Without a doubt, World of Warcraft is the most popular online RPG on the market today.

Despite many attempts to knock it from its top billing, WOW has for the last four years been the game of choice for a huge amount of players around the world. Its cartoon like characters and huge expansive game play has had players enthralled in a wonderfully rich fantasy world.

The release of the first expansion pack for the game entitled The Burning Crusade early last year was greeted with much acclaim. The new high-end content was a huge challenge for all but the most experienced guilds, whilst the increase of level cap to 70 and the introduction of two new races promised a lot of exciting new gameplay. Don’t get us wrong, it was certainly what we expected; however as time passed on it seemed that this expansion was simply functional in nature. It did what was required, however the sparkle was never quite there. The artist had turned over the development to the technician.

The announcement of the second expansion, The Wraith of the Lich King, was then greeted with much anticipation, and in a way trepidation. Preceded by a huge game patch that introduced a lot of the new talents and spells, this same patch also changed a lot of the characters specifications. ‘Normalization’ has been an oft-used word where characters were more aligned in utility and ability in their chosen field. No one character was to become dominant, with all playing an equal role. Unfortunately, the patch without the content meant that a lot of players were raising issues in respect to some classes being overpowered. This, and the prospect of another grind of ten additional levels, raised concerns for the players.

We can say however that immediately on entering the Wrath of the Lich King expansion, all fears are brushed aside and it's quickly evident that an artist is back in control. With nine new territories to explore that are both larger and so abundant in content and quests, the expansion immediately reminds you of the first intrepid experiences you had when you started Word of Warcraft. The carefully crafted quest chains are designed to unfold various story lines that bring you ever closer to the Lich King, and the dark underlying story.

There are two new beginning territories where players can start their Wrath of the Lich King journey, and on entering either of these you get an immediate sense of how much the underlying graphics to the game have been changed. The environments are richer, with more depth and quality than ever before. Water effects are more animated, there are more frill effects (smoke, mist, spray, pollen), and there is a lot more life and activity. From both the Alliance and Horde starting points there is a sense that this is an invasion, you are on an expedition, and there is a lot of unknown to explore.

Early on, Blizzard signalled that players initially would be restricted to land based mounts for transport until level 77 when a new cold weather flying talent would become available. Disappointing for some, but by restricting players to the ground in the initial phase of the game has enabled them to enjoy a lot of the new environment content that otherwise would have been flown over. Some of the new vistas are positively stunning. Looking out to sea at haunted invasion ships, icebergs and frozen temples is positively breathtaking.

Quests are largely completed in solo mode with only a small number in each territory requiring a group to complete. A reasonably geared player can easily complete most of the early group quests solo as well. Some players have decried this as “easy mode”, and this is a similar reservation that we have.

This level of challenge has also become evident in the many instances (dungeons). These have had a rethink, with most now being designed to be completed within an hour. A great idea from our view; short punchy content that doesn't drag out to a three hour buttock-numbing instance. A lot of these new instances however are easy to complete with a reasonably geared team and a bit of experience. Players will now get geared in high end equipment relatively quickly through this change, with most not hitting the real challenge until they take on the same instances in heroic mode. Some of the high end players and guilds have questioned this change as it is perceived as a threat to their elite status, however in reality it has made a lot of the high end content far more accessible to the playing base (rather than the chosen few as was the case in Burning Crusade)

The release of Wrath of the Lich King has also marked the release of a new playable character. The Death Knight is the first of the long promised heroic classes. Starting at level 55 and best described as a hybrid DPS and Tank class, there was an initial rush of new Death Knights across all the servers. As one player noted, Eastern Plague Lands was awash with Death Knights trying to work out how to play their new class. Predictably a lot of this initial interest has waned with only the more devout fans of the new character making it into the 70 bracket. The jury is still out on how good they are, but early indications from raids would suggest they add additional utility and options to the group dynamic.

The pre-release patch also introduced the new achievement system. This is where players are rewarded with notified achievements for completing tasks such as exploration, profession feats, and dungeon completion. This has certainly added more solo challenge for players as they try to “punch their achievement card” with all the possible entries. On the downside though, the more competitive players and guilds have seen it as a way to be recognised server-wide as being the first at something. Within two days of the release of the game, players were already hitting 80 and driving to complete the end game content. Its a shame as a lot of these players will have missed a lot of the entertaining and rich content in the expansion in their rush to be first.

Lots of other aspects of the game have either changed or been extended. There are new badges to collect (including cooking badges that can reward you with new recipes), new fishing spots and fish, new mounts, new profession recipes, to name just a few. The more you delve into the expansion you discover how big the change has been. The huge amount of sales and the huge queues on servers indicate how successful these changes have been.

If you have a World of Warcraft account then this expansion is a must have. It lives up to all expectations and a lot more.