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
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...
The big disappointment of the levelling content though is the continuation of the Horde and Alliance battle, as previously set aside in no fewer than three expansion packs due to greater evils. Pandaria was promised as the place where this would be reignited - a lush, peaceful land ripped to shreds by a conflict it wants no part in, with war itself being the driving evil behind your adventures.
Yeah. Not so much, it turns out. At least, not yet.
The first zone, Jade Forest, goes hell for leather to make it work, and mostly succeeds. It's much too long, with a massively unfocused middle section, but manages to add a sense of danger and looming threat from the very start. Both factions arrive on the island for their own reasons, with a small group ending up stuck there and awaiting reinforcements. Despite warnings from the Pandaren that things are different here and that violence is a really bad idea , they raise armies of natives (fish people for the Alliance, monkey men for the Horde) and unleash the Sha - imprisoned spirits of hatred and fear and similar that feed on negative emotion and violence, yet can still conveniently be punched in the face until they drop loot.
This is a great start, with emotional resonance, the spice that every quest you personally complete drives this land towards its undeserved end, and a powerful finale where the shit really hits the fan. The Sha look terrific, with their ghostly forms and white energies flooding through cracks in the world. Finally, the gloves are coming off and this party is ready to get started - Horde and Alliance, with no distractions, nothing that needs ganging up against, and no splinter faction to blame for their mistakes.
...and then Blizzard completely loses interest in that, and you spend most of your levelling just stamping through temples, being lectured about panda history, doing odd jobs for farmers, beating up slavers, and sharing quests to the point that Horde players eventually end up taking orders from Anduin bloody Wrynn for a while. What happened? There's the occasional "Grr!" between NPCs or quests where you're told to only save your own people, but that's just more of the same old lip-service. True, there's the promise of the poop finally hitting the fan in the next patch, when both factions' fleets are due to arrive on Pandaria, but that's far too late. Escalation needs something to escalate from , and right now only the Sha of Apathy has any hope of drawing dark power from this unenthusiastic squabbling.
This is a tragically wasted opportunity to finally make the war mean something. Worse, without a real arc to the story, you spend most of the expansion simply doing random stuff, asking "This is my problem why, exactly?" and watching the story get blander and more unfocused the further you get. Areas have their stories, but they tend to be unexciting and poorly paced. What should be the big finale for the levelled content - the opening of the last zone, the Vale of Eternal Blossoms - actually happens around Level 87, despite it being completely irrelevant until you hit 90 and activate its questgivers.
Bearing in mind that Pandaria's levelling plays like a single-player RPG, this is weak storytelling. It feels like multiple teams were just assigned to do their own thing without any particular interest in the big picture. That lends to lots of individually good moments, absolutely, but a whole that assumes too much interest in simply poking around Pandaria even without the excellent arc premise. Thinking about how the conflict could have played out with all Blizzard's skills and systems, structuring Pandaria's progression like this isn't so much dropping the narrative ball as dumping a whole crate of them off a cliff.
Beyond the levelling curve, Pandaria's big goal is to give players more to do between updates. Of the familiar content types, there are four Normal dungeons while climbing to 90, which are fairly standard in terms of design. At maximum level, there are nine, including a revamped Scarlet Monastery (two dungeons) and Scholomance from the original game. Three raids are currently detailed, with a fourth that really focuses on a couple of world bosses, and more due in future updates. With Dungeon and Raid finders now fully in place, you don't need to be part of a guild to play any of this content, though pick-up groups do tend to be about as social as sitting alone in a darkened room, weeping at the state of humanity and eating Jaffa Cakes, only without Jaffa Cakes being provided.
Dungeons also now offer a dedicated challenge mode, where you and your group race to beat them in a time limit rather than simply getting through. You're given a set of equipment rather than bringing your own, putting the focus on skill rather than getting loot. There are also new Scenarios, where you and a couple of friends team up to finish a more quest-style set of objectives - the most dramatic at the moment being Theramore's Fall, where... well, you can probably guess. Spoilers, ho!
Pandaria sees some big additions though, starting with the aforementioned Vale of Eternal Blossoms. At Level 90, this becomes a hub for daily quests, with Pandaria's various factions offering rewards for longer-term play. They're still time-sinks, but at least a few offer something a little something more to focus on. The Lorewalkers offer rewards for tracking down stories in Pandaria for instance, while the Order of the Cloud Serpent offers a new type of mount that supposedly takes around 20 days to unlock. Though I'm sure players have already found a way of doing it in about five hours, tops. There are other long-term goals too, including a challenging quest chain where you make friends with Deathwing's unfortunately named son Wrathion, but this is where Pandaria's main factions like to hang out.
The quirkiest additions are a new Farmville type mini-game, which kicks in at around Level 86, and the brand new Pet Battles mode, which are available from the start of the game as long as one of your account's characters has stumped up the 100 gold to learn the skill. The first requires the Pandaria expansion to get to, while the second is available to all players from the start.
The Farmville mode is intricate, cleverly designed, and I would rather eat my own arse than play it. It involves returning daily to plant and tend to crops, deal with issues, build reputations with assorted NPCs, and occasionally scream "WHAT AM I DOING WITH MY LIIIIIIIIFE?!"
Pet Battles on the other hand are intricate, cleverly designed, extremely fun, and may even make you more attractive to your preferred gender/species. You could say that they're simply inspired by other games, and no doubt Blizzard's lawyers would. Really though, it's Pokemon with your pets, only you don't get mugged in the long grass or have to deal with Team Rocket and its ilk.
I like this mode a lot. It makes the cosmetic pets worth finding, adds a fun distraction to fill time even if you're not planning on becoming obsessed, and while the animals you can train are mostly just regular animals instead of instantly recognisable characters, there's a lot of scope for rarer ones to be added over time. You can challenge players to pet battles in the wild, or have Warcraft matchmake a battle for you (sadly, one that ends almost immediately on victory, where you don't even find out the other player's name and can't talk to them), with a wide selection of NPC
tamers scattered around the world.
So, to the big verdict. First of all, if you're an active World of Warcraft player, you almost certainly have Pandaria already. It's not much of an option, and in terms of expanding the universe and providing more content, this is a worthwhile pack. Putting aside the appropriateness of the pandas, and ignoring the problems with the premise, Pandaria offers some of Blizzard's best design ever - quest and world alike. The new zones are neat, the additional games and modes on offer can be enjoyed or ignored as you will, and there's enough new stuff for every kind of player to get something out of it.
Is it worth coming back though, or jumping in if you haven't already? Potentially, and probably not. While features like pet battles and the Pandaren starter area are available early on, there are 85 levels between you and Pandaria proper - and that's simply too much. Even with progress faster than it used to be thanks to general speed-ups and features like the Dungeon Finder, you're still looking at pushing through three big expansions, including the now achingly outdated, deserted Burning Crusade.
Obviously, if your interest is in Warcraft as a whole, that's not a problem. If it's in this expansion specifically though (and before anyone jumps in to point at other MMOs and how they do things, remember that other MMO expansions don't get TV advertising and such to draw in new players with the promise of cool content) you should pass. At least while there's this much stuff in the way.
For returnees, the additions to the game and new content are very enjoyable, but it is fundamentally still World of Warcraft with a few bits strapped onto it rather than a whole new game. If you're coming back from a more recent MMO, things like the stodgy combat are going to feel far older than you remember, and the basic mechanics and philosophies remain the same. Pandaria as a place is firmly a vacation for your character rather than a Cataclysm style reinvention of their world, and you're only going to avoid the old grind for so long before it's back to business as usual in the endgame.
If you remember the game fondly enough to have read this far, it's worth returning for a month or two to check it out. You're unlikely to stick around much longer though, unless you really get back into the social side, or the raids and next chapters of Pandaria's story prove incredibly compelling.
Sticking a number on all that is tricky, due to a problem only World of Warcraft really faces - that this is a fine expansion by almost any MMO standards, but somewhat underwhelming by its own. That's not down to the nitty-gritty of what it offers so much as a mix of never giving a particularly convincing answer to why Pandaria and this story absolutely had to be the next expansion, and inevitable fatigue from almost a decade of playing the same game. The last couple of years especially have seen competitors really kicking the genre up the arse. Warcraft hasn't needed to reinvent its primary systems to remain successful, and trying at this point would almost certainly be a Star Wars Galaxies level mistake. It's impossible to ignore its wrinkles though, especially after a long absence.
Mists of Pandaria doesn't change that, and that's honestly not so much a criticism as an inevitable result of time passing. Previous World of Warcraft releases have been genuine events. This one is simply an expansion pack. A good expansion pack, for sure, with lots of content to keep you playing one of the best and most beloved MMOs ever created. Just don't expect it to be anything more.
A reminder of what made Warcraft the king of its genre for eight years... but also that eight years is a long time.