WoW Archivist: The zombie plague event

Zombies attack

WoW Archivist explores the secrets of World of Warcraft's past. What did the game look like years ago? Who is etched into WoW's history? What secrets does the game still hold?

We have one more week of the Iron Horde invasion event before we can take the fight through the portal to Draenor. Most players seem to think this event is serviceable, if unexciting. Like all such events, it lives in the shadow of the most memorable pre-expansion event in WoW's long history: the zombie plague. It debuted almost exactly six years ago, and Blizzard has never topped it.

If you need evidence, just look at the comments on the previous WoW Archivist about patch 3.0. I only mentioned the event in passing as a topic for a future column. Even so, readers posted more about the plague event than about any of the other 3.0 features like achievements, glyphs, or pally nerfs.

Shaking the foundations

Although the players knew some kind of Scourge-based event awaited us, no one knew the details or the scope. At midnight on October 22, 2008, it began. Argent Dawn members appeared in capital cities to warn us. "The Lich King is attempting to make his presence known," they said. "We must not let this occur."

At the event's inception, WoW Insider posted an article speculating on what we might soon face, and our hopes turned out to be prophetic:

Will it be a simple replay of the Scourge Invasion that brought Naxxramas to our shores for the first time? Or will it be something even more sinister, a world event that shakes the very foundations of the World of Warcraft as we know it?

Call us destructive, but we're kind of hoping for the second.

It began so innocently: a pile of Conspicuous Crates appeared in just one town, Booty Bay. Players who inspected them became infected. The disease had a 10-minute countdown:

Disease debuff

If the timer ran out or you died with the infection, you were transformed into a zombie. But players could be cured with a player's Cleanse spell or by handy Argent Healer NPCs.

The next day, the crates began to appear in cities around the world, along with Plagued Roaches that could also spread the disease. The disease itself grew stronger, with a shorter countdown of 5 minutes, and it became resistant to cleansing.

To help players figure out what was happening, Bornakk posted a survival guide on the forums, along with excerpts from the diary of an Andorhal citizen who succumbed to the plague.

Conspicuous crates in Booty Bay

World war S

On Day 3, Plagued Residents appeared in low-level zones, attacking players and NPCs. The disease now needed only 2 minutes to transform its host. Zombies had increased health and lower chance to miss when attacking.

At 9 p.m. on Day 3, the Scourge launched their full assault. Reddit user lolplatypus posted a fantastic description of what it was like when this phase began:

A friend and I were just finishing up in Outland when it happened. We both hit 70, high-fived, and hearthed back to Stormwind. It happened almost like a movie. Trade chat was full of people going "Why the hell is there a Ziggurat outside SW?" and "Need help at the bridge, there's zombies!"

We got stoked, and ran to defend Stormwind with our newfound 70-ness. It was a bloodbath. It was the marines in Aliens getting overrun, the opening of Red Dawn, and all the best zombie movies rolled up into one. The line kept getting pushed back, everyone was getting infected. First we tried to hold them at the gates, then the bridge, then the tunnel, and then we finally got infected ourselves and joined the undead army streaming through Stormwind's streets.

And then the tears, oh god the tears. Everyone in SW was so mad. I really wish something like this would happen again.

Many of the aspects of the original Scourge Invasion event from patch 1.11 reappeared at this point, including its quests, NPCs, (updated) rewards, and bonus bosses in dungeons. A new bonus boss called Prince Tenris Mirkblood appeared in Karazhan. He dropped the Vampiric Batling pet and the amazing Arcanite Ripper (one of WoW Archivist's top 20 non-legendary weapons). Today, these items can only be obtained via the Black Market Auction House.

Like the original event, flying necropolises peppered the continents with legions of undead. Players could check their world map to see which areas were currently under assault.

A Scourge ziggurat over Thunder Bluff

Meanwhile, the plague sped forward at full throttle. Argent Healers became fewer in number, increasing the rate of transformation. Plagued Vermin appeared. Plagued Residents gained the ability to infect level 70 city guards, who weren't so easily killed.

Day 3 was the tipping point. Previously, the plague had been a novelty, something to play around with. As a zombie you could infect someone here and there, but usually they were able to get rid of the disease before transforming, if they wanted to. Now the plague was taking over, disrupting cities whether players were purposely driving the infection or not.

Army of darkness

But of course, players were driving it. People organized zombie raids on different cities with the intent to cause maximum devastation. The game gave them the tools and they took full advantage.

As a zombie, you had five abilities.

  1. Mangle!: The armor reduction stacked. And this ability also reduced the countdown on the target's disease by 15 seconds per application from a passive ability called Bite! that triggered on attack. This meant that a large group of zombies could convert a single target in seconds. You had to attack things in order to keep your health up, since the plague slowly drained away health.

  2. Retch!: Zombies moved at 50% normal run speed, so Retch! was great for catching players. The fact that it healed you and all the zombies around you was a nice bonus.

  3. Beckoning Groan: NPCs that became zombies didn't move around much. This spell helped you to guide them to delicious brains.

  4. Lurch!: Like trinketing in PvP, this spell removed all crowd control but also gave you a speed boost to surprise fleeing players.

  5. Zombie Explosion!: Being a zombie means never having to die without taking some people with you.

With all of these abilities, zombies were fierce foes that grew in power the more zombies they lurched around with. Even a small pack of them -- all debuffing you, snaring you, healing each other, and exploding when threatened with "true death" -- was difficult to escape.

Being a zombie was enormous fun. The abilities gave the experience a lot of depth and strategy. Organized packs could take over capital cities. When you became a zombie, you could use Shattrath's portals to port to any city, even those of your opposing faction. And so we did, in droves.

Fighting them was fun too, if you had a commensurate force of uninfected players. With so much stacked against them, however, players and NPCs couldn't fully stem the tide. Cities fell one by one. Lone survivors looked out from their hiding spots in dark alleys and doorways and saw nothing but deserted streets, the bones of the dead, and roving packs of the reanimated. The economy ground to a standstill as auction houses became charnel houses. Players fled to the countryside in droves.

What was so amazing about this event is that it felt so authentic. It felt the way you always imagined a zombie outbreak would feel. Minor incidents led to escalation and then to absolute world-ending mayhem. The best ways to survive it were the ways you'd expect: staying in large groups, remaining armed and ready at all times, and avoiding population centers.

This was Left4Dead on the grandest possible scale. On Day 4, the disease only needed 1 minute to transform you and became more resistant to Cleanse effects. Plagued Vermin actively attacked guards. Zombies received a buff. Realms spiraled into chaos.

Some players, unfortunately, found all of this no fun at all.

Zombies at the Crossroads

The rage virus

Part of the reason the event garnered so much vocal outrage from the community was how dependent we were on NPCs for everything back then.

If you ran out of reagents -- for example, to create a portal to escape the zombies -- and the reagent vendor was dead, you weren't porting anywhere.

If you wanted to queue for a battleground, you needed to talk to the battlemaster NPCs. No NPCs, no BGs. In fact, if the NPCs became infected during your contest, they would infect you while you watched the loading screen because the game always ported you back to them afterward.

Players also made clever use of portal arrival points such as Stormwind's Mage Tower. They could transform you before your screen even showed you were in danger.

Each city had just one auction house, and those NPCs made for popular targets.

You couldn't fly in Azeroth and flight masters still saw heavy use. Without them, you were basically stranded. Certainly you could hop on your ground mount and ride out to the closest flight master outside the city limits, if you made it that far. However, zombie players also attacked many outlying settlements such as Goldshire and Crossroads, so you could arrive there hoping for safe passage and find the town overrun.

Making things worse, Hallow's End ran during the same time period. Players trying to complete their achievements for the holiday sometimes found themselves stymied.

Such an event today would be far less disruptive both due to flying and to our general self-sufficiency compared to 2008. Modern players often scoff at people who took to the forums to complain about this event, but you have to put it in the perspective of its era. You couldn't just mount up and zip away from the plague. It was all around you and you were trapped.

And that was kind of the whole point: To give you a darn good reason to want the Lich King dead. I would say it worked as intended.

On Day 5, new quests became active. The Horde sought a cure for the plague, while the Alliance looked for a weapon to bring down the Scourge necropolises. On Day 6, our efforts succeeded. The Argent Dawn discovered a cure and stopped the invasion. The event came to an end.

Dead bodies in Shattrath

Comparing invasions

The zombie plague event garnered tons of press for Blizzard, including mainstream media. All this excitement most certainly helped fuel WoW's climb to its peak subscription numbers during Wrath.

Many have expressed disappointment at the current pre-expansion event for Warlords. Wrath's zombie plague set the bar for all future events, and that bar is incredibly high. I think what players enjoyed most about the event is that for a few days WoW was, in some ways, a completely different game. We remember what it was like because it was so different and so player driven. We have so many great stories and fond memories because for the first time in a long time, we logged in and we didn't know what would happen.

Also, we could pick sides. We could choose to be part of the problem or part of the solution. We could hold steadfast against the Scourge or join their ranks and ravage Azeroth's cities. It's hard to explain just how cool it felt to be an actual bad guy, even just briefly. And it felt amazing, as well, to drive back the undead and save a city from the plague. However you approached the event, you were having fun -- but only, of course, if you wanted to participate.

Warlords, in contrast, has no such elements. The quest line and the dungeon are scripted. The content is fun, but it doesn't feel like an event to me. It feels more like a demo for the expansion.

Ultimately I think it's Blizzard's loss. Events like the zombie plague generate huge excitement for the game. They make people want to log in, whether they are current, lapsed, or brand new players. Nothing about the Iron Horde's invasion is generating that excitement. It strikes me as a missed opportunity.

Blizzard is entirely capable of providing this kind of event today. The question remains, however: Will they ever again dare to make an event this bold?

After months of surveying, WoW Archivist has been dug back up! Discover lore and artifacts of WoW's past, including the Corrupted Blood plague, the Scepter of the Shifting Sands, and the mysterious Emerald Dream.