Mists of Pandaria misses the mark with kung fu pandas, but nails dungeon design and experience

Mists of Pandaria misses the mark with kung fu pandas, but nails dungeon design and experience

Mists of Pandaria

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2012 is the year of the blockbuster MMO: TERA, The Secret World, Guild Wars 2, and an impending re-launch of Final Fantasy XIV add up to an extremely competitive market and a lot of quality content. Factor in The Old Republic, which released at the tail end of 2011, and the market is practically choking on triple-A MMO titles. So what hope does Mists of Pandaria, the latest expansion to an eight-year old game, have? A good amount, actually, but that’s due to the already invested World of Warcraft player base.

Mists of Pandaria makes do with a nearly decade-old graphics engine and aging mechanics, but the game is starting to feel stale. Blizzard may have the largest amount of players compared to other MMOs on the market, but they’re playing catch-up and it shows. Mists of Pandaria has neither the form nor function of its contemporary competitors, so playing feels like a step back in time. This isn’t an expansion for people who like MMOs and it won’t inspire a mass return of players. This is an expansion for people who are already happy with WoW.

It would be impossible to discuss Mists of Pandaria without addressing the pandaren. The pandaren have taken a lot of flak for looking like Kung Fu Panda rip-offs and, while you can defend their existence as a legitimate piece of lore that predates the Dreamworks films, it’s clear that the race has undergone some changes since their introduction to the world of Warcraft. Not all of these changes have been for the better.

Although they are anthropomorphic pandas and always have been, early sketches of the race depicted them as more muscular than chubby, and their samurai armor gave off an air of ferocity and strength. Now that the race has been made playable in Mists, they’ve been significantly de-fanged. Every pandaren has a belly, and they remark constantly how they love to eat, very similar to Po from the Kung Fu Panda franchise. They have not one, but two racial bonuses that apply to food: Gourmand, which gives a +15 to cooking, and Epicurean, which doubles stats from food buffs.

It’s very, very hard to take a pandaren seriously. To be fair, Blizzard seems to realize this and makes a little jab at the critics. Type out “/silly” as a female pandaren and she might deliver said jab: “So I was talking to this Tauren the other day. No, I mean a Worgen. No. Wait, which one’s a cow, and which one’s a dog? Ugh! All these talking animals are stupid!”

Monk-eying around with classes, talents, and combat

Although pandaren are the masters of Mists’ new Monk class, every race other than worgen and goblins can become a Monk. The Monk is neat in theory, but it’s in conflict with WoW‘s eight-year old combat system. It doesn’t feel right for a master of martial arts to be forced into standing still while performing a whirlwind kick, or performing a rapid-punch combo that looks like something out of Dragonball Z. The moves are cool and fun to watch, but you can’t help but wish it felt a bit more dynamic.

The Monk class gets something akin to a dodge, but it only goes forward, makes your character travel way too far, and since WoW demands you manually face your target, what this means is that you’ll often dodge forward, then have to quickly turn around to face the enemy again. It’s a minor annoyance but an annoyance all the same, and it’s not as easy or convenient as dodging is in other modern MMOs.

There are also mini-boss fights that allow groups of players to take down a single monster without grouping up or worrying about “tagging” a la Guild Wars 2, but these are few and far between. Their presence, like dodging for Monks, tries to shoehorn in new concepts to an old game, but they’re not a natural progression of the game’s mechanics. That all being said, a good amount of Monks I bumped into were veteran players who said they were loving the class. If you like how WoW plays, there’s nothing to dislike about the class. Mists just won’t be winning over anyone new when other games on the market feel less static.

If you choose to roll a Monk or any new character, you’ll encounter Mists’ revamped talent system. The new talent system asks you to select a tree, which is classified according to the MMO holy trinity of tank, heals, and DPS. When I leveled my pandaren Monk for example, I could choose to be a Brewmaster, a Mistweaver, or a Windwalker. Each path is described with nice flavor text that helps explain mechanics, but under the name you’ll also see a label that identifies the path as that of a tank, healer, or DPS class.

The redone talent tree handles character advancement automatically for the most part. Instead of manually spending points as before, you can choose one of three abilities from your spec every 15 levels. It’s a lot less intimidating than previous systems, but it takes the power of customization away from players, which makes you feel less in control.

Dungeons and dojos

Thankfully, despite my gripes with the aging system and feeling that the pandaren are a bit too cute and cuddly, Mists gets the one thing it needed to as an expansion right: Content for high-level players. Mists continues the use of phasing and cinematics that revitalized the game with Wrath of the Lich King, making it a more involved experience. Just entering the land of Pandaria is a treat.

My worgen sailed into the mists via airship, and right away I was bombing Horde warships and meeting my new, fluffy allies. There’s still the occasional “keel seex snow moose” style quest in Mists, but for the most part things are kept interesting. As my pandaren learned the ways of the Monk, she had to jump and stand crane style on pillars, battling other students in an attempt to knock them off.

The pet battle system is interesting, though since even with my main character I’ve never been much of a pet collector, I only indulged a handful of times. It’s very, very Pokemon, complete with what could be considered WoW‘s equivalent of a Pokedex, the pet journal. It’s entertaining though, and completionists will find a long list of pets to catch, which should occupy their time.

I ran several dungeons during my time with Mists, and I’m happy to see the return of tactics to the MMO genre being received so well. The Secret World‘s bosses could be downright vicious even on standard difficulty, forcing you to move frequently and watch aggro levels. Several fights in Mists do the same, which is a nice change from the standard “stand in one place and spam abilities” strategy.

Here’s a good example: the first boss of the Temple of the Jade Serpent stood in the center of a pool of water, surrounded by large, flat rocks. Our group had to stand on these rocks, as falling into the water would cause massive damage. The fight started out simple, but soon the boss spewed forth a beam attack that slowly swept around the stage, causing everyone to run along the rock path to avoid damage. It was nice to see coordination among the group, and it felt like there were consequences to mistakes. It didn’t hurt that the temple, and by extension everything added in Mists, looks different from anything WoW has had before. The east Asian designs are wonderfully vibrant and vivid.

Mists has added six new dungeons and three new raids. If they’re all as good as Temple of the Jade Serpent, players should be happy.

World of Warcraft is not a new MMO and it shouldn’t pretend to be. It needs to worry more about keeping people happy and less about drawing in new players. Making pandaren a bit too Jack Black doesn’t do anyone any favors, nor does sparse implementation of mechanics from newer MMOs like Guild Wars 2. This expansion will do its job: Existing players will likely buy it in droves and will hopefully keep paying month after month but, as new games are released and the player base leaves in drips and drabs, World of Warcraft may need more content to draw players in while also keeping existing players happy.