Mists of Pandaria seems to be a bit of a joke at first glance. Earlier expansions to the World of Warcraft had obvious selling points: an alien world, an unstoppable foe, an apocalyptic event. And for this latest entry: kung fu pandas. The whole premise is a pastiche of Asian stereotypes: crane stance, cherry blossom trees, ancient proverbs, fu manchus, bamboo forests, conical rice hats, bonsai trees, the Great Wall, jade statues, zodiac animals, monks, terracotta warriors, Mongol hordes, “wax on, wax off”; it’s all here. This is nothing new, of course—World of Warcraft isn’t known for its tactful appropriation of Scandinavian or Caribbean culture either—so it’s a good thing there’s a lot more to this expansion than “Oh cool, pandas.”
That much is obvious from the second you set foot on the continent because Pandaria holds the most beautiful landscapes in the game to date. From the deep, lush greenery of the Jade Forest to the snow-covered monasteries on Kun-Lai Summit, every inch of the continent is charming, colourful and ornate. The palatial shrines that act as the local capitals for the Alliance and Horde are particularly awe-inspiring. The soundtrack is also stellar and helps sell the look, making extensive use of erhu, or Chinese violin. That’s not to say everything is Asian-inspired (though it comes close). The insectoid Mantid offer some much-needed contrast, reigning over a nightmarish zone that combines the shattered terrain of Outland with the gothic architecture of Gilneas. But like everywhere else, it’s utterly breathtaking.
Although the mystical land of Pandaria is absolutely a sight to see, it’s ultimately what you do there that justifies your subscription fee. The biggest draw is likely the newest class, the monk. Monks share many similarities with rogues: both specialize in disrupting the opponent, use energy (primarily) and build up points for finishing moves. However, the monk trades stealth for the greatest mobility in the game and is capable of fulfilling all three party roles. Tanking monks can adopt the Stance of the Sturdy Ox, delaying a portion of the damage they take; damage-dealing monks can unleash their Fists of Fury, stunning all enemies in front while pummeling them down; and healing monks can take on the Stance of the Wise Serpent, healing their allies for a portion of the damage they deal. Each specialization can also guzzle brews for various buffs. It’s an extremely fun and flexible class, providing one more way for players to experience the game.
Unfortunately the actual game mechanics haven’t really surpassed the advances made in Wrath of the Lich King. You’ll spend the majority of your time killing tigers, collecting crane feathers and gathering tea leaves, repeated ad infinitum. However there are moments of smart design that shine through. In one area your enemies flash back and forth between harmless terracotta statues and lethal warriors, creating real tension as you try to burn one down before it (or the half-dozen behind you) change form. In the Pandaren starting zone, new players duel while balancing on top of poles. Losers fall into a magical pond that transforms them into frogs, alerting the previously docile cranes to a tasty snack. These are the moments that keep you questing through the usual dreck. Blizzard has done its best to minimize travel time and backtracking—the new “area loot” feature alone shaves minutes off the daily grind—but for the most part it’s the same mechanics, streamlined and dressed up.
It’s fortunate then that Mists of Pandaria makes you care about the quests more than ever before. Blizzard had been indulging in continual one-upmanship since Burning Crusade, increasing the stakes until Azeroth itself was torn asunder in Cataclysm. However, an epic quest to restore your fallen world simply doesn’t compare to the urgency of a woman in labour, or the plight of impoverished farmers robbed of their livelihoods. With Mists, Blizzard has realized that less can be more, and that personal struggles have the most impact. That’s not to say every quest reads like a soap opera. To the contrary: many storylines have a humour or lightness of tone that provide equally refreshing breaks.
Surprisingly, the most powerful theme in Mists of Pandaria is colonialism. Early questing zones have you cutting a path across the continent, conquering new territory and setting up basecamps. You feel a strange mixture of pride and guilt when turning indigenous peoples (the koi-like Jinyu for the Alliance and the monkey-like Hozen for the Horde) to your cause. It’s especially moving to see a peaceful Pandaren slip on a tabard go to war out of pure desperation.
In a first for World of Warcraft, new Pandaren characters get to feel that same tension. At the end of their starting zone, Pandaren must choose to join the lesser of two evils—that is, either the Alliance or the Horde, both of which are systematically trashing Pandaria. Its inhabitants are peaceful by necessity: their land is inhabited by the Sha, spirits that feed off negative emotions. By bringing full-scale war to these shores, the Alliance and Horde have caused a massive Sha resurgence. So while you’ll solve all manner of problems on Pandaria, you won’t always feel welcome.
In addition to the generally stronger narrative, Blizzard has introduced a new way to experience the action: scenarios, short instanced stories with varied objectives that can be tackled by three players of any class and specialization. This marks the first real departure from the ubiquitous tank/dps/healer requirement, something to be praised by the throngs of unwanted damage-dealers. The scenarios themselves vary in quality: some players will just sweep through, mindlessly killing everything (“Fall of Theramore,” “Crypt of Forgotten Kings”), while others have a little more nuance. In “A Brewing Storm,” players help create a magic beer during a tempest, fighting off enemies while putting out flaming kegs. You can then put the brew to work, instantly frying lizardmen with blasts of electricity.
The new dungeons are also a mixed bag. Some, like the grim and sinister Shado-Pan Monastery, are undeniably gorgeous but ultimately forgettable. Others have loads of charm: in the Stormstout Brewery, players logroll on kegs of beer, sending them crashing into thieving Hozen. The final boss, an “alemental,” has all manner of alcoholic abilities that keep the fight fun and fresh without becoming gimmicky.
Such variety is critical for WoW players endlessly grinding for loot, and Blizzard has made that a clear priority in Mists. Two old dungeons have been remade for the end game—Scholomance and the fan favourite Scarlet Monastery—and while they don’t break new ground in any way it’s nice to see obsolete content made useful again. Once adventurers have seen and done it all, they can participate in challenge modes, using standardized gear to compete for the best times. Even the monotony that is daily questing can now change from day to day. One day the inhabitants of Mistfall might just be looking for a little help around the village; the next day their homes might be under siege.
If the repetition is still too much, Blizzard has added a few novel distractions to keep you engaged. Just in case you don’t do enough farming already, you can now participate in some actual agriculture with the new Tillers faction. While the idea might bring to mind the horrors of Farmville, its execution is actually closer to Harvest Moon. You’ll need to perform a variety of tasks to help your plants grow (some of them will even go wild and attack) while improving your relationships with your local farmers. It’s not the player housing people have been asking for since 2004, but upgrading your farm can be an amusing pastime to add to your daily routine.
The small pet battles, however, are in a league of their own. While shamelessly ripped off from Pokemon (the attack “leech seed,” for example, is identical in both name and function), the system is surprisingly robust and entertaining. Suddenly all the vanity pets gamers have amassed now have their own stats, types and unique moves. Suddenly all the critters scurrying about Azeroth are new enemies to be bested and collected. The combat has such an odd sense of humour to it: you can’t help but laugh at the epic music behind chickens and squirrels doing battle, the use of rickety baskets to capture pets, or the way your hero blubbers when his or her magical crawdad is knocked out. It is so addicting, in fact, that it’s easy to imagine whole guilds dedicated to playing WoW like a Pokemon MMO.
The unfortunate truth about all these distractions is that they are so necessary: the old bones of an eight-year-old game, polished as they may be, can only sustain so many hours of entertainment. Everything on the periphery has been expanded and upgraded—the story, the art, the breadth of activities—but the core remains the same. If your love for the game has gone cold, the new expansion won’t do much to reignite it. But if you still treasure Azeroth—the lore, the camaraderie, the achievement—then Mists of Pandaria is a great reason to stay.