The Infinite Zenith

Where insights on anime, games, academia and life dare to converge

World of Warcraft: Setting Foot in Northrend and Exploring Wrath of the Lich King’s Coldest Frontier

“I came through and I shall return.” –General Douglas MacArthur

The end of my vacation was approaching: I was sitting on a bench at Taikoo Shing’s City Plaza mall and waiting at our rendezvous point for everyone to gather so that we could take a bus over to the airport for the flight back home. This had been a particularly memorable trip, during which I had the chance to check out Beijin’s Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven, Hangzhou’s West Lake, Suzhou’s legendary canals, and Shanghai’s world-famous Pudong skyline. At the end of two weeks, I was quite happy, but also quite ready to go back home. I stretched my feet, brought out my iPod and put the music on shuffle. Moments later, Howling Fjord began playing. I watched the crowds pass by while listening to the song’s Nyckelharpa, and my thoughts strayed back to a time a year earlier, when my friend’s private server was still running. It was not lost on me that while my friend had upgraded the server to support Wrath of the Lich King, I never ended up travelling to Northrend, since I’d been busy exploring Azeroth and Outland. The music of Northrend had been very enjoyable, making use of a variety of Scandinavian instruments to convey the sort of beauty associated with northern landscapes of boreal forests, striking fjords and snowy mountains. However, with my friend’s private server now offline, I imagined that the time to finish exploring the whole of Wrath of the Lich King had passed. I shook those thoughts out of my head and returned to the present, ready to board the half-day flight back over the Pacific, certain that I’d never have the chance to visit Northrend for myself. Eleven years later, I ended up putting together my own private server together; after growing salty at some overly serious players who saw fit to kick me from a dungeon, I decided to get my own Wrath of the Lich King server set up. Since then, I’d finished exploring Azeroth, built back my old mage and warlock, and finally got the chance to check out all of the major regions in Outland. With the old goals done, it occurred to me that here was the opportunity I’d been longing for. I thus spun up the server and boarded a boat that brought me over to the Howling Fjord.

As I began exploring more of Northrend, it became clear that, far from the dark, cold and frozen wastelands of the Arctic I had imagined it to be, Northrend possessed a variety of biomes, from thermal hot springs in tundra plains, to steep fjords, boreal forests and glacier-capped mountains. The world design in Northrend speaks to the improvement in period hardware: Northrend is bigger and bolder in design than any of Azeroth or Outland’s locations, featuring dizzyingly high peaks and tremendously deep ravines. In particular, Storm Peaks’ terrain is such that one must have a flying mount to even consider traversing some of Northrend’s most gorgeous vistas. It becomes apparent that Northrend was designed to accommodate the players’ ability to fly, and unlike Outland, vertical movement has been integrated seamlessly into map design to encourage players to get to a point where they can have access to cold-weather flight. Beyond the scope and scale of these new maps, one area in Northrend I absolutely was not expecting was Sholazar Basin, a tropical paradise surrounded by massive cliffs whose magic kept out both evil forces and the frigid weather. This was such an unexpected surprise: to find anything approaching the tropic in the far north would be a fool’s hope at best in reality. Stories of tropical valleys tucked away in the deep in the mountains of the Nahanni dominate the myths about some of Canada’s most remote regions, as adventurers of old imagined that geothermal springs of the Nahanni would create fantastical landscapes. Today, advances in cartography corresponds with the understanding that anything resembling hidden tropical gardens that far north would be implausible in reality, but in the virtual world that games like World of Warcraft provides, it would appear that these constraints are no concern. Thus, I took some time to check out the lush, verdant tropical forests in the Sholazar basin before concluding my journey at Dalaran, finally having done something I’d figured was impossible twelve years earlier.

Screenshots and Commentary

  • During the Heritage Long Weekend this year, temperatures were actually even hotter than they had been last year (33ºC to last year’s 28ºC). However, unlike last year, I had the presence of mind not to spend six hours doing dungeons; instead, I visited the Grizzly Hills for the first time. I found myself in a region of evergreen forests, rolling hills and swift rivers, and decided to take on a few quests to familiarise myself with the area.

  • Besides towering conifers, fields of violet also adorn the hillsides. Grizzly Hills is a decidedly beautiful area, and the background music has a very Nordic feel to it. However, unlike my earlier experiences, the monsters here are closer to me in level; they now take a few spells to kill, a world apart from when I was slaughtering everything trivially with my wand. In World of Warcraft‘s latest expansion, the game has been updated with what’s called a level squish, allowing new players to reach the endgame faster and get to the activities that most come for.

  • For me, raids and dungeons aren’t my objective – I’ve gotten my share of grinding for loot through games like The Division, and there, the game had been sufficiently well-designed such that one could solo the levelling experience and then still work towards unlocking a working loadout for endgame activities solo if they felt so inclined. In The Division, I used matchmaking to periodically party with others to complete legendary missions, while in The Division 2, I ended up finishing the entire game solo.

  • For me, being able to complete things solo is a vital part of a game, and when a game with a large group component accommodates this play style, I end up with nothing but respect for the game. Solo players are often at a disadvantage, fighting off larger numbers of enemies, and rewards are typically better with groups, but I find that being able to do things like collect most of a game’s most powerful items alone is an immensely satisfying experience.

  • I’ve now entered back into the Howling Fjord, capitalising on my cold weather flying to travel more swiftly over the northern continent. While Wrath of the Lich King‘s aurora might not be as stellar as those of Skyrim‘s, they look solid and fit Northrend’s aesthetic well. The aurora can be seen from almost everywhere up here, and they certainly liven up the long flights around: while Northrend is quite large, flights up here do not feel anywhere as lengthy as those of Outland’s.

  • I understand that I’m playing through Wrath of the Lich King in the most unconventional manner: this is something that is afforded by the game master (GM) powers my account has access to. In general, GMs are staff who oversee the game and will enter the game with an avatar to help players out (for instance, if they’re stuck somewhere or lose an item of importance), as well as to enforce policies. To allow GMs to carry out their duties, their accounts have access to powerful commands that allow them to become invisible, invincible, spawn items at will and teleport players.

  • On my friend’s private server, the GM powers were used to quickly gather all of the players for evening parties, as well as kit everyone out with a fully-levelled character so that we could take on some of the end-game content. During the server’s last week, I was given access to a GM account so I could build a level 80 character capable of travelling around Azeroth and explore without worry about being wiped. I utilised my abilities to create an Ashbringer, too – such actions would’ve certainly defeated the purpose of playing the game with friends, but at that point, since the server was about to shut down, my friend didn’t see any harm in giving me a chance to really play around.

  • While the role of GM was highly coveted back then (several of my friends had requested GM accounts for the purpose of spawning powerful items instantly), the role of GM is an actual role. A quick glance around shows that the average GM makes around 56000 CAD a year pre-tax, which goes out to 43000 CAD a year after deductions. Having access to a host of commands and being a virtual god is nice, as is the feeling of being able to help players in need and punish those who seek to degrade the experience for others, but it’s not an occupation I could see myself doing. Consequently, I’ll stick to acting the role of GM on my private private server.

  • With this being said, the exploration in Northrend has been quite unlike anything I’d previously seen on Azeroth and in Outland. Some of Northrend’s best sights are truly spectacular, and here, I find myself overlooking the seaport of Valgarde, which consists of a small town cut into the fjord’s narrow cliffs. Everything seen here can be visited, and while folks rocking a flying mount have it easier, the level designers fortunately had the foresight to create footpaths for players to walk down there, as well: it isn’t until level 77 where one can unlock flight for Northrend.

  • I’ve long had a fondness for watching sunsets from different places in World of Warcraft: the combination of mostly playing the game after finishing the day’s assignments and busy weekends meant that a large majority of my World of Warcraft memories are set during the evenings. I had previously mentioned that I would like to try and visit some spots in World of Warcraft by night, and wondered if changing sunset times might impact the times where night sets in. However, I never got around to trying that out last year, since I’d been wrapped up in Halo.

  • This year, with Battlefield 2042 and Halo: Infinite on the horizon, things are looking mighty busy, so time will tell as to whether or not I get around to testing my theories out. The Howling Fjord’s got areas that appear exactly as I imagined Northrend to appear, and with a flying mount, exploring becomes considerably easier: Northrend is very much walkable, and there are plenty of flight paths, but nothing beats having one’s own flying mount when it comes to pure exploration. Flight paths are only a bit faster, but they don’t always take the most efficient way to one’s destination.

  • Here, I’ve managed to fly out over to the Boreal Tundra’s Valiance Keep. This is the first place players would see of Northrend if travelling from Stormwind: the decision to have two starting areas in Northrend, as opposed to Outland’s one, was a consequence of The Burning Crusade suffering from capacity issues when all players congregated in Outland’s Hellfire Peninsula. The idea was that having two starting areas would lighten loads on different parts of the game world. Here, I look in on the city, having flown in over from Dragonblight.

  • While the Boreal Tundra isn’t too exciting of an area compared to the Grizzly Hills, directly north of the Boreal Tundra is the Sholazar Basin. This tropical area caught me completely off guard, and within moments of landing here, Sholazar Basin swiftly became one of my favourite areas in Northrend, mainly because it was so unexpected to see a tropical area so far north. Previously, I’d only heard of such a concept in tales about the Northwest Territories: prospectors in search of gold would return with tales of fantastical travels, and it was rumoured that tropical forests existed in the Nahanni National Park area.

  • Today, it is accepted that those travellers probably encountered geothermal springs in the Nahanni, and imagined that on the other side of the mountain, it might’ve been so warm that thermal energy was seeping through the crevices in the rocks to reach them. Such tales, while fanciful, are still fun, although the Nahanni is also known for being the home of many mysteries, including the macabre “Headless Valley”, so named for the compelling forces that produced a pile of decapitated corpses from visitors who were brave enough to venture into territories unmarked.

  • Nahanni National Park is a tempting place to visit: tales of tropical valleys and an unknown force aside, the area is home to some of Canada’s most striking scenery, such as Virginia Falls (twice as tall as Niagara Falls), Ram Plateau (a series of plateaus that rise 1800 metres above the rivers below) and Cirque of the Unclaimables that have no equal anywhere else in Canada. For now, the Nahanni is an area that is a little above my skill to reach (the drive is 1500 kilometres north of Edmonton), so I’ll settle for exploring spots within my grasp (and checking out more fanciful spots in games like World of Warcraft).

  • In the end, I spent an hour completing quests here in the Sholazar Basin and sought out the flight master here so that I could fly here more readily if the need required it: Sholazar Basin is a spot I’d definitely be interested to revisit in the future.

  • Dragonblight was the next region on my list; it’s a quest hub for players looking to level up, and its western edge is covered in forests. The eastern edge is more barren and home to a massive tower known as the Wyrmrest Temple. Wyrmrest can be seen from a great distance away, and it dominates the landscape. While the tower is marked as being a meeting place for Dragons, the area was quite quiet by the time I reached it. Exploring Northrend, I experienced the slightest bit of melancholy; this was something I’d wished to do twelve years earlier.

  • I occasionally wonder if the group of us on my friend’s private server would’ve stood any chance at all against the dungeons and raids of Northrend: save for one of our friends, the remainder of us were complete novices on setting up characters properly for end-game content and utilising our abilities in a party setting. I’ve seen for myself that players can become very serious about raids and dungeons, to the point of kicking people from a party for doing five percent less damage than is optimal. I’d never quite gotten over that, and this is why I have a private server to begin with.

  • If memory serves, I used the Dungeon Finder to join a group at Shadowfang Keep, but my level 20 frost mage was not equipped with the best possible gear for that level, so my spells weren’t dealing much damage. After clearing the first room, the party kicked me, sending me all the way back to the Stonetalon Mountains. I’ve heard that this is actually a more common experience than I’d initially thought, and veteran players note that this sort of behaviour comes from people power tripping; it’s something players learn to ignore. However, since I’m only a novice in World of Warcraft, and since my goal is exploration, I determined it’d be easier to explore on my own server.

  • During the past weekend, I had a few errands to tend to, and these sent me downtown. Since I had some additional time before my appointment, I decided to walk on over to the building where my seminar with World Vision was held some thirteen years earlier. I’d driven by every day last year returning home from work, and seeing this building reminded me of the Stonetalon Mountains, in turn lighting in me a wish to return to World of Warcraft. The World of Warcraft today is radically different than the one I remember, and while the game has seen numerous improvements, there is a charm about Wrath of the Lich King.

  • Here, I set foot on the Storm Peaks, a mountainous and gusty area covered in snow and ice. The foes here are closer to me in level, and while I can still engage elite enemies my level, it is clear that were I to be surrounded by enemies, I’d be finished in the blink of an eye – my most powerful spells can do a reasonable amount of damage, and with the Hot Streak talent, I can potentially have an instant-cast Pyroblast. Pyroblast is the most powerful single-target spell fire mages have available to them, but also has an extremely slow cast time.

  • For most fights, I open with Pyroblast owing to its high damage, and then follow up with a Fireball and Fire Blast where appropriate. Because fire spells also deal damage over time, I can whittle down individual enemies very quickly before they can get within melee range. Besides these utility spells, mages also gain access to the Frostfire bolt, which is essentially a best-of-both-worlds type spell: the spell takes a slightly longer time to cast, but will hit the enemy for whichever element they have less resistance against, making it a versatile spell to utilise.

  • The Storm Peaks’ greatest sight has to be Ulduar, a massive temple built by ancient beings known as the Titans. Nothing in Wrath of the Lich King quite matches it in scale, and its labyrinthine interior is home to a raid dungeon. Upon exploring Ulduar’s exterior, I was absolutely blown away by how large everything was, but it was a little surprising to see it so quiet outside. In retrospect, this is quite similar to how Blackrock Mountain had been deserted on the outside.

  • With Ulduar done, I changed course and prepared to fly on over to the Crystalsong Forest. Here, I pass back over more ordinary terrain in the Storm Peaks – it appears that it’s always night here, allowing the aurora to be seen in greater clarity. It hits me that a large number of places in World of Warcraft have the suffix -song as a part of their names, although I don’t have any background on what the origins of this are within the lore.

  • After arriving in the Crystalsong Forest, I was greeted with groves of golden-yellow aspen as far as the eye could see. Running through these forests, a very peculiar sight soon greeted me: violet-white trees composed entirely of crystal, which gives the region its name. According to lore, dragons fought here, turning the once-normal trees into crystal when they died and released their magic in to the landscape, transforming trees into glowing, purple structures.

  • We are at the end of August now, and truth be told, I’ve been pushing my blogging to the limits this month, averaging a post every 2.2 days. With September fast approaching, the Labour Day Long Weekend will offer some time for me to write out a few posts I’ve had in the wings for a while. September is actually looking quite relaxed – I have six posts planned out for the month so far, which leaves me with a bit of extra time for anything unforeseen that comes up. I’ll kick off the September posts come Saturday, and in the meantime, focus on making a progress on the drafts that I already have.

  • Here, I’ve reached the heart of one of the crystallised forests – it looks like a photo negative of sorts, although my character and HUD still have normal colouration. World of Warcraft‘s locations have always been fun, and while the starting areas are pretty ordinary in design, levelling up would really allow one to check out the more exotic-looking places. This was what I’d missed out on with my friend’s private server, and now, having set foot in all of the places of World of Warcraft up to 3.3.5, I wonder if it’d be worthwhile to create a post-Cataclysm server. On one hand, a newer server would have newer features available, most notably, transmogrification and the ability to fly in Azeroth, which had previously been a no-fly zone.

  • The tradeoff is that the old maps have seen considerable changes, and in Mists of Pandaria and later, the spells and talents have been completely overhauled to the point where I’m not too sure how everything fits together. Returning to Wrath of the Lich King, the overall effect in Crystalsong Forest is quite pleasing: in some places, the ground has cracked, releasing an eerie blue light into the air. After I concluded with the exploration, I ended up flying up into Dalaran: the city has a no-fly zone; although players were allowed to fly up (as of Patch 3.3.5), once in the city, flying mounts would be disabled.

  • The last destination on my list was the sanctuary city of Dalaran. As it turns out, there’s a crystal in the Crystalsong Forest that can be used. Of course, being a mage, I could’ve created a portal here without any additional cost to myself, but I preferred to do things the old-fashioned way. Upon arriving, I found myself in a very peaceful and well-kept city floating high in the sky. I ended up finishing a few quests here for the mage quarter, before reading through a quest that led to a raid (and then turning it down, since I don’t have the ability to solo raids on my own).

  • With this, I’ve now finished checking out Northrend’s more peaceable regions. I did fly over Icecrown, home of Arthas the Lich King – a glance at the area finds it swarming with the undead, and they are numerous enough to completely overwhelm individual players. In fact, Horde and Alliance forces alike use airships to observe the area, so I’m thinking that flying here is necessary to reach Icecrown Citadel; the aesthetic in Icecrown is basically a frozen, icy version of Sauron’s Mordor. I will not be taking on Arthas myself – even in later expansions, where players become powerful enough to to solo entire raids on their own, the fight against him requires a group to handle the mechanics, so this is one thing I won’t be checking out for myself.

Having now explored Northrend, I’ve checked out all of the regions in World of Warcraft that would’ve been available to me back when Wrath of the Lich King was the newest expansion, fulfilling an twelve-year-old wish. I am aware that as a solo player, a great deal of Wrath of the Lich King‘s best content is simply not available to me; even the Molten Core was much more challenging than what I could handle on my own, and this was with level sixty enemies. It is evident that 25-person raids featuring level-appropriate enemies would be impossible for the solo player to attempt, and for this reason, I won’t be able to waltz into Northrend’s raids and slaughter my way to victory, the same way I’ve done in DOOM Eternal. This is one of the hazards about the most private of servers: without other players, much of World of Warcraft‘s most iconic experiences (gathering a party together and smashing up raids over the course of a few hours for the game’s best equipment) remains unknown to me. Having a private server means missing out on much of this experience. However, my interest in a private server wasn’t to experience the end-game content on my own; my original mission had simply been to revisit some of the experiences I had back as a secondary student, as well as try out some of the things that I never had an opportunity to. In this area, the private server has absolutely fulfilled its intended function, and I’m happy to have brought such an old experience back to life. With Northrend’s more scenic location now in the books, my mind turns to whether or not I’d like to try putting a Mists of Pandaria server together, or if I should take an even further trip down memory lane and get my old private Ragnarok Online server back up and running. There are stories behind both decisions, and both stories offer a bit to talk about, so I’ll recount them in more detail in their appropriate posts, at the appropriate time.

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