Mists of Pandaria is the fourth World of Warcraft expansion, taking the eternal sort-of-battle between Horde and Alliance to a brand new, Asian themed corner of Azeroth. Most of the classic species have been to night-school to learn the ways of the Monk, while both Horde and Alliance welcome a new member - the neutral Pandaren, whose homeland is about to be torn apart by several million kill-crazy players in search of gold, glory and ever tougher monsters to beat into a fine paste.
But can this new world turn around World of Warcraft's recent fortunes, or is it just pandaren ? Join us in the Mists of Pandaria review in progress all week for regular dispatches from the furry frontier.
Start here, or skip straight to something of interest....
Page 1: Preparing For Pandaria, The Wandering Isle
Update 0: Preparing For Pandaria
Lok'tar ogar, everyone - or if you're Alliance, 'die Alliance scum'. Welcome to the review in progress of Mists of Pandaria, where I'll be sharing my thoughts on this expansion and lots of comments will no doubt be calling me an idiot for never getting King Varian Wynne's name right. We'll be getting started on that and the mysteries of this new land soon enough... but first, a quick bit of admin.
World of Warcraft has many, many types of players, and hopefully you'll get something out of this whatever type you are. That said, if there's a focus, it's going to be the generally accessible content rather than hard mode dungeons and theorycrafting, with a particular focus on how Pandaria changes things up for players who may have lapsed after Cataclysm or are in need of something to rekindle that World of Warcraft passion once again. If you're an active player, it's not like you have a choice about upgrading anyway - 85 is going to be the loneliest number by next week. We'll also be looking at the world from the Horde side, because I'm sending my Undead mage to Pandaria.
Finally, because I'm playing the game at the same time as filing updates and there's a lot of stuff to check out in a fairly short amount of time, I may not have much time to respond to questions or comments directly. I will be reading them though, including the mean ones, and will try and respond to what I can or check out things you want to see checked out if at all possible.
In our first update, servers-willing, we start things off with a trip to the brand new starting area, the Wandering Isle. It's not Pandaria, but it's the best place to learn the ways of the Monk...
Update 0b: On Your Marks... Get Set...
Blizzard promised that when Mists of Pandaria went live, it would simply spring into life even if you were on the server making Achievement based puns - your marching orders just appearing, with no need to quit and relog in or do any last minute patching. Ha! As if that would ever work as plann...
...that actually worked as planned. At least on my server. Not a bad start.
Update 1: The Wandering Isle
World of Warcraft's engine may be old, but Blizzard knows how to make it sing. The Wandering Isle - a giant turtle with the descendants of Pandaren explorers living on its back - is easily the prettiest starting location so far, not just for its light colours and fluffy clouds, but for its sense of scale and majesty. Like Pandaria, it's a land of lush terrain and intricate temples, full of Asian themed decoration. This is the unspoiled beauty, albeit by proxy, about to get well and truly spoiled by war.
It's not however particularly thrilling so far.
This is a question of taste, yes, but it feels like a Saturday morning cartoon - and sadly, not Avatar: The Last Airbender. As a gentle introduction to the Pandaren it works fine, just... well... saccharine. Everyone is nice. Everyone is friendly, if occasionally a little arrogant. I'm just not entirely sure why a race of people on an island whose biggest problems seem to be a few easily dispatched tigers and giant rabbits called 'Carrotcrunchers' feel the need to devote so much time and effort to martial training.
Hopefully Pandaria proper will add a little bit more edge to these guys and make them bad-ass instead of cuddly. They're not a joke race, but they're very kiddy so far - an early scene where Tushui master Aysa Cloudsinger bounces around the scenery like a Gummi Bear not starting things off well, to say nothing of the Pandaren actually having the racial trait "Bouncy". Half falling damage, even less dignity.
(It's also a little strange how the training area is thematically designed around you being a Monk, even if you're not. It almost seems like there should have been a different approach for the other classes for the first nine-ish levels before they tie back for the main zone story. An objective like sparring with fellow trainees is just kinda silly when they're using melee and you're spamming Frostfire...)
Within that though, there are some lovely touches. I especially like the Singing Pools - a shameless rip-off of Ranma 1/2 , where the Pandaren train. They consist of poles above pools where animals have fallen in and died, with the result that anyone tumbling in takes on their form. Unlike that series though, it's only temporary. Pity. It would be interesting to have a whole game where you turn into a skunk or whatever every time it starts raining. Most of the story though is hyper-predictable, from meeting your elderly master and knowing he will have a long, fulfilling life, to the romance between a couple of the members of the small group of monk masters you assemble to figure out why the Wandering Isle is swimming off course and risking the lives of its passengers all of a sudden.
Breaking a habit of a lifetime, I've created a male Pandaren to explore this area, on the grounds that if I'm going to stare at a panda's backside for the next couple of hours... wait, never mind. I like that anyone can create a Pandaren, whether they have MoP or not, though the Monk specifically is only for upgrades. Of the other races, anyone can suddenly learn their ways, save for the Goblins and Worgen. Pandaren themselves can also be Warriors, Hunters, Priests, Shamans, Mages.
Sadly, no furry Death Knights. Damn that lore...
This early in the game, it's pointless to try and cast judgement on the Monk class itself, save that it has some fun skills - a few of which I also saw in the recent beta. Touch of Death is the most hilariously over-powered from later on, giving you one-hit kills on more or less anything other than a boss with less HP than you. Monks can also cover any part of the tank, healer, DPS trinity. Already though, the shadow of Guild Wars 2 hangs over things more than a little, especially when it comes to the fluidity of combat and general niceties like the 30 minute cooldown on Hearthstones. We'll see how that goes though, especially when we get out of the tutorial area and to Pandaria proper.
First though, there's a Wandering Isle in need of saving...
Update 2: Our New Allies
The Wandering Isle is a cool location, and the second half of it ratchets up the danger a little. A crashed Alliance prison ship has mortally wounded the turtle, with the crew and prisoners setting up a couple of different camps. Only with both sides working together can the damage be repaired, with sea monsters emerging to
demonstrate boss mechanics make things worse for everyone. It's very pretty. It has an explosives-loving goblin called Makael Bay. At the end, you and your friends separate to join either the Horde or Alliance and do what you can to save Azeroth. In theory, it's a tight little story that sets up the Pandaren and gets them out in the world to fight the good fight.
In theory. In practice though, it ends up being a poor bit of narrative, riddled with thematic issues.
The big plot draw for Pandaria is reigniting the war between Alliance and Horde, or to give it its proper name, 'the what?' Pandaria, as a neutral place, becomes the unwilling battleground for this. That's cool, and I hope it pays off later on. On the Wandering Isle though, what we see are the two factions yet again immediately dropping their differences to work together, give or take the occasional "Grrr!" Seeing this, our main Panderen characters - broken apart by a minor difference of opinion that ended up just fine - decide that the best way to get involved is to sign up, refuse to talk to anyone who chose differently (you only get your side's language skill) and commit themselves to fiction's least enthusiastic war.
Pandaren, listen up: this idea is a bad idea!
Unless it turns out that this is all part of a 90 level long scheme - in which case cool - none of this passes muster. What the Wandering Isle needed was to set up conflict , not co-operation, with players being forced to pick sides early and the characters alongside them burning their bridges and ultimately having no choice but to leave the island even if they wanted to stay. They've been dragged into the war, possibly against their will, and are now pot-committed to their faction. Or something. It didn't need to turn into Apocalypse Now with pandas or anything, but there should be more emotional weight to this first contact than simply "Well, these guys seem cool. I'll fight my loved ones on their behalf, I guess."
Unfortunately with the focus being on the Pandaren being noble and friendly, it just falls hollow. It's a wasted opportunity, and a pretty, but honestly fairly unimpressive starting area aside from its ambience. Not bad, just tough to play without thinking of all the ways it could have been established exactly why the Pandaren are an interesting race, instead of ending on 'they're cool if you like the idea of kung-fu pandas'. Hopefully the more advanced, gloves-off action later on will help redress that balance.
That said, the actual execution of much of it is splendid. Along with the visuals there are some nice individual set-pieces, like a fireworks based fight with a dragon early on, and a good early boss fight that demonstrates basic techniques like dodging out of the way of attacks and dealing with adds. All the bosses are group-enabled, so you don't have to take a turn or group up with someone just to get kill credit. I also like several of the smaller stories and recurring gags, which I won't spoil here, but which offer an nice playful introduction to the world before heading into the aftermath of Cataclysm.
Opting to join the Alliance kicks off a very similar thing to the Death Knights back in WoTLK, involving wandering through a phased Stormwind. The difference is that where Death Knights were met with disgust and spit, Pandaren are cute. You get people waving or going "My goodness, Pandaren?!" and kids running up to see who you are, and it's all very adorable. Slightly dented by seeing so many other Pandaren around, admittedly, but never mind. I also like that when you visit the King to officially sign up, you get the chance to do something the rest of the Alliance can only dream of...
Somewhat annoyingly, despite being the hero of the hour, it's your friend Aysa who is immediately given a promotion from Level 10 or so to Level 90 and made Stormwind's official Monk Trainer (a role which essentially means nothing now that all skills are just given to you when you level). You, hero, are off into the world to punch rats and get exactly zero respect from anyone.
I however plan to switch to my Level 85 Mage and return to the higher level stuff - a brand new world, and the chance to play Pokemon with my Pets. Next time, it's mage time!