A review for the noobs!
I have a confession. I am not much of an MMORPG player. I’ve dabbled in World Of Warcraft for the past two years, learned the ropes, found some pretty neat gear and defeated some dungeons here and there but I’ve just never been able to master the intricate lingo and gameplay norms that fervent MMO players are accustomed to. That is why, to my shame, after two years of living in Azeroth I am still… a noob. And boy do I feel like one, everywhere I turn for more information on some specifics of the game I’m greeted by techno-babble about PVP vs. PVE, which realm is better, the various minute details regarding races, classes and talents when all I want to know is where to go to get an in-game haircut! Well in defiance of these ‘standard’ conventions of the MMORPG I’ve decided to write this review from the point of view of a ‘noob’ for other players who just enjoy the game for what it is and don’t feel like getting sucked into an endless debate about the more technical aspects of the game.
But before we really dive into it, I would just like to extend a big thank you to my little (yet taller) brother Jacob, a devoted World Of Warcraft player since the beginning for helping me on my quest through Azeroth. I would never have understood how to play this game if it weren’t for his help over the years. Thanks bro!
Mists Of Pandaria is the fourth expansion to the original World Of Warcraft, which released all the way back in 2004. In that time we’ve turned back the menace of the Burning Legion, fought the armies of the Lich King and survived the cataclysm itself. Now the war between the Alliance and Horde has reached the veiled continent of Pandaria, forcing the noble Pandarens (Pandas!) into the conflict. However it is soon revealed that a new threat is emerging from the depths of Pandaria itself, a threat that grows within the anger and hate of the very warriors that battle on this strange new land.
The official beginnings of World Of Warcraft’s new panda exhibit actually started a few days before the official launch of the game with patch 5.0.4. In this latest update not only could you now pick from any race right from the beginning (Worgens for the win!) but it also introduced some of the biggest gameplay changes that have ever been thrust onto players. First off the old talent trees have been done away with. Now instead of getting a Talent Point every odd number of levels your skills are automatically given to you (no more looking for your class trainer) and every fifteen levels you are given a new spell. This new system, while jarring at first, is a serious time saver as it eliminates a lot of the backtracking and searching that occurred every couple of levels. The new system also allows for a deeper customization of your character and really pays off once you start hitting the higher levels.
Other changes in the patch include account wide achievements, so that all of your characters, whether Alliance or Horde, can share in most of the game’s achievements making it much easier for players to rack up those points. Another important change comes in the form of a new looting mechanic where you no longer have to loot every single foe you just sliced up. Instead simply right-click on one and all the enemy’s treasures in the surrounding area will be yours to loot from one convenient window. These new changes, coupled with the dozens of other, minor modifications to the gameplay all come together to make Mists Of Pandaria the most approachable expansion yet to Blizzard’s MMO.
For those players at a high enough level to head directly into Pandaria from the get-go, you will be treated to a whole slew of new content to make the quest to reach level 90 a bit easier. Of course this means new dungeons, battlegrounds and raids to keep players entertained. In addition to these a new style of play for dungeons called Challenge Mode has been added where players can earn medals (Olympic style) when completing certain requirements in a dungeon (like finishing it under a certain time limit).
One of the most talked about additions coming with Mists Of Pandaria is the all-new Pet Battle system. Now you can take all those loveable critters that you have been hoarding for years and pit them head to head in Pokémon style battles. In fact these battles play startlingly like a game of Pocket Monster. Your pets (which are now shared account wide) now all have types (elemental, aquatic, dragonkin, etc.) and attacks. You can obtain new attacks and moves by battling and levelling up your pets. And the Pokémon comparisons don’t end here as you can also capture wild critters and add them to your roster. While seasoned Pokémon trainers may turn their nose up at Warcraft’s Pet Battles as lacking substance they do offer a fun side distraction and Blizzard has promised to keep improving upon the foundation it has set here.
But of course the biggest addition is the new class - the monk. The monk relies mostly on hand-to-hand combat but also carries a weapon for more powerful finishing moves. Players who choose to be taught in the ways of the monk will be able to head down the path of three different talent trees. The Brewmaster is the heavy damage tank, the Mistweaver is the healer and the Windwalker (no not the Zelda game) is best used for DPS. I chose to become a Windwalker, and so far I’m finding that it closely resembles the rogue class in that you have to rely on weaker but faster attacks to get the job done. All monks use Chi as a resource which stacks over time and is used to unleash more powerful finishing moves. So far I’m really liking my time as a monk as I find the combat to be the most dynamic of all the classes because the cooldown time between your moves is so fast you’re always clicking away and not waiting several seconds for a spell or attack to recharge.
This time around only one new race is joining the fray, the Pandaren. The Pandaren are unique in that they are the only neutral race in World Of Warcraft, allowing players to choose between the Alliance and Horde at level 10. This signals one of the first instances of World Of Warcraft allowing its players' decisions to critically affect how the rest of the game plays out. However, once you decide on which side of the war you belong on that’s pretty much it for big, game-changing decisions; it's a good start, but I would absolutely love to see more of these types of choices not only in World Of Warcraft but in MMORPGs in general.
Though all of these changes improve upon the Warcraft formula in many ways this is still an expansion pack and, as such, is not a full new game. This is most evident in the fact that it’s becoming painfully clear that the gameplay hasn’t changed all that much since November 23rd 2004. I know the hardcore players will likely disagree (and send angry emails) but as a noob who has been in and out of Azeroth for a couple of years it still feels like the same game.
In an effort to keep players invested throughout their questing a lot of work has been put into making Mists Of Pandaria’s story more involved and dynamic. You see, in previous expansions you simply followed a quest line to its completion, sporadically stumbling upon the ‘main’ storyline. While this definitely still exists, in Pandaria the larger quest lines have been streamlined with the ‘story’ elements, so even though they still follow the general pattern of older quests (kill a random number of foes, loot some plants, etc.) they all feel more connected and relevant to your epic adventure.
Speaking of the story, it seems that Blizzard has taken a step back from the doom and gloom of the previous two expansions (an undead invasion and the end of the freaking world) and made Pandaria a more serene, peaceful and brighter place. This change in art direction was a bit jarring for me at first, since I started playing Warcraft just as Deathwing was decimating Azeroth, but after a while I came to appreciate the new direction, feeling that it brought a sense of ‘hope’ to the denizens of the world and in turn made me more invested in the story.
Think back to 2004. What games were we ogling over back then? I remember thinking that the (then) upcoming Resident Evil 4 was a pretty good looking game, as was Metroid Prime 2. Well that was also the year that World Of Warcraft launched, and since then the graphics have only marginally improved, which definitely makes the latest expansion look dated out of the gate. Some will say that MMOs don’t need pretty graphics to be great, that the gameplay should speak for itself, and while I generally agree, a quick glance across the room to Guild Wars 2 and The Old Republic makes it clear that Warcraft is in need of some sprucing up.
However, after 8 years on the market it’s plain to see that Blizzard has mastered their engine. The continent of Pandaria and the Pandarens that live there look head and shoulders above their counterparts; they're brimming with details and intricacies that no other race can boast. If you go to the character creation screen and compare a Pandaren to an Orc or an Undead, the difference is striking. The Pandarens even have more detailed animations, including facial expressions, which makes them stand out even more. While this is a nice touch it’s curious that Blizzard hasn’t updated the models of the other playable races to the standards set by Mists Of Pandaria.
After Star Wars: The Old Republic pioneered the use of full-voice acting in an MMORPG, Blizzard soon found themselves in danger of falling behind the times. Thankfully they seem to be on the right path with Mists Of Pandaria thanks not only to some higher quality voice actors but by finally letting NPCs outside of bosses and important figures have their voices heard with a little more than the generic ‘for the Horde!’.
Artistically much of Mists Of Pandaria is heavily based on ancient China and feudal Japan, a fact that can be seen in almost every nook and cranny of Pandaria. The very mannerisms of the Pandaren NPCs just screams of ancient Chinese artwork, which really helps make the new continent feel like a strange and exotic land. The questlines and main story also share their roots in far-East folklore and are definitely more in-tune with the art direction than previous expansions that, at times seemed like they were trying too hard to be ‘epic’.
I shouldn’t even have to mention that World Of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria will demand a serious time investment from even the most casual of players. There is simply so much that Blizzard has crammed into the game over the past 8 years that it’s impossible to see and experience it all in a reasonable amount of time. Battling your way up to level 90 will take dozens of hours even if you were already capped out at level 85 and the additions of new dungeons, raids and secondary modes like Pet Battles will keep players around for a long, long, long time to come (as well as help make that pesky subscription fee a bit more palatable).
As a bit of a side note, let’s say you have a World Of Warcraft account but still aren’t convinced that you want to head off to Pandaria just yet. Well thanks to the previously mentioned patch 5.0.4. you will still have access to plenty of new content included in the expansion. First off, all accounts have been upgraded to Wrath Of The Lich King status, allowing you to head north to Northrend, create a Death Knight and battle the scourge to your heart's content. But that’s not all as you can now create a character of every race, including Cataclysm’s Worgens and Goblins, and of course Pandarens. You just won’t be able to visit Pandaria proper or create a monk until you have upgraded to Mists Of Pandaria.
At the outset of this review I said that I was reviewing this expansion for the less experienced WoW players out there and now it’s time to answer the big question: should casual and new players invest in expanding to Pandaria? Well the answer is a resounding yes. Not only because the World Of Warcraft experience is still a very strong, enriching and satisfying experience but because of all the iterations that Warcraft has gone through this is the one that is most welcoming to new players and returning raiders. The old wrinkles may be more noticeable than ever but the game itself is still a blast to play. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go find the auction house.
This review is based on a retail copy of World Of Warcraft: Mists Of Pandaria.