Pandaria: Better Than You Think

If you’re not playing, it’s better than you think. If you’re in, then you may be a Pandaren proponent already.

I know I wasn’t a fan, not initially. Your standard Kung-Fu Panda comparisons aside, I didn’t have much hope for Blizzard’s latest expansion pack. Cataclysm was a major let-down for me. I believed their development processes manifested there were becoming SOP, and Pandaria, while glitzy, was going to be another half-assed expansion beneath the surface.

I was happy to be proven wrong. Pandaria is a fantastic return-to-form for Blizzard, harkening back to the days of Wrath of the Lich King (it feels like ages ago) in terms of cohesiveness, story-telling, and polish. I’m also pleasantly surprised by the sheer amount of content, much of it end-game, that should keep most players busy for months on end.

However, Pandaria isn’t all wine and roses. Let’s look at some of the good and the bad, yes?

When It’s Good, It’s So Good

Mists of Pandaria comes flying out of the gate with an explosive introductory sequence, dropping you into the Jade Forest amidst an Alliance/Horde attack. Now, my gameplay experience comes from the Horde side, so I can’t speak for our Blue-banner adversaries, but I trust that Blizzard has made their foray into Pandaria just as interesting.

So, yes, you’re hit with a smattering of cinematics, many in-game, and the scene is set. These sequences move quickly enough that you do not feel torn from the action (*cough* Uldum *cough*) and help advance the story. Plus, we’re treated to a wealth of custom voice-overs to make the entire thing feel more… cinematic. Imagine that. This thread continues as you play through the starting area, fighting your way up to the Alliance expedition leader, and uncovering more of Pandaria’s secrets. I won’t spoil too heavily here. All I will say is that hearing NPC dialogue spoken by voice-actors, and having the performances and writing be more than half-way decent, made the game feel like Blizzard is giving a damn. This all helps draw you in. I like that.

The music of Pandaria is a stunning smorgasbord of cues taken from martial-arts epics and adventure serials. Some of these pieces are hauntingly beautiful, some get your blood pumping… all show an attention to detail and a much needed breath of life. Wrath’s music had this impact on me. Cataclysm’s was 99% forgettable. Pandaria is back on the attack.

The quests continue in Cataclysm’s vein, displaying new mechanics or twists on old favorites (vehicles, bombing runs, etc.). I enjoyed seeing how a simple “collect 10 of X” quest could be spruced up, becoming “collect 10 of X after you’ve gone dynamite-fishing” or “find 4 pieces of this broken statue and sketch the original depiction.” Nothing world-shattering, but the presentation is more enjoyable than your straight-up Collection or Fed-Ex quest. The “NPC Possession” quests were also a new spin on storytelling and questing, combined.

The environment itself is astoundingly beautiful, and well put-together. Zone transitions feel somewhat more natural than they have in the past. Pandaria brings back the TBC or Wrath feeling of a “separate continent.” We again see indigenous peoples, sub-cultures like the Hozen, Saurok, and Mogu, and what’s more, they’re actually worked into the lore. In Pandaria, these people and places feel like they have a reason for being there… they’re not simply window-dressing, ala Wrath’s Tuskarr.

When It’s Bad, It’s WTH!

Pandaria isn’t all plusses, however.

Not everyone loves the “farming” mini-game that plays heavily into end-game raiding (food buffs) — comparisons to Farmville are legion. Some folks are in love with Pet Battles, but others find the system to be blatant pandering (*snrk*) to a younger crowd of gamers and a sharp diversion from Warcraft’s overall theme of adventure and warfare. Additionally, complaints surround the again-revamped talent system… though much of this is finally quieting down. I also hear rumblings that Heroics are again “too easy” — that is a matter of perspective, and there are “Challenge Modes” available for those who really wish to push the envelope.

There are also many, many factions one can curry favor with — you end up with option anxiety at max-level, wondering where precisely you should start. That’s the downside. The upside of this is that you pretty much can’t go wrong with your choice (all factions provide you some benefit), and you can do an unlimited amount of dailies per day, so you needn’t feel “locked in” to a chosen faction on any given day. Also, sadly, reputation tabards are gone. To raise that faction rep, you have to do dailies. Turn-ins. Errands. There’s no way to easily combine your dungeon-running with faction-grinding.

Related, an initial hiccup was the reputation requirements on gear, purchasable by Justice points sold by certain Faction vendors. We players quickly realized that many of us would have grown out of this gear’s benefits before we could even purchase it, thanks to the stopgap provided by the reputation requirements. Shortly after launch, Blizzard removed these requirements to allow for a more natural progression path from these rep rewards to Heroic gear to Raid Finder. I’m not sure if it is perfect yet — I personally haven’t had any trouble getting into Heroic dungeons with my smattering of quest gear, crafted pieces, and items purchased with Justice points, but an acquaintance of mine is having a harder time bringing up his item level to make Heroics accessible.

Also, they’re loading up our inventory with a variety of “toy” items. These are fun, usable items that may place an object in the environment or allow us to interact with a fellow player in some unusual, possibly hilarious, way — all well and good, until you realize these are eating up inventory slots. That’s if you want to keep them, of course. Being a bit of a collector, I try to hold onto unique items as much as possible, so I’m feeling the pinch when it comes to inventory space. Larger bags are not readily available, either. Tabards also persist as individual inventory items — there’s no back-end system for selecting these, ala our Titles.

One last nibbling complaint of mine is that much of the “copy” — the quest text, the written dialogue — seems to be mired in a First Draft stage. There are elementary spelling and grammatical errors. Capitalization, punctuation… simple mistakes that should have been caught by an editor or proofreader. I’m no English Professor, not by any means, and I’m certain there are a number of errors in this Blog article alone, but I am also not creating a triple-A gaming title. My work is also not being alpha and beta tested for months before release, by thousands upon thousands of people. Blizzard has internal and external testers, reviewers — these minor, but glaring, errors should have been caught and corrected a long time ago.

And, this is one that could be as much a boon as it is a bruise: Patch 5.1 is already on the Patch Test Realm. We’re going to see a new patch with more content in a matter of a few months! Now, granted, we may not see a 5-man dungeon or a raid, but we will see a continuation of the story and more daily quests, possibly scenarios, and other events that will take your time away from whatever else you’re already doing in the game. More “option anxiety” if you will. “Do I continue building my rep with the Golden Lotus or do I start working on these 5.1 dailies?!”

In the end, having a glut of content is not a bad thing. More things for more people. However, if you’re a completionist, you’re going to feel overwhelmed!

In Conclusion

Compared to the many accolades I can heap onto Mists of Pandaria, my gripes are few. The storytelling surrounding the Mogu, Sha, Yuangol, Mantid, and the Horde and Alliance conflict is truly compelling stuff, and I’m thirsty for more.

My concern comes in wondering how they will top this. I thought it would be hard to improve upon Wrath’s Northrend campaign, and sure enough, Cataclysm was a disappointment. Luckily, Blizzard pulled out the hidden content of Pandaria to show they still had the magic… but what’s next? We’re quickly running out of mist-shrouded, unknown lands to explore. Kul Tiras can’t possibly have as much diversity and depth as the fantastic environs of Pandaria, can it? Where else can we go?

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