Recently, along with what seemed like half the population of the globe, I rolled up a brand-new Death Knight in WoW Classic to take it through the starting area. I figured that this was a two-for-one deal: I’d have a Death Knight ready to go in the future if I wanted to play it, and I’d unlock the promotional mount in World of Warcraft retail.
But even if both of those weren’t a consideration, I would still feel like my time in this starting area well spent. It’s been a long time since I last stepped into the Death Knight beginner zone, and I’d forgotten just how masterful and immersive it is. In fact, I’m willing to put my credibility on the line and say that out of all of World of Warcraft’s starter zones, this is the best the team ever made.
When Blizzard originally released its first hero class back in 2008, it’s important to understand that the studio could’ve done the bare minimum with a tutorial before kicking the Death Knight out into the world proper. Just some, “Hey, WASD moves your dude, here is a bunch of talent points, enjoy being overpowered for most of this expansion cycle!” and then the devs could’ve called an early lunch that day.
Instead, the team poured their hearts into making a multi-hour intricate starter zone that involves a wide variety of gameplay types, an evolving story, several phasing layers, and an epic conclusion to the player’s journey to that point. Going back through it this past month, I was struck by just how long and involved it all is.
It’s certainly a complex solution to the question, “How do you take a player character who starts out in thrall of the expansion’s lead villain and ultimately make them into a hero?” The answer to this begins with positively steeping the player into the dark side: spying, massacring innocents, turning people into ghouls, blowing up chunks of armies, creating a skeletal horse out of a sweet pony, and even torturing enemy combatants for information. It’s not lighthearted stuff, and if you’re paying attention to the story, you’re bound to become increasingly disturbed at what your character is asked to do — even as your powers and abilities grow.
I’ve always thought it was a brilliant little quest moment to be asked to go kill a captured member of your race — only to have that person recognize you from your former life. After an impassioned speech to fight against Arthas, the NPC says you have no choice but to kill him or her. And you do.
From that moment on, you’re still doing the will of the bad guys, but the game plants in your mind this need to rebel and find redemption. It takes a while, but eventually there’s a big battle, a mass conversion of troops, and a rebellion in the Death Knight hold itself. Yet even taking those first steps from villain to hero, the game doesn’t let you off the hook that easy: You then have to take a walk of shame through your capital city, being pelted with rotten fruit and spittle as the citizenry vow to remember what you used to be.
And that’s just the story.
There are also a ton of mechanics and teaching moments embedded into this starter zone to help players become accustomed with the class and general game quirks. I like how fast you get all sorts of talent points (which was crazy back in the day when new characters had to crawl and claw for each new one), and being treated to a full set of bags and an amazing-looking mount wasn’t bad either. Before World of Warcraft ever gave us garrisons or class halls, Death Knights had their own secret base they could pop off to whenever the whim hit them.
The zone itself is full of gimmicky quests, particularly ones where you had to spy as a giant floating eye, fly around as a death-dealing bone dragon, use shipboard weapons to wipe out formations, and disguise yourself as an enemy courier.
It’s still really cool in 2022 — as it was in 2008 — to see the landscape change phases as the storyline progressed. The region begins with Arthas’ forces having the barest foothold and the rest being this idyllic Alliance-type realm. By the end, everything’s either on fire, scorched to the ground, turned into plague, or repurposed for evil. It’s great environmental storytelling on top of the rest of the narrative.
Maybe it’s a little more creaky these days. After all, the newbie zone that came with Shadowlands is absolutely slick and streamlined in a way that this is not. And going through the Death Knight zone for a second or third time may test your patience. But for my money, it’s still the best Blizzard ever did.