Update 3: Gotta Catch 'Em All!
Like no one ever was
At doing stuff with cosmetic pets
For no point but because...
I will travel across the land
Where they cannot hide
Adding pets and ignoring
The hardcore being snide
Pet battles! Something they added!
Oh, yes it's true
That Blizzard just copied you, from
But who gives a crap
'Twas Nintendo left this gap.
Pet battles! Worth me trying?
Read the damn review!
But it's something that feels brand new
You hate it and I'll shun you
Pet battles! Hope nobody sues!
Hope nobody sues!
Sorry, not sure what happened there. Anyway! My plan for the evening was to jump on the nearest blimp to Pandaria and begin carving through the new levelled content. Having just left the Pandaria-themed Wandering Isle though, I felt like a change and headed back to Orgrimmar to at least get started on one of Pandaria's cool new Things To Do - Pet Battles. PokeMMOn, if you will.
You can make a start on this at any level, unlike most of Mists of Pandaria's content, with trainers in the capital cities. If you don't have the expansion, you'll see the trainers but won't be able to buy the necessary skill. My Monk acquired the skill automatically during the tutorial area. My Undead Mage simply had to walk up to a trainer and ask for it. Every race also gets a custom pet that they can buy if they don't have any. For my Undead Mage, this was... a cockroach.
(makes note to deduct five percent of expansion's score on grounds of racism)
No thank you, GOOD SIR, I do believe I shall find a pet MORE BEFITTING of my STATUS!
I've seen a lot of people be sniffy about the Pet Battle thing. Personally, I think it's great - the concept at least. I've not played enough to make a verdict on how much it actually adds, but so far I don't see any reason to complain. It gives a good reason to track down pets, as well as to explore the world more thoroughly. It's a fun mini-game to play during downtime. If you don't want to do it... don't do it. I'm pretty sure we're not down a raid or anything for its inclusion. Just pretend it's not there.
Getting started involves doing a five minute tutorial that teaches you the basics of fighting, levelling up your various pets, capturing more - in crates rather than Pokeballs, but the principle is exactly the same - and taking on other players in three-on-three combat. You can swap out your pets mid-combat, each have three abilities to choose from that have assorted strengths and weaknesses against other pet types, and they level up and get new skills as they win battles on your behalf.
There doesn't seem to be a vast amount of actual point in doing Pet Battles, though there are a ton of Achievements up for grabs. Everywhere in Azeroth and Outland has a set of Pet Tamers to challenge, many of them unlocking daily quests. If you beat them all, you get the title of "Tamer", which is rubbish and needs to be changed to "Supreme Minion God" or similar in the next patch. For a time-killer though, that's probably an okay reward. There may be others. I'll keep my eyes open.
Other players can be challenged too. A new 'Pet Battle Duel' option is available on the menu, if you're feeling lucky. You can also use a Find Battle button in the pet interface that will matchmake you a fight where you won't get crushed. Disappointingly, chat or even the identity of your opponent are hidden during this - I'm assuming to avoid trolling problems. Still, it's a little boring not being able to put a name to a face and knowing that the best your defeated enemy will be doing is shaking their fists and bellowing "ANONYMOUS UNDEAD MAAAAAAAAAAAGE!" You don't even get a way of sending a GG before you're unceremoniously teleported out of your victory/defeat, which seems a bit stingy.
Overall though, I like the pet battle system and hope it continues to be fun. It's nowhere near as good as I'd expect from an actual Pokemon MMO, but it's not trying to be one. Taken as simply another case of Blizzard looking at their world and figuring out cool new things to do with it, it's a nifty addition I look forward to playing with quite a bit more as I continue my journey through Pandaria proper.
Update 4: The Bear Necessities
While the Wandering Isle drops the ball, Pandaria proper opens with exactly the right introduction - an all-out battle to remind you that there's more to the Alliance/Horde war than simply King Varian and Warchief Garrosh drawing little pictures of each other with knives through the testicles. Many soldiers are all-out murdered by turrets and flying vehicles, there are big explosions, and the Horde's newest ship - Hellscream's Fist - forces its way through Pandaria's back passage. What? It's true!
Why are the two sides fighting specifically? King Varian Wrynn's son has been shipwrecked on Pandaria, and he's sent the fleet in to help. Garrosh... well, he's Garrosh. (shrug)
The opening battle, at least for the Horde, is set in and around a village with the oh-my-diabetes name of Honeydew Glade. The name may be soft, but the enemies aren't. While obviously not 'fighting the Lich King naked' level opposition, even this first encounter is tuned with the idea that you've spent a fair amount of time in the dungeons gearing up for this assault. My mage not being very well geared, it's a struggle when more than one enemy decides they want a fight... and they're quite closely packed. Arse. On the plus side, this should make getting better quest gear much more satisfying.
The end of the first encounter sees absolutely no potential for double-entendres, as Hellscream's Fist pounds into Pandaria's Jade Forest. Its captain's anger unleashes the Horde's first glimpse of the Sha and... well, I'm willing to be convinced, but I have concerns about the Sha.
Again, this ties into what Pandaria is about - the war, rather than the pandas. Though let the record show that lines like "Drop your weapons or you face TWO enemies on this continent!" are always going to be more badass when the warrior delivering them doesn't have the Racial Trait "Bouncy".
The Sha are a decent idea, up to a point. On Pandaria, negative emotions take on a life of their own in the form of these ghostly white creatures. As a side bonus, they - unlike the philosophical concept of 'war' - can be punched in the face and be made to drop loot. I'm concerned though that introducing them so early and as actual walking enemies who you have to kill 20 of in order to complete a quest is a little too on-the-nose. Likewise, looking through the Dungeon and Raid guides you now get in the interface, I see a lot of enemies with names like "Sha of Anger" and "Sha of Fear", but not much in the way of... well... the big war that's supposed to be feeding them in the upcoming content. With the obvious exception of Pandaria's final planned raid, The Siege of Orgrimmar, of course...
The quests could still have lots of good Horde vs. Alliance stuff, of course, and the first Pandarian area is a good start. I just hope MoP doesn't reverse its own plot's needs and think that the presence of the Sha as a symbol of war means we don't need the actual war. The ideal use for them would seem to be phasing and world progression - you have a load of quests against your opposing number, and as you do them, the land rips apart in these cool ghostly effects and these creatures as spawned. They feel like they should be an environmental factor, not - as they currently seem - a faction.
But we'll see how that develops. This is just the start of a very long journey.
Speaking of which, Pandaria looks very pretty. But I miss being able to fly on my dragon.
Update 5: A Question Of Quests
Blizzard has, by far, the best quest design team in the genre.
Sometimes, that's actually a problem.
Mists of Pandaria's levelling content is frequently stunning, and almost always packed with imagination. MMO quests get a lot of flack for just being 'collect 20 bear skins'... and yes, there's a fair amount of that stuff here too. That's a problem. We'll get to that in a moment. Here though, just as much of your time if not more is spent on far more interesting things. Interactive flashbacks. Teaming up with a badass NPC to go clear out spies in the forest or super-tough rabbits in battle-armour. Vehicle sequences. Shooting galleries. Blizzard has a ton of interaction mechanics, and uses them constantly.
Even when the basic mechanics are stock, they're often wrapped with something that makes them more fun - and often goes that little bit further than it has to. In the second zone, Valley of the Four Winds, there's a section where you chaperone a little Pandaren girl, Li Li, who just wants to see new places and keeps a running narration as you explore. She also however comments on a couple of other quests that you can pick up at the same time, rather than just on her own. Nice touch.
Phasing and scripting are much, much more subtle than they have been in the past, but used constantly. Characters move around as the story emerges, and situations shift. Much of the story of the first zone, Jade Forest, is Horde and Alliance recruiting allies for their fight - a group of fish people for the Alliance, some intelligent monkeys for the Horde. This is lampshaded a lot by orcs going "The Horde is recruiting MONKEYS now?!" and similar. As you quest, you see and feel this relationship emerge. Early on, the monkeys are hostile. As you win them over, they become neutral. When you establish a formal alliance, they're just sitting around. Just before the zone's big (and really impressive) set-piece, they're marching in formation, with a Pandaren sage saying "Okay, this is kinda worrying, guys."
It is really, really good stuff. In the inevitable Guild Wars 2 comparison, and taken purely on story and atmosphere, Pandaria roundly humiliates ArenaNet's open-world action. If you want to skip the quest text and cut-scenes, fine. You're missing out though on some great writing, really funny jokes and set-pieces, and some well worked out lore. I'm still not convinced by the Pandaren or the Sha to be honest, but individual people on Pandaria are absolutely worth hooking up with.
The catch is that with all this scripting, Pandaria may as well just bite the bullet and be a single-player RPG. There are no group quests, unless you count the bosses everyone can just team up against, and the story is resolutely personal and scripted around you being alone. For antisocial me, that's fine.
All this good stuff really throws what I shall politely refer to as "MMO Bullshit" into sharp relief. It's not like I have a violent reaction to anyone combining the words "Bring me" "things" and a number, but it's increasingly out of place in a game that can do so much more. It's like going to a rock concert and being blown away by an awesome first song, only for the entire band to walk off stage and the drummer to spend the next ten minutes playing a kazoo. Long sequences of generic collect quests, and especially generic collect quests with low drop rates, are beyond infuriating in a game that repeatedly proves itself better than that. I really wish it had kept things short but sweet and focused on good stuff.
At this point, I hear you cry "But Richard! If not for those, the levelling would be far too fast!" Hardly, I retort. Players are already at maximum level, and for zem, zis vor iz over. I would have loved to have seen Blizzard experiment a little more with its quest system, to prune out this nonsense and instead think up ways to focus on what it absolutely, officially does best. The padding, and see also The Old Republic and The Secret World on this, contributes nothing . It just gets in the way.
This is especially the case here, with the focus being on endgame content - on dailies, dungeons, raids, scenarios, challenges and so on. Make the quests more about factions, for instance, with each zone's quest completion tied to cool gear and pets and mounts and things instead of chasing the XP dragon. The players who don't care about the story content aren't playing it anyway - not really.
As good as the quest design is though, good god am I fed up with the ancient mechanics. Coming not simply from Guild Wars, but TOR, TSW, Tera, DCUO and many others, Warcraft's combat especially is like being trapped in treacle. Not being able to move or dodge during combat, and that combat being incredibly simplistic most of the time, is seriously tedious. The downtime of eating food to recharge between fights also feels ridiculous, even though as a mage I have as many Conjured Mana Cakes as I can stick down my throat and therefore probably shouldn't complain too much.
Ordinarily, wanting something like a fundemental overhaul of movement systems would be ridiculous. This is Blizzard though, which ripped out its whole talent tree system in the name of making things smoother. It might be a lot to ask, but it's still in a suggestion box of its own making.
Finally, a few quick updates on previous entries.
1) Early fights in Pandaria can be tough if you're not very well geared, but as soon as you get to the Jade Forest's hub - the village of Dawn's Blossom - you can hook up with an Adventuring Supplies panda who'll sell you a full set of Pandaria ready greens. Thumbs up. Nice addition.
2) My concerns about the war continue though. The Jade Forest builds up to a really awesome finale, but as soon as you're done, you end up in Nagrand 2.0 where your focus shifts to doing random crap on a farm for several hours. More updates on whether the war continues to be a big deal later on.
3) The Pet Battle theme sounds like Castlevania music. I spent ages trying to work out what it was.
4) The Sha become much less scary if you say it in a dismissive Valley Girl accent.
5) I feel really sorry for the poor mages with the job of holding open portals back to the capital cities 24/7. They definitely drew the short wand with that assignment.
6) There is a quest that asks "What would you like Miss Fanny to do with the watermelon?"
Next Page: A closer look at the first three zones!