Wednesday, 24 October 2012

IMPRESSIONS: World Of Warcraft - Mists of Pandaria (PC)

There’s a reason why World of Warcraft has managed to keep a subscriber base of around ten million users for almost a decade. There’s a reason why people forsake their families, their jobs, and in some circumstances, their bodily functions in order to play the game. There’s a reason why, amongst the corpses of countless failed MMOs, World of Warcraft still stands tall. It’s because it’s a good game. Haters gonna hate, but I think World of Warcraft may just be the best game of our generation, and one of the greatest games ever made. Actually, I should rephrase that. World of Warcraft is one of the greatest games still being made, as it’s regular free content updates and paid expansion packs demonstrate. Mists of Pandaria (MoP) is the latest paid expansion, and today I'm taking a good long look at how WoW has changed over the years.

I’d like to acknowledge that yes, I am a little late to the party. I was unavoidably busy during the first few weeks of release, and have only now been able to experience a majority of the content MoP offers. As such, I see this article as more of a promotion to those of you still on the fence about ‘coming back’ to WoW. I'm having a great time in Pandaria and I think that maybe you might too. Of course, if you are new to WoW, please read on, as Pandaria has a lot to offer to newbies as well.

Is Mists of Pandaria worth returning to Azeroth for?
First, lets get this panda thing settled. This expansion is primarily about the Panderan. Instead of the expansion’s main villain being on the box art of the game, as was the tradition for every other WoW expansion, it’s a Panderan. The Panderan race is available to both Horde and Alliance. 90% of the new quests, dungeons, and other content involve the Panderan in some way. They are THE major part of this expansion, and if you feel that kung-fu Pandas (and not pokemon battles, dancing carnival bears, steampunk goblins, Victorian werewolves, alien space goats, time-travelling dragons, and all the other wacky shit WoW has implemented over the years) have ruined the game by being ‘just silly’ and not fitting the universe, you will find nothing of value here. Close your browser, make a cup of tea, and think about rainbows or something for the next fifteen minutes.

Gone? Good. Those of you actual Warcraft fans that remain are in for a major treat with this expansion. Nothing is hugely revolutionary but all of the small changes and new additions build on what made WoW great in the first place, while working hard to eliminate all of the little quirks that people disliked about the game.

The Pandaren are a major part of this expansion.
Lets start with the first thing most returning Warcraft veterans will do upon first logging in; Level their main character to level 90. The first thing you will notice is that all of your talents are gone. MoP has brought with it a complete talent tree overhaul. Now, when choosing a specialization, you are automatically granted a suite of spells that used to be talents. The new talents themselves have then been simplified to just three choices in six tiers. What this means is that the specs themselves feel a lot more ‘specialized’ and that the actual talents come down to personal preference rather than min-maxing numbers. Many classes will also see some pretty big changes.

I main a Warlock, and they got a complete overhaul of the demonology and destruction specs, going so far as to invent a new resource for each one (demonic fury and burning embers respectively). I won’t go into any more details about class changes; just know that your class of choice will not be the same as how you left it when you stopped playing.

The new talent trees have been vastly simplified.

The journey to the level cap has never been more pleasant. In vanilla, you kind of shambled your way to sixty. Most people would run out of quests and have to resort to grinding boars for at least a few bars every level. The Burning Crusade was a disaster. Thousands of people crammed into a single zone, with quest monsters and items respawning infrequency enough to just make everything a huge clusterfuck of a mess. Wrath of the Lich King was a big step in the right direction, with TWO starting zones easing the burden. Cataclysm experimented heavily with ‘phasing’ technology, allowing players to take things at their own pace.

Mists of Pandaria
has perfected phasing and questing to the point where they don’t actually need two starting zones anymore. Every time you head back to a quest hub, you’ll get three to six quests to go out and complete, often with sensible drop and spawn rates. A particularly enjoyable change is that quest-specific monsters can be ‘tagged’ by multiple players, even if they are not in the same group or even the same faction. No more spawn-camping quest mobs.

The difference between the Pandaren and the original races is almost night and day.
It’s a lot easier on your eyes as well. Looking at the beautiful, Chinese culture-inspired locales and models of MoP will have you forget that the engine running the whole thing is from the same year people thought Doom 3’s atmospheric lighting was top shit. New animations, textures and particles will make you wonder what other tricks they can squeeze out of this aging engine. The Panderan models, for example, are so much more detailed that the models of the vanilla races that it almost looks like they are from a completely different game.

Perhaps most interesting is how alive the island of Pandaria feels. Unlike previous expansions which were plagued by death and destruction, Pandaria is all about life and energy. Memorable NPC’s such as Shen Stormstout will guide you through this beautiful land, and make a lasting impression. I get the feeling that every NPC I meet is out there living a life, and not just a big floating exclamation point. The living scenery, littered with critters, helps to create this feeling of a living continent.

The zones of Pandaria are inspired by Chinese mythology.
While the zones aren’t quite as varied as they were in Cataclysm, they are unique and well-paced enough to keep things fresh all throughout your levelling journey. But of course, we all know that the quest to max level is just the tip of the iceberg, and one of the things that has made Warcraft so great is its dedication to end game.

The good news is that there is no shortage of things to do once hitting the level cap, and the options available are sure to appease every kind of WoW player, from the weekend warriors to the hardcore raiders. The stock-standard pathway of normal dungeons -> heroic dungeons -> raid progression exists and the raiders will fit quite comfortably into it. Improvements to the dungeon finder system, and the impending release of the raid finder for MoP raids means that it’s easier than ever for more casual players, or players that prefer to play solo, to be able to experience all the content the expansion offers.

Dungeons have been pretty much perfected, with most heroic dungeons taking about 20-40 minutes and are a bit easier than the more punishing entry-level Cataclysm heroics. The addition of ‘challenge modes’ which offer extra rewards for completing dungeons within a time limit is sure to appease those who want a more challenging experience. Scholomance and Scarlet Monastery are the newest classic dungeons to receive the ‘heroic end level version’ makeover and along with a healthy serving of 7 new Pandaria dungeons, grinding heroics for gear is a quite fun and attractive option.

Scholomance is the latest classic dungeon to be revived.
Unfortunately, due to time constraints (mostly, wanting to be able to actually have free time, instead of just WoW time) I’ve made a conscious decision to NOT get into hardcore progression raiding. My friends who are raiding inform me that the current end level raids are quite well balanced.

Daily quest hubs are nothing new to WoW, but what is impressive is the sheer scope and variety of the MoP dailies. Blizzard had to remove the 25 per day maximum on daily quests; because they made so many quests that they didn’t want to force players to ‘choose’ 25 to do each day. The variety of quests means that in one day you will use goblin explosives to go fishing, tend to your own, personal farm, help giant bugs fight other giant bugs, use archaeology to discover the lore behind Pandaria, raise your very own cloud serpent mount, and protect the lands of Pandaria from aggressive Mogu forces.

As you gain reputation with the tillers, you'll unlock improvements to your farm.
I’m particularly fond of The Tillers faction, which has really taken this whole Farmville craze and run with it. You can upgrade your farm as your reputation increases, and the vegetables that you grow are very useful for high-end food buffs. Daily quests now reward Valour points, and it’s actually quite easy to hit the weekly Valour point cap just from doing your dailies! The highest reputation rewards are also on-par with some of the stuff that drops in the current raid tier, so you can quite respectably gear up your character without setting foot in a dungeon.

Then, of course, there are the Pokemon battles. Over the year, completionists such as myself have amassed a vast collection of non-combat vanity pets. Blizzard have finally given us something to do with these pets, and, of course, it's battle them like Pokemon! It works pretty much exactly how you'd expect - your pets start at level one and you can either battle wild pets or other battle pet trainers to gain experience. Just like in Pokemon, you can capture wild pets to add to your collection. Once you've trained up a team, challenge your friends to duels, or queue for a random pet battle with a member of the opposite faction. The system copies the rock-paper-scissors mechanic that made Pokemon so successful, with 10 types of pets each having their own strengths and weaknesses.

Pet battles - the latest fun distraction for bored raiders.
So now that we know what returning veterans can expect, let’s take a look at the new race and class. For convenience sake, I played them both together, and made myself a Pandaren Monk. I thought that Blizzard had completely nailed the starting experience with Goblins, as it featured a quest where I drove around town in my hot rod picking up chicks to bring back to my party.

But, they've really outdone themselves this time. The Pandaren starting zone is the Wandering Isle, an island on the back of a giant turtle. It will take you from level 1 to about level 12, and tells quite a story along the way. The Chinese kung-fu theme is very strong in the Pandaran storyline, as it has a simple community of Monks in training thrown into disarray by the sudden arrival of Horde and Alliance forces. As you try to settle their dispute, as well as restore balance to the wandering isle, you will discover the personalities and natures of both the Alliance and Horde. Ultimately, at the end of the experience, you will have to choose a side.

The Pandaren race is available to both Horde and Alliance.
As for the Monk, I only did manage to get him to about level 13, but he felt like a cross between a warrior and a rogue. He has a tank, a DPS and a healing spec, which makes him one of only three classes to be able to preform every role (the others being druids and paladins). In levelling, I mostly stuck with the DPS spec, which revolves around building up chi with basic attacks, then unleashing it to preform dazzling kung-fu moves.

I've played with some monks in end-level dungeons as both healers and tanks, and they seem to preform each role quite well, with the tanking ‘brewmaster’ spec using brews and drunken boxing remnant of Jackie Chan’s ‘drunken master’ and the ‘mistweaver’ spec using tai-chi-like healing magic. The Monk seems to fit well into the current selection of classes, and giving him the flexibility that he has means that the sudden influx of monks will filter into whatever roles are required.

The monk feels like a cross between a Rogue and a Warrior, with just a dash of Shaman.
After Catacylsm, I was ready to leave World of Warcraft for dead. I figured that the engine was so old that everything that could possibly be done had already been done. I had assumed that Mists of Pandaria would do relatively well, and would be the last expansion pack before Blizzard unveiled their new MMO, but now that I’ve actually experienced it, I’m not so sure anymore. MoP has shown me that Blizzard can still breathe life into their game after eight years, and it’s refining of content and features has made it the best expansion yet.

You can purchase Mists of Pandaria from the Blizzard store for $39.99

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