If you don’t play Wrath yourself, you may wonder why so many players went back to WoW when it launched. Were they just sheep? Could they not see how tired the old warcraft format had become? Was there something in the water? Was it just that the stars aligned? And why on earth did they stay?
I cannot answer for anyone else but for me, the answer lies right there in Howling Fjord. It is quite simply one of the most brilliant, inspired zones ever created in any MMO ever. Blizzard have toyed with thematic zones before and Richard Bartle touched on the ‘big game hunter’ theme of Stranglethorn a couple of weeks back. But for Wrath, they pulled out something very special indeed.
The whole expansion was intended to have a darker, gothic tone. From the moment you arrive in Vengeance Landing — showing off the new and very gothic forsaken architecture — you are plunged into a very different world from the bright colours and glowy spaceships of The Burning Crusade. And it is a world ruled by gothic genre rules:
- the sins of the fathers are visited on the sons
- science is not your friend
- ghosts walk
- there are no happy endings
- revenge is best served cold
- forbidden knowledge is dangerous and some secrets should be left alone
- death is not the end
- omens and curses
- threatening landscape (high mountains, stark forests, crashing ocean)
- the suggestion of horrifying events in the background
The very first quest you receive as Horde describes the aftermath of a skirmish with the Alliance. It sends players out with a torch to burn the corpses of the dead, so that The Lich King and his minions cannnot raise them and send them back against you. That’s the very first thing you do in Northrend. And it sets the tone: you are fighting against an implacable enemy who can raise the very dead, and also you are fighting with grim, competent, pragmatic allies who have experience in the field.
The rest of the Vengeance Landing provide more background, and more insight into the forsaken and their approach. You will see your allies using uglier and uglier tactics. One apothecary poisons the Alliance food and medical supplies. The leader of the settlement shoots down scourge minions who have come to parlay. The stage is set. The player has no excuse that they did not know what the forsaken were like.
And the next phase of quests takes you off to New Agamand, where the player themselves becomes more drawn in. You will test the new plague on unsuspecting local vrykul. Yes, they’re enemies. But you’re testing weapons of mass destruction on them, and then neatly cleaning up the experiment site with exploding zombies.
What happens in Northrend stays in Northrend
There were complaints when Wrath launched about the torture quest that the Kirin Tor give out casually in Borean Tundra. I didn’t see any complaints about the rather more heinous plague testing in Fjord. There are three reasons for this:
- You had a choice. If you don’t like the forsaken and what they are doing, go to the other starting zone.
- By the time you get to level 70, you really should know what the forsaken are like. Expectations were clearer.
- Howling Fjord quests are just better written. Players are eased more slowly into the mindset that they are fighting a foe who has no moral limits and they need to do whatever is necessary to stop him. By the time you’re told to go mix up a batch of plague, you no longer care if they deserve it or not.
In any case, as a player you are being drawn into a world in which there may not be any good options. You will be forced to choose between the lesser evil and the greater evil … and you had better hope that the greater evil is very bad indeed because it is the only way to justify the things you have had to do.
This is terrifically powerful stuff! And it really does cement a feeling in the player’s mind that Northrend is different. This is not last year’s Warcraft. This is more urgent, more focussed, more gothic, more … involving.
The Law of Consequences
Howling Fjord is ruled, more than anything, by the law of consequences. The story being told is that what the players do here will have consequences and many of them will not be good.
The (obligatory) comedy pirates send you off to kill a bull sealion for his blubber? You will find later that you have screwed up the entire local ecology.
Pirates disturb the ghosts of the vrykul ancestors? They are cursed and haunted until the relics are returned and even then, the ghosts eerily tell the player that, “It is too late, doom comes from the sea.”
You help the forsaken test their plague? Don’t be surprised if they use it.
Are you surprised when you first visit the Taunka and find that they consider the forsaken and their allies to be no better than the other undead plaguing the land? That some of the quests you’d done earlier are instrumental in their need to up sticks and move camps to Dragonblight?
And the forsaken, more than any other faction, are children of the Lich King. He created them in their new form, and they rebelled. When you march with them, there is a hunger for revenge and it’s very personal indeed.
The Royal Apothecaries
The apothecaries are a brilliant faction. They are the mad scientists of the horde world, armed with some knowledge of chemistry, a hatred for the living, and absolutely no moral compass. And here in Northrend, at the other end of the continent from all the druids and shamans who might have kept them in check, they have free rein.
As well as quests sending players in to do some hands-on plague development, you can also get involved in scientific disputes between squabbling apothecaries. It’s just like being back at university!
They have a certain black humour that no other faction can replace, and they fit very very well into the gothic backdrop. You could imagine lightning striking one of the new creepy horde towers to fuel a new frankenstein’s monster. I felt the game was a sadder place without them later on. But in Howling Fjord they really do hit the ground running.
And… the Lich King
Howling Fjord is also where players get a chance to meet the Lich King in person, or at least as a projection. It’s towards the end of the zone, in Gjallerhorn, and he also introduced the end boss in Utgarde Pinnacle who you’ll see later (possibly many times, if you are a tank 🙂 ).
So by this time, you’ve seen the results of some of his works, you’ve understood the tactics you may need to use to fight him, you’ve had a chance to both appalled and impressed by your own allies, and finally the dog gets to see the rabbit.
It’s the perfect end to an awesome zone. And the player can move on, grimly scarred by their experiences and what they have learned, but determined to take the fight further into Northrend, to find out what happens to this new improved plague, and knowing that they’ll see more of the vrykul and their leader later on.
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That’s Why I LOVE playing Forsaken. We have no real place in the world. Horde distrust us, Alliance hate us, and Scourge want to enslave us again.
Oh if you haven’t done the Wrathgate quests, to see the cinematic…as a forsaken its the greatest. “Do you think we have Forgotten? Do you think we have Forgiven?”
Totally agree. On both counts.
Totally agree. Us Forsaken have NEVER forgotten. Either how we were treated by the Lich King OR by the skin-bag humans. (Sorry a little RPing there, lol). If you are going to play Forsaken you have to enjoy Howling Fjord and all the other events leading up to the Wrathgate.
HF is a great zone indeed. I love the Taunka lines ultimately leading to the Wrathgate quest line is just amazing.
Awesome post, Spinks. I much prefer Howling Fjord to Borean Tundra, but I’ve never given much thought to why — other than the landscape, of course, which is hauntingly beautiful. It’s my favorite zone in the game for aesthetics alone, but considering the lore progression adds a whole new dimension.
Hmmm, I should point out, that I do, in fact know that the Taunka are over in the BT, not in HF. I was merely trying to illustrate another point of lore that I like, but did not articulate that clearly when I wrote the comment. /shake fist at no edit button.
I am a new reader to your blog, and a fantastic blog it is! (props to Larysa over at the Pigtail Inn for pointing me over here)
I am a diehard alliance, so I have never seen the horde side quest chains in HF, but of all the horde factions that I would ever roll, Undead would be one of them.
The quest chains for the alliance here in HF are just as awesome, but I think they suffer from just a *tiny* bit of lack in direction. It seems like they go out onto tangents a little, then pull back, then go out again, ad nauseum.
Anyway, just wanted to say GREAT article! Its posts like this that keep me coming back, and also sorting through your archives!
I think one of my goals for this expansion is going to be to level an alliance death knight so that I can see the alliance northrend quests. I know how much I’ve loved the horde ones, plus I want to see what happens to Thassarian (Koltira is a jerk, plus he’s an elf.)
I play alliance, and Howling Fjorde is one of my top two zones in the game. It is absolutely awesome looking and the Vrykul are a cool enemy.
I think you actually see the Lich King multiple times in HF as Alliance. It’s also sort of awesome when you land there as Alliance to have the freaking giant Utgarde Keep towering over your base.
HF was my favourite zone in WotLK by a country mile.
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As I’ve mentioned in my own blog, I found some of the plague testing on Vyrkul distasteful. It’s obviously a fine line to walk, but I’ve never had any problems “butchering” my in-game enemies, but the wholesale mass infection is just something that goes against my own personal moral compass. Perhaps I’ve got too much of the old style “honor” built into me.
HF isn’t the only place that the Horde ethic has come into conflict with my own, though. In Icecrown with the “slaughter the wounded alliance soldiers” quests and the whole “attack the alliance forces from behind while they’re engaged with the scourge is a good thing” was troubling. I try not to get too wrapped up in the quests, but for some of them, I simply find the objectives of the quests to be beyond what I’ll do. That, in and of itself, is surprising. Apparently I’ve invested more of myself into my characters than I knew.
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