It's hard to conceive what PC gaming would currently be like had Blizzard not released World of Warcraft. Four years, two expansion packs and tens of thousands of man years of consumed free time later, World of Warcraft continues to steamroller over its competition in the sales charts, with a cackling goblin at the controls, no doubt laughing all the way to the bank in Booty Bay. Wrath of the Lich King was already a phenomenal sales success within 24 hours of its release, selling a mind-boggling 2.8 million copies. To put that into some kind of context, that's almost double the total sales of Warhammer Online to date, which had been widely predicted to put a significant dent into Warcraft's subscriber figures. World of Warcraft has re-written the rule book on how to make mass-market video games, and with Wrath of the Lich King Blizzard is tearing up its own rule book and replacing it with something far bigger and grander than before.
One of the first things that strikes you when you play Wrath of the Lich King is the sense of scale. The new continent, Northrend is absolutely immense, both in terms of sheer area and the grandeur and diversity of the design. There are ten new map areas and the largest, Dragonblight, surpasses anything seen in Azeroth or Outland by a significant margin. Rival dragon clans (called aspects) battle in the skies, burrower worms and giant elementals fight for the control of frozen caverns and the undead Scourge lay siege to Horde and Alliance outposts alike. Hovering ominously over it all is Naxxramas, a high-end dungeon dripping poisonous ichors over the plague fields outside Wintergarde Keep.
And that's just barely scratching the surface of Dragonblight alone. The other map areas show a similar level of diversity, making Northrend a far more interesting and varied place to be in than anything to be found in Azeroth or Outland. Maps typically have around half a dozen quest hubs each, meaning that levelling is still comparatively swift, despite experience point gains in excess of one and a half million points per level being required. By the time you have accumulated a couple of levels beyond seventy, you can expect to realistically quest in Borean Tundra, Howling Fjord, Dragonblight and Grizzly Hills, giving you access to nearly half of the content in Northrend relatively quickly.
If you were expecting Northrend to be simply wall-to-wall snow and ice then you're in for a pleasant surprise, as not only does Northrend have a wide variety of landscapes but is also substantially prettier than anything to be found in the World of Warcraft thus far. Each zone has its own distinct character, but unlike some zones in Azeroth and Outland, which are largely homogeneous in aesthetic, in Northrend you can find a tremendous amount of variation in a single zone, including snow-capped mountains, frigid coasts, volcanic springs and zombie-infested farmland. Early highlights are the geyser fields beyond Fizzcrank Airstrip in Borean Tundra, the spectacular frosted island mountain of Coldarra, the tall cliffs and waterfalls of the Howling Fjord overlooked by the imposing Utgarde Keep and the pine forests of Grizzly Hills. Later you will be treated to the lush, humid jungle of Sholazar Basin, the frozen wastes of the Storm Peaks, the intricate ziggurats in the Ice Troll city of Zul'Drak and the sombre ruins and ethereal glades of Crystalsong Forest, where the sanctuary city of Dalaran floats in the sky, a safe refuge for the battle-weary. Finally, there's Lake Wintergrasp and Icecrown, the home of the Lich King himself.
Of all these new zones, Lake Wintergrasp is the most unusual, given that it is entirely devoted to objective-based PvP combat and siege warfare, even on PvE and role-playing servers. This zone showcases the expansion's most eye-catching innovation, the new mounted combat system, which gives you direct control over all manner of siege machinery, from defensive cannons to tanks, goblin shredders and aerial mounts. Unfortunately, the area is not immediately accessible, as it is isolated by impassable mountains and may only be reached once you have purchased the cold weather flying skill at level 77.
Not all of Blizzard's efforts since the release of The Burning Crusade have been devoted to creating the new continent of Northrend, however. Graphically, the game is noticeably improved, though perhaps not in the way you might expect. Rather than retooling the 3D engine to provide greater detail for each of the models, Blizzard has instead decided to improve texture quality and draw distances, as well as implement new special effects and real-time shadows. The result isn't a dramatic difference in visual quality but rather a broadening of the canvas, reinforcing the sheer scale and ambition of the expansion pack's design, without sacrificing any of game's playability at lower PC specifications. World of Warcraft has drawn some criticism in recent years for its stylised, cartoon-feel visuals, but any lack of detail in the models is more than compensated for by the terrific texture art.