World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria review
Mists of Pandaria feels like the end of an era - not of World of Warcraft as a game, not by a long stretch, but of World of Warcraft as a cultural phenomenon. In most ways, give or take your tolerance for kung-fu pandas, it's an expansion that just about any MMO would kill for. It's not however the much hoped for shot in the arm that's likely to restore the game's flagging fortunes, or a sweeping update that makes it possible to forget how old both its design and basic game systems actually are.
Blizzard's spent a decade refining and developing those ideas though, and even now, the king of fantasy MMOs has the power to surprise and impress. Can that be enough to keep players happy, bring some back to the fold, and even pick up a few newcomers with its practiced charm? Let's find out...
What you get for your money includes five new levels, though that's largely meaningless at this point in the game, which take your character to Level 90; the ancient China themed continent of Pandaria made up of seven main areas and assorted dungeons; a new Pet Battling system; and the brand new Monk class. I won't be talking much about that because my main is a Mage and I've only been able to put the Monk through its paces in the tutorial areas. They offer some interesting skills though, like the dynamic jump kick and the Touch Of Death, which one-hit kills non-bosses who have less HP than you.
Every race save Worgen and Goblins can now take up martial arts if they like. Both Horde and Alliance have also welcomed the Pandaren to their ranks, and you can create one regardless of whether you buy Mists of Pandaria. They just can't be a monk, which is a little weird considering that they're still effectively being trained as one during the tutorial. Assuming you have the expansion, you can opt for all the classes save for Warlock, Druid, Paladin and Death Knight. Shame. That would have been adorable. Unlike the other races, you pick your side at the end of the tutorial and go pledge your loyalty. You can't however talk to Pandaren in the other faction because look over there a bunny!
We've already looked at quite a bit of this in our Review In Progress, so check there for a few of the points that follow discussed in more detail. This review here was written after reaching Level 90, taking trips into dungeons and endgame content, and playing with the various features in more depth.
Let's deal with the elephant... or to be more exact, the panda in the room. While Pandaren have been part of Warcraft lore for a long time and were actually considered as the new Alliance race for The Burning Crusade, they've typically been treated as a joke race. That's allowed for lots of hilarious puns about Blizzard 'panda'-ing to the mass market, and generally dumbing things down.
Me, I don't have a problem with the Pandaren in concept. Remembering that this hyper-serious world already includes alien space goats, giant breasted rock monsters, Jamaican trolls, Victorian werewolves and goblins who chirp "Keep it real!", they're reasonable enough additions. Had they just appeared as part of, say, "Nightmares Of The Emerald Dream", I doubt there'd be any real controversy.
That said, they don't deserve a whole dedicated expansion. Not even close.
There are some excellent Pandaren characters, and their basic lore is fine. Chen Stormstout and his niece Li Li are particular highlights, along with the helpful Lorewalker Cho. Too many though are an infuriatingly passive bunch who feel designed by committee to be inoffensive first, marketable second, and 'interesting' coming a distant third. Aside from their love of beer, they feel like Saturday morning cartoon characters, and thematically rarely advance much beyond Blizzard slapping some fur on stock Chinese/martial arts tropes and hoping the exotic novelty will do the heavy lifting.
This becomes especially noticeable when the game needs to be dramatic. Their training area especially, while pretty, sets up one of the most laughable character rifts ever - so desperate to avoid either side really doing anything that all it can manage is "We had a mild disagreement and everything worked out, but let's become sworn enemies anyway because this game isn't built for neutral players."
Things don't get much better on Pandaria proper, where the first zone ends with both Horde and Alliance committing an atrocity that should have them marched into the sea by an army of angry monks, or at the very least, get a reluctant "You're too powerful for us, but don't think you're welcome." Instead, it's completely brushed off with a "Well, maybe you should make yourself scarce for a bit..." and five minutes later you're helping brew beer and being held up as a saviour of the land by gods and pandas alike. Aaargh! This is not how drama works! If the characters don't care, why should we?
The new continent of Pandaria itself is more successful, offering a mostly bright and optimistic land after the very depressing Cataclysm. The graphics engine may be old, but Blizzard wields it like a master to create some stunning new terrain. The opening zone, Jade Forest, is all lush scenery and sweeping vistas and waterfalls and golden pagodas and fluffy pink clouds. From there, you'll visit the snowy heights of Kun Lai Summit, the Great Wall of China analogue of the Serpent Spine separating the friendlier bits of Pandaria from its less cheery other half, the mysterious Vale of Eternal
Daily Quests Blossoms, and the spooky Dread Wastes full of ghostly trees and enraged mantis creatures trying to smash their way into paradise.
It's good to have a specific place to explore, unlike Cataclysm's scattered high level zones, and the various lands are more or less believable as a coherent whole. As usual, you can't fly until you reach the new max-level, and that's a good thing. It would be a real shame not to run up the Veiled Stair to Kun Lai, or take the boat-ride through danger that awaits there, and there's a magnificent amount of detail. It's not Guild Wars 2 level prettiness of course, but the classic Warcraft look still looks good and Blizzard pulls out all the stops to make this its prettiest destination yet. It doesn't necessarily come across in still images, but the use of contrast and scale make Pandaria a striking place to visit.
The same goes for quest design. Blizzard has, bar none, the best MMO quest team in the business, and backs it up with some of the genre's funniest and most enjoyable writing. There are still lots of 'collect 20 bear asses' type things, and we'll get to that in a moment, but nowhere else will you spend as much time on things like interactive flashbacks, piloting vehicles, teaming up with powerful NPCs to hunt saboteurs, or smiling as the quest designers have a bit of fun with the many tools now at their disposal.
There's a section in Valley of the Four Winds for instance where you babysit a young Pandaren girl who wants to play tourist, who does a running commentary on not only the quest you're doing for her, but the others in the area too. Another fun quest involves finding and capturing a friendly yak, leading to a Monkey Island style escalation from snagging an "Angry, Stabby Townlong Yak" to a "Mean, Smelly, Angry, Stabby, Very Bad Townlong Yak" before you find one. As happens a lot, the basic mechanic is simple - click yak, use item, repeat. The wrapping makes it a fun quest though, and Blizzard has been doing this long enough to know how to tie a pretty bow around it for good measure.
As with a lot of Mists of Pandaria though, even the fun bits and attempts to shake things up creak under the weight of older systems and decade old designs. The static combat is physically painful at times now that games like Guild Wars 2 and Tera and even DC Universe Online have given things more punch, and while a few bosses offer variety and dungeons/raids are a different story, most of the time you're just going to be hitting your standard rotation and winning without breaking a sweat. It might be asking a lot to see that kind of change, but Blizzard rebuilt their game's world when it got long in the tooth and has no qualms about redoing its whole talent system.
More pressingly, all the scripting and phasing mean that the levelling content is now a single-player game. World of Warcraft has been heading in this direction for a while, but now it's dropped almost all pretence. Not only do you never need to group for anything, the presence of other players is usually only an annoyance when they rush in and tag an enemy before you or steal an object from under your nose or kill a boss before you arrive to remind you that everyone's on the same quests. Dedicated group quests are gone, and while tagging is still in place for most enemies and resources, everyone who fights a boss is given kill credit whether officially grouped up together or even the same faction.
The result is a much richer experience than before, but one that seems to have forgotten the point of this being a massively multiplayer game in the first place - especially coming to it from Guild Wars 2's shared events. Not only is there no point playing with your friends while you work your way through the land, Pandaria's narrative structure makes it a nuisance even if you want to. There's also still no sidekicking or similar if you want to help out a lower level player. On the plus side, the actual stories and reasons why you're doing things get much more prominence here than in Guild Wars 2. In that game, most quests turn into mulch after a while and you have to go out of your way to appreciate why you're doing what you do. Here, motivations are front and centre, and much more effective for it.
The high quality of the good stuff also really shows up the regular MMO filler that serves no purpose but to waste your time. It's one thing to be stuck collecting 10 bear asses from 30 oddly ass-less bears when that's all the genre offers. In a game that repeatedly proves it can do better than that, it's tragic. If Blizzard focused on the good stuff, it would make the levelling shorter, yes, but there'd still be enough of it to make a satisfying climb through the levels to endgame readiness. It would be worth it.
And it's not as if the expansion is close to being over when you hit Level 90...