Challenge mode is a new way to play through existing dungeons and not, as some commenters feared, an additional layer being added to them. Opting for challenge mode sets you and your group against a timed version of the instance, and your gear stats are normalised to prevent equipment from factoring in. The focus entirely is on skill, and the planning and preparation necessary to post a fast time. It's WoW's first sanctioned competitive PvE, and it won't interfere with the way normal dungeons work.
What it does offer is a way for the very best players to distinguish themselves. Achieving a full set of silver medals will earn you an exclusive set of armour, and gold gets you a flying mount inspired by a Chinese Shishi lion. More importantly, your times and the names of all your group members are posted to server and guild-wide leaderboards. If you're unable to score world-first kills on the latest raid bosses, Mists of Pandaria will make it possible to prove that you're the world's fastest.
While timed raids aren't confirmed yet, Cory Stockton won't rule it out. “If we really feel strongly about it we'll open it up - just like dungeon finder turned into raid finder.”
Time has been chosen as the metric for competitive PvE as opposed to other measures like DPS or healing. “We had a number of ideas on the way but it turns out that balancing that is just a dreadful nightmare” explains Stockton. “Time is really that best metric. People are going to learn if they can skip a pull and save x seconds, that's going to become common knowledge. We kind of like that, that builds community. People release YouTube videos of how they clear [dungeons] and we want to leave some of that stuff in there. Time just gave us the easiest way to reward it in a way that felt fair.”
Blizzard have apparently created 15,000 years of new lore for Mists of Pandaria, explaining in detail the history of the Pandaren empire, its enemies, and its mythology. You'll be drip-fed some of this as you journey through the continent, but fans may want to dig a little deeper. This is where the Lorewalkers come in: a faction of Pandaren historians that will perform events from Pandarian history in return for historical artifacts.
'Perform' is right: rather than simply dumping a chunk of text on the player, the Lorewalkers host short plays in their temple in the Vale of Eternal Blossoms. It's looking like a fun way of telling the stories that won't fit into the flow of ordinary play.
When Blizzard like a game, you can tell - usually because it winds up in World of Warcraft. It happened with Plants vs. Zombies, and now it's happening with console farming sim Animal Crossing. Joining the Tillers faction in the Valley of the Four Winds will let you open your own farm and raise your choice of crops. Farming will be phased, and as you progress you'll unlock extra plots of land which gives you more options of what to grow. You'll even be able to buy supplements and sprinklers to improve your harvest.
The system is tied to a series of daily quests at the local farmers market. Every day, different merchants show up to buy and sell different crops, and figuring out how to meet demand is how you'll earn the respect of the Tillers faction. “It's a pretty deep system” says Stockton. “It's definitely the kind of thing that could you keep you logging into WoW. There's a whole economy because people on the auction house are going to want your vegetables to earn faction, but it's completely optional and I think that's what's important.”
Stockton is keen to stress that bonus extras like this don't infringe on the development of core parts of the game. “It's important that we can build stuff like that, but that it doesn't take away from challenge modes or from dungeons. That's key for WoW - we've got to make sure that that core content is there, but keep expanding it.”