Taking too long? Close loading screen.

Utgarde Keep

Among the cliffs of the Daggercap Bay in the Howling Fjord stands Utgarde Keep, an impervious fortress occupied by the savage and enigmatic vrykul. The ancient stronghold stretches deep into the earth, but thus far no scout from the Alliance or Horde has survived long enough to explore its depths. Long thought to be abandoned, Utgarde has only recently returned to occupation after millennia of disuse. Now the half-giant vrykul pour endlessly from within the keep's battle-scarred walls to assault the nearby settlements.

Fanatically loyal to the still-slumbering King Ymiron, the vrykul seem to live for the thrill of battle. Inside Utgarde, the vicious Dragonflayer clan builds massive weapons of war in ever-burning forges. All of Ingvar's raiders possess tremendous strength and stamina, and a few have also learned to master the arcane arts. Most vrykul magic seems to draw from mysterious runes that even the most experienced magi find unfamiliar. These rune-casters are among the deadliest of all the vrykul, possessing the power to freeze their foes in solid ice and shatter them into a thousand jagged shards.

Although rumors persist that the followers of Ymiron may have allied with the Scourge, the denizens of the Howling Fjord have all seen the Dragonflayers' most common allies: proto-dragons. These bestial creatures seem to have little in common with their better-known brethren in the five dragonflights. Nevertheless, the vrykul have trained the fearsome proto-dragons to serve as mounts. Under the command of Ingvar the Plunderer, the dragon riders revel in slaughtering their enemies from above without warning.

Even as the brutal vrykul strive to conquer the surface of Northrend, they have begun expanding beneath the Howling Fjord as well. Because the servants of Ymiron consider manual labor to be a lowly endeavor, the brave adventurers of the fjord speculate that the vrykul must be tapping some outside source to carry out the work...

With mysterious, foul magic and proto-dragons at their command, the vrykul of Utgarde Keep pose an imminent threat to both the Alliance and the Horde. Only the bravest would dare to strike against Ymiron's faithful and delve into the heart of the vrykul's primeval home.


Anatomy of a Dungeon: Utgarde Keep

Fresh from your many victories in Outland, you have heeded the call. Brave adventurers are needed to battle the massing Scourge in Northrend. The serene trip by boat into Daggercap Bay stands in sharp contrast to the scene at your final destination, the besieged town of Valgarde. As the boat comes to a stop at last, you find yourself in a town under siege. Enraged vrykul charge the town's defenders, overwhelming them with their sheer size and savagery. Buildings catch fire and burn before your eyes, and the cries of battle mingle with the shrieks of the proto-dragons flying low overhead. Despite the chaos, your eyes are drawn to the massive stone edifice dominating your view -- Utgarde. As you gaze upon the twin skull visages on the façade that leer out upon Daggercap Bay, you feel a shiver run down your spine that has nothing to do with the frosty air....


Utgarde's Eye Candy

Utgarde Keep is one of the most visually impressive edifices in all of World of Warcraft. When you pass these notable areas, you might want to pause a moment and look around:

The towering, ominous Utgarde Keep is a sight impossible to miss for players arriving in Howling Fjord, and likely the first dungeon experienced in Northrend. The design process behind Utgarde Keep, and the other dungeons of Wrath of the Lich King, has evolved from years of experience developing for World of Warcraft. In this article, the World of Warcraft design team explores the goals and overall philosophies at the foundations of the five-person dungeons of Northrend, and gives us a behind-the-scenes look at Utgarde Keep itself. Let's start the tour.


Welcome to Northrend. Now feel our wrath!

How exactly do you dream up a dungeon? When we started working on Utgarde Keep, we knew from the start that we wanted some sort of “impenetrable fortress in the side of a mountain.” In considering the continent of Northrend's history and geography, we pretty quickly found a source of inspiration for Utgarde Keep, and to an extent the entire region of Howling Fjord, in a combination of elements from Norse mythology. One of our goals was to make the starting areas feel more “human.” The presence of the Vrykul, the imposing half-giant warrior race native to the region, and the architecture connected to them helped achieve exactly that.

Utgarde's design ties closely into the creation of Howling Fjord as a whole. Less high-concept than the otherworldly and wildly diverse regions of Outland, we want the zones in Northrend to follow a geographic theme that's more consistent with the familiar geography of Azeroth. Many of Northrend's regions originally appeared in Warcraft III -- such as Howling Fjord, one of the two starting areas and also where Utgarde Keep is prominently located. Howling Fjord's Azerothian feel stands in sharp contrast to the stark, alien beauty of Hellfire Peninsula, and this should help players establish an immediate connection to the expansion's new environments.

However, the residents of Utgarde Keep are more than happy to make them feel less at home. The Vrykul (think Vikings, only bigger, fiercer, and extremely inhospitable) have made Utgarde Keep their staging ground for attacks against nearby Horde and Alliance settlements, including Valgarde, and they aren't exactly thrilled to see new heroes coming in to reinforce the town. When you arrive in Daggercap Bay, you will experience regular Vrykul attacks firsthand as the raging giants assault Valgarde and rain fire down on the buildings from the backs of their proto-dragon mounts. The intent here is to make you feel deeply involved in the expansion's overall plot from the moment you step off the boat, and we felt there's really no better way to achieve this than to have a Vrykul giant chase you around with an axe that's easily twice your own size.

You'll catch a glimpse of the Vrykul's sinister plans through the quests in Valgarde's vicinity, which will eventually lead you into Utgarde Keep itself to strike a blow at the heart of the Vrykul war effort (and perhaps gain some insights into the motivations behind the attacks themselves). When you finally do enter Utgarde Keep, we want you to feel as if that assault is the logical conclusion to the events that led you there. You and your fellow adventurers will venture in with steely resolve, there to make things right -- armed with sword, spell, and most importantly, a sense of purpose.


The design of a starter dungeon

We expect most players to battle through this dungeon at a brisk pace. You will find that you will probably be able to play through Utgarde Keep much more quickly than its high-level counterparts, similar to Burning Crusade equivalents such as Hellfire Ramparts and Blood Furnace. Accessibility is a high priority, especially with the early dungeons, both in terms of location -- the entrance portal is extremely close to the outskirts of the town -- and in terms of how much time players need to invest in the dungeon. Along these lines, the overall difficulty of the dungeon is comparable to a first attempt at Ramparts in Outland.

The guiding principle behind this kind of “starter” dungeon is that you and your party can have a solid, memorable experience with plenty of story payoffs and some nice rewards to boot -- all in a single run. What should make the experience of playing through Utgarde Keep even more engaging is a sense of purpose for the players, and even greater connection to the story than before. This is one of the key goals of Wrath of the Lich King's dungeon design.


Looking for lore (in all the right places)

One of the most important lessons of dungeon design is to establish easily identifiable goals. When you feel like you're there for a clear reason, that sense of purpose makes a dungeon far more engaging. To help facilitate this goal-oriented philosophy, one technique we're using in Wrath of the Lich King is to build more mission-based instances along the lines of Old Hillsbrad and Black Morass.

We're also leaning heavily on the rich history and backstory expressed through the lore of World of Warcraft. After designing dozens of memorable dungeons, at times it can be challenging to keep things fresh. This is one way the lore is extremely helpful. It's an invaluable resource for brainstorming new design ideas and interesting dungeon encounters. The look of the dungeon, the level design, the enemies, the bosses -- all of these elements are simply creative manifestations of the underlying lore.

You will experience this philosophy put into practice in Utgarde. For example, the backstory states that the Vrykul are, among other things, digging an underground tunnel between the keep and Gjalerbron (another region in Northrend). We decided to put tunnels in the keep that players use to move between rooms. However, when the tunnels were built in the game, we realized that the Vrykul would frown on manual labor (given their backstory). They would consider digging tunnels beneath them. So the suggestion was made: why not have mindless undead dig the tunnels for them? This ultimately influenced our decision to make the first boss, Prince Keleseth, the Scourge ambassador to the Vrykul. This is just one example of the creative back-and-forth between lore and game design.



This approach also gives us an opportunity to portray enemies with their own motivations: of doing something -- in this case tunneling -- instead of just waiting to be killed by players. And when they are standing around, they are doing so for a reason. For example, the enemies in Utgarde Keep's forge are there to craft weapons and armor for the Vrykul to use in their war effort. Small details like this help us in our efforts to make every room of every dungeon, particularly the boss rooms, which receive special attention, unique and memorable.

Another example of the deepening connection between story and gameplay is how enemy bosses are treated in Wrath of the Lich King. Giving the player more interaction with these villains prior to battling them increases the immersion. For example, you will first catch a glimpse of Utgarde Keep's commander on a balcony overlooking Daggercap Bay and Valgarde, surrounded by dragon-mounted Vrykul. As you approach, Ingvar the Plunderer can be seen motioning to his troops, directing them to attack targets below. Remember the lumbering, dangerous Vrykul with their huge axes who've been chasing you around ever since you set foot in Northrend? Ingvar is the one who's been giving them orders all along. Once the commander is felled, you will learn more about the mystery of the Vrykul, and what needs to be done to free Northrend of the darkness that shrouds this frozen wasteland.

A story-driven approach is a key element to the designs of all the new dungeons in Wrath of the Lich King. Another excellent example of this is Caverns of Time: Stratholme, where you will witness a pivotal moment in Arthas' story -- the culling of Stratholme -- while standing right next to him.


Lessons from the past

We learned some important lessons from The Burning Crusade's starting area and dungeons, in terms of both what worked and what didn't, and these lessons are reflected in Northrend. For example, there are two starting areas, each with its own dungeon, as opposed to The Burning Crusade's single Hellfire Peninsula / Hellfire Citadel combo. The reasoning behind this is to provide a choice to the player -- the area you decide to start in is where you will spend your early levels in Northrend. You can also decide to travel to the other starting area at any time, thanks to a free travel system between the zones of Borean Tundra and Howling Fjord, but most players will likely gravitate toward one area in order to complete the various quests there. Having two starting areas also adds to Wrath of the Lich King's replayability -- when it's time to pick a starting area for an alt, you can pick the one that you didn't play through the first time around.

Another idea that we are bringing back from Burning Crusade is the heroic difficulty mode for dungeons. We learned some things from this feature in The Burning Crusade in terms of balancing and tuning these dungeons for difficulty, which should result in more consistent difficulty both within a given Heroic dungeon as well as between one Heroic dungeon and the next. This time around, some Heroic dungeons will offer bonus content such as new bosses and hidden areas of the dungeon that will only be accessible in Heroic mode.


Visions of the future

Despite the chaos, your eyes are drawn to the massive stone edifice dominating your view -- Utgarde.

As you gaze upon the twin skull visages on the façade that leer out upon Daggercap Bay, you feel a shiver run down your spine that has nothing to do with the frosty air.... However, you quickly shake off the feeling of unease and focus on the battle at hand, knowing that your skills are needed here and now. As the vrykul attackers fall before you one by one, you can't help but wonder what other monstrosities await you beyond the darkened walls of Utgarde Keep. You get the feeling you'll find out soon enough.

We hope you enjoyed this preview of Utgarde Keep and dungeon design in Wrath of the Lich King and look forward to seeing you in Northrend.