Update 6: The Rough Guide To Pandaria, Part 1
So, having finished three (and a bit, but let's round it off) of Pandaria's quest zones, this seems like a good time to take a quick look at them in turn. Do they work? Are they cool? Is the questing fun?
Trying to avoid too many spoilers then...
Jade Forest is the first area, and while it goes on far too long, is really cool. Several stories are kicked off and well told, with the focus being on meeting the locals (including training at their temples for no apparent reason), building an army to bolster your side's forces, and finally... I won't ruin it, but it kicks the Pandarian campaign off with a serious bang. It's a shame about the padding in the middle, and like the next zone there's the weird idea of having you training as martial arts even if you're a mage who should never, ever be getting into a fist-fight with anything, but never mind. It fits the mood.
A few quibbles aside*, this zone is the promise of Pandaria, properly realised, nicely designed, with a good story arc and a solid intro to the main campaign. Thumbs up. Next!
(* Looking at you, the vital-to-the-story mountain you can fall off and have no way back up until you get a new flight license at Level 90. How the hell did that one get through beta testing?)
Valley Of The Four Winds isn't as strong, mostly because it's much quieter. You're not really on a quest here, just doing Stuff. Some of that Stuff is cool, especially the story of a Pandaren called Chen and his niece. A lot of the time though you're just helping out on farms, which begs two questions. First, are you kidding? Second, you do know that my faction just helped kick off a continental disaster level problem, smashed up a monument your people have been building for centuries, and are generally acting like complete douchebags about five minutes over there? Just checking...
This is part of the problem with the Pandaren so far. They're absolute doormats. There's essentially one guy who even seems to have a problem with the two factions showing up and unleashing the Sha, with everyone else more or less going "Well, at least we have time for a drink first." There are good individual characters, and as said before, some really cool and funny bits. I am far from convinced that the Pandaren as a race deserved the honour of a whole expansion pack, and it increasingly feels like the designers weren't allowed to do anything with them that would get in the way of some hypothetical toy line a little further down the road. Possibly even their own spin-off cartoon series.
Also, while we're on the subject, does anyone else have a problem with the country being called "Pandaria"? There are multiple races living there too, including fish people and ancient conquerers and a whole society of sentient monkeys, called 'hozen', not just the celebrated kung-fu pandas.
Pos before Hoze, I guess.
The Valley does however end - after visiting another zone - with a truly fine, epic encounter that I won't spoil, but does a great job of tying together a lot of the stories and things you've done. Old characters re-appear, there are several callbacks to moments in these two zones, and an intriguing glimpse at the penultimate one - the spooky Dread Wastes. Overall, I enjoyed this zone, but I suspect it's the final nail in the coffin of the Pandaren turning out to be the badass heroes from the intro instead of just teddy bears who drink a lot. There are three more zones to prove otherwise though, so we'll see.
Krasarang Wilds however is a tedious abyss of absolutely nothing interesting. It's a generic jungle where generic things happen, and if someone said that Blizzard assigned their naughty developers to it as a punishment, I would not be surprised. It's the Warcraft equivalent of writing out "I must collect bear asses" a hundred times, only more annoying because of the bad drop rates.
Not only does this zone not boost the main storyline, it takes it in odd places. As a long-time member of the Horde, in an expansion pack about the horrors of war, I'm sorry but I should not be running errands for and partnering up with Anduin freaking Wrynn . It's not even a desperate situation. It's just "Oh, hey there, undead mage. Mind killing some snakes for me? Cheers."
When Horde players are teaming up with the Prince of Stormwind, this is no longer World of Warcraft. This is World of SlighttensionoverunresolvedissuesbutbasicallyeverythingsfineCraft. This will be confirmed on the next box, with a special fold-out bit to get the entire name down. If we're going with ghostly manifestations of emotion as a sign of this war, I fully expect to be fighting the Sha of Cooperation by the weekend. He's the raid boss who asks what loot you want, goes to fetch it from the store-room, then cuts his own throat for you. But not before handing out free ponchos so that you don't get his blood over your nice clean boots. And when you look him, you get free cake.
Also, Blizzard - for shame! Go stand in the corner, whoever implemented this...
Next on the hit-list is snowy Kun-Lai Summit, before finishing up the edges of Pandaria with Townlong Steppes and the dark, spooky Dread Wastes. After that, the final area is the Vale of Eternal Blossoms, where only Level 90 players dare tread. And some dungeons, of course. Mustn't forget those...
Update 7: Down On T'Farmville
One of Mists of Pandaria's more involved features is the Tiller faction, or as it's been dubbed, The Farmville Bit. You'll find it in the Valley of the Four Winds, where a naive new farmer called Yoon needs your help to establish himself. You plant and water crops, returning each day to harvest and deal with trouble, make friends with other farmers and generally create the best farm ever.
This could well be your favourite part of the game. My thoughts however are as follows:
Update 8: Narrative Splits
Today's update plan was to go dungeon diving, though that didn't work out so well. One day there will be an expansion where DPS is a much sought-after role. Pandaria is not that expansion. Instead, I've been continuing my trip through the levelling content on Kun-Lai Summit and the next region, Townlong Steppes, and honestly I don't have much to say about either at this point - save that I'm surprised by just how early the final zone is opened. I was expecting it to be behind the giant, besieged wall in the Dread Wastes, and requiring an epic battle to open. Instead, it's a Level 90 zone unlocked at 87/88 that exists mostly to say "We have so many dailies for when you think you're done..."
Kun-Lai is a massive, massive improvement over the other zone in its level, the dark and depressing Krasarang Wilds. Its mountain regions are particularly impressive, with the zone entrance in the Veiled Stair having a real Skyrim feel to it. It plays like a mix of Valley of the Four Winds in terms of scale, with Jade Forest's element of establishing a foothold and recruiting the natives to your side's cause. Easily the most notable feature of this zone is the Sha of Anger, who will leave you alone unless you go really close to it, but acts as a world boss for raid parties who want a big public challenge. It's got scale, good quests, and a really fun introduction. Thumbs up, if not as high as for Jade Forest.
Townlong Steppes I'm still working through. Thumb has no comment as of yet.
Disappointingly though, while Kun-Lai and Townlong Steppes both have plenty of story, the Horde and Alliance stuff seems to have fizzled out in favour of general quests and a focus-shift to Pandaria's own lore and problems. It's fine, and suitably Warcraft style, with the mantis-like Mantid and former conquerors the Mogu doing their thing, and in fairness, in the former case because of the Sha, but I don't feel much resonance with the story or historical conflict at this point.
This isn't a massive problem though, just a personal preference amongst the stories the expansion is trying to tell. I hope the compass swings back its way soon, ideally without having to wait for the next chapter of the story proper to shake things up in however many months.
Just to get it off my chest, I also really hate how the dungeons and single-player story intersect. Pandaria does an interesting thing with the first couple, where you preview the terrain before it gets infested with monsters, but then things go back to the same old system - a quest chain will end in a capital-D Dungeon. This has always bugged me, not least because the levelling content assumes that you've done them, but is especially silly in a story that otherwise has no group quests.
If the game is going to offer a single-player story - and make no mistake, that is what Mists of Pandaria's levelling content absolutely is, despite being able to team up with people - all of its narrative based content should be available to all. That could be done with alternate dungeons, with NPCs filling in for other players... I don't care. It's not like people aren't willing to go back and repeatedly do dungeons and raids for challenge and loot, even though there's no plot or character-based reason to do so. It is however jarring to have the game simply assume you've done this stuff, to the point of finding a major character you were just tasked to rescue less than two minutes walk away.
I have no idea why Blizzard keeps doing this, and admittedly things like the Dungeon/Raid Finder make it much less of a problem than it used to be to see everything while flying solo, but it still bugs me. In World of Warcraft, distance = time passing, and that's okay. It shouldn't be too hard to design around this to keep the story flowing though, or ensure people see the major beats when they're meant to happen in the story instead of in some parallel narrative world. Give raids and dungeons their own stories, or use the same content but re-tune the bosses for solo action as well - I don't care.
Don't however expect me to play solo for hour after hour, then lock me out of key plot points in my personal story, simply because I prefer experiencing narrative content without grumpy paladins going 'food mage' or the group rushing through because the tank has already seen everything.