Well, it's the moment of truth. I split out my reviews of the new inscription profession (verdict: feels like a cash sink) and the new Death Knight class (verdict: fun new class) for space, but now it's time for my beta review of the expansion as a whole.
I'll save y'all some time by putting the bottom line first:
Wrath of the Lich King is more WoW.
If you like the current direction of WoW, you can expect more of the same, and with ever improving production values and polish. If you don't like WoW, you're probably off playing Warhammer or some other game, and you're probably not going to want to come back.
Now then, on with the review.
Experience: I have logged a total of 5 days, 9 hours /played on my Death Knight, whom I leveled from level 55 through to 80. I also leveled Herbalism to 450 and Inscription to 400. Completed most or all of the solo content in Borean Tundra, Howling Fjord, Dragonblight, Grizzly Hills, Zul'Drak, and the Sholazar Basin. Completed a substantial portion of the solo content in Icecrown and the Storm Peaks. (That would be all of the outdoor zones in Northrend, presuming they don't add significant amounts of content to Crystalsong Forest at some point.) Did not participate in group or instance content.
Massively Single Player
Northrend: It's like Mordor, but more blue and icy.
World of Warcraft has been criticized as a "massively single player" game due to the large portion of its content that is soloable, and the resulting tendency for players to reach its level cap with no idea of how to handle their characters in a group. That said, the game's second expansion is hardly the time to reverse the focus of the entire game, so Northrend is fully soloable.
The good news, if you like solo PVE in WoW, is that the solo PVE is better than ever. Quests offer a variety of storylines, mechanics, and changes of scenery. My view of the exp curve is probably distorted by the several times Blizzard adjusted it during the beta, but my impression is that, like Outland before it, it flows well, with content coming at you fast enough for you to level up via quests alone. Like TBC, some of the major solo quest lines come to a screeching halt against a wall of group-only content that forces you to look for groups or abandon the quest. However, other quests find a way to make victory over tough mobs possible, mostly via the vehicle system.
One random note is that, with the amount of exp required to gain each level rising substantially as players hit Northrend, rested exp plays a larger role than ever before. Warhammer has a rested exp system too, but Mythic has stated that the rate at which you earn rested state slows down as you get to higher levels (as more overall experience is required per level). Blizzard has left their rested state as it has been for four years, at a flat rate of 5% of your exp bar flipping to rested state every eight hours spent in a inn/city (whether or not you're online). I basically never ran out of rested state in Northrend, as I couldn't spend it fast enough. The downside is that, if you do, for some reason, insist on trying to power through to the level cap in marathon sessions, you can expect to have a much harder time as you run out of rested state and effectively lose half of the exp value of all the mobs you kill.
The advantage of having a four year old engine is that Blizzard can keep adding new tricks to their toolboxes. Last expansion, we saw flying mounts and daily quests. This time out, we see a two major advances - a unified user interface for vehicles/turrets and something called "phasing".
The vehicle interface is used for quests where players ride something (which may or may not be mechanical) and does a lot to ease the learning curves involved - you may not have seen that particular vehicle's action bar before, but it'll be relatively easy to learn what it does. In addition to one-time uses for quests, some player mounts (notably the engineering motorcycles, and a Wooly Mammoth caravan complete with room for other player passengers and a bazaar of vendors) have the vehicle UI and have their own separate HP bars.
As to "phasing" for the first time, the plot of the game can actually advance. For example, a questline involving a military campaign can actually have the friendly NPC's advancing forward as you complete quests. Quests can literally offer an entire town as a reward, as well as flight masters, vendors, etc. It's a nice touch to add to a game where Katryna Prestor got to sit in the Stormwind Throne room for literally years after players started hanging the head of Onyxia from the city gates.
The NPC who gave me this questline implied that I would have to sneak/fight my way to the giant rhino. Instead, I swooped in on my mount. I'm probably supposed to be down on the ground right about now, scared of the battle unfolding around me, but instead I'm happy flying above the fray.
Speaking of advances, last expansion's big ticket feature/gold sink is back, well, once you pay an NPC 1000 gold anyway, and available at level 77. Last time out, most players didn't get to fly until they were mostly done with the solo content of the expansion. This time, you'll be mounting up and dropping in to snipe the quest target and fly away for three whole levels (plus the remaining level 80 stuff). IMO, actually giving players controllable flying mounts permanently was a mistake. It's a mistake Blizzard cannot take back now that they used it as the last expansion's major gold sink, but it's something that really detracts from the content in the game.
Player Vs Developer Time: Incentives in Northrend
Tabard reward for exploring all of Azeroth (and Outland), delivered to your mailbox when you complete the achievements.
For the first time, it really feels like Blizzard has actually PLANNED the level-capped progression of the game. Consider:
- Daily quests are present in every zone, and appear to offer most, if not all, of the useful reputations in the expansion.
- Say what you will about Kalgan's plan for PVP being derivative of Warhammer, but it indicates that Blizzard actually has a plan for getting players from leveling gear to crafted PVP gear to honor-only gear to arena gear.
- Raiding has carefully been set out in two tiers, with staggered drop quality in each tier (so that it's worth a 25-man raider's time to go hit the 10-man zones if they're lagging in some upgrade, while offering meaningful progression for 10-man raiders).
- Achievements have been set up to commemorate all sorts of misc activities that previously went unrecognized (and with purely cosmetic rewards, meaning that there are few balance issues involved).
- Even straight up cash money is good for stuff; Blizzard has included a fair number of vanity items in Dalaran including mounts, a very expensive ring that serves as a second Hearthstone, etc.
If you're a mage and you have 3.5K to burn, this vendor will happily sell you a new Polymorph variant and some Arcane Intellect variants with a unique icon. Of course, us longtime mages may remember the infamous patch in which the only attention the class got was a new icon for the mage armor buff, so I suppose we should be thrilled.
Anyway, overall the PVD decisions in Northrend have been fine; there's almost certainly something that any individual player would want that is somehow within their grasp.
One incentive that's raid-only
There is one point, however, that doesn't sit very well with me. Blizzard has implemented so-called "Heirloom" items, primarily weapons, which are bound to your account rather than your character, and thus can be enchanted (pre-TBC stuff only) and sent on to your alts to level with from level one on; the weapon stats scale as you advance. The items are even named after famous gear from the level 60 days, such as the Dwarven Hand Cannon or the Arcanite Reaper. The catch? These items are only available for badges. Raid badges, if I'm not mistaken.
This makes absolutely no sense; raiders probably want to be spending their badges on stuff they can actually raid with, while non-raiders have alts they'd love to twink out too. Blizzard will probably get around to fixing this eventually (in the "please come back and roll alts instead of canceling" patch, which I predict will also allow higher starting levels for the classic WoW classes sometime in 2009), but it's irritating that Blizzard still has this mindset that only group content is worthy of the best rewards. That's doubly true when you're talking about items that are basically about leveling low level alts who are no threat to anyone's progression.
More polish and features
The token storage UI, which will hopefully expand to cover the rest of the various soulbound currencies in the game eventually....
Wrath brings in a fair number of other features and UI tweaks, notably the mount/pet system, the barber shops, and the token storage system. There's nothing ground-breaking here, but at least it shows some awareness of problems players actually complain about, such as bag space. I'm guessing that the promised dual talent spec technology, along with the less-promised resist gear/outfit storage system, will be coming post-launch to an expansion near you.
Still, the mount/pet changes at least are a step in the right direction. I suppose being limited to a mount per bag slot makes your decision on what to ride a bit more meaningful; you had a range of choices and you chose the blue one. That said, having to devote a precious bank slot to your unused mounts (and pets) was a real deterrent to collecting, and why would Blizzard want to deter collectors? This is also an area where the achievement system really opens up a new pass-time for people who are so-inclined. Before you couldn't really collect things, and now you can, AND you get a reward for doing so.
Like I said up top, Wrath is the game's second expansion, and it's not a time for rocking the boat. If your biggest complaint about World of Warcraft is that you're all out of World of Warcraft (a non-trivial market), Wrath is more of a good thing. I will also say that the game's single player experience is better than ever, and might be worth your time even if you don't have plans to continue past the level cap. I've already played through the thing once, and I'm definitely going to give it another pass.
Arthas wants YOU.... to buy his expansion.