Hardcore raiders have already hit level 90, and World of Warcraft virgins aren’t likely to start now. But for those who’ve played Blizzard Entertainment’s genre-defining MMO at some point, you might be wondering if the latest expansion, Mists of Pandaria, is worth your time and subscription fee. The short answer is: Yes. Though there’s no telling how long it’ll keep its addictive grip on you this time around, MOP is the freshest WOW has felt in years.
After the widespread zones of World of Warcraft: Cataclysm, MOP keeps things centralized with the appearance of Pandaria, a massive island consisting of seven varied zones. This is the mystical homeland of the Pandaren, a race of portly panda people with origins tracing back to the Warcraft III. The long-anticipated race is now playable for both factions (a first for the MMO), alongside the latest class, the Monk. If you haven’t guessed it by now, this expansion is heavily themed around Pan-Asian motifs; that means plenty of mythological creatures and master martial artists roam the Pandarian countryside.
Personality-wise, the Pandaren’s philosophical musings and generally mellow attitude make them one of the most amiable races to choose from. Creating a Pandaren plops you into their short-but-sweet Wandering Isle starting zone, on the terraformed shell of a gargantuan turtle. Questing hasn’t changed much--killing and collecting is usually the name of the game--but Blizzard has mastered the art of perfectly pacing the quest hubs, so that it’s on to the next area as soon as you’re starting to feel fatigue for your surroundings. After the stellar starting zones of the Goblins and Worgen in Cataclysm, it’s a bit disappointing to blow through the low-level Pandaren content so quickly, though it’s definitely fun while it lasts.
What could’ve been an interesting opportunity for WOW’s first truly neutral race is sadly skipped. After completing the Wandering Isle quests, you’re jarringly forced to enroll your Pandaren with either the Alliance or Horde, before being unceremoniously dumped into their general starting zones. Being forced to choose sides is a shame, given the Pandaren’s diplomatic demeanor; it’ll also be strange to see Pandaren killing their own kind when they start to populate the PVP zones.
The Pandaren race is the perfect pairing to the near-universal Monk class, which becomes exponentially more fun to play as you approach the new level cap of 90. Like the Paladin or Druid, the Monk can take on the tank, DPS, or healer roles--but their gameplay has the kind of frenzied activity as a Rogue or Warrior. Playing a Monk means you’ll have to balance your quickly replenishing Energy with orbs of Chi, which enable powerful fist or foot strikes. Early on, Monks’ limited arsenal can be a drag--but they eventually offer one of the most enjoyable tanking experiences, soaking up damage and tossing huge kegs of ale to initiate fights.
Those that are returning to a previously-max-level character will find a staggering suite of changes. First off, talent trees no longer exist. Instead, you’ll find a consolidated list of 18 abilities which you’ll have to pick and choose from, no matter your specialization. It’s a change made to promote player ingenuity, placing less emphasis on “cookie-cutter” builds--but time will tell if this accomplishes the opposite effect, by making every character feel homogenous to the rest of their class. One thing’s for certain: The new talent system makes leveling a lot less exciting for fresh alts, as you’re only granted new choices every 15 levels.
That’s not the only change, though--months’ worth of tweaks and balance changes have polished WOW to a mirror finish, with nearly every parameter adjusted to make players’ lives as pleasant as possible. Each class has also undergone varying degrees of transformation to make your role of choice feel as dynamic as possible, and the changes largely succeed. Combat is pretty much the same as you remember it--but the new quests and dungeons offer just enough innovative encounters to keep things interesting. The adjustments may feel a bit shocking for vets who’ve been away for a long while, but it’ll only take a handful of fights to get back into the swing of things.
What could’ve easily been a throwaway change--the introduction of the Pet Battle system--ends up being the best distraction/obsession in the game, giving glorious purpose to the formerly vanity-only pets that players have been collecting all along. Capturing and battling trainers and friends alike is addictively amusing, and watching your team do battle to classic Warcraft II music will give you the same giddy uncertainty of a Pokémon encounter.
Pandaria offers the best high-level questing area since World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade, in terms of variety and sheer awe at your surroundings. Tranquil fields, snowy peaks, and ornate temples are all incredibly pleasing to the eye--an impressive feat, given the engine’s old age. Of the new zones, the Dread Wastes is our favorite, offering gloomy, foreboding wastelands that sharply contrast with the jade forests and peaceful breweries of earlier areas.
Your main enemy isn’t a singular villain like Arthas or Deathwing; instead, you’ll fight back the corrupting influence of the Sha, which are the manifestation of emotions like hatred and doubt. Blizzard employs the phasing technology from previous expansions to amazing effect here, constantly morphing the landscape to reflect your recent successes. It goes a long way towards making each fetch quest or extermination errand feel like an actual accomplishment--a change for the greater good that’ll last long after you’ve left.
Solo play is also the best it’s ever been, with more boss-like encounters, dramatic in-engine cutscenes, and quests rewards tailored specifically to your class. Though few in number, the new dungeons are loot-dropping thrill rides, with very few trash mobs in between the splashy boss fights. After playing recent competitors like Star Wars: The Old Republic or Guild Wars 2, it feels a bit odd to be playing a silent MMO protagonist--but Blizzard does the best with what it’s got, conjuring characters that make up for your champion’s void of personality. Novel races like the Hozen and Grummles feel like ham-handed attempts at humor, but interacting with the Pandaren and Klaxxi NPCs (giant insects with an air of superiority) is a treat.
So yes: If you and some buddies feel like dipping back into WOW, MOP offers some pretty enticing incentives to do so. Even if you only resubscribe for a month, you’ll feel like you’ve gotten your money’s worth thanks to the 40-hour (taking time to smell the lore roses) journey to conquering Pandaria. It might be showing signs of age, but that doesn’t mean WOW can’t learn a few new entertaining tricks.