World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria Review ( 5.1 )

8 years and four expansions in the making, the World of Warcraft of today is quite a different place than it was at release. It’s still the biggest, most immersive MMO ever, and even though it’s “fashionable” to trash it, it’s still the King.

Pandaria at first glance might feel like a letdown after the events of Cataclysm, but after spending the last two and a half months exploring it, it’s hard NOT to call this the BIGGEST expansion yet to the biggest MMO yet.

This review will come in stages, unlike previous reviews, and will NOT serve as an introduction to my book. The book will have all unique content, and is not a “review book”.

Today we’re going to look at the expansion up to patch 5.1 even though 5.2 is set to drop in a matter of days.

Pandaria

Pandaria brings a new continent, named Pandaria ( so that we don’t forget what this is all about ), and a new race, the first playable demon race, the . . . of course not, it’s Pandas.

LONG rumored as an eventual player race, and even once the subject of a Blizzard April Fools joke, the Pandaren are finally here, for better or worse. Some have complained that their campy appearance and lore was further dumbing down the already a little shy of “edgy” game world, but the whole thing is handled with more depth than you expect, especially since the Pandaren come with a dark, terrible secret called Sha.

STATS of review

Played on Retail Server, using four separate accounts.

Game Platform and Release Stats

Game acquired retail via Blizzard online store.

Spoiler Content

This particular review is spoiler free as far as the narrative is concerned. I will be discussing the details of some of the quest lines, but not to a degree that a lore junkie will feel I've spoiled anything.

Some content needs to be discussed so that I can make wishes/predictions, but I'll let you know if there are any spoilers.

The majority of this play through was done post release but before patch 5.1. We’re now staring down the release of patch 5.2, and although I’ve got a combined several months’ worth of play into 7 characters, I have yet to really dig into Monks, deciding to save that for part 2. Why?

I did not find the Monk class interesting. I know, many are greatly enjoying the class, and more power to them, but I found it repetitive, underpowered, and boring throughout the starting area, and if something can’t catch your attention in six hours, it isn’t going to.

The other reason is that my review needed to revolve mostly around what is new, and that’s the content of Pandaria, not Classic, Outland, Northrend, Cataclysm, and then FINALLY Pandaria. I’ll go back and level a Monk when I have nothing else to do in WoW.

Overall Impression

I have played Pandaria for two and a half months now, and while it retains its WoW roots, it's still the biggest, best expansion to any MMO I've seen yet. And after Cataclysm that's saying something.

First Impressions and “Draw”

I unfortunately didn’t get to really conquer Cataclysm. I had to stop playing before my characters were top level, so I feel like I missed out on some amazing raid content that even though you can go back and do it with a small group now, it’s not the same feeling.

But for Panda I was right there. Starting back into a game like WoW involves days of updating, patching, mod updating and setting up, and simply relearning how to play before you’re really back in the swing of it. First I had to quickly level my mains through the Cataclysm content, and skipping the instances and raids felt sad, but that’s my issue, not yours.

Once I got one of my characters to 85 I devoted all my play time to getting him to 90. He’s a Paladin. Paladins in WoW have had a rough history. They were practically garbage in Vanilla, they gained a decent ability or two in Burning Crusade, but still felt gimped, and it wasn’t until Wrath that it became practical to dps as a Ret Pally. It’s STILL a little plain compared to other classes, but it’s a far sight better to be a Pally in Pandaria ( but you can't be a Pally Panda, and I think that's a shame ) than it ever has been.

From the moment you step onto Pandaria, you have stepped IN it.

Personal Story Arc

Ok, I have a lot of characters, and it’s true that a lot of people have complained that Pandaria isn’t “alt friendly” ( and I don’t mean goth friendly ). I have the resources and patience to level 7 characters to 90, because in each expansion, my main priority is to have ALL professions max leveled. It takes a few months, but you can do it.

Above: My Lineup: Paladin, Warlock, Shaman, Death Knight, Priest, Hunter and Mage.

Pandaria makes this journey more personal than ever before. You brought war to a peaceful land, and it’s up to YOU to help clean it up. YOU awoke an ancient evil, YOU caused that evil to seep into the hearts of the citizens, and the land is dying, and well . . . yeah, that’s your bad too.

From the moment you arrive, you’re facing the consequences of being either Horde or Alliance, rather than civilized. Not that Pandaria is without conflict. They’ll try to convince you that you’re this horrible entity that brought war to a peaceful people, but eventually you’ll learn about these things called “Mogu” and “Mantid”. Yeah, that’s been going on longer than you’ve been alive, so don’t let them stick you with the bill for that.

Not that the Mogu and Mantid aren’t interesting. They are, especially the Mantid, which in TRUE spirit of “I don’t care about allegiances I’m just here for the loot” you can work for a race that kills thousands of Pandaren every generation because they offer you shinies.

Maybe you ARE the problem . . .

The Interface

One thing that Blizzard did early on and have never backed down on is allowing third parties to create mods for the game, even those that replace the entire UI. If you’re any kind of serious into raiding, some of these mods are required, and not having them will get you kicked from most raids. So if you play WoW, you need to know about modding.

In my reviews of Bethesda games, I talked a lot about mods and how to use them, but here I’m assuming that you can figure this out on your own. If not, simply hit up www.curse.com and go from there. The mod manager they have will handle the details for you.

So why don't I show the normal UI and game play much? Because it looks like this: ( plus I would have to block out names a lot more and I don't thnk that looks good either and I'm not going to publish anyone's character names, especially mine )

Uryaen is an aesthete, and this just doesn't look like anything.

Questing

From the beginning, one of the core design goals for WoW was to allow a character to level to max doing whatever they want to do, without being forced into grinding endlessly. Want to quest? There are MANY more quests than are required to reach max level. Want to explore? You get XP for that as well. Crafting, PvP, and now Pet Battles all provide different progression paths and some even provide XP. There are some examples of characters reaching max level without ANY kills.

So get out there and carve your unique path. I’m sure there are ways we haven’t even thought of yet.

Again, I didn’t get to FULLY explore Cataclysm but based on what I’ve seen, they started the trend of “Zone --- Quest Structure” and this is fleshed out in Pandaria one step further. What this means is that as of Cataclysm, each zone was one contiguous story line, instead of the array of random nonsense of Vanilla through BC. Wrath did an ok job of conveying a sense of place in the quests ( and is to this day my favorite overall expansion ) but Pandaria spans your quest line across the entire continent, from the characters you meet, such as Taran Zhu, Lorewalker Cho, and the spirited brewmaster Chen Stormstout to the enemies you face. From the minute you arrive on the island to the very end, these are your companions, allies, and enemies. The Sha exert their quiet influence on you every step of the way, which is something new to WoW.

I have now leveled 7 characters to 90, and I feel that if I ever see Hyjal again ( from Cataclysm ) it’ll be too soon, but each character still manages to feel fresh and interesting all through Pandaria. Each time is the same quest progression, but it just “feels” right. Time and energy permitting, my plan is to level another 2-3 classes to 90 before the end of the expansion. I will probably go Monk, Druid next, and then if I decide to just be a complest about it, I’ll round out the collection with Warrior and Rogue ( whose abilities are more than well represented by my other classes ).

One of the other major improvements to questing through the expansion is a normalization of quest loot. Instead of quest rewards being one of two or three things set in stone, and half the time useless to you, your quest reward will ALWAYS be relevant to your class and even spec. I double checked. If you complete a quest and return to the quest giver, they will present a reward based on your spec. If you switch specs and reopen the window, the reward will likely change to reflect your spec.

If you need to quest as dps, but want healing gear as you go this is one way to do it. ( After 7 characters I can ASSURE you that gear is NEVER going to be an issue in Pandaria, whether you’re 85 or 90 ). The other way is “Adventuring Supply” vendors which will sell you level appropriate green gear for a reasonable price. For your FIRST character, take advantage of this, but once you have a max level character or two, you can make or buy gear for your alts.

At 90, each spec is also covered by a set of PvP friendly blues. These are also reasonable to make and purchase. While you might think it’s awkward that they did it this way, it makes sense. This starter gear will allow you to complete ANY level 90 quests or Heroic dungeons, OR participate in PvP until in either case you can purchase, make or loot better gear.

Pandaria even manages a smooth dig at Skyrim, during an escort quest:

The Factions and Daily Quests

Factions have been around the whole time, but the idea of specific factions offering rewards that are highly sought after is something that has really had to evolve over the course of MMO history.

Here, Blizzard went a little overboard, and they know it. There are several major Pandaria factions that each require a couple of weeks of daily play to complete. Where this system goes kind of wrong is that they require you to become at least "Revered" with a particular faction in order to open access to two of the other ones. They initially thought that this gating would be better for players so as not to overwhelm, but what it really did was force EVERYONE to play through this MASSIVELY involved faction grind, until you hate your keyboard and kick your cat.

And I went through this on THREE characters so far, and I have a fourth and fifth starting through.

The Golden Lotus

The Golden Lotus as a faction are sworn to protect the temples of Pandaria. This is the gate faction. At first, it's quite fun. You'll get your initial set of quests and go to a certain area. Some of the quests are practically impossible to solo at first, especially in level 89 greens. My Ret Paladin especially couldn't handle a lot of the big stuff. But you get better, you learn the patterns, and you really learn to take advantage of the new tagging system. In one quest, you are required to kill a huge behemoth, and you can just wait for another group to start killing it, swoop in, hit it once, and bam, you get credit. Is that rude? Yes, so don't do it much, but you can.

This initial set of quests will take you anywhere from half an hour to an hour, and you're only about a third of the way through. Next, after turning those in, you are sent to one of a few other locations, where the quests are usually easier, but more "grindy". Sometimes, you are even sent to a third location for the day, thus eating your entire gaming session.

Once you're done there, you are free to do the other open faction:

The Klaxxi

I love the Klaxxi. Imagine massive, sentient insects, and they have badass amber based weapons you can earn. Their quests are HARD, but not in that "Frustrating, cat kicking" way that Golden Lotus is. You can often complete the circuit in about half an hour, and they offer some great rewards at the lower tiers, so you start benefiting from them right away.

The Klaxxi are a race of Mantid in the middle of an immense and horrific civil war that makes Alliance vs. Horde look like a tea party. The Klaxxi that you meet are dissenting against their current queen and her regime. To help, you travel around and exhume various "Paragons" of ancient Klaxxi cultures. Once you help them recover, they begin to offer rewards and daily quests. Things heat up progressively until you reach the highest levels, when the Queen herself attacks the heretical base.

Once you are exalted, you earn a wonderful ring, an AMAZING Scorpid mount, and the lore required to appreciate one of the awesome new raids "Heart of Fear" where you take the battle to the queen herself.

As far as faction quest lines and rewards goes, this is my favorite and the most consistently cohesive yet. Don't skip them.

The August Celestials

The August Celestials as a faction are sworn to protect the temples of Pandaria . . . wait, isn't that what the Golden Lotus do? Unless you read every novel, and memorize every quest text, this faction is going to feel like "Golden Lotus 2.0". Required for a number of upgrades, and to ride the amazingly hard to get "Thundering Ruby Cloud Serpent" the August Celestials are important to any serious 90 looking to complete their character and get all the best mounts.

Unlike the first two factions you’re likely to complete, you don’t get a sweet ilvl 489 piece for finishing the AC quest lines. While this is understandable from a balance perspective, the expectation was still set up by the first two. It’s like a dealer giving you the first pieces for free, only to rip them out from under you. It’s quite a letdown.

The Shadow Pan

You first tangle with the Shadow Pan fresh off the ship to Pandaria, and they are up in your business from that moment on. You'll hate their leader, but then you'll learn why soon enough. ( That'd be a spoiler ).

Shadow Pan are another very difficult set of quests. This is not a "put music on and collect the shiny things" series, you have to pay attention. There's a series of achievements around how well you do these, so if you're achievement hunting, you'll love them.

The Shadows also reward some amazing stuff, and are worth going through but like the August Celestials, do not reward an ilvl 489 piece. One would argue that by the time you’re exalted with them you shouldn’t need it, but that’s just elitist hot air. Four of my characters are above ilvl 480, and raid every week, and can still make use of a 489 upgrade here or there.  

The Anglers

Are you into fishing? Even if not, you might want a mount that can walk on water, and I'm not talking about the turtle. Easy, quick, and more valor points. The fact that each rewards some fishing skill feels like Blizzard conceding that many normal players don't fish. I do, love it. Some of my characters have max fishing, and most of the rare stuff and achievements.

Shieldwall / Dominance

The main story line of the expansion follows what happens with the Horde and Alliance and their war and how it affects the land of Pandaria. These factions help you understand this conflict and move it along story wise.

Gaining exalted earns a new mount, but unlike some, I find it quite less than interesting. Whoopee a new version of the faction basic mount. We have flying dragons now.

The item level on faction gear is higher though, and that IS good.

The quest line ITSELF however, proves to be one of the most engaging of the entire game history. I can’t spoil much, but take your time, and soak it in. Once you have one character at Revered, grab the commendation, and each successive character will barely have to touch the dailies at all to be Exalted as well.

Tillers

Included here for completeness sake, but largely ignored by me in game. 

NPCs

WoW never really excelled in NPCs the player could care about. Most were just the classic “!” fodder, and if they had a name, you neither knew it, nor cared. Recent expansions have worked to turn this prejudice around, and some of the techniques include:

More Voice Acting – WoW shipped with little to no unique voice acting for NPCs, and as of Pandaria, all quests are still delivered in text, but the NPCs tend to do a lot of talking. Hang around the Klaxxi after you rescue them all, and you’ll read ( not hear ) some hilarious dialog.

It’s still not an entirely Voice Over covered game, and other games, such as EverQuest II, did it first and better. EQII boasted an almost ENTIRELY voice based questing system upon release shortly after WoW in 2004. They also featured a deeper combat and crafting system, greatly more detailed visuals, and an event scripting system that wouldn’t look out of place in Skyrim. So why did WoW flourish while it floundered? That’s something I’ll explore in my book! ( Shameless plug incoming ) Please visit this page and enter your email to be notified when the Kickstarter page goes live. I’m assembling resources and interviews. This book is now three years in the making and should be pretty epic, but it will need your support.  

Architecture and Geography

Despite comparatively dated poly count, WoW continues to shine in art direction. With the recent revamp of the original continents, this makes the continent of Outland the oldest art in the game. There are some beautiful areas out there, but compared to the recent expansions, it makes the leveling process, especially for a Pandaren, jarring.

I often defend WoW’s visuals, and while it can look amazing, even Blizzard acknowledges that many issues such as extremely dated player character models are hard to replace partly due to development resources ( but with a billion dollars a month in revenue, you’d think they could whip us up a handful of amazing models ), and nostalgia, which is an even harder pill to swallow.

If you want to cringe, create a Tauren anything, and run around the starting area.

I personally know at least one player unable to play Pandaria AT ALL due to having a computer that is simply too old. How she got this far is a mystery, but the system requirements for Pandaria went up just enough that more detail WILL alienate some players.

But this is why we have graphics sliders right? This is something that I think should be looked at soon. In the meantime, look around Pandaria a bit, no matter which side of the debate you fall on, you can’t deny it’s a gorgeous place.

Combat

Click to target, hit buttons in sequence. Nothing has changed in this regard. I’m not saying that this is a bad thing, but it’s the formula that many are used to, and works in this context.

I’m really looking forward to getting past this and into something more dynamic, but it has many layers of complexity and when you look at combat vs. something like certain single player games, there’s just no comparison. In those you hit one of two buttons and fling either a spell or an arrow at an enemy. That’s pretty much it and due to being designed around controllers ( don’t get me going on that again ), that’s all it can ever really be.

But with several dozen available abilities, procs, combos, buffs, debuffs, and myriad other mechanics to deal with, combat in modern WoW is actually overwhelming. It actually MEANS something when we say you have to “learn an encounter” because each boss comes with its own unique set of abilities. This is on top of having to know your basic “role” and class, which is sadly something that precious few players ever master. 

For Pandaria Blizzard revamped the Talent and ability systems again, this time for the biggest changes ever.

One of the recent stated design philosophies is “bring the player, not the class” and simplifying the talent system and normalizing dps across all classes has done a good job of this, but it’s also made classes TOO similar. I remember a time when you could actually say something like “mages aren’t a gear dependent class like Paladins”. Now, everyone needs the top gear to stay competitive. It’s more “fair” but less interesting.

In my own MMO designs, some of which I’ll be releasing in my book, I advocate the opposite design goal, making classes far MORE unique, and creating a pro/con relationship that forces a player to make very deliberate decisions at all times. I’m sure we’ll come back to that, but right now, Blizzard at least feels that players want all of the classes to function largely the same and for none of them to have any unique cons ( hunter ammo being a good example ).

For Tanks

I’m just getting back into tanking in this expansion, so I don’t have as much to comment on with this other than to say I feel for all tanks. Players are SO IMPATIENT these days, and never mind how many times THEY screw up or die, if the tank does ONE thing wrong, they’ll scream bloody murder and vote to kick. I don’t like this hypocritical environment and I’d rather see class roles go away entirely before letting good players be burned out by immature children who can’t stand the thought of taking 15 whole seconds before a boss pull ( much less the more than an hour in the old days ) to coordinate before they start complaining.

For Healers

I wouldn’t be the MMO expert I am without some specialty. For those who’ve been in my guilds or ran with me before, you’ll know me as one of the best healers you’ve ever seen. Pandaria really gave healers a LOT more to do. Previously lazy healers could get away with sitting in back and clicking an AOE heal every few seconds, without ANY care as to whether this was a stupid strategy. Healing doesn’t have a “rotation” and the person at the top of the healing list who’s out of mana toward the end of the fight when the tank really needs them isn’t a good healer at all, they’re just someone in need of an ego boost.

As an experienced and reliable “tank healer” my job previously was to focus almost entirely on the tank, and let the druids and priests handle the others. In previous expansions, a Pally healer was best for this role, and stacking Intellect meant that my heals were comparatively HUGE. Pandaria made two interesting changes to Pally healing and healing in general that will hopefully force lazy healers to learn to heal better. The first is that all healers are now capable of being either single or multi target healers, and there is now a good reason for healers to be attacking mobs. Pally healers regenerate mana with basic swings, and this means we can be less reliant on stacking Spirit. Paladin healers have plate armor and a shield and take hits like a tank. In fact, I’ve grabbed the odd add or two during a raid, popped a taunt, and kept it busy for a while until a tank could come along. Then I go back to being right there with the melee, healing and DPSing. It’s a hard job, and it’s not for everyone.

I also have a raiding Shaman, and have been complemented on my coordination by the other Shaman healer in my first raid on that character, because I actually thought to coordinate who buffs which tank ( something Pallys need to do but never do ).

The Shaman is the ultimate BUSY healer. In addition to casting a complex set of buffs and heals that play off each other, the Shaman needs to be casting several DPS abilities on the boss or adds. This will regenerate mana, again allowing us to stack more Intellect, and use Intellect flasks, and adds a fair amount of DPS to the fight. On fights like Elegon, this can be the difference between success and wipe. I still see lazy healers standing there doing literally NOTHING while the sparks come out, and this is unacceptable. With the addon “healbot” and my Razer Naga Epic, I can be moving, DPSing, AND healing all without missing a beat. I’m going to see if I can get a video up of this in action so you guys can see what a master healer does. If you’re standing there doing nothing at any time, you’re doing it wrong.

For Nukers ( DPS )

Let’s be honest here, DPSers are dime a dozen. This is why the queue time for raids is 45-60 minutes for DPSers, and 15 seconds for tanks and healers. I have a tank, two healers, and four DPSers. I can get into a raid as fast as I can click a button so long as I’m willing to heal or tank.

DPSing has traditionally been and remains the least responsible position in any group. You’re there to point your weapon at things and kill it. Recent expansions have attempted to expand your role a bit, and force DPSers to dispell, interrupt, switch targets quickly, and in cases like Garalon, even kite the boss. Never before has DPS as a role had so much to do, and yet most players will still target the boss, and faceroll their rotation, as if that’s all that they’re expected to do, and then they wonder why they’re not missed when they fall through the floor on Elegon the first time it vanishes. Watch a tank do that and your chat filter will break. ( This is also why to this day, I never use Voice Chat unless absolutely forced to. Who wants to listen to that? )

Above: Murdering each other’s crows . . .

The bottom line: Combat is more complex than ever before, for ALL roles, and NO one should be standing around doing nothing at any point in a group or raid. So if you are, learn your role/class and do better.

Crafting

Ah, crafting. I’ve been waiting a decade for crafting to mature in online games, and yet it still boils down to “gather x material, combine two or three of them into Y item Z times, vendor Y because no one wants it”.

Never has this been MORE true than now. I spent all of my gold and time building up the ability to craft ilevel 496 Blacksmithing items, which are a boon to ANY raider, and frankly, I couldn’t give them away. I eventually had to sell them for MUCH less than the cost of materials, which is the grand irony and the reason I believe that crafting is currently broken in WoW. Next to no one wants the finished product, or can’t afford it, and the only way to make money is by selling your materials to OTHER crafters, who in turn will eventually learn the same thing, and sell the materials again.

This has to be fixed.

I’m too sad to go on about this.  

Player Housing

Player housing ( despite some minor revisionist history ) has been a promised feature of WoW since alpha, and it arrives in 5.2 . . . sorta . . . via a tiny farm you can . . . not exactly “buy” but . . . uh . . .

Yeah, I don’t know either.

Scenarios

Think of Scenarios as three person Instances with only one shot at loot, and the possibility that it will take less time than a heroic, but that has not been my experience. Many have confusing goals, and with no class roles, there is usually much confusion and wandering around. Some take forever to complete, and the rewards just aren’t worth it. It’s something you’ll do a few times with your first 90 and then forget they exist. I strongly suggest that the design team really take a look at these and how to make them more compelling.

Pet Battles

Pokémon in WoW.

The End Game

WoW has always been about the end game. Raiding is what they want you to do, and although there are plenty of other things to do, you just won’t feel like you’re accomplishing anything if you’re not raiding.

Raiding in Pandaria can be awesome fun, and it can be an infuriating experience.

Personally, I don’t have the energy to get to know the people on my server again. They’re an entirely new generation, and my server has, I’ll be blunt, gone to hell. Trade chat is even more asinine than it ever was, and no one is arranging PUGs, or quests. They just sit around ALL day long ( seriously, I have various alts or bank alts sitting in town on my alt accounts all day long and I look in on them and these same dozen people are so are almost ALWAYS there, and virtually no one else is ). My server is a launch server, and used to be awesome, but all the awesome people left. I really don’t WANT to raid with the immature, foul mouthed brats left, but it would cost something like $250-280 to transfer all of my characters somewhere else, and I don’t see investing that much in doing that. I use the LFR raids, and while that has its own set of drama queens ( including a whopper of an infuriating thing that happened last night ) it’s still a good way to get in, see the bosses, get loot, and be done with it.

You get out of it what you put into it. Unfortunately in the case of online games, you get out of it what everyone around you has put into it as well, and that’s often a steaming pile. I’ll be exploring the subject of player abuse a lot more in my book.

Installation Size

They’ve actually managed to redo the installation folder, and a 30GB folder is now about 19GB. Nice!

Time Commitment Required

ALL THE TIME that you have.

Conclusion

So where is this expansion going? Each expansion up to now, we’ve had a clear path to who the ultimate bad guy is.

Burning Crusade – All about demons, and Illidan was their master. He was right there in the opening sequence.

Wrath of the Lich King – All about undead. The Lich King was right there in the opening as well . . .

Cataclysm – All about the rending of Azeroth. The bad guy? The dragon who did the rending, right there in the opening.

Pandaria – So far, we have factions such as the Klaxxi. We fought the queen in the Hear of Fear, and in patch 5.2 we face the Thunder King, which should wrap up that whole “Mogu and Zandalari” thing. We’ve defeated the Sha . . . supposedly. There’s been a “Sha of . . . ” each negative emotion including Fear so far. So what is left?

If we look at the opening sequence, we might find the clue. The opening features a human and an Orc fighting, just like Warcraft’s roots.

So I would posit one of two things:

The FINAL boss of the expansion is either Garrosh Hellscream for Alliance, and Varian Wrynn for Horde . . . This makes sense because it brings the whole “we brought the war” thing full circle. It could be a fight that feels like the Lich King fight.

Or . . .

The final boss is . . . ourselves? This could take a few forms, and might be difficult to accomplish without stepping on the Sha of Fear. But what if finally facing the CONSEQUENCES of our actions is what the final boss is? The Sha of Fear didn’t feel like the end of that concept to me, and this could be a way to finally put the Sha and all that hatred to bed for good.

Or it could be something totally out of left field, but that’s not Blizzards style. We should know soon enough.

For next time, I’ll be looking at the Pandaren starting area, the Monk class, the Throne of Thunder, and whatever else comes up. Look for that soon!

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