Author: Rory Young
Editor: Howard Ha
Publish Date: Friday, September 28th, 2012
Originally Published on Neoseeker (http://www.neoseeker.com)
Article Link: http://www.neoseeker.com/Articles/Games/s/mists_of_pandaria/
Copyright Neo Era Media, Inc. - please do not redistribute or use for commercial purposes.
Heroes in Pandaria aren't simply born, they're leveled. No panda babies here, we're talking about those charming World of Warcraft starting areas, bite-sized leveling areas designed to warmly embrace new players, welcoming them to the setting before spitting them out into cold level-grind from 10-90. Since the Cataclysm expansion's "reboot," starting areas in World of Warcraft have stepped up in quality and scale, introducing an amount of story, a feeling of adventure, and helping players through levels 1-10 (give or take a few) without it becoming a grind prematurely. After leaving the island, players are on their own, but at least they go out feeling like they have a place in the world.
World of Warcraft's fourth expansion, Mists of Pandaria, continues the finely-tuned starting area Cataclysm trend by placing new pandaren characters on the Wandering Isle. The island is replete with a fresh batch of never before seen enemies, Blizzard's fancy "phasing" technology, and plenty of rich Pandaren lore that goes all the way back to WarCraft III. Still, some questions linger. Are the pandarens a suitable addition to the MMO this late in the game's lifespan? Does Mists of Pandaria create an introductory experience worth comparing to more modern MMOs? Better yet, what can we tell about the greater Mists of Pandaria expansion from its new starting area, and what it means for World of Warcraft's future?
The secret, you see, to an island that moves, is turtles. What Mists of Pandaria's starting area lacks in urgency and intensity -- feelings that carried the goblin and worgen areas during Deathwing's reawakening -- it makes up for with wonder and charm. The Wandering Isle is actually a land built upon the back of a giant turtle named Shen-zin Shu, enshrouded in mist and completely isolated from the greater world. Exploring the island is like seeing a storybook come to life, providing an introspective look at the life of a pandaren, but without missing the pinnings of any good story, such as interesting characters, conflict, tragedy. The story closes with a decision: what faction to join, based off of legitimate differences in ideals as opposed to the base choice of which side has the race you want to play. Each pandaren leaves the Wandering Isle on a mission to explore the greater world, and to heal it.
In an odd sort of self-realized irony, the pandarens' arrival in Alliance or Horde territory is a harsh dose of reality. The two factions are at war, and complacency or cowardice earns a grand punishment. It's a world apart from the Wandering Isle and the pandarens' adventure is only beginning. That is to say, there are now 80 levels of grinding "kill 10 rat" style quests ahead, which is the true reality for players in it for the long haul. After leaving the the starting area, there's no further coherent storyline beyond what each individual quest or zone provides. The post-10 grind is a subject best suited for a different review, but I wanted to highlight the contrast of the starting area versus the content beyond.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Mists of Pandaria's new starting area was just how visually appealing I found it. Naturally, I had tuned my settings to the highest grade in order to get the best experience, but I never expected what I found from a near eight-year-old game. The landscape is lush, the trees and buildings are tall and, while it certainly doesn't stand comparison to more modern MMOs like Guild Wars 2 or Tera, it definitely isn't hard on the eyes. Although textures are a bit rough on the edges, everything is rather clean and complementary to World of Warcraft's overall cartoonish aesthetic. Granted, I wasn't staggered by the graphics of the Wandering Isle, but I found the experience refreshing and entirely inoffensive. That's in stark contrast what I expected, which was, well, an aging game passing by on obsolete and outdated graphics. I found the pandaren world delightful, instead.
Where art-style is timeless and graphics transient and updatable, hard-coded design is concrete and inelastic. Such is the nature of World of Warcraft's quest and leveling system. World of Warcraft's launch was a special moment in MMO history. After all, the game revolutionized how quests were performed with tracking, exclamation points and plenty of rewards. Best of all, there were thousands of them. Nowadays, however, the World of Warcraft-derived term "Kill Ten Rats" is nomenclature and generally used as an insult. Mists of Pandaria's starting area does little to improve upon the formula the MMO has used and abused for so many years. Certainly, there are a greater variety of "Kill Ten Rats," such as balancing on a series of bamboo poles and defeating ten apprentice monks. Enough said, right?
To help break the tedium of questing, Blizzard mixes in it its "phasing" technology. Practically everywhere, in fact. What I recall as an interesting addition during the Cataclysm starting areas has turned rather gimmicky, and unfortunately, buggy in Mists of Pandaria. One quest line is based on rounding up four elemental buddies, and as they're collected they add a new animations to this central statue on the Wandering Isle. For example, after acquiring the water elemental it begins to rain on the statue. After I brought the second elemental back, however, all four elements were present around the statue, and remained that way. To be fair, there were some special moments, like when two NPC children begin to follow your character, asking about the elementals, or when when NPCs begin complicated scenes with many animations -- essentially creating an in-engine cut-scene. Still, it's more impressive as an idea with plenty of potential, as opposed to in practice where World of Warcraft really shows how little it can manage with such an interesting concept.
All in all, the Mists of Pandaria starting area, the Wandering Isle, is a perfunctory and enjoyable experience. The two times that I ran through it were both charming and fulfilling. There were emotionally poignant moments, though nothing overly distressing, and characters I wished to interact with further on in the game, which I'm unsure whether Blizzard can commit to. The journey, while tepid, was quite beautiful and wondrous, a solid introduction for new players to World of Warcraft.
I'm not afraid to admit, however, that I was expecting more. Considering that Mists of Pandaria is the fourth expansion for World of Warcraft, a follow-up to Illidan, Arthas and Deathwing, and with pandarens being perhaps the final race added into the game, I expected something special. Keeping things in perspective, this is just the starting area of Mists, and it's meant to be a parallel experience to what's offered in other parts of the world. Spending additional development time on pandarens alone wouldn't be fair, when Pandaria itself could use that attention and share its content among all races. While I may pine for more, the scope and scale of the Wandering Isle is within reason.
Mists of Pandaria's 1-10 is another great example of Blizzard's ability to continue to craft interesting, involved settings, streamlined and fine tuned for an easily digestible introduction to World of Warcraft. While a well-versed MMO player like myself may be underwhelmed, new or casual gamers will likely find the Wandering Isle captivating. If anything, it's a land players can recall fondly once they reach level 90 and nostalgically look back at their humble beginnings.
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