“Slow down!” the Pandaren tell you whenever you click on them. And you should heed their advice, for Blizzard’s latest expansion for World of Warcraft should be savored like a Pandaren savors beer and fine food. The portly Pandas play their appetites and patience for laughs, but their laid back attitude quickly overtakes your playstyle. Blizzard has provided a diverse menu of MMO activities with Mists of Pandaria that’s incredibly fun to feast upon again and again.
If epic stories and quests are your favorite parts of playing an MMO, MoP has got you covered. Blizzard raises the stakes for the Alliance, as they investigate the shrouded new continent while tracking down the White Pawn – the young Prince Anduin who started his life in vanilla WoW as a young boy. Meanwhile, the Horde has chased him to Pandaria, and the Warchief orders his forces to “paint this new continent red.” Both sides come in contact with the indigenous races, and the land itself responds by releasing what are essentially bad emotions and feelings given physical form – the Sha of Doubt, Despair, Anger, etc. Underneath those broad strokes are touching personal stories in which characters overcome those negative feelings. There’s no need to spoil the specifics, but you’ll enjoy the quests because of excellent writing showing genuine wit, along with a clever blend of cinematics, a generous helping of in-game voice acting, and unique mechanics pushing the limits of the vehicle quest system introduced in Wrath of the Lich King.
The quests for any given zone continue the excellent design practices Blizzard honed through Wrath of the Lich King and Cataclysm. The content is skillfully divided into pods that feel like an episode in your character’s ongoing story so you might visit one village under attack in the Jade Forest and save its denizens over the course of several quests. When you kill the slaver taking the village folk, you’re rewarded with an achievement, the feeling that you’ve completed that story, and the freedom to pass on to the next pod of content. Each zone has 6-12 of these content pods, and they let you break up playtime like the end of a chapter does for reading a book.
Beyond leveling your character to 90 in Pandaria’s zones, the new minipet battle system is a completely separate endeavor which will keep your character running around all the older content to collect ’em all. Minipets have been in WoW since launch, but they are no longer just cosmetic. You can pit them against pets you find in the world, other players or the NPC pet trainers you challenge during quests. The turn-based mechanics aren’t any more difficult to figure out than Pokemon, but the battles are just as addictive. You can easily spend hours leveling up the right combination for your battle team to take down the Forsaken battle pet trainer David Kosse, for example, and his team consisting of the rabbit Subject 142, Plop the Magic Green Droplet and a giant maggot called Corpsefeeder.
Hopefully, that motley crew doesn’t put you off your lunch, because in contrast playing Pandaria actually made me hungry with how much the characters mention food and drink. It’s fitting in the expansion starring the gourmand Pandarens that the secondary trade skill of cooking is highlighted. Cooking has always been a fun diversion in WoW, but recipes have much more varied ingredient list than in previous expansions. Some of these you purchase such as rice, but a great many you collect by killing creatures in the wild such as most large birds dropping wildfowl breasts. You then level up individual specializations, learning the Way of the Oven and the Way of the Wok, for instance, to create dishes like spring rolls and stir fries. If you’re a gamer who loves both the collection and crafting systems in MMOs, the cooking in MoP will entice you like a Chinese buffet tempts those with the munchies.
The dungeons in MoP are pleasant diversions that concentrate on active encounters. Some instanced content in MMOs reward you for standing in one place and mashing buttons, but you never seem to stay still during a boss fight in MoP. There’s always an additional wave of monsters to attack, or a spray of damaging water to avoid. The relative simplicity of the first few dungeons available such as Stormstout Brewery and Temple of the Jade Serpent – only two or three bosses with minimal filler monsters before the big final encounter – makes them ideal for finding a random group with Blizzard’s now essential Dungeon Finder tool.
If you’re new to World of Warcraft or looking to level up an alternative character, you could always start a new Pandaren character and try out the martial prowess of the monk class. The starting area for the Pandaren is on the back of a giant sea turtle, and tells a neat little tale of discovery before dumping your character into the leveling machine of Azeroth. The transition from content tailored for your furry adventurer to the rest of the game is a bit abrupt, with no clear motivation for a Pandaren to help Goblins blow up stuff or help Dwarves find their heritage. A second starter zone from levels 10 to 20 would have helped, and more Pandaren-suited content peppered throughout the rest of the leveling curve should have been a priority as well.
The monk is a worthy addition to the class roster of WoW. The resource system of energy and Chi points feels similar to the Rogue, but the abilities and their corresponding animations are fluid and precise. You look like a chubby martial artist would – if you stuck with the Pandaren race for your monk. You might feel like you are using the same 2 or 3 abilities during each fight for the first twenty levels or so – especially if you picked the healing specialization over damage-dealing or defending – but the versatility and mobility of the monk more than make up for it.
There’s drastic changes to WoW‘s gameplay even for those without the expansion, and not all are for the better. The talent system revamp is a big shift from min-maxing nearly 70 points to making just six decisions over the course of leveling from 0 to 90. It may have been necessary shift to get rid of bloat, but players miss the sense of progression the old system gave you each time you leveled up. Blizzard’s response to dwindling population across all realms is called Cross Realm Play and it might be another misstep, automatically mashing together players from low-population servers seamlessly as you play. You will get a clearer sense that you are just one adventurer in a world with many others, but, if you play with PvP turned on, the change boils down to little more than a sharp increase in being ganked.
Mists of Pandaria looks and sounds simply beautiful. And it knows it, providing ample opportunity to ride massive kites or giant jade dragons and ogle sculpted monuments and tiered pagodas all while listening to an epic orchestral soundtrack or a nearly flawless monologue delivered by talented voice actors. The obvious Asian influence isn’t exactly brand new for WoW but it’s safe to say the architecture and natural beauty on the continent of Pandaria is like nothing you’ve seen before. The WoW game client may have gotten only a few texture upgrades since it released in 2004, but the artists certainly know exactly how to take advantage of the engine and the cartoony style to give players stunning vistas every time you turn around.
That’s why it’s important to heed the Pandaren’s advice and slow down. Take it in. There’s no need to rush through everything to do in Mists of Pandaria. It will still be there whenever you want to play it.
Bottom Line: All of the recent advancements in gameplay from other MMOs has made WoW go out of vogue. The similarity to a certain animated character voiced by Jack Black makes it easy to dismiss Mists of Pandaria as childish, which is a shame because it is World of Warcraft‘s most well-designed expansion to date.
Recommendation: If you’re an active WoW player, you’re already partaking of everything on offer in MoP. Even if you are sated on Guild Wars 2, it might be worth a $15 subscription to remind yourself what other MMOs are still trying to emulate.[rating=5]
If you’re interested in more details regarding the Pandaren starting area and the monk class, please check out my preview based on the beta test.