For the past seven years, there's been a darkness on the edge of Azeroth. The Burning Crusade brought a host of demonic forces. Wrath of the Lich King saw an invasion of the dead. Cataclysm destroyed the very world itself, a manifestation of evil that cracked earth and boiled seas with a flick of its maleficent wings.
What next? What hideous mindrending monstrosity, dredged up from the abyss of the human psyche, could follow a villain as truly malevolent as Deathwing? Now we know. Pandas.
WoW's next expansion centres around these small and furry creatures. Animals so evolutionarily backwards that they use their ursine teeth to rend and tear only bamboo. So dopey that they have to be shown panda porn to be coaxed into having sex to ensure the survival of their race.
A creature so fragile that a group of them, after an earthquake in their central China habitat, had to literally be cuddled back to psychiatric health. Yet, this is genius. Deathwing rent World of Warcraft in two, demolishing subscriber numbers along the way; Mists of Pandaria could save it.
This year saw two defining events in World of Warcraft's history. For the first time in the game's seven-year lifespan, Blizzard saw a decline in WoW subscriptions. But as interest finally started to wane in the west, the game expanded into the vast Chinese market.
Try to ignore the mental image of frolicking pandas for a second – it's time for some cynicism. The new expansion is heavily influenced by Chinese culture. Pandaria itself is a green land, spotted with pagoda temples and rice paddies, and the new playable race who dominate the world are walking, talking versions of the country's cutest export. Was the choice to add the new continent of Pandaria and its fluffy inhabitants a deliberate paean to the MMO's new frontier? A love letter to China?
“We had a poll not too long ago. We asked: 'What is the number one feature you'd like to see in World of Warcraft?' The top response was 'Pandarens'. The poll wasn't even 'what race', it was 'what anything do you want to see?'” Greg Street is Mists of Pandaria's lead systems designer, and he sees the confluence of the new expansion's setting and WoW's new colonisation as a happy accident. He argues that, with Pandarens established in the game's fiction already, it made sense to dress their homeland up like their natural habitat.
The result is Pandaria. Obscured by mists from the the rest of Azeroth for generations, the Pandarens have been left to grow fat and fluffy as the Horde and Alliance endlessly smacked each other around. They discovered the continent as a matter of chance, after being shipwrecked on the mysterious coastline after a naval battle. Pandaria is a peaceful place, with its native pandas preferring to use their kung fu to focus their minds rather than beating the frayed cloth armour out of their neighbours.
That is, until you turn up. Blizzard consider Mists of Pandaria as an escalation in the conflict between Alliance and Horde, an unplundered place full of resources and new space to be squabbled and scrapped over. “When players get to Pandaria, there won't be very strong Horde or Alliance influence in the continent. They'll see a few Night Elves, Tauren, and of course a lot of Pandarens, but the former won't have big established bases. But over time – say, with our first major content patch – both sides will have established a bulwark. And then maybe in the second patch, we'll have a big open battleground where the Pandarens are caught in the middle between Horde and Alliance.”
Pandarens are neutral by nature, preferring to spend their time brewing beer and fronting international wildlife conservation campaigns. Reflecting that, players who roll a new Pandaren character start off as a third faction. They'll find themselves at a fluffy crossroads at level 10, where they must choose between throwing their chips in the bamboo basket of either Horde or Alliance.
That makes the Pandarens World of Warcraft's first playable neutral race. There was talk pre-Cataclysm of goblins taking that title, before they became Horde-only. I asked Greg if they'd switch them to the same set-up, and why the Pandarens were able to stay out of the top level fight for ten levels. “It's an interesting idea, but probably not; we've established the goblins in the Horde.”
“If we made the Pandaren Horde only, in keeping with the history of Warcraft 3, boy would the Alliance players be unhappy! They're such a core part of the game we felt that the right answer would be to give them to everyone.” For the first ten levels, all those who do pretend to be a panda will start out in the same area.
Pandaria is split into five zones, given names out of earnest martial arts films. You'll be galumphing through the Jade Forest, the Kun-Lai Summit, and the Valley of the Four Winds during your time in Pandaria. That Blizzard didn't take the opportunity to include a 'fur winds' pun hints at a pervasive reverence for their too-cute subject matter.
The expansion's Pandarens aren't imbued with the knockabout silliness you'd expect from a kung fu panda. Instead, they're a measured, insightful race, and Blizzard avoids playing the furballs for laughs so as not to piss off the very country they're trying to court: China has rigid guidelines on how their fluffy treasures can be represented. It creates a slightly jarring effect that leaves Pandaria feeling more sober than you might expect. Even if a gigantic brewery acts as one of the continent's major dungeons.
But what Pandaria loses in potential laughs, it gains in majesty. That the developers have managed to coax the expansion's mixture of rich autumn colours and grand, impressionist landscapes from a seven-year-old engine is mightily impressive.
The continent uses space effectively: Horde and Alliance characters who pop over on either boats or zeppelins will find themselves dropped at opposite ends of the same sector. Being able to see your mortal enemies on the other side of a treeline will, Blizzard hope, spark the kind of animosity that future patches will escalate. But the most creative new landmass isn't in Pandaria itself – it's the new Pandaren starting zone.
Read part two of our Mists of Pandaria preview for Kung Fu fighting and the difficulty curve.
I started my huggable journey on the back of a giant turtle. The Wandering Isle is a set of villages, hills, and lakes situated on the back of a gently floating reptile. It's home to all fresh Pandarens, curious enough about the outside world to hitch a lift on the panda version of public transport. I'd chosen to make my man-panda a monk. Monks are Mists of Pandaria's new class choice – the only one in the expansion – and they chime well with the race's eastern aesthetics.
Monks balance three resources. Chi acts as mana, and lets me deliver my panda's punchy powers. Complete certain moves, and I was awarded with pips of light and dark energy, the fuel for different types of attacks. It leads to a nice rhythmic combat style: I'd jab an enemy a few times, exhausting my chi but filling my boots with light energy, then let fly with a tougher, energy-using thwack. That rhythm is compounded by the lack of an auto-attack: every time you dive your panda into a dust-up, you'll need to be tapping the keys lest your opponent turn your black eyes blacker.
Blizzard namechecked Street Fighter as an influence in the monk's fighting style, but where the difference between a Zangief and a Chun-Li is obvious in that game, it's harder to see where the Monk slots into the pantheon of WoW classes. BlizzCon gives the title's most obsessive fans licence to ask detailed questions of the game's developers, and a good percentage of those directed at this year's panel were attempts to clarify exactly what the Monk does.
Blizzard suggested that the Monk was a melee scrapper, but could be press-ganged into bot-absorbing damage (tanking) and fixing fluffy boo-boos (healing) while still laying down the hurt. But the class's stats (not more bloody spellpower leather) were of particular concern to fans – with certain core attributes becoming useless in the proposed character sheet – leading the devs to state that the class was still at an early stage and was subject to alteration. Auto-attack, in particular, seemed a fractious issue internally. Don't be surprised if the next time you see these pandas, they'll be punching without provocation.
The introduction of a brand new slab of earth is Blizzard's tried-and-tested approach to WoW expansion packs. Both the Burning Crusade and the Wrath of the Lich King made Azeroth a bigger place. But Cataclysm deliberately avoided piling new regions on top of an already-huge world, choosing to remould and reshape existing bits instead. Is falling back on pure expansion an admission of Cataclysm's mistakes?
Greg's answer is measured. “By splitting Cataclysm up as we did, we were able to get really diverse environments. But at the same time, it felt less like a massively multiplayer world and more like an instanced game.” In Greg's eyes, the slide towards a more compartmentalised world that players could hop across in moments had a negative influence.
“Travel and adventure is part of the whole RPG experience. We shouldn't just have players teleporting around. We want to keep the ability to queue and put players together but we want to get players out in the world, to get more of a sense of travel.” With that in mind, Mists of Pandaria will remove player access to flying mounts before the new level cap maximum of 90.
Pandaria will emerge with a raft of other refinements. Key among these is the modulation of difficulty. Players of both factions argued that Cataclysm pushed the difficulty level a step beyond acceptable, forcing players to know and execute their role perfectly on the battlefield, or face ostracism by their peers.
“In Wrath of the Lich King we heard from our players that the PvE content was too easy. Clearly we needed to make it harder, which we did for Cataclysm. Then players told us it was too hard! We realised we have a really diverse audience and the right answer is to offer various difficulty levels,” says Greg. Players who bundle toward the hardest stuff will get the best rewards, but it's Greg's aim that less committed public groups can swoosh through a dungeon post-Pandaria without facing such an onslaught.
Is making an MMO easier simply a case of snipping away at enemy healthbars? “It often helps. If the numbers are low enough, it allows players to ignore complex mechanics. But we have other ways. On a harder boss, we might say 'if you stand in the fire you will die'. On easier levels we might make it so you can stand in there for a while, and with enough healing you can ignore it completely.”
It's a policy that aims to include everyone, with a specific eye to retaining players. “We don't like this idea that you go in, the dungeon's too hard and then you log off. It's not a great way to keep players playing the game.”
The expansion's major changes lean towards retention and viability, making more choices acceptable in an online society that's figured out the 'right' way of doing skills. The game's talent system will receive an overhaul alongside Pandaria's opening, allowing greater variation in talent choices.
Blizzard want players to be free to flit around the talent tree, letting their Holy Paladin feel and play differently to their friend's. In the WoW we know now, player talents are prescribed by internet elites – anyone who doesn't choose properly risks being picked last for raid class.
But outside these changes, the new expansion doesn't have the firefighting feel of previous examples. Playing in Pandaria feels like a deep breath for WoW, a decision to patch the holes in the boat before setting forth for strange shores. Greg talks about Cataclysm cagily, picking out mis-steps in the remoulding of the world.
“I don't know where we're going to go after Mists of Pandaria but I'd say that we're more likely to do a new continent again than we are to spread apart zones like in Cataclysm.” The new world, he seems to suggest, holds more promise than the old.