The Mists of Pandaria beta has been live since the end of March, and I’ve had the chance to sit down with the game for a good amount of time. This preview will mainly focus on the 1-10 leveling experience for the Pandaren. It is important to note, however, that Mists is in its initial beta stages and is rather rough around the edges, which is normal for a beta, and this preview will contain some spoilers from the new areas.
Character creation for the Pandaren is the same as all of the other races with one small caveat: they can either be horde or alliance. The choice between factions is not made on the character selection screen, so the icon for the Pandaren sits nestled between the two factions. The most popular class choice for the Pandaren in the beta is, of course, the new monk class.
Pandaria and the New Race
The Pandaren start in the Shang Xi Training Grounds, surrounded by pandas kung-fu’ing punching bags like it’s going out of style. The entire area is surprisingly peaceful, but the Pandaren in the area are training for some unknown conflict, which rather confuses the tone of the area. The soundtrack exacerbates this thematic confusion a bit, with the main theme for the area being a dulcet string section playing in harmony with tribal drums, and soothing siren vocals in the foreground. The music in Mists, as per the usual Blizzard standard, is stellar. I actually notice and enjoy it, which can be rare for me.
Blizzard has drawn on a lot of real-world aesthetics for the motif of Pandaria with an almost humorous result. Everything in the new areas screams “generic Asian”, including gibberish-panda-language scrolls hanging off of buildings, ceremonial ropes dangling from trees, burnt-red clay roof tiles topping Chinese-styled architecture, bonsai trees, Buddhist-style temples, and more. The pandas themselves, even when not monks (as an example, a warrior), take on a tai-chi stance for their attack animations. The male panda’s sitting animation has him plopping down onto the ground and meditating with his eyes closed.
The starting quests only feel truly appropriate for the new monk class, where the player is tasked with retrieving starting weapons and wailing on punching bags with whatever attack they have. It’s off-putting to see a Pandaren priest performing these quests with a starting staff, smiting away at enemies. Being a beta, particularly a beta with a very large population, it can often be incredibly frustrating to finish a quest with so many other players around. It isn’t uncommon to see a large group of players huddling around a scroll that they need to all click on, furiously jumping up and down in an attempt to block others from clicking it so they can resume the questline. I would assume that Blizzard will fix these issues by release, as they usually do. At least there are no poop collection quests (so far), so that’s a bonus.
Other quests include retrieving durable items from the game world to bring back to a combat master, who will show you that he can break them with his bare hands; waking up the elemental spirits of the island; retrieving stolen scroll brushes from wizened “Confucius-say” monkeys, and dismounting other NPC Pandaren in combat from poles in a bamboo reed pond. The only way Blizzard could have shoved in more borderline-offensive “Asian” clichés would be to have a urinal in a Pandaren home shaped like a Coke can. A single innocuous comment or question in general chat quickly becomes a stunningly-racist diatribe that would last for far too long, offensive to the point where I felt the need to leave chat altogether. While this isn’t necessarily the fault of Blizzard, general chat rooms can be pretty nasty places. The profusion of racial stereotypes in the playing area simply gives a theme to the general flaming and argumentation, which in turn becomes racially motivated at the turn of a dime. It’s extremely unlikely that Blizzard designed Pandaria with this effect in mind, but it’s an observable behavior nonetheless.
Despite these issues, the visuals in the beta are quite striking. I spent a good deal of time simply looking around the new zones, exploring, which is something I haven’t done in World of WarCraft for a good while. The art style is considerably more “cartoony” than past entries in the series, and while some would argue that this is simply the WarCraft style, which has been decidedly cartoony since WarCraft: Orcs and Humans, Mists delivers something entirely beyond what Blizzard has previously done. While it is cartoony, it is also incredibly cute, which is where the difference lies between Mists and preceding expansions. The Pandaren are overly-animated to a degree where they (the male in particular) look fairly ridiculous in motion, particularly when compared to other races in the game. This is going to be a strike against the new expansion for a lot of hardcore fans, particularly when the Pandaren get to a darker area like many found in Wrath of the Lich King, and they stick out like a sore thematic thumb. This will also likely draw in more players with a new aesthetic and source of appeal, though. Mists is much more child-friendly than previous expansions in terms of narrative tone and gameplay simplification, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, it may be off-putting to some of the long-time players.
Previously, the Pandaren mostly had to contend with Hozen monkeys as their bane, who have one of the most obnoxious attacks in the game: they jump on your head and you have to wait until they’re done wailing on you to reciprocate. This was the main problems that the Pandaren faced before the horde and alliance crashed upon Pandaria’s shores. The quest line in the introductory zone focuses mainly on waking up the elemental deities (yes, again with the elemental deities) on the island because there is a problem. Tremors become more frequent as you get farther into the zone. The storyline, after an ambiguous turning point that wasn’t presented well, begins to focus on helping out horde and alliance ambassadors on the island. They crashed their ships into the island, which made a big problem for the Pandaren because their island is actually a gigantic turtle, and it has a “thorn in its side” which was caused by the conflict between the horde and the alliance.
The player will do a quest for both factions, and then before leaving the island, they are offered their choice between factions.
An alliance Pandaren will end up in Stormwind, while a horde Pandaren will wind up in Orgrimmar. Oddly enough, the most gripping moment in the Pandaren quest line isn’t in the Pandaren starting zone at all: it is when the player selects a faction and speaks to either Varian Wrynn or Garrosh Hellscream. Hellscream in particular creates a surprisingly stark and tense scene, where he informs you that any alliance Pandaren is now your enemy, and you belong to the violent military machine of the horde.
Overall, the narrative lacks the punch and appeal that the Cataclysm races’ starting zones had. The Goblins had a lot of personality, and their aesthetic was fully realized in the zone and accompanying quests. The Goblin quests in Kezan were varied and engaging. The Worgen, who had a very Victorian, almost steampunk atmosphere in Gilneas, offered introductions to the main characters in the expansion amidst a very large-scale battle that truly felt as if it had game-world consequences. The Pandaren quests, conversely, are mostly conventional fetch or kill quests, and the main Pandaren NPCs that you are introduced to are rather flat and one-dimensional.
The Pandaren starting zone, while very pretty and with a superb musical score, is also rather bland due to the lack of variety of quests and the tutorial-style setup. While the other starting zones were also basically tutorials, they were much more interesting to me than that what I found in Pandaria. Again, though, this expansion is still in early beta and Blizzard has plenty of time for improvement, as they haven’t even announced a release date.
New Class: The Monk
The new class, the monk, plays similarly to a rogue at low levels. Monks have energy, like a rogue, and they can also accumulate Chi, their secondary resource, which is similar to combo points that don’t decay or get wasted. Attacks or abilities that don’t use energy will require at least one Chi, and many abilities that use energy generate a Chi. The dual resource system already works pretty well, with a potential for balanced resource juggling, although the cost of a lot of the abilities could use some tweaking, which is expected for a beta. A Pandaren monk will attack with graphical flourishes, spinning, punching and kicking, but some of the other races don’t fare as well. The gnome in particular makes for a very lackluster monk, because the attack animations are hardly noticeable, although that drawback may be nullified by the fact that you can play a three-foot-tall monk to begin with.
The class opens up a bit when you reach level ten and can select a specialization. You can choose between a Brewmaster (tank), Mistweaver (healer), or Windwalker (dps). Each spec felt distinct and unique, similar to a druid. The skill rotations are kind of clumsy and awkward at the moment, but the class is still fresh off of Blizzard’s development line. I attempted to level a gnome monk to 30 but I quickly lost interest. I chose a gnome because I haven’t played an alliance character since Burning Crusade, and haven’t experienced the changes to the zones from Cataclysm, so I was setting myself up for a completely fresh experience. I still found it very dull to go through the zones, and the appeal of a new class wasn’t quite enough to keep me going.
Part of this boredom was brought on by the fact that I’ve been playing WoW since release, and a single game can only remain exciting for so long. The other part of my boredom is due to the new skill and talent system. Many skills have been removed or replaced for each class, and there are no more talent points. The effect of this on the player is that you’ll go for many levels without receiving anything other than a golden splash around your character when you level, and this isn’t at all rewarding or exciting, even though many of the changes to classes are great, cutting out overlapping spells and abilities while adding new ones. However, while the previous talent system was rather flawed, it at least rewarded character progression. Hopefully Blizzard will find a way to even that out by the time the expansion is released.
Overall, the new starting content feels very complete, although slightly empty of interest. There are a few cutscenes that aren’t included yet in the beta, possibly some quests and dialogue, so it will be interesting to see how Blizzard polishes it up, and to see if the Pandaren starting area can compete with that of the Worgen or Goblin. Also, an important aspect for Mists that is not yet available for testing is the pet battle system, which shows promise for entertainment. The beta is pretty young, after all. The Pandaren do have an advantage that the other races don’t have: they live on an island with a turtle head sticking out, and the potential for jokes alone are worth the price of admission.