World of Warcraft is almost 8 years old. In the time since its launch, Blizzard has released four expansions to the original game. The most recent, titled Mists of Pandaria, came out at the end of September. Now that some time has passed, we’ve decided to do a review of the new expansion.
Mists of Pandaria has all the familiar trappings from previous expansions: an increase in the level cap from 85 to 90, a new continent full of zones, hundreds of new quests, a new set of dungeons, raids, and PvP battlegrounds, and a host of new items, gear, and spells. It also introduces a new class: the Monk; and a new playable race: The Pandarens. Unlike all the previous playable races, which were restricted to one faction, Pandarens can be members of either the Horde or the Alliance. Monks have the advantage of being able to take on three different roles: a tank, a healer, or a damage dealer.
The leveling experience is similar in style to the previous expansion, Cataclysm, but Blizzard has made a few design changes. First, there’s only one “starter” zone, unlike the previous two expansions, which both had two zones from which you could pick. This created some congestion issue in the days immediately following release, but now that the leveling rush is mostly over, the population has thinned out. However, even on crowded servers, Blizzard’s quest design changes kept things mostly sane. They've further refined their “phasing” tech, which allows two different players standing in the same spot to see different things. Quest givers and objectives were phased to a greater degree this time around, and sometimes only visible to each user individually. This effectively reduced wait times.
Blizzard’s quest philosophy evolved — as it always does — from the previous expansion. They felt Cataclysm was a bit too linear, so there are now more options for how you proceed through a zone’s quests. Instead of simply shunting you from one to the next, you’ll frequently get a choice of several different quest hubs, and you can pick whichever sounds the most interesting. Some places don’t even have so-called “Breadcrumb” quests to lead you to them, and you simply stumble upon them while exploring. This gives leveling-up in Pandaria more of an exploratory feel than existed in Cataclysm, while still keeping you focused on specific areas at one time, so you aren't spending most of your time travelling.
This time around, Blizzard has spent a bit more time with the lore than in the past. Leveling in Cataclysm and Wrath of the Lich King felt like slowly pacing through a particular story. In Mists, they focus more on the backstory and on developing particular characters and factions. If you enjoy getting immersed in the story, you’ll probably quite like the leveling process. If you don’t, it will be tedious at times while you listen to some NPC ramble on about the historical panda-politics of something.
Now, for many, the game really begins when you reach the level cap. At level 90, you once again take up the primary objective of most MMORPGs: the endless pursuit of items. I’ll go through some of the different avenues one at a time. First, dungeons. In previous expansions, Blizzard has gone live with a number of 5-player dungeons that you can experience as you level, and then again in “heroic” mode once you hit the level cap. These heroic versions have historically been significantly harder, and awarded appropriately better loot for completing them. This time around, Blizzard chose to make four new dungeons with normal modes, to explore while you level, as well as revamping three classic dungeons with added heroic modes.
One difference this time is that there are no normal mode dungeons specifically set aside for level 90s. Once you reach the cap, you simply dive right into heroics. Consequently, heroic modes are much easier this time around than they were in Cataclysm or The Burning Crusade. Gear acquired from leveling and a basic knowledge of your class are more than enough to succeed. Personally, this is not my preference; I liked it better when it was a bit more challenging, and the ease of starting into heroics was a disappointment. That said, there are many people who prefer heroic dungeons to be quick and painless, and for that segment of the population, these changes are welcome.
As far as the experience of playing through these dungeons goes, if you’re familiar with dungeons from previous expansions, the new ones will feel very similar. The process was refined to a fairly strict formula a few years ago, and these rarely deviate. That sounds perhaps more uncomplimentary than it’s meant; I don’t mean to say that they’re bad, just that they didn’t bring many new things to the table. You pull a few packs of trash mobs, then fight a boss, then repeat. There are new boss mechanics, as always, but they generally fit the mold of WoW boss mechanics.
The gear you acquire through heroic dungeons is intended to put you in a place to participate in raids, should you so choose. Raids, too, have gone through refinement over the past several years. When Blizzard released the Dungeon Finder system, which matched players automatically for dungeon groups, sparing them the pain of tracking down other people who wanted to do the same thing, they realized there was a massive demand for a similar system for raids. Halfway through [Wrath of the Lich King], they launched their Looking For Raid system, which is their best attempt yet to bring raiding to the casual population.
When queueing through the LFR system, you get matched with players from other realms who want to do the same raid. The difficulty is toned down, of course, and so is the quality of loot. The major refinement brought by Mists is a revamp of the loot system itself; now your chance of getting shiny new items is independent of other people in the raid, which excises much of the remaining tension between players. Still, it doesn't mean you’ll necessarily get the item you want.
But that’s only one part of the loot treadmill. Blizzard has continued on with its slow-and-steady gear acquisition scheme in which you buy the items you want with points that you can only acquire so many of per week. You can get these points by running dungeons and raids, or by doing daily quests. In fact, you’ll likely gain a lot through daily quests, since most of the items you’ll want to buy require you to increase your reputation with various factions, and daily quests are how you do that. It’s actually quite odd; in the past two expansions, Blizzard had implemented a system where you could choose the faction you wanted to work on, then run dungeons to build up your reputation. There were a limited amount of daily quests, and you could choose whichever method suited your preferred playstyle. In Mists, Blizzard reverted it to only daily quests and made a ton of dailies for each faction. If you don’t enjoy repeatedly running a handful of quests, you’re just out of luck. They say they want players to interact more with the story, but this move surprises me. Now, if you don’t want to log in and do a specified amount of repetitive content every day, you don’t progress at all.
Reputation grinds have been something Blizzard has struggled with for as long as World of Warcraft has been out. It continually astonishes me that reputation isn't account-wide. If you go to the trouble of getting in good standing with a faction on one character, you’re rewarded by having to do the exact same thing again on any other character you end up playing. Really, it’s part of a larger problem, one endemic to the MMORPG industry in general, which is that developers still require excessive amounts of content repetition if you want to use multiple characters. Mists makes minor gains in this regard, but frankly, not enough. For example, I leveled my warrior to tank in PvE situations. I enjoyed it quite a bit. Now I’d like to try some PvP, but I don’t really enjoy it on the warrior. I have much more fun on my priest, but the thought of spending all that time leveling through the same zones, running the same dungeons, and building the same rep makes me cringe. And even if I had the motivation, I wouldn't have the time, and I suspect a lot of players are the same way. Asking for a 30-hour time commitment so that I can log on and PvP for 30 minutes is just silly. But, again, this is a problem with the entire genre, and if anything I’m surprised Blizzard hasn't solved it yet.
But enough about reputation — what about your character itself? Well, Blizzard has once again revamped the talent and specialization system. Now, when you pick your spec, that sets in stone the vast majority of your abilities, and when you get them. Blizzard has done away with the talent tree system entirely. In its place, you simply have one choice to make every 15 levels. You pick one of three different skills, and the other two are henceforth unavailable to you, unless you respec. It’s an interesting system, and has its advantages and disadvantages over the old system. On the plus side, the choices themselves are generally pretty interesting. If there are two abilities you really want, you have a tough decision to make.
On the other hand, there just aren't that many total options to choose from. While you theoretically have 729 different permutations for talent choices, in reality you’re frequently picking between an obvious player-versus-player talent and a player-versus-monster talent, or between a damage dealing talent and a tanking talent. Once you figure out what you want the spec to do, the number of realistic choices drops drastically. On top of that, while Blizzard made a good choice in excising the boring talents that increase your damage by 1% for every point you put into it, there are still occasionally talents that are obviously more desirable than their alternatives, so your choices are restricted even further. For experienced players, I don’t think the talent system is significantly better or worse than the old trees. For newer players, its simplicity makes it a little bit better.
In terms of gameplay, Mists of Pandaria brings another interesting new feature: scenarios. These are intended to be small, quick events that can be accomplished by a group of three players, regardless of their roles. Unlike a dungeon, you don’t necessarily need a tank and a healer. This means you can instantly find a group for one at any time. There’s not much of a purpose behind them, and they’re not terribly difficult, but Blizzard plans to keep rolling out new and different types. It’s worth keeping an eye on to see what they come up with.
Another new features is called “Cross-realm Zones,” which aims to solve a population problem that’s plagued MMORPGs for over a decade. Over time, players tend toward the level cap, so the early leveling zones tend to become rather empty. This sets up some cognitive dissonance with the “massively multiplayer” part of the game. Now, Blizzard scans zones for low population counts, and when there aren’t a lot of people around, they’ll merge players from several different servers. It makes the world feel a bit more alive and populated, and potentially more perilous for people on PvP servers.This is actually a very clever move on Blizzard’s part. One of the worst things that can happen to an MMO, from a public relations perspective, is the announcement of server mergers. Blizzard found a way to funnel players together while keeping the servers themselves separate.
On top of all this are the expected quality-of-life improvements that come with any WoW expansion. They've implemented AoE loot, done another pass on item stats, implemented Battle Tag support, and made mounts, pets, and achievements account-wide. The buff system is easier to keep track of, the ranged item slot is gone, and you don’t need to train new skills every time you level. These are all nice things to have. They won’t make or break the expansion for you, but it’ll remind you that Blizzard does keep trying to find ways to polish the game.
If you’re the kind of player who enjoys vanity items, Mists is something you’ll enjoy. There’s a ton of new mounts and pets, and a bunch of vanity items that do small but interesting things. One gives you a buff to let you move around faster underwater, one turns you into an untargetable statue, and one lets you vanish from combat entirely, something that will make Rogues jealous. There are a few dozen items like this, and it’s nice to see Blizzard creating some more items that are just fun, instead of being either aesthetic or powerful. It’s also provides a nice contrast to any part of the game that can give players an advantage — abilities, gear, encounters, professions — which have all been balanced within an inch of their life. Blizzard is in a tough spot here, since with such a huge playerbase, a non-trivial number of people will seize on any perceived advantage and take it to the extreme. But unfortunately games just aren't as fun when everything is mathematically equivalent to the third decimal place.
There are two more systems worth noting. Pet Battles makes all those non-combat pets that have existed for years into their own mini-game. It’s apparently reminiscent of Pokemon. I haven’t played that, so I couldn't say how similar or dissimilar it is, but it’s another pointless diversion within a pointless diversion, and many of my guildmates find it entertaining. The other system is Challenge Mode dungeons. This brings time-trial racing to heroic dungeons. You queue up with a group of friends, and you try to complete the dungeon as fast as you can. Times are recorded on leaderboards, so you can compete with other groups. Your gear is normalized while doing the dungeon, so everybody is on the same playing field. (By the way, this technology is long, long overdue, not only for PvE, but for PvP as well. With as much effort as Blizzard has put into WoW PvP being a valid e-sport, I can’t believe they still haven’t implemented something like this for battlegrounds and arenas.) The challenge modes bring another mode of play — competitive racing — to established content, and that’s a good thing.
World of Warcraft continues to be the standard by which other MMOs are judged, but it’s becoming apparent that the game can’t go on forever. New content, even good content, will necessarily hold players' attention for less and less time in light of an aging graphical engine and an aging genre. Grinding is inherent to this style of game, but since Ultima Online came out back in 1997 — over 15 years ago — player willingness to put up with it has been steadily dropping. Blizzard has made cuts to this over the years — good cuts, needed cuts — but they’re slowing when they need to be accelerating. Having played this expansion for a few weeks, I look at it and see all the things I can’t do, rather than what I can. Has it been worth the price? Well, given the fun I've had and given the time I've spent — more than on pretty much any game I've bought this year — I’d have to say yes. But this game has an ongoing price, and I’m not sure I’ll be able to justify keeping a subscription active much longer.
This concludes our World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria review. Thanks for watching.