The downside to a project like this one, where I’m going through each of World of Warcraft’s expansions one by one, is that it starts really strong right up until it doesn’t. That’s kind of depressing, isn’t it? But there’s no point in doing these in order if we don’t do them, like, in order. So here we are with Wrath of the Lich King.
Frankly, I only barely need to write a column about this. Odds aren’t bad that Wrath is your favorite expansion anyway, and if it’s not your personal favorite, you almost certainly acknowledge that it was for most players. Heck, it saw the game raise to its highest concurrent subscriber counts ever, which puts it as a high-water mark the game hasn’t matched subsequently. But we’re going to do this right, so let’s talk about Wrath of the Lich King from the top on down.
Premise & setting
Hey, remember how the Scourge is just chilling up in Northrend? We never really dealt with that, did we? Well now the Lich King is actually invading the mainland again, so that’s all the incentive we need. Let’s go up there and start dealing with this problem.
Of course, once the Alliance and the Horde actually got up there, the premise ballooned up from there. For one thing, the Blue Dragonflight has a somewhat-less-crazy Aspect that has ultimately decided that there are too many damn mages in the world and he’s going to shut the whole thing down. There are a whole lot of Titan ruins up there that seem to be doing weird things to the undead. The Forsaken seem to have their own agenda, and that’s not even touching upon the enormous Vrykul in the area.
All of this does, in one way or another, tie back in with Arthas Menethil, the Lich King. But it also produced a very wide-ranging face to the continent. You weren’t just smashing the Scourge wherever you went; you were dealing with a number of auxiliary conflicts all across the frozen north, some of which felt like they had been building up for a long while (like the events at the Wrathgate). It was broad.
First and foremost, this expansion brought in the first new class the game had added since launch, with the new Death Knight Hero class. The definition of what a Hero class is has shifted a bunch over the years, but in this case it meant a new class that started at a higher level and featured a very different design principle whereby the class had three trees and could be a tank or a DPS… but that wasn’t based on the talent tree used. Frost, Blood, and Unholy all featured tanking or damage abilities, all being slight variants on one another.
The expansion also added vehicles to the game, a chance to gain a separate set of abilities and movement rules in order to take on certain challenges including some dungeons. This was… well, let’s just say a sometimes contentious addition, but it did start here.
All of the talent trees were expanded by another 10 levels, and herein we saw the first inklings of “bring the player, not the class” by spreading some vital buffs around and giving previously weaker trees something to do. Retribution Paladins, for example, were now akin to Shadow Priests in that they provided huge mana boosts to the whole party; combine that with existing buffs and suddenly Retribution was actually useful in groups. Indeed, “support DPS” became much more of a thing in this expansion, while every tank was much closer to having a unified set of basic traits along with more specific tools to differentiate them.
The expansion also introduced the idea of scaling raids with every single raid having a 10-player version and a 25-player version. The idea was that the former was the “easy” mode and the latter was harder, although many players discovered that the inverse was practically true as fewer players meant each member had to be working harder. Starting with Ulduar, the game also introduced “hard modes” to the individual bosses, allowing you to basically choose to engage with the boss at a more challenging level in exchange for better loot.
This is also where badges and gearing reached their most flexible. The automatic dungeon queueing system was introduced here, with badges divided up into more limited high-end badges for the newest gear and more plentiful weaker badges for lower gear. This did mean converting existing badges every time new tiers of content came out, but it also meant that it solved the problem with badges in The Burning Crusade while protecting you from bad luck quite deftly. You always would have decent luck with just buying gear, after all.
And, of course, this expansion went in hard on having reputations, reputation rewards, and earning reputation via wearing tabards and running dungeons. All of these systems were well-loved at the time, although some of them contributed to a slight sense of overload (a fact that would later get overcorrected in the worst way).
Absolute delight… except for the reactionary gatekeeping crowd.
Indeed, herein lies a problem that would later become a much bigger issue. If you were a player who liked running dungeons, for example, Wrath made it very easy to just go in, have fun in dungeons, and then move on with your day. There was very little social dependency in that gameplay loop. And the people who were invested in that social dependency were very upset that suddenly players could just… play that way.
Don’t like dealing with high-end progression guilds? That’s fine, don’t join them. You don’t actually need them. Which led tot he people whose playstyle relied on the churn of these high-end groups and the concurrent social dependency raising an unholy stink about things.
Of course, as mentioned, this is also when the game was enjoying its absolute highest player numbers. It’s pretty clear that the volume on these reactionary elements didn’t match the actual player numbers. Remember that, as it becomes increasingly relevant as we move forward.
A wanted Classic experience?
Frankly, I think more people want this than what we actually got in Classic. The idea of bringing this one back produced a huge amount of player cheering. And while it’s just as accurate to say that a lot of people more want the philosophy of the expansion back than the expansion itself (I’ve talked about that before), I’m more interested in the idea of showing how the expansion grew over time.
When we think about Wrath, we tend to think about the end of the expansion rather than the start and the middle. There was a time when many elements of the expansion were still very new or even outright not there yet; queueing up and getting right into a dungeon was itself a later addition to the game, not something present at launch day. In short, it was after lots of people had been running these dungeons for several months and knew them cold.
Having the content rolling out in phases again brings back some of that slow-roll energy. Instead of a setup wherein we just get to remember the best parts of the expansion, we have a chance to go back and see the real issues and reasons why these changes were rolled out in the first place, at least in microcosm.
Plus, you know… a lot of people have happy memories of this expansion. I don’t imagine they’ll all come back, of course, but certainly some of them will.