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The MMO that needs no introduction is about to get its fourth expansion. World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria will introduce a beautiful lost continent of ancient mystery, a new race of panda warriors, pet battles, a uniquely overhauled talent system, renovated dungeons and the versatile Monk class. All this and more awaits players in Blizzard’s upcoming Mists of Pandaria expansion.

“This is not the World of Peacecraft,” joked Chris Messen, senior VP of creative development at Blizzard Entertainment. Messen adds some perspective to the upcoming expansion and its beer-loving bears, arguing that while Pandaria is not about an apocalyptic event like in Cataclysm, the overall conflict is evolving.

In Messen’s mind, Mists of Pandaria can be divided into two halves: the box product and the patches, the calm and then the storm. For Messen, the boxed Pandarian adventure is meant to be “the perfect throttle-off chapter...that sense of adventure and exploration from the original brown box WoW.” As for the patches, Messen promises, “the Alliance and Horde are going to go at it in a way that we haven’t seen in a very long time.” He even revealed the climax of the final patch: the siege of Ogrimmar, which finds both factions working to depose Garrosh Hellscream for their own reasons.

We found that old school sense of adventure to be alive and very well in the Wandering Isle training grounds, the starting area for the new Pandaren race. In contrast to the darker scenes of destruction and chaos featured in Cataclysm, the Wandering Isle makes WoW feel fresh and alive with a vibrant color palette. Subtle reds, cool aquamarine, rolling hills of emerald grass, and distant mountain peaks shrouded in that titular mist. The tone was unique and fun as we faced a dojo full of Monk initiates before master Shang Xi challenged us to snatch a flame from his paw. The whole thing had the tone of a 70’s martial arts film. The team at Blizzard said they’ve been having kung fu move nights in order to research it.

While Pandarens can be anything except Paladins, Death Knights, Druids or Warlocks, players who want the full Pandarian experience should try the new Monk class; it’s powerful, uniquely versatile, and available to all races except Worgen and Goblin. Monks use quick strikes like Jab to build up Chi, which powers their most effective moves. We made a nasty opening combo by following Jab with Tiger Palm, which does bonus damage if the enemy is above fifty percent health. A lot of the Monk’s attacks are based on the enemy’s health, like Blackout Kick, which hits hard but can only be used when the enemy is below 35% health, making it a finishing move. We made an effective newbie garden strategy out of slaughtering weaker enemies with Jabs to build our Chi, and then unleashing that energy on higher level foes that might have beaten us otherwise.

Above: The Wandering Isle will be the starting area for the new Pandaren race

The Monk, with its three vastly different Specializations, makes a fine introduction to WoW’s newly reinvented talent system. At level 10, players will choose between three specializations: Brewmaster, a tank who uses Pandaren booze to fortify himself for battle while dazing opponents, Windwalker, the fists of fury damage dealing Monk, or Mistweaver, who spends his Chi healing teammates.

When Mists of Pandaria launches, all players will need to re-spec along these lines, first by choosing one of three Specializations. According to Blizzard, the reason for this revamp is to avoid the cookie cutter builds most players use. The developers know that most players are choosing one of three builds they’ve researched on the internet. By offering them a literal choice of three, and automatically giving players talents many consider “mandatory,” they hope to make choosing talents fun again, so players aren’t just picking what they need to stay competitive.

Only time will tell if this makes for more varied player builds, but any player should love being able to re-spec anywhere via a consumable item that costs twelve gold. When asked how often he expected players to reset their talents, lead quest designer Dave Kosak replied, “I think your hardcore players are going to look at it as a weapon load-out, like for this boss my whole strategy is this...a lot of players are just going to find things they like and stay with it, then maybe revisit their talents and try something different for a while.” If you want to start tweaking your build now, Blizzard already has a new talent calculator online.

In this new expansion, talents aren’t the only place where players will have to make choices. As WoW’s first faction-less race, Pandaren players will have an important decision to make. At the end of their initial storyline, they’ll have to choose between the Horde or Alliance. According to senior game producer John LaGrave, Pandarens and the neutral race concept have been a long time coming, but weren’t always one and the same. “We’ve toyed with the notion of having a neutral race. We talked about ogres and goblins and other races. As far as the story Messen wanted to tell, Pandarens really fit into that.”

Indeed, story seems to be a real focus here. The gameplay we experienced meshed nicely with the expansion’s themes and the Pandarian myth in general, especially the Stormstout Brewery. One of six new dungeons, let’s hope Chen Stormstout doesn’t know what’s going on in his namesake brewery. It’s lousy with Hozen, vicious baboon-like creatures getting rowdy on fine Stormstout beer. They’re rolling around on barrels and generally wrecking up the place - even dueling each other in drunken monkey knife fights. There were also berserking Alementals (Blizzard still loves those puns) and giant, rabbit like Vermin that attacked with deadly carrot breath. Hopefully players can sweep things under the rug before Chen hears about it.

Above: An Alliance group joins Chen Stormstout in the Stormstout Brewery

The Pandaria expansion will also introduce “Scenarios,” unique PvE encounters designed for multiple players. We saw one of these in action - players worked together to defend Pandaria’s Great Wall from rampaging Mantids, a vicious insect race. It played like WoW’s answer to the Lord of the Ring’s siege of Helm’s Deep, and it was an absolute blast. Scenarios look to be a new mainstay of WoW gameplay; Blizzard also plans to introduce a “Scenario Finder” in the near future.

Finally, we come to pet battles, WoW’s first true mini-game. While this was not playable at our demo, the videos we saw proved the Pokemon comparison to be an apt one. Players can pit their team of critters and creatures against those of another adventurer. Pets have basic stats that determine initiative, health and damage, and a set of moves their owner can customize. Just like Ash Ketchum, you can change pets mid-fight to prevent a knock-out, or swap in someone with an elemental advantage. It looked light and fun and Blizzard reminded everyone that, like pets in general, these battles would be completely optional and have no bearing on gear or leveling. It’s just a nice way to unwind, something to do over a mug of Pandarian brew.

All in all, we enjoyed our time with the Pandarians in the mist. The new continent is beautiful, the revised talent system shows promise, and the Monk is a fun and unique class. Whatever your feelings are on pets, panda people or the new talent system, there’s one fact you can’t argue with: Blizzard is working hard and wants to please. While no release date has been set for Mists of Pandaria, at least we know Diablo III will arrive May 15. Remember, committing to a year of WoW gets you a free copy of Diablo III. If you can’t wait to roam amongst the Mists of Panderia, there’s no better way to pass the time than a little demon slaying.

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