Reviewing an MMO expansion is sort of like giving a game a physical. It’s an opportunity to look at the new content that the expansion has added to the game (which, for a World of Warcraft expansion, is never a small amount), but also to look at the state of the MMO as a whole. Because, as more and more content is added to the same product, there’s always a risk that a game might lose its direction or momentum, or make older content completely irrelevant. A really good expansion will find a way to not only make advancement fun, but create a new experience for players who want to go back to their roots.
Mists of Pandaria goes about this through three different methods.
First: The addition of the Monk class means that players can level their way up to the newly elevated level cap of 90 with a whole new set of skills. The Monk is a very versatile character, somewhat akin to the Paladin in terms of flexibility. Each specialization option conforms to one of the three group roles of tank, healer or damage-dealer. Being a leather-wearing class, the tank option, called the Brewmaster, doesn’t have the raw damage-mitigation of the Warrior or Deathknight and instead relies on the ability to redirect damage back at enemies. Brewmasters also passively delay portions of incoming damage, letting healers keep them alive through bursty situations. Mistweavers, the Monk’s healing option, blend their heals with damage, but at the cost of not being able to focus their heals as effectively as a Priest. The damage-dealing Windwalker option focuses on melee damage and high mobility.
It’s a fun class to use, and the flexibility means you’re never without a function in a group, but the rate at which players acquire new skills makes the early levels quite tedious. The fact that you also have to level one from scratch, unlike the Death Knight which unlocked and started at level 55, means that the fun of a Monk is mostly limited by how well you can tolerate levelling through old content for the umpteenth time.
This is where the second method of reinvigorating leveling comes into play – the Pandaren race. Players, regardless of whether they’ve actually purchased the expansion or not, can now play as the fluffy, beer-gutted joke race subtly introduced in Warcraft III. The Pandaren have potentially one of the most powerful racial abilities in the game – Epicurian – which doubles the statistical benefits of eating food. Any high-level player knows how important maintaining a food buff can be. They also come with a short-duration crowd-control ability, take reduced fall damage, and gain a boost to their rested experience rate. This, at least, should make leveling a new Pandaren character a little quicker.
Pandaren players begin on a new sub-continent called The Wandering Isle. It’s a fairly small, highly polished island set on the back of a turtle, and Blizzard has nailed the aesthetic. It’s colourful and varied, and the sight of the giant turtle flippers flapping in the water is highly memorable. But as an introductory zone, it’s not one of the best. It’s a little too polished, leaving players following a very linear path with little reason to stray and explore and learn on their own. The zone also leaves the introduction of the two warring factions too late and doesn’t really explain what the ideologies of the factions are. Not an issue for experienced players, sure, but a newcomer may find themselves choosing their faction based mostly on the description slapped in front of them at the end of the quest line, and not based on experience. Seeing more of each faction in action would have made the choice more impactful.
Once your choice is made, it’s back to your standard Azeroth, with one difference – the third feature to cut through that leveling tedium – the Pet Battle System. From level 5, players can get training which allows them to use their non-combat pets in, well, combat. It’s a turn-based battle system where each pet has a type and a selection of abilities, each with their own type as well. Some types are stronger against others. In addition to the pets you can acquire through questing, from vendors, or are mailed to you for buying games or cards, a lot of pets are found in the wild. In fact, the strongest pets tend to only be found in the wild, and only if you’re lucky. The Pet Battle System is genuinely a lot of fun, even if it is a blatant rip-off of a certain Nintendo property. The ability to match-make battles at any time, and with any level of pets, is a really nice addition. And even with the slow-pace of combat, fights can still be exhilarating, often coming right down to the wire.
But let’s face it. No one is buying Mists of Pandaria because they really love pets or pandas. They want to push their characters up to the new level cap of 90, to explore the titular Pandaria, obtain new loot, do new quests, dungeons and raids.
Pandaria is, without a doubt, the most beautiful landscape in World of Warcraft so far. Every expansion brings something new to the table visually, and Mists hasn’t broken that streak. Each area in Pandaria has its own unique visual style, be it massive stone spires topped with cascading trees, open green plains ripe for farming, rolling foothills that lead to intimidating snow-covered mountains, or a piece of once-beautiful land ruined and darkened by conflict and the living manifestations of hate and aggression. No part of Pandaria is unappealing, and no part is lacking in detail. A huge amount of care went into crafting the land, and the most exciting part of the expansion for me was when I could finally scour the land on my flying mount, admiring all the subtleties I missed from the ground.
But the same care wasn’t taken with questing. Mists, for the most part, deemphasized the vehicle system introduced in Wrath and used heavily in Cataclysm. The great majority of quests in Mists involve you killing something, collecting something, or collecting something from something you just killed. And the framing of these quests is inconsistent. Sometimes a quest will show an entertaining, complex cinematic that totally puts you in the mood to go slice some bugs up, and sometimes an NPC gives you a half-assed, occasionally typo-ridden, bit of dialogue. It’s a shame, really, because the quests that try something new, like the martial-arts training montage, do so much to add to the feel of Pandaria.
There’s also a distinct lack of difficulty in Pandaria’s questing. The only times I felt challenged were when I brought that challenge on myself. Vanilla World of Warcraft would regularly put you in situations where you couldn’t reliably fight one enemy without having to deal with two of its friends at the same time. With Mists, Blizzard seems to actively avoid giving you tough situations like that, and instead loads your enemies up with extra health and high-damage, but easily avoidable, abilities. I felt no more challenged doing level 85 quests than level 90 quests, and found the most enjoyable part of questing to be when I stumbled upon a rare enemy intended for small groups, and took it out solo.
The endgame is what most WoW players are concerned about, though, and Mists comes packed with the standard array of heroic dungeons, raids and PvP. The new PvP maps are actually very enjoyable, and provide two completely new game-types. One is a murderball-style format where players hold an object as long as they can, but with four potential balls up for grabs. It’s chaotic and enjoyable, but highly favors teams with dedicated healers. The other is a capture-point map, but the points are mobile and move along set tracks. Think the Payload maps on TF2, except there are three payloads, and they appear at the beginning once they reach their destination. This is, in my opinion, the more enjoyable of the two. It splits the action up in a manageable way and encourages interesting team movement and composition.
Scenarios are the other major addition to World of Warcraft’s endgame lineup. These are mini-dungeons for teams of three, tuned for whatever roles you have available. Some follow silly side-stories while others further progress the expansion’s story arc of factional conflict. They fill a niche for players who feel intimidated by tougher group content, but for everyone else, the rewards are negligible and the challenge almost non-existent.
World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria is a very solid expansion. Some say the best yet, and while that point could certainly be argued, I believe that Mists falls just shy of the high water mark left by some of the previous expansions. In trying to cater to everyone, Mists at times forgets to service the hardcore, the people who have been subscribers for almost eight years. But if you’ve been playing World of Warcraft for that long, you probably don’t mind the occasionally flat quest or easy leveling, because you’re already chasing epics on a new class, from a new race, in a new world.
- Pandaria is gorgeous
- Pet battles are the surprise hit
- Two brand new PvP battlegrounds, and they’re both entertaining
- Quests and storytelling swing in quality between superb and lazy
- There’s little to challenge experienced players