This article originally appeared in issue 244 of PC Gamer UK.
Returning to Goldshire after a few years is a strange experience. The last time I wandered around the human starting area was shortly after the release of Cataclysm, and Mists of Pandaria's changes are subtler than its predecessor's apocalyptic redesign of the old world.
It's nothing as dramatic as seeing Elwynn from the air for the first time, or returning to elemental-blasted Westfall.
Ornate top-tier mounts gather outside the Goldshire inn. A number of players are duelling, testing out builds in the new, simplified talent system. Blizzard have done away with the talent tree system that they pioneered and replaced it with a choice of bonus abilities at various tiers as you level up.
There are no more right or wrong decisions, they say: and testing it out with a rogue in one-on-one PvP, the concept seems to hold up. I've chosen to gain a speed boost while stealthed (as opposed to being able to use abilities for free while hidden, for example), and this helps me to catch a strafing foe for an opening ambush – but it doesn't define my playstyle, which is bound to the familiar rotation of a combat rogue.
Streamlined class customisation is a significant change, but that's not why Goldshire is such a different place. Ignoring the PvPers, gangs of players run to and fro from the stable master and a new NPC just outside of town. Some stand stock-still, frozen in an unseen duel.
Others walk vanity pets on leashes, a new customisation item that adds a coloured strand between your character's hand and your choice of miniature companion. A few wheel around on flying mounts, diving to the outskirts of town when they see a squirrel or baby deer.
The new NPC is Marcus Jensen, the first Battle Pet Trainer and the Alliance's starting point on the long, long road to taming-and-training glory. Players at level five and above can pay a nominal fee to get the pet battling skill and embark on a series of tutorial quests.
To get you started, you're granted a pet based on your race – my Worgen werewolf gets an appropriately gothic raven – but the vast majority of existing pets are also compatible, including rare promotional ones. Of my collection, the only ones that are unavailable to me are my miniature Christmas gnomes – which is probably for the best.
I leave the raven on the sidelines and choose my original collector's edition panda cub as my battle pet of choice. Activating 'pet tracking' on the minimap then highlights all the battle-ready critters with a green paw icon – working much like the skills used to spot useful crafting materials in the wild.
Many of World of Warcraft's critters – ambient animal life such as rabbits, deer, and frogs – can now be challenged to fights. Doing so whirls the camera around your character, who strikes a pose as a party of up to three pets gathers around them. Combat is turn-based, with each pet using a single skill per round.
My panda has an easy time of it: his 'bite' ability is a Beast-class move, which is strong against the Critter-class enemies that comprise most of Elwynn's wildlife. When he gets into trouble I can make him go to sleep for three turns, and as long as he can shrug off an enemy's following moves he wakes with a healthy amount of his life bar restored.
If pets and elemental alignments make Pet Battling sound like a lot like Pokémon, that's because it is. The similarities run deep: battles are accompanied by blaring 16-bit guitar solos played on synthesised harpsichords, and you'll soon find yourself facing NPC trainers who preface each fight with a Pokémon-style non-sequitur: one early competitor is called Old MacDonald, and he's very keen to tell you that he used to have a farm.
Levelling up pets unlocks new abilities, up to a maximum of eight, of which you then pick a deck of three to bring into combat. Whittling wild creatures down to 35% health or lower allows you to chuck a box at them, potentially capturing them for later use. Once you've unlocked all three team slots, you can queue for anonymous pet battles anywhere in the world, enemies rendered using default NPC models to protect player identities and keep things casual.
Pet battling is part of what lead content designer Cory Stockton calls Mists of Pandaria's “massive amount of new stuff to do”, which also includes challenge modes, scenarios, and new factions. It's an attempt to broaden the endgame beyond raids and dungeons, but its impact is felt throughout World of Warcraft's 90 levels.
In fact, playing with Pet Battles for hours, I actually forget that there's a whole other game here, my maxed-out dragon-slaying werewolf apparently content to wander the woods making his pet panda murder baby animals.
Never underestimate WoW's capacity to become strange all over again.