World Of Warcraft was originally the story of the endless war between the Horde and the Alliance, its world painted red in the blood of orcs and humans, elves and undead. While the conflicts have continued, the game’s last three expansions have moved away from that theme as the factions have united against greater threats, like a demon lord in Burning Crusade and the mad dragon Deathwing in Catacylsm. But there is no big villain in Mists Of Pandaria and that puts the game’s central conflict back in focus while making it seem more awful and senseless than ever.
The Pandarens have long been a fan favorite, and Blizzard has devoted an entire new continent to the beer-, food-, and martial arts-loving panda-people. It’s a beautifully realized world, especially in comparison to the desolate and alien landscapes of Northrend and the Outland. Drawing heavily on ancient Chinese culture and myth, the zones are filled with temples and lush countryside where dragons soar through the sky. Affable natives are happy to tell you stories about their past in exchange for a little help. It’s no surprise that the Horde and Alliance both covet this new frontier and are hellbent on taking it.
The plot offers some heavy stuff, but it’s hard to take things to seriously given the characters involved. The Horde resorts to arming some poo-flinging monkey men while the Alliance works with a whole race of beings who seem to be cousins of The Creature From The Black Lagoon. While one early dungeon has you wandering a ruined temple and putting down possessed priests, another has you fighting giant rabbits with lethal carrot breath and groan-inspiring “alementals” made from a mad brewer’s experiments.
Blizzard purposefully keeps things light with some brilliant and highly entertaining quests, including one where you investigate a scouting mission by taking on the roles of the different characters, which involves some weird romance and some time playing a shooter instead of a role-playing game. Boosting your character’s powers to the newly raised cap—the pinnacle now stands at level 90—is a long journey, and if you want better kit, you’ll still be compelled to kill the same enemies repeatedly until one of them drops whatever item you’re looking for.
But the developers appear to have learned a lot in the past eight years about keeping things entertaining, whether you’re shooting down gyrocopters with fireworks or leading an attack from the back of a dragon. Pandaria feels more like a single-player RPG than ever, driven by story and personal interactions. Scenarios designed for smaller parties and a revamped Raid Finder make it easier to play the game on your terms if you don’t feel like dealing with other people’s schedules.
Where Cataclysm redid the entire game world from level 1 to 60, Pandaria is decidedly focused on the endgame. Its new battlegrounds, most of its dungeons, and a host of daily quests open only when you reach level 90. It makes the game a harder sell for new players or even people who just want their own Pandaren monk. The dumbed-down talent system makes this feel like even more of a slog, replacing the bit of incremental progress you got each level with much sparser new abilities where the choice largely boils down to whether you prefer killing monsters or other players.
The Pandaren starting area isn’t much of a selling point. It’s lovely to look at and has some fun quests—like one in which you’re turned into a frog and have to avoid being eaten by cranes—but it lacks the creativity of the goblin starting zone introduced in Cataclysm. And the finale is moronic. The biggest treat here is the opportunity to play as a monk. The new class is highly enjoyable, whether you’re pounding people with flurries of punches or getting your enemies so drunk that they hit themselves.
Further service is given to the game’s obsessive collectors. Vanity pets—creatures that do nothing but follow you around and look cool—have long sold for thousands of gold in the game’s economy (and sometimes real money). Now these status symbols serve something of a purpose in a Pokémon-style side game that catch a huge variety of new creatures and field them in mini-monster battles. Players can fill out their team of beasts with everything from chickens to flaming skulls, and Blizzard has given this menagerie a shockingly large and intricate range of abilities. It could easily be its own game, but as it is, it’s a great distraction and palate cleanser.
Blizzard has promised some ambitious developments to come as it puts the war back in Warcraft. But mostly this expansion proves that the company is still able to maintain quality while iterating on the formula that keeps its numbers high and competition down. Where Cataclysm was a perfect time for new or returning players to get into the game, Pandaria is more like a shot in the arm for dedicated fans.