The Burning Crusade was just the first expansion in WoW's history, and though it brought many things to love, as always, there were tweaks to be made. So how do you follow up a well-put-together expansion featuring a host of memorable villains from Warcraft III? Oh, that's easy enough. To top Illidan's appearance, you bring in the villain he couldn't defeat -- you bring in the Lich King.
Ever since the final scene of The Frozen Throne, Warcraft fans wondered just what happened to Arthas after he placed the Lich King's helm on his head and took an icy seat. In Wrath of the Lich King, they were about to find out. Featuring an all-new continent with new zones to play through, Wrath also introduced the first new hero class to the game, the death knight. In the wake of The Burning Crusade, Wrath had a lot to live up to. It did that and more, paving the way for more accessibility to raids, more endgame content and new lore, to boot. Many of the players in Cataclysm today got their start in Wrath of the Lich King, and there's plenty of things to love about it -- far too many points to list. But we'll give you five of them!
5. Seamless questing
The days of having to travel halfway across the world and back again to complete a simple quest were completely obliterated in Wrath of the Lich King. Questing in Wrath was a streamlined experience merged with storytelling. Each zone had its own defined storyline, and each storyline was neatly divided into quest hubs along the zone. Rather than merely picking up zhevra hooves or performing otherwise menial tasks, players were taken on a progressive, purposeful journey through each zone. Whether you were Alliance players discovering the origins of the human race or Horde players inducting taunka into the Horde, each faction had its own unique purpose for being in each zone of Northrend.
But those purposes all tied in to the ultimate conflict: the battle happening in Icecrown and the final assault against the Lich King. That wasn't to say that there weren't other tasks to deal with in Wrath of the Lich King; Malygos' war with the rest of the Aspects and the mages of Dalaran was another conflict highlighted in Wrath as well. Yet the primary focus of the expansion, from the first trailer to the last, was always the Lich King and the Lich King's defeat.
The way that focus was handled was brilliantly done. Players started out on the shores of Northrend, each zone feeding seamlessly into the next. But the zones, and Wrath, were shining examples of layered storytelling. Sure, each zone had its own unique storyline. But behind that storyline was a smaller thread that fed into the main Lich King storyline. By layering the storytelling in this fashion, Wrath had a kind of purposeful drive to it, even more so than the Burning Crusade.
4. The nostalgia factor
After two years in "outer space," players were ready to return home -- and the familiar faces of classic WoW were there to greet them, in slightly different context. Well-known figures from classic WoW like Bolvar Fordragon, Gryan Stoutmantle, and Varok Saurfang all waited to welcome the return of heroic players from Outland. But it didn't stop with classic faces. Characters from The Burning Crusade made their way to Northend as well, including Garrosh Hellscream, Budd Nedreck, and Asric and Jadaar, whose bickering had been a constant source of amusement for those who wandered Shattrath City. And even Hemet Nesingwary, whose exploits spanned two expansions, made a triumphant return in Wrath.
It wasn't just that those faces were present -- it was that those faces remembered you. Bolvar Fordragon recognized players who had completed the quest to unmask Onyxia in classic. Gryan recognized players who'd completed the People's Militia quests in Westfall. And Saurfang had different responses to players who'd turned in the head of Nefarian and the rare players who carried the Scarab Lord title. That moment of recognition was a moment of unexpected joy for many players.
But it wasn't just the nostalgia of classic WoW that was brought to the forefront. Wrath of the Lich King and the exploits in Northrend directly tied into the events of Warcraft III. Throughout the leveling experience, players experienced reminders of the story from the classic RTS game. From the memory of the first moment Arthas' hand touched Frostmourne, to the fight between Arthas and Illidan, to the Caverns of Time instance that let players play through the purging of Stratholme, Wrath was a return to the comfort of days and stories past.
3. World development
The nostalgia was nice and the questing was fantastic, but Wrath did more than just streamline quests and offer up a unique kind of nostalgia for Warcraft fans. In The Burning Crusade, we finally began to see a little movement in the world of Outland -- NPCs that appeared to have lives of their own, storylines that affected entire zones. Wrath took that progressive storytelling one step further and completely blew it out of the water. Where The Burning Crusade had a few brief moments of interactive storytelling, Wrath ran with it, from beginning to end.
Faction leaders were no longer relegated to their capital cities; they were out in the world, traveling and fighting the war against the Lich King alongside players. Horde players actively recruited a new race, the taunka, into the Horde. Alliance players delved into the history of the Lich King, and the origins of both the human and gnomish races. Both sides clashed in the climatic battle at the Wrathgate and the invasion of the Undercity immediately after.
And the story of the conflict that erupted between Alliance and Horde continued through the introductions of raids, and the cinematics that accompanied those raids. The Ulduar cinematic shone as not just an introduction to a new zone, but the introduction of a clash of personalities that would carry all the way into Cataclysm and beyond. In Icecrown, the clash came to the forefront, with both sides fighting their way through endless Scourge -- and each other -- in a race to finally put an end to the Lich King.
Through phasing and cinematic storytelling, players were a direct part of the outcome of various areas and zones. The world was no longer a static place; it moved and changed with every action the player made. It was the first time that players felt the affect of their actions and how they changed the world around them through their questing. But it also changed around the players regardless of their actions -- the story of faction conflict and the desperation of both the Alliance and Horde leaders an ongoing process behind all the player development. The addition of this depth of interactive storytelling shot a spark into the world of Azeroth and brought it to startling life.
Wrath also saw the start of the achievement system -- a system with no real value in terms of scoring amazing loot or improving your character's DPS, but a system that was immensely popular nonetheless. Suddenly players that didn't have any quests to complete or dailies to do or raids or PvP to partake in had something else to occupy their time. Sure, the points you racked up couldn't be used for anything, but they did serve a purpose -- bragging rights, and a way to measure all those odd little accomplishments you'd completed during your stay in Azeroth.
And there were achievements for everything -- obscure ones that sent you around the world to read books or show the critters of the world how much you loved them. Ones that required a time sink, like reputation grinding or simply completing as many quests as you possibly could. Random chances of luck, like rolling a 100 on a need or greed roll in a dungeon. And even holiday achievements that ultimately rewarded a 310 speed flying mount.
But there were specialized achievements, too. PvPers suddenly had more to work for than just racking up kills or gaining rating; they got achievements for gaining that rating, too. On top of that, they got achievements for completing obscure objectives in Battlegrounds and gaining reputation with the various Battleground factions. Raiders got a series of achievements to complete as well, from the simple completion of a raid to performing a ridiculously difficult series of tasks that eventually evolved into the heroic raids we know today. Speaking of raiding ...
1. Revolutions in raiding
Raiding received a slight shift in The Burning Crusade from 40-man raiding to a more manageable size of 25-man raiding. On top of that, Karazhan and Zul'Aman were made for even less. But Wrath took what was started in The Burning Crusade and changed the face of raiding to what we see today. Raids were no longer 10- or 25-man-only -- every raid in Wrath of the Lich King could be completed with both, depending on how many people you had around. This was the start of 10-man raiding guilds, and today, there are thousands of them out there -- thousands that would have never gotten their start if it weren't for the design changes made in Wrath.
And that was only the start of it. With the introduction of the achievement system, raiders got to try their hand at a series of nigh-impossible tasks that made the raids that much more difficult to complete. Completing these tasks not only rewarded achievements; they rewarded titles and mounts as well. With the introduction of Ulduar, deliberate mechanics were introduced that kicked the bosses into hard mode encounters. Speeding through Thorim's hall of death, pushing that delicious red button behind Mimiron, choosing not to take keepers with you into Yogg-Saron's lair -- each had a deliberate effect on the flavor of the encounter and made it much more difficult. Each also rewarded raiders with additional loot unique to the hard mode encounter on top of the achievements, titles and mounts.
This led to Trial of the Crusader and the formal introduction of heroic raids -- raids that were significantly harder to complete, and offered greater rewards. It also led to a change in mechanics. Raid leaders could now choose which raid they wanted to complete and what difficulty they wanted to complete it, either 10-man or 25-man, normal or heroic. Each mode offered different loot and rewards, giving raiders a multitude of choices to pick from for raiding content. It was so far removed from the days of classic 40-man raiding as to be unrecognizable, and it allowed a whole new generation of players to finally take the leap into raiding and experience it for themselves.
Wrath of the Lich King was an absolute evolution in the way that World of Warcraft was played. From the seamless leveling experience to the addition of multitudes of content for players both casual and hardcore alike, Wrath was a vivid, interactive landscape of gameplay for everyone who played, with scores of reasons to love it. But in that evolution, there was also a disconnect. The startlingly lifelike landscapes and the increasingly interactive continent of Northrend stood in sharp contrast to the rest of Azeroth and the world of classic WoW -- which is why, in part, the latest expansion was the next logical step to take. But that's a list for next week.
World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria is the next expansion, raising the level cap to 90, introducing a brand new talent system, and bringing forth the long-lost Pandaren race to both Horde and Alliance. Check out the trailer and follow us for all the latest MoP news!