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PREVIEW

WORLD OF WARCRAFT: MISTS OF PANDARIA

World of Warcraft: Kung Fu Panda.

That's one of rougher ways to summarize the response to last year's revelation of Mists of Pandaria, the upcoming expansion to Blizzard's mammoth MMO. 

It tasted a little too much of running out of ideas, of not really knowing what direction the game should now take. Just the fact that the Pandaren race was originally introduced as part of an April Fools in the Warcraft III days, made our foreheads wrinkle.

And it's this panda-skepticism is also the first thing developers address when we arrive in the presentation room at Blizzard's large campus. 

"There was that initial reaction of pandas, 'ah, they're pretty silly, it's an April Fools joke', why this, why now?" says Chris Metzen, Vice- President of everything related to the universes and story lines of Blizzards games. 

"The pandas came about while we were developing Warcraft III. Our art director at the time, Sam Didier, loves pandas and loved to paint them as these graceful warriors," he explains. "He had done a series of these drawings, and most of us on the dev team thought it was a bitching idea, we loved it. And as April Fools that year rolled around, we decided to post them for fun. But we loved these characters. And we figured that maybe one day we could actually get to plug these characters in the game. "

World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria
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Among others, they were being readied as the new Alliance race for The Burning Crusade expansion, says Metzen, but for various reasons
didn't make the cut in time.

"I say that only in communicating to you guys that this is a race we've loved for many years and is in no way a throwaway idea. As far as I and the team are concerned, it's one of the richest, funnest races we've ever developed.

"Pandaren are a little more lighthearted than the average Warcraft race, but they have a great deal of soul, and they stand as the perfect contrast race what is occurring in the world."

Azeroth is in turmoil, you see. The starting gun sounded in Cataclysm, but the conflict between the Horde and Alliance reaches new heights in the Mists of Pandaria, and the Pandaren are caught in the middle of the conflict.

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Unlike previous expansions, there is no single enemy á la Deathwing, Lich King and Illidan at the center of the story. Instead it is the war between Horde and Alliance.

The continent of Pandaria has been hidden for thousands of years behind a thick fog and only now stands revealed - soon enough expeditions from both the Horde and Alliance arrive on the island. 

Both quickly ally themselves with some of the local races: the Alliance with the fish men Jinyu and the Horde with monkey-like Hozen. A sort of proxy war quickly develops, and the armed conflict arouses the Sha-energy back to life. Sha is a dark force that thrives on fear, violence, hatred and despair, which can manifest itself as physical beings. The arrival of conflict threatens the very existence of Pandaria, and it is this threat that the player must fight in the Mists of Pandaria. At least at first.

World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria

"We are doing something a little different with our patches this time," explains Metzen. In both the base game and previous expansions, the final showdown and the end of the stories were added in later content patches, but this will be different.

"Mists of Pandaria is the reveal of this new land. Small teams of Horde and Alliance essentially land on this island and adventure around at the highest level of the game. We're gonna get to see these ancient cultures like the Pandaren and others that have been there forever.

"But we're solving problems, we're having an adventure, we're solving the mystery of this place, of why has this place opened up now. That we unlock the mysteries of Pandaria. Solve why it has surfaced now. And by the end of the boxed product, we've kinda resolved this big adventure, we've kinda helped people with their problems, we have learned a little bit about ourselves. It's been just kind of a high-octane adventure. And there begins 'the wild chapter'", says Metzen.

The content patches will function as a completely new story. Just as you have saved Pandaria from its internal problems, the place becomes the new battleground for the war between the Alliance and Horde. 

"We are really excited about the patches. As they roll out, it's gonna feel like that classic Red versus Blue Warcraft conflict really comes center stage," Metzen says. Story wise there will be a lot of political developments within the two factions, and the conflict becomes more intense. And were Pandaria will not initially have a super villain as Deathwing or the Lich King, one will slowly emerge through the story.

World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria

"Remember how Thrall took a vacation, and Garrosh kind of stepped in as Warchief?  At the time when we made that fictional call, people were incensed," Metzen recounts. 

"They didn't want Thrall to go away, they did not know who this asshole Garrosh was. They weren't real happy about it, at least in terms of Horde, and I can't imagine Alliance were real thrilled about it either. 

"So the last number of years of Warcraft fiction, as Cataclysm rolled out, Garrosh has come center stage and seen to be a great conqueror, kind of an old school warchief. And as the events in Mists of Pandaria reach a higher state of violence, Garrosh is going to make a number of calls that are highly questionable. And it's going to create some rifts within the Horde". 

So just as we ended up fighting the Lich King in Wrath, and ended up fighting Deathwing in Cataclysm, the last patch of Pandaria will bring the final showdown with Garrosh. Both Horde and Alliance will each besiege Orgrimmar to put an end to Garrosh's reign as warchief. Wow.

"The fiction of the Horde and the fiction of this cross-factional conflict will kick into fourth gear, and we're getting into story territory that I think is as vital and fun and just Warcraft through and through than anything we've had in many years," Metzen says with excitement.

But that is in a more distant future, and before that we have to save Pandaria. And what exactly is that place? Since the announcement at last year's BlizzCon, Pandaria has grown from five to seven zones, and content wise Mists looks to become the most densely packed expansion for World of Warcraft so far.

World of Warcraft: Mists of PandariaWorld of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria

Visually and geographically, there is obviously inspiration from classical Chinese architecture, and some areas are like something straight out of a wuxia movie. But there is also a broader Asian influence, and we see among others the characteristic pink flowers of cherry trees, and mountain landscapes resembling the Himalayas - Pandaria offers also the highest mountain ever in World of Warcraft, and yes, you can climb it all the way to the top.

The zone Valley of the Four Winds is home to the Pandaren race. Here you will find large fields in the landscape and a so-called farmers market where you can help individual farmers and earn rep with them in order to get discounts and other benefits. 

As something new, you can also cultivate your own own farm, where you will be able to plant ingredients for cooking and herbalising. As lead designer Tom Chilton says later, one of the goals of Mists of Pandaria is to remove much of the grind feeling from grinding.

We see the central zone, Vale of Eternal Blossoms, the home of a mysterious force and under constant siege by the Mogu, the previous rulers of Pandaria. It will act as the central city of the expansion, and be defended against daily attacks.

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World of Warcraft: Mists of PandariaWorld of Warcraft: Mists of PandariaWorld of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria

Although some parts of the environment aren't entirely finished yet, Pandaria looks fantastic. Both the exotic architecture and natural beauty captivates, and it's mildly amazing how Blizzard's graphic artists can continue to get such beautiful things out of the aging engine.

Three new raids and nine new dungeons are lined up, and we get to see two of the latter. 

The first is Stormstout Brewery, a large brewery that in the usual WoW-style has been overrun by various scum. The first floor is filled with beer-chugging Hozen ("because drunken monkeys are awesome"), who are initially too plastered and dizzy to notice the players, but are roused after receiving a stack of beer kegs in the head. The next section is overrun by the so-called Virmen, the most evil rabbits seen outside of Monty Python, and who of course multiply in droves, and in the last part the beer has come to life in the form of Elementals and the final boss, Yan Zhu tea Uncasked, has an ability that makes hazardous beer spray out of the players ears and harm his comrades if they get hit.

The second dungeon we see is the classic Scholomance. Like the Dead Mines and Shadow Fang Keep it was in Cataclysm, this dungeon has beed retuned and redesigned to be far more entertaining and fun. "We've pushed Scholomance up to 11," explains lead encounter designer Scott Mercer.

World of Warcraft: Mists of PandariaWorld of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria

There's another big addition, regarding dungeons, namely Challenge mode. All the dungeons in the Mists of Pandaria can be played as timed runs, which is awarded bronze, silver and gold medals depending on how quickly you get through. Blizzard calls it "the first form of sanctioned competitive PvE in the game" and there will obviously be leaderboards and rewards involved. 

Win silver medals in all the dungeons and you get access to special sets of armor, which admittedly do not have any stats, but can be used for transmogrification - the new feature where you can keep an item's stats, but change its appearance that of another item in your possession. That way you can for example be wearing the latest raid gear, but look like wearing the same delicious Tier 5-set from the good old days. If you are fierce and score gold in all the dungeons, you get access to an exclusive flying mount

It is an idea inspired by the popular Baron Run from Stratholme runs and bear runs from Zul'Aman, and are both intended to expand the replay value and encourage players to play with the same people instead of just using the LFG tool (and thus escape some of the headache associated with random groups).

Another novelty is the so-called Scenarios. They are a new type of group activities, currently up to three players (although the limit can potentially be raised) to be a little reminiscent of group-quests from the base game and previous expansions. 

Therefore, they typically take place outdoors, but are instanced (so you will not get bothered by others). Unlike dungeons, there's no need for the usual tank-healer-dps mechanics, and instead you can put together your group exactly as you want. We see an example of a scenario where you have to protect a small brewery from attack, and simultaneously extinguishing fire in the brewing equipment before you move forward and smash some monsters. Each scenario is designed to last 10-15 minutes and, as with virtually all other social activity in the game, awards the valor points that can be used on equipment.

World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria

We see two new Battlegrounds, one where you are fighting over an artifact that gives the team a buff that increases both the damage done and taken, and another that takes place indoors in a large mine, where the two teams have to push their own minecart to a goal, with the ability to send his opponent on detours, in the style of Team Fortress 2.

A less serious-looking addition are the new pet battles that are meant to be pure pastime. It takes place in turn-based game similar to Pokemon or classic Final Fantasy (for the demo video, Blizzard has even borrowed battle music from the old FF games), where three pets on each side fight against each other. As they level up, they get access to new abilities, up to six apiece, and depending on their properties some matchups are better than others - water-based pets, for example, are vulnerable to fire.

It's all very casual, and if you choose to find opponents through the matchmaking system, you wont even see their names, so there is no to gloat or dissing in private messages after a battle. Unlike so many other things you can do in World of Warcraft, pet battles are their own little isolated system where you can not earn points for raid gear or similar.

World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria

If anything this seems like the most superflous part of the extension, and will probably be ignored by the hardcore raiders. According to the developers, it is one of the most demanding additions they have made to the game, since the systems of a turn-based creature game is completely different than a real-time MMO. But if you're the type who once had half your bank filled with pets, it should be enough joy.

And then there's the new race, Pandaren, and the new class, Monk. But before we get to it, we just look at the new talent system, which is possibly the most controversial change in the Mists of Pandaria. 

The old talent trees have been scrapped in favor of a new system where you choose between one of three new skills at every 15th level. Tom Chistol explains that the skill system was originally introduced in order to let players customize their character. But as the game and the trees grew, it became increasingly clear that there was one optimal build for each class, while also being a huge headache to balance.

With the new system, it is hoped that one's skill-selection will have a real significance, and that there won't be one "correct" build for the different roles. I gave it a quick test with both a Warlock and a Monk, and my initial impression is that Blizzard have seemingly achieved their goals. Almost all the skills seem useful, so you have to make real choices, and it's easy and simple to respec, and you can even change the skill-selections individually.

World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria

Plunging into a brand new class at level 85 is a bit of a mouthful, and when I sit down to play Mists of Pandaria by myself, I spend a notable amount of time just to select specialization, skills, read what the different abilities actually do and put action bars and shortcuts up. After about an hour, however, I've got the hang of the class features.

The Monk mechanics are reminiscent of the Rogue, in that certain attacks will earn so-called Chi-points, while others spend them. But unlike the Rogues' more locked rotation of abilities, the Monk feels more free. There are capabilities directed at individual enemies, and others in groups - a leg sweep that stuns all opponents in front of you, quickly becomes a favorite. 

The balance is not fully in place, so some attacks seem a bit overpowered, but the Monk feels like a quick, mobile, and above all fun melee-class with enough on offer to find his own little niche - and I haven't even had time to try its tank or healer specializations.

There's a dive roll here, and a flying kick which acts as a mixture of a charge and an AoE attack, and with the Touch of Death can kill any PvE opponent who has less life than yourself (of course with a long cooldown). So-called combo breakers are activated randomly and allow the use certain of skills without paying Chi or with extra damage. Overall it feels a little bit of Street Fighter-style - to the extent that an MMO that isn't focused on hit detection, and has to work with nearly half a second of lag.

World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria

I was pretty underwhelmed when Blizzard unveiled Mists of Pandaria last year. I no longer am. Based on the insane amount of brand new content and new initiatives that are here alone, it seems like the most densely packed expansion World of Warcraft has ever seen. More classic Horde vs Alliance conflict, ideas to kick new life into the dungeons, more group activities, a much-needed renovation of the skill system, more to do for the solo player, and less grind towards the end game.

Although the thought of leveling another new character all the way from 1 to 90 seems like a mouthful, Pandaria looks like yet a sure winner. It's not just a trip to a resort island where the game will spend its retirement. Almost the opposite - despite its age, World of Warcraft seem to still be in great shape.

World of Warcraft: Mists of PandariaWorld of Warcraft: Mists of PandariaWorld of Warcraft: Mists of PandariaWorld of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria
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