The arrival of some sea horrors definitely helps. In particular, you'll fight a boss called the Vordraka, which isn't too tough, but stands out as a tutorial boss who brings mid-fight reinforcements and the need to dodge targeted attacks instead of just a big health bar. He's beatable, but the first hint that Pandaria's bosses have seriously levelled up.
Events are also much tougher, with a desperate group attempt to protect healers as they try to save Shen-zin Su's life. Don't get too used to seeing the Horde and Alliance working together, though – it's a tense alliance here at best. And a real pain if you're on your own, at least at the moment. Hopefully it'll scale a bit better in the finished game.
Horde or Alliance? It's a simple choice, although one that will screw up more than a little for your panda pals. Your arrival is similar to the Death Knights' debut, only this time people are curious instead of spitting at you.
There's definitely one reason to go Alliance: it'll give you a rare chance to beat up Varian Wrynn, the jerk-king of Stormwind. Like all of us, he wants to try beating up a panda. Unlike most Level 20 characters, you actually get to enjoy knocking his jerky arse to the floor in his own castle. Savour the moment. Alliance or Horde, we can all agree that he definitely deserves it.
At Level 85, a letter arrives summoning you to your capital to find out about Pandaria. Wrynn's reason for sending people to this new land involves his son going missing there. As for Garrosh Hellscream, Warchief of the Horde... well, he's Garrosh. “Storm the shore, and paint this new continent red!” he bellows. That works too. Pack your things.
We've not seen much 'war' in World of Warcraft, with all the expansions adding world-destroying villains. Get ready to make up for that. Your introduction to Pandaria is all-out chaos, with turrets and bomber jets and rappelling down from airships. Things get quieter almost immediately, but it's still a good reminder of how much animosity is knocking around.
Don't be fooled by Pandaria's serene charm. Ignoring the Level 85+ wildlife, it's not long before you encounter places like Twinspire Keep. On the outside, titanic stone statues of ancient soldiers. Inside, demonic gateways. Even in the wilds, slavers and monsters with no connection to the Horde/Alliance spat are all just business as usual.
Oddly, nobody seems to notice if you're a Pandaren yourself. There are references to the Wandering Isle from early on, though its relationship to Pandaria proper isn't made very clear. Still everyone talks to you as if you're an outsider struggling to understand their ways, even though the culture is practically identical in both settlements.
The Alliance kicks off in Paw'don Village, struggling to work out why the Pandaren aren't automatically on-side with 'Operation: Exterminate The Horde', but not enough to realise it might have something to do with helping themselves to any resources they want then, with mouths half-full of stolen food, going “the Horde will take all your stuff”. It's immediately clear the Pandaren will regret not murdering everyone in sight immediately.
Speaking of war being 'a bad thing', the unprovoked massacre of a group of unarmed Horde soldiers swimming over to surrender to the Alliance reveals that Pandaria might not be the ideal battlefield. In this place, negative energies take real form – specifically, the form of scary ghosts called 'Sha'. Still, what's the worst that could happen?
Twinspire Keep is where some of the real changes to Pandaria become obvious for Alliance players, including a more dynamic spin on the world with dramatic bombing runs, and the first new-world boss, Ga'trul. As with the tutorial monster, he's more than a healthbar. Most bosses seem to have their own gimmicks now, including a sorcerer who occasionally steals your soul, and a slaver made weaker by his victims' taunts.
Most of Pandaria's first proper zone, The Jade Forest, is fairly quiet. Some of the cool stuff you'll see includes a massive temple in red and gold, the village of a group of isolationist fi sh-people whose seriousness only makes them funnier, and several small villages beset with trouble. Both factions are trying to forge alliances, with heavy use of quiet instancing to subtly continue stories and lead into plot development.
The narrative in general is another step up for World of Warcraft. One especially good section is told in flashbacks and involves reliving the adventure of four spies behind enemy lines. Action! Sniping! Witchcraft! A pet racoon! However it has never felt more like a singleplayer story that just happens to have more players running around, and quite a few 'kill 20 things' quests to pad out your stay in each zone as much as possible.
Let's tour Pandaria! From the Jade Forest – a civilised bit, where life is simple – the adventure continues in the lush greenery of the Valley of the Four Winds. Here you'll bump into old Hemet Nesingwary and his son on his latest safari, hunting the most dangerous game. Not man. Pfft. We're barely #9 on the list. No, this time they're after giant monsters called 'Mushan', and an elite creature that might finally be their limit.
Surroundings too pretty? Head south to the Krasarang Wilds for lots of sinister purple swamps and what's hands down Pandaria's least interesting zone. While the Valley is mostly just greenery, at least it's sunny and scenic, with lots of rolling hills and ambient wildlife trying to murder you. Here, things are dark, murky, and while there's plenty to do, there isn't the same immediate hook as most of the other zones.
The Dread Wastes! With a name like that, you know it's going to be worth a visit. There's a big wall in your way, but you can swim round it if you like, and explore a horrific world of darkness with a sky swirling in ghostly doom. Areas with names like 'Heart of Fear' await you at Levels 89-90, along with – somewhat less dramatically – 'Soggy's Gamble' and 'The Horrid Marsh'. That sounds very horrid. Not scary though.