Click here to check out our interview with Mists of Pandaria game director, Tom Chilton
Out at a special hands-on event at Blizzard HQ in Irvine, California, yours truly took the newly added Monk class and Pandaren race for a spin in World of Warcraft’s forthcoming expansion, Mists of Pandaria. Starting from the very beginning, I worked my way up to level 11 before the game gave out on me (and my time with it was over), leaving me both wanting more and very satisfied at the introductory experience the team have crafted here, despite it being what many people still see as a bit of a joke.
Honestly though, this is easily the most mature I’ve seen Blizzard’s game-design, from an introductory level in the MMO space, since they blew this whole thing up. They’re keeping things as Blizzard as possible, and this means no fancy talking or CG cut-scenes or the like, it’s just you, your chosen class and sex, a whole new continent and a heck of a lot of gameplay variety for a game that popularised terms like “farming” and “grinding”.
My Monk, named Lanik (after my son), stood amidst a class of students training in the ancient martial arts ways of the Pandaren. Atop a set of stone stairs on the beautifully crafted set-piece stood one Master Shang Xi, sporting the famous “?” above his head indicating an interactive NPC, and someone who could not only give me some direction, but also a quest, or two. It turns out I needed to prove to him that I was ready to train in the ways of the Monk by... donning gloves!
Okay, so there are some arbitrary moments of questing throughout the start-game experience with Mists of Pandaria, but for the most part, the team have done a bang-up job keeping it as diverse as possible. The start-zone is on the back of a giant, ancient turtle named Shen-zin Su who has suddenly fallen ill. No one knows why, but it’s causing the ground to shake and the Panderan have never faced any turmoil like this. At least not in thousands of years.
By donning those gloves though, it appears I’m somewhat special, and Master Shang Xi tasks me with meeting up with two other Pandaren: the hot-headed Ji Firepaw, and the meditative and collected Aysa - both described by Xi as a yin and yang, and therefore paramount to my quest to find out what’s troubling their living island.
The only way to do this though, is to awaken, befriend and play with four elemental spirits scattered about the start zone, and each is set against a unique backdrop replete with its own taste and flair. The water spirit, for example, is sulking in the Singing Pools, a collection of ponds where certain animals drowned and whose spirits have remained in some magical capacity so that entering them will instantly turn you into that animal.
This was actually the first eye-opening moment to the game for me, as I’d been asked to collect a number of reeds from one of the pools. This sounded simple enough, and being the head-long fool that I am, I leapt into the pool without learning anymore, and was immediately transformed into a frog. Cool. As a frog you can move through the water more quickly and, honestly, who wouldn’t love to be transformed into a frog just for a minute or two? Well, anyone transformed in this pool it would seem, as it was also being stalked by a number of hungry white feather cranes hunting for just such a tasty treat as yourself. It didn’t have a huge bearing on gameplay, but again from a variety perspective, and equally an idea to “sell” you on the mystical world of the Pandaren, it just worked.
So, by and large waking these elemental spirits became a collectathon task, but surprisingly the grinding had been peeled right back to only a handful of “please kill X number of these critters for turning over my cart and you will get Y”, which was very refreshing. There was also a lot of on-the-fly narrative being flung at me peripherally on each quest. Pandaria is easily the richest game-world the WoW team have ever crafted, and the art team ought to be applauded for the sheer scope, attention to detail and relative flair they’ve delivered.
From a combat perspective, I obviously didn’t have the most decked out monk, having started the game from level 1, but even this early in the game it’s easy to see what the team want to create with the new class. The cool down on most of his melee moves was really quick, so in essence when stacking attacks and abilities, I felt like I was actually stringing together a combo for a close-range martial arts character. The addition of Street Fighter-esque moves then made perfect sense, and when I finally unlocked the Fists of Fury attack, which emulates Neo from The Matrix when he pummels Agent Smith, was plain awesome.
There’s just something undeniably cool about getting all up in someone’s grill, as a martial arts-bearing panda.
Perfectly timed, Master Shang Xi and I ended up in an ancient forest where one final piece of the puzzle had to be fulfilled before I could continue my investigation into Shen-zin Su fate. For spoiler reasons, I won’t fill you in on the specifics, but I dinged 10 almost spot-on at that moment, and it felt like an incredibly well-paced piece of progression. To be fair, I never once ran off the beaten path to grind my level higher by my own means, so following the game’s start-zone structure means the team have done an incredible job of making sure you get to this point and feel a sense of achievement.
This was equally rewarded with a hot-air balloon ride off Shen-zin Su so that we could actually go to his head and ask him directly what the problem was, which it turns out is a pain he’s never felt before and one that has crippled him. This entire sequence was all in-game, story-driven, and epic in scope and feel. Just flying around the head of an immensely giant turtle whose back you’ve been living upon as part of an ancient, undiscovered race sold me on the game and its direction. Say what you will about fluffy, furry pandas, my experience with the game’s start-zone was among the most compelling in the MMO space I’ve encountered.
Getting around to Shen-zin Su’s other side in the balloon, you eventually fly over a horde ship that has run aground, which means it’s actually cut into the side of the giant turtle, and literally into his flesh. This then sparks a series of quests where you’ll meet both horde and alliance and be prompted to make a binding decision as to which side to align yourself with, but rest assured, no matter which you choose, war is coming and it’s coming to the shores of Pandaria.
So for those who’ve been out of the picture for a while, or for anyone who saw this as any kind of joke, the Pandaren are here to stay, but so far they seem to be awesome company. I loved my entire one-to-ten experience, and will likely get into the new expansion solely as a result of such a measured starting experience. We’ll have even more on this expansion throughout the week, as there’s a lot to digest, dissect and relay, but know that Blizzard are very serious about theirs, and your, foray into the world of Pandaria.