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.