This article originally appeared in issue 245 of PC Gamer UK.
Getting to Pandaria is easy. If you're at Level 85 already, you'll get a letter with directions. If not, roll a new Pandaren to at least get the fl avour of it. You'll be able to do this even if you don't have the expansion pack – all races are going to be unlocked for everyone – although you won't be able to create a Monk unless you upgrade. That leaves Warrior, Hunter, Rogue, Priest, Shaman and Mage as possibilities. Sorry, no Death Knights.
The Pandaren starting area is the Wandering Isle – a giant turtle with mountains, currently swimming off course. Before you can do anything about that though, you've got to train. Think Wushu with bamboo – pagodas, forests, dragons, mischievous elemental gods. It's a much, much slower-paced start than Cataclysm's new races got, though there's still plenty of beating stuff up between lectures about nobility and meditation.
There's no getting around it: World of Warcraft's engine is old. Mists of Pandaria doesn't change that, but it does take full advantage of being able to crank its draw distance for the sprawling temples, and packs its locations with detail and colour. When you're in the wilds, it's more familiar stuff. The set-piece locations are big and lovely, though.
Pandaren get a few racial traits, including better cooking skills and 'inner peace' for more rested XP. However the funniest one is that being fat – sorry, 'bouncy' – they take less falling damage than other races. This doesn't mean you can jump off cliffs though, so it's likely to be of limited use – unless you are just spectacularly clumsy.
On the other hand, Monks are a major addition. Everyone but the Worgen/ Goblins can take this class, which covers the whole DPS/Healer/Tank trinity. They wear leather armour and focus on staves, using energy to build up Chi that can be deployed in ways that really put the 'holy freaking hell' into 'overpowered' – at least at the moment.
The coolest Monk attack is the Touch Of Death. It recharges fast, and doesn't take much to perform – a couple of build-up strikes to raise Chi. What does it do? It one-hit kills just about any NPC, provided they don't have more health than you do and aren't a protected boss. In short, forget about getting Bruce Lee on Deathwing or another player's buttocks, but just about anyone you meet out on the field? They're history.
You also get a couple of ways to utterly humiliate yourself in battle – the king of them being the Flying Serpent Kick. This kick launches you through the air, but rather than targeting an enemy, will happily see you zoom straight past them and off the nearest cliff. To use it, you have to tap the button again mid-flight to slam down with a shockwave. It's laggy though, so practice and good timing are needed to use it effectively.
The three Monk sub-classes are Brewmaster (Tank), Windwalker (Damage) and Mistweaver (Healer). The first is easily the silliest. Want to be a giant happy panda who stops enemies by drinking beer and hurling the kegs at your enemies? This is your class. It has quite a lot less class than its trainers like to pretend.
Monks have their own Moonglade equivalent in the snowy Pandarian mountain, with a spell to take a 'zen pilgrimage' for advanced training. The return trip puts you back more or less where you left, with no need to take taxis or run across the whole world. In a cute touch, you have to bow to your master before fighting. By typing '/bow'.
There is no Achievement for snagging a panda-related pun, but that's not going to stop anyone. Pandrogny, Monium and Ring are just three of the names you'll fi nd funny at fi rst, but which will develop into deep shame over the next few years. Have fun!
The Wandering Isle is one of WoW's most laid back locations. A few monkeys and killer rabbits – adorably called “Carrotcrunchers” – are about the worst you have to deal with, which is why a panda's life revolves around practising a million different ways to kick arse without even having any bubblegum.
Someone at Blizzard is apparently a Ranma ½ fan. Part of the training temple is devoted to cursed springs that transform anyone who falls into them into a new form. Unlike the Jusenkyo pools of that series, it's temporary and you'll only transform into other animals. Still, watch out for cranes. They won't attack a panda, but a frog? That's lunch!
Much of the tutorial is a personal story, as you join up with a band of more experienced Pandaren. You'll get to know them pretty well, including would-be lovers Aysa and Ji, and strongman Jojo Ironbrow. He keeps demanding you bring him materials to break with the power of his mighty head. It'd be very mean to try to fi nd something strong enough to give him the same kind of headache he's given you... right?
Hope you're ready for a fight! Your first proper battle involves taking down a flying serpent called Zhao-Ren with nothing but fireworks. While regular enemies are still tagged by the first striker, bosses are willing to be beaten up by impromptu groups. Run up and take part and you'll be given kill credit – both here and in later big fights
Get ready to befriend an island. To fi nd out what's wrong, you get to be fl own by hot-air balloon for a one-on-one chat with great sea turtle, Shen-zin Su – badly wounded by a crashed Alliance ship carrying Horde prisoners. The fi rst thing they did? Make two camps and hang war banners. This bodes well for the Pandaren people...
Speaking of which, don't think this is all played straight. Blizzard still loves puns and throwaway gags. A goblin obsessed with explosives? Meet 'Makael Bay'. A later quest – 'I Have No Jade And I Must Scream' – offers a nice 'I see what you did there... ' moment, even if it has no relevance at all to Harlan Ellison's short story. Still, the tone is fairly serene to sombre in training – as if to make it extra-specially clear that the Pandaren are a proper, respectable part of WoW lore, and not just a joke race that lucked into a whole expansion.
The arrival of some sea horrors definitely helps. In particular, you'll fight a boss called the Vordraka, which isn't too tough, but stands out as a tutorial boss who brings mid-fight reinforcements and the need to dodge targeted attacks instead of just a big health bar. He's beatable, but the first hint that Pandaria's bosses have seriously levelled up.
Events are also much tougher, with a desperate group attempt to protect healers as they try to save Shen-zin Su's life. Don't get too used to seeing the Horde and Alliance working together, though – it's a tense alliance here at best. And a real pain if you're on your own, at least at the moment. Hopefully it'll scale a bit better in the finished game.
Horde or Alliance? It's a simple choice, although one that will screw up more than a little for your panda pals. Your arrival is similar to the Death Knights' debut, only this time people are curious instead of spitting at you.
There's definitely one reason to go Alliance: it'll give you a rare chance to beat up Varian Wrynn, the jerk-king of Stormwind. Like all of us, he wants to try beating up a panda. Unlike most Level 20 characters, you actually get to enjoy knocking his jerky arse to the floor in his own castle. Savour the moment. Alliance or Horde, we can all agree that he definitely deserves it.
At Level 85, a letter arrives summoning you to your capital to find out about Pandaria. Wrynn's reason for sending people to this new land involves his son going missing there. As for Garrosh Hellscream, Warchief of the Horde... well, he's Garrosh. “Storm the shore, and paint this new continent red!” he bellows. That works too. Pack your things.
We've not seen much 'war' in World of Warcraft, with all the expansions adding world-destroying villains. Get ready to make up for that. Your introduction to Pandaria is all-out chaos, with turrets and bomber jets and rappelling down from airships. Things get quieter almost immediately, but it's still a good reminder of how much animosity is knocking around.
Don't be fooled by Pandaria's serene charm. Ignoring the Level 85+ wildlife, it's not long before you encounter places like Twinspire Keep. On the outside, titanic stone statues of ancient soldiers. Inside, demonic gateways. Even in the wilds, slavers and monsters with no connection to the Horde/Alliance spat are all just business as usual.
Oddly, nobody seems to notice if you're a Pandaren yourself. There are references to the Wandering Isle from early on, though its relationship to Pandaria proper isn't made very clear. Still everyone talks to you as if you're an outsider struggling to understand their ways, even though the culture is practically identical in both settlements.
The Alliance kicks off in Paw'don Village, struggling to work out why the Pandaren aren't automatically on-side with 'Operation: Exterminate The Horde', but not enough to realise it might have something to do with helping themselves to any resources they want then, with mouths half-full of stolen food, going “the Horde will take all your stuff”. It's immediately clear the Pandaren will regret not murdering everyone in sight immediately.
Speaking of war being 'a bad thing', the unprovoked massacre of a group of unarmed Horde soldiers swimming over to surrender to the Alliance reveals that Pandaria might not be the ideal battlefield. In this place, negative energies take real form – specifically, the form of scary ghosts called 'Sha'. Still, what's the worst that could happen?
Twinspire Keep is where some of the real changes to Pandaria become obvious for Alliance players, including a more dynamic spin on the world with dramatic bombing runs, and the first new-world boss, Ga'trul. As with the tutorial monster, he's more than a healthbar. Most bosses seem to have their own gimmicks now, including a sorcerer who occasionally steals your soul, and a slaver made weaker by his victims' taunts.
Most of Pandaria's first proper zone, The Jade Forest, is fairly quiet. Some of the cool stuff you'll see includes a massive temple in red and gold, the village of a group of isolationist fi sh-people whose seriousness only makes them funnier, and several small villages beset with trouble. Both factions are trying to forge alliances, with heavy use of quiet instancing to subtly continue stories and lead into plot development.
The narrative in general is another step up for World of Warcraft. One especially good section is told in flashbacks and involves reliving the adventure of four spies behind enemy lines. Action! Sniping! Witchcraft! A pet racoon! However it has never felt more like a singleplayer story that just happens to have more players running around, and quite a few 'kill 20 things' quests to pad out your stay in each zone as much as possible.
Let's tour Pandaria! From the Jade Forest – a civilised bit, where life is simple – the adventure continues in the lush greenery of the Valley of the Four Winds. Here you'll bump into old Hemet Nesingwary and his son on his latest safari, hunting the most dangerous game. Not man. Pfft. We're barely #9 on the list. No, this time they're after giant monsters called 'Mushan', and an elite creature that might finally be their limit.
Surroundings too pretty? Head south to the Krasarang Wilds for lots of sinister purple swamps and what's hands down Pandaria's least interesting zone. While the Valley is mostly just greenery, at least it's sunny and scenic, with lots of rolling hills and ambient wildlife trying to murder you. Here, things are dark, murky, and while there's plenty to do, there isn't the same immediate hook as most of the other zones.
The Dread Wastes! With a name like that, you know it's going to be worth a visit. There's a big wall in your way, but you can swim round it if you like, and explore a horrific world of darkness with a sky swirling in ghostly doom. Areas with names like 'Heart of Fear' await you at Levels 89-90, along with – somewhat less dramatically – 'Soggy's Gamble' and 'The Horrid Marsh'. That sounds very horrid. Not scary though.
Townlong Steppes is more civilised, with colour-coded grass on its towering islands. Beyond that, it remains a mystery. Between it and the Dread Wastes is your main goal here: a giant door under siege by locust men that protect Pandaria's Level 90 zone, the Vale of Eternal Blossoms. Amusingly, this sealed-off land that nobody ever sees already has flight points on the map. Try not to notice that. It's only polite...
Finally, there's the snowy mountain of Kun-Lai Summit. It's for Levels 87-88, although Monks will be familiar with it before then – it's where their special training monastery is, atop the Peak of Serenity. If you need a reason to return here every now and again, defeating trainers gets you an hour-long XP boost – 50% from both quests and enemies.
Not everything in Pandaria is as it appears though. Early on, you visit the Temple of the Jade Serpent – where you shoot fireworks for a little panda cub, smash bookworms in the library, and do all the usual questing stuff. Later though, it becomes one of Pandaria's first dungeons. It's the map you know, only now it's fi lled with vengeful ghosts.
How do you get around? On kites, of course! The factions have brought a few classic taxies, but Pandaria Air involves surfing through the skies to get where you're going. Your flying mounts will work in Pandaria, but only after you hit Level 90.
There's a new mount type to make up for this, though – the Cloud Serpent. You can't just buy one; instead, you have to raise your own from an egg over the course of many, many daily quests. At the moment, it's tough to see how these will be better than a regular mount – they appear to be the same speed – except for acting as a flying ego-boost.
For a pet that's easier to look after, you want Pet Battles. This 'don't call it Pokemon!' mode lets you turn any critter that you've collected into a warrior, from the Tiny Goldfish to the Spirit of Competition. Each one levels up, unlocking new abilities to use in their special turn-based battles. You can have up to 500 pets in total, and three of any kind.
Pet Battles is a whole new game, accessible from Level 3. Animals fought in the wild can be captured without the need for a magic ball, with a matchmaking system to pair your fi nest critters off against other player tamers. Not trainers! That's that 'other' game...
Azeroth itself is still ripped apart by the Cataclysm, although you'll fi nd a few changes here and there: notably the new Pandaren outposts and hot-air balloons. If you've not logged in for a while, you'll also fi nd new portals to the later Cataclysm dungeons and a tribute to Deathwing's fall – complete with character to show you the ending movie – although it won't make any sense at all if you've not seen the rest of the story.
Two more dungeons have been given a Heroic Mode overhaul for Level 90 characters though: a reworked version of Scarlet Monastery/Scarlet Halls, and the evil Hogwarts-for-necromancers itself, Scholomance. Same maps, new content.
Along with six new dungeons and three raids, Pandaria also adds a new type of group content: Scenarios. These are short 2-3 player-focussed, story-based instances that you can queue for like anything else, but which try to offer a compact experience that you don't have to spend hours on (or need a dedicated healer/tank for).
Theramore's Fall is the highest profile Scenario. Theramore is a town in icky Dustwallow Marsh, and the home of Jaina Proudmoore – one of the few high-profile Alliance characters who gets on with former Horde leader Thrall. As Horde, you'll attack. As Alliance, you'll defend her and try to clean up after their inevitable rampage.
Regular dungeons now have a twist as well – at least the new Pandarian ones. Challenge Mode adds a time-trial element, scaling down your gear in the interests of fairness. Get a fast time and you get a medal, along with bonus rewards.
Long before all that though, you'll find most of the questing experience has been heavily streamlined. Talent trees have been completely thrown out, and are now a case of picking skills instead of spending points. You get all your new skills automatically on levelling up. New fl oating icons in the world make it easier to see key characters and quest objects.
Most classes have changed dramatically as a result of this. Talents that everyone picked are now usually given to everyone, with the idea being that you can now pick cool extra options instead of having to follow a boring theorycrafting guide to be any good.
You'll also get a taste of power from character creation, with your potential hero being decked out in high-level armour rather than some Level 1 rags. Of course, you don't get to keep that armour. It's just so you can see what you'll look like after a couple of months.
Some parts of the world will now be 'cross realm' in an attempt to fix the fact that most players only hang out in new and lategame areas. With this, players from different servers will be temporarily thrown together when it gets quiet to add a sense of life. It's similar to what Guild Wars 2 does, only with rather more pandas.
If your adventures have left your pockets full of gold, you'll be able to spend that money at a new Black Market Auction House. These focus on items you can't normally buy, with no 'buyout' option, and bids start around the 10-20,000 gold mark. Auctions last at least 12 hours.
Expect big changes for Azeroth's politics, with the fi nal boss of the expansion not being a new big bad, but Garrosh Hellscream. To take him down (and presumably reinstate the slightly less bloodthirsty Thrall), both factions will lay siege to Orgrimmar. Hopefully there'll be a bonus bit where you get to slap Thrall and yell “His name is HELLSCREAM. What, precisely, were you expecting?” But that's yet to be confirmed...