Never mind that MMOs are inherently aloof. Try as you might, you can't really personalize "killing" Illidan for the 17th time with 24 Ventrilo voices arguing over Family Guy reruns and whether the Crystal Spire of Karabor is meant for "Shammies" or "Pallies."

Or can you? Wrath of the Lich King, the second World of WarCraft expansion, opens up the icy continent of Northrend in Azeroth and -- if Metzen meets his new narrative goals -- a moral can of worms for players. The story picks up the loose ends left by the WarCraft III expansion The Frozen Throne ("It's an indirect sequel," says Metzen), as the Alliance and the Horde set sail to deal with a menace they've left unchecked for far too long: Arthas Menethil, once the noble crown prince of Lordaeron and Paladin of the Silver Hand -- now the all-powerful Lich King, bent on turning the entire world into an army of zombie slaves. And he could, if he so chose -- push the figurative button, and every man, woman, and child in the world would be part of his army of the damned. So what's stopping him, really?

"Arthas thinks it'd be funny if we all did it for him," says Metzen, hinting that the quest chains, the dungeon crawls, and the narrative hooks of Wrath may all just be part of Arthas' master plan. "He fought the good fight, fought as hard as he could, and ultimately he went nuts up in the far north. And the bad guy used him as the hammer. The bad guy sent him home to kill his dad and kill his people...and loose the Plague on everything he ever fought to protect. And all these crusading heroes, with all their epic gear and all their good intentions and all their nobility and all that horses***, flood into the far north...and he's pretty much [there to] reel 'em in."

The idea's certainly an enticing one. And as quick as Metzen is to point out that "this ain't Shakespeare," there's definitely something literate here: a narrative nod to the fact that in MMOs, the designers really are pulling the strings. "We want to add some layers of psychology that put you in strange moral situations of how you fight the good fight that mimic some of Arthas' own experiences.... By the time you reach level 80 [the expansion's new level cap], by the time you stand toe-to-toe with this bastard, do you still have your pretty principles and highfalutin morality, or is it a mirror reflection? Arthas is after that as much as global domination. It's a hook that makes it personal that Burning Crusade didn't have."

And it's not just quest text and WoWWiki entries that support the notion. A new Caverns of Time instance based on Arthas' infamous culling of Stratholme lets you literally follow in his footsteps, and WOW's first Hero Class -- the Death Knight -- lets you play as the anti-Paladin archetype that Arthas made infamous.

The Glaciers of Northrend - Cold Country

Unlike Outland, no great Dark Portal opens up to grant you entry into Northrend -- the day the expansion comes out, players level 68 and higher will simply be able to hop on a boat and sail north to the harsh new frontier.

And while we're used to Outland's surreal alien landscapes and Netherstorms, the thought of grinding from 70 to 80 on glaciers and permafrost leave us -- and Blizzard -- more than a bit cold.

"We wanted to make it really clear to players right off the bat that just because we're doing Northrend you're not going to play through all ice and snow zones," says lead level designer Cory Stockton. "When you go from zone to zone, they don't all need to look like Winterspring...they all need to have a different look and feel. Obviously, snow is a huge part of Northrend, but there are still ways to break that up for the players without just doing a whole bunch of icy zones." So while gray and white will certainly be among Wrath of the Lich King's primary colors, you can expect some variety -- burning forests, magical points of ancient power, and ruins of civilizations long thought lost. "It doesn't feel alien like Outland," says lead game designer Tom Chilton, "but it has its own character visually. The way we do these cliffs [is] different [from] the way we do cliffs in the Old World...throughout Northrend you'll see visual elements that are unique and different."
The new continent will be slightly larger than Outland, though the landmass is divided into more zones. "One of the things we're not doing this time is adding a playable race," says senior producer J. Allen Brack, leaving more bandwidth for a larger endgame area. For transportation, a series of seaports connect points along the lower shore of Northrend, with boats leaving regularly to take you from one end of the continent to the other. The usual flight points will shuttle you between friendly cities you've already visited, but how flying mounts earned in Outland fit into Northrend is still up in the air.

"We're still discussing how that's going to work," says Chilton. "We're not sure if you'll actually be able to use your flying mount right away. You might have to earn your 'Northrend flying badge' at a later level...learn how to defrost the wings, ya know? And whaddya know, you can only do that at, oh, level 78." While denying a privilege (even for a little while) that took some folks -- especially those who dropped a small fortune on epic flyers -- months to earn will undoubtedly outrage some players, for the designers, it's a necessary evil.

"It's fairly important to us when we introduce a new area that we're able to use level design to flow you from one place to another," says Chilton. "There are gameplay reasons to restrict your methods of travel. But it's not like your flying mount became're not going to have to pay 5,000 gold again to ride it."

And when you can't go overland? Go under, through the underground cavern of Azjol-Nerub, home of the spiderlike Nerubian race that was one of the first to succumb en masse to Arthas' Scourge (old-school WarCraft players know them as Crypt Fiends and Crypt Lords). "It's going to be exterior terrain, but underground," says Stockton of World of WarCraft's first subterranean zone. "It'll feel like you're in a cave, but it'll be gigantic. Buildings, temples -- a look and feel very similar to Naxxramas, since [the Nerubians] are where the Scourge stole that architecture from."

"There are still pockets of Nerubians down there literally fighting for their lives," adds Metzen, spilling that not every Nerubian heeds the call of the Lich King. "And we have any number of plans about how they play into things. What are they about? Are they principled, or even worse in some ways than the Scourge itself?"

Northrend will also play host to WOW's firstever outdoor PVP zone, Lake Wintergrasp, a (completely optional) center of Horde-versus- Alliance combat in the middle of the continent, which Chilton describes as a sort of noninstanced Battleground with destructible buildings -- and siege weapons for destroying them. "We're building different siege weapons for different races," says Chilton. "Meat Wagons, Steam Tanks, all that sort of stuff -- and we intend for them to have slightly different game mechanics...."

"The siege weapons don't move at a really high velocity," he continues, meaning a Steam Tank will be no substitute for a mount when trying to traverse the zone. "We want to encourage people to fight still," says Stockton. "We don't want them in the siege weapons the entire time." Cooperative driver/gunner mechanics were discussed but then quickly dismissed as a likely bore for either party.
"The two outdoor PVP concepts we felt really worked in The Burning Crusade were the Auchindoun spirit tower mechanic and the Halaa Nagrand PVP," says Chilton. PVP objectives completed in Lake Wintergrasp will have farreaching world effects: Capture a specific point, for example, and your faction will receive a longlasting buff that provides a worthwhile, but not necessarily essential, benefit. (Think Auchindoun's PVP spirit towers, which, when captured, allowed players in dungeons to collect special spirit shards from downed bosses.) "One of the things we liked about Auchindoun PVP was it lasted a significant amount of time," adds Stockton. "Six hours, so when you put in the commitment, it was there."
Caverns of Time: StratholmeBlizzard will be adding a new instance to the Caverns of Time, the dungeon in Tanaris that lets players actively participate in some famous (and infamous) moments in WarCraft history. The latest instance will let you follow in the footsteps of Arthas as he slaughters the town of Stratholme -- and, if other Caverns of Time instances are any indication, your goal won't be to stop him, but to make sure he finishes his task. Morally oogy, yes -- but how far is too far?
"It's the same kind of problem as in WarCraft III," says Metzen, who admits he hasn't figured out the exact mechanics of the encounter. "My first pitch for the [WC3] mission was that they weren't plagued yet -- so it's kind of a design dilemma. We don' t want to have players feel dirty....we don't want to put players in the situation where they' re hurting innocent people arbitrarily."
Arthas' appearance in the Caverns of Time won't be an isolated event. "We wish we [had] involved Illidan a bit more in the quest process from level 60 to 70," says lead game designer Tom Chilton. And so Arthas -- more than just a raid boss -- will check in on players repeatedly as they quest their way to level 80.
"When is a game more than a game?" says Metzen. "When it's making you feel creepy or elated or heroic -- it's not just a mechanical experience of clicking and looting and killing and raiding. We want to provide as much context and fiction and psychology as possible, at least the first time -- you'll probably roll this dungeon 80 times -- but the first time was a hoot!" A morally oogy hoot.

The Death Knight - WOW's first Hero Class

World of WarCraft's first new class is also its first ever Hero Class -- though the implementation may not be exactly what you were expecting. "One of the ideas we had for the Death Knight was that you'd convert your character into a Death Knight," says lead game designer Tom Chilton. "That you would stop being a level 80 Mage or whatever and become a Death Knight. But when we were running that around the team, it was too common a sentiment to feel like, well, I don't want to lose my existing character. What I'm going to actually do is create a level 1 Hunter that I intend to turn into a Death Knight, and power him to level 80...and this would become a weird hoop you were going to have to jump through."
So instead, you unlock the ability to create a Death Knight by finishing a quest chain -- comparable in difficulty to the Warlock's epic mount quest -- with any of your existing level 80 characters, at which point you can make an entirely new, wholly separate Hero Class character starting somewhere close to level 60 (the exact number hasn't been decided). "Some ideas that are still under consideration are that you'd start in Stratholme and have to break your way out of there," says Chilton. "Maybe you've come to your senses and said, 'Wait, I don't want to serve the Lich King.'"

Mechanically, the plate-wearing Death Knight fills a hybrid DPS (damage per second)/tanking role ("People are always looking for tanks and healers," says Chilton), though they have no mana, rage, or energy bar. Instead, Death Knights have a "rune sword" interface element beneath their health that displays six different runes of three different types -- Blood, Frost, and Unholy -- that you can mix and match whenever you're not in combat. Different Death Knight spells and abilities require different numbers of runes, and using a spell darkens the required runes for a set cooldown time. An ability called Army of Dead, for example, summons a small army of undead to pull aggro -- and that might require one Unholy rune. Death and Decay, an area-effect spell Blizzard is planning, may require one Unholy and one Blood.
"The current idea we're playing with is you have a fixed time, say 10 seconds, for a rune to fade back in and become usable again," says Chilton. "And there are potentially things you can do to speed that up or immediately light up runes. We have this one idea for an ability called Blood Boil -- it's a damage-over-time ability, and after the end of the duration, it lights up two of your Blood runes."
In general, Blood abilities are damageoriented, Frost is control-oriented, and Unholy contains utility and damage-over-time mechanics, but that's not a hard and fast rule. "We don't want to pigeonhole it to the point where when you're tanking you use all Frost runes, or when you're DPSing you use all blood runes.... There are inherently good reasons to use a mix, and even if you have at least one rune type on the bar, you'll have access to all your abilities should it become necessary."
What we still don't know: what talents they'll have, what races you can be, or whether you'll be able to make multiple Death Knights across multiple servers by completing the quest just once. But the Death Knight -- and likely any other Hero Classes Blizzard introduces later -- won't be more powerful than the existing classes...just different. An advanced alt, sans low-level grinding.
New Profession: InscriptionBurning Crusade introduced Jewelcrafting, which allowed players to customize their gear; Wrath's new profession, Inscription, lets you customize the abilities and skills in your spellbook. "You're permanently changing your spell kit," says lead game designer Tom Chilton. "You might find a couple different recipes to inscribe your Fireball with increased crit chance, or increased damage, or faster cast time, or lower mana cost -- so it's almost like a talent system within the profession system. Only it's more based around choices you make for an individual spell rather than affecting your character as a whole." Unlike Enchanters, Inscribers will be able to sell physical product (creating tradeable "scrolls," for example, from ink, paper, and other reagents). Only a handful of core spells will be customizable in this fashion.don.t expect to extend the range of your Priest's Mind Vision; do expect to extend the duration of your Hunter's Freezing Trap.