Monday, April 23, 2012

First Impressions: World of Warcraft Mists of Pandaria Beta Demystified!

Blizzard has earned a fair bit of Internet snark for following up its death, dragons and destruction-based expansion, Cataclysm, with the upcoming rolling, Kung Fu panda-based expansion Mists of Pandaria. In a fantasy world of orcs, goblins, dwarves and werewolves, playing as a cutesy, walking panda bear does seems a little out of place. You may as well just call it: World of Warcraft: Ewoks of Asia.

That said, having recently committed to a 12 month Warcraft subscription, I was gifted a special mount, a free copy of Diablo III on release, and guaranteed access to the Pandaria beta. Yes, I have now officially donned my panda skin and traversed the suspiciously non-existent mists of Pandaria! Seriously... I don’t remember much mist at all. Misleading, Blizzard! Disappointing!

So what do I think having actually played (a very early) part of the game? Join me after the jolly, chubby panda jump to find out!

Let’s start with a brief overview before tackling the specifics. For me, there’ll be three major points of interest when Mists of Pandaria releases later this year:

Obviously there’s the new Pandaren race (which has its own starting area with 10 - 12 levels of content) and the new monk class which most people will presumably try out with their new panda. This is all in the beta and takes a few hours to complete.

However, the real meat will be the new five levels of content from 85 - 90 which you can explore with your existing level 85 character. Apparently these lands will be huge and should take many, many, many hours to complete. Unfortunately though, this is not in the beta.

And finally, on a trivial but fun note, Pandaria is going all Pokemon and allowing you to battle and level up your previously non-combat pets. This is not in the beta either.

Then what is the point of this beta?

A couple of years ago when I participated in the Wrath of the Lich King beta, the world felt fully featured and I was asked to complete surveys about quests and submit suggestions. There’s none of that this time, in fact on my control panel the button to submit a suggestion is greyed out. Instead, all we really have that’s new is the panda starting area which feels more like a closed off playpen to placate annual subscribers and fulfil the promise of guaranteed access - as limited as that access may be. And they don’t want my contributions? By the end of it all, I felt like Han Solo after being tortured in The Empire Strikes Back. “They didn’t even... ask me any questions...”

So now we know what isn’t in, let’s focus on what it is. Let’s create our very own panda monk and roll around like a maniac.

Now, one of the criticisms I’ve heard floating around the interwubz is that the female pandas are too damn sexy. Fear is that these sexy pandas might turn normal folks like you and I into raging Furries and create a grand Furry uprising where everybody gets just a little too “yiffy”. I don’t even know if I’m using that word correctly. If you know then I’ve just exposed you.

Well, it’s my duty as a Fruitless Pursuits Agent of Truth to put these claims to the test. I’ve created a female pandaren called Cakecake, pictured here:

If you ever feel that Cakecake is too sexy, or you start to feel a little too attracted to her, then let me know immediately and I’ll do my best to submit this (unwanted?) feedback to Blizzard via the greyed out button. Okay? Are you still able to concentrate?

How about now?

What about now?

Are you still with me? Damn sexy pandas! What were we even talking about?

Okay, so Cakecake awakens in an oriental village on a beautiful and mysterious island. My very first impression? There are A LOT of pandas here.

Many, many pandas.

Granted this is just a case of the beta going wild, but it’s a fair indication of what panda life will be like in the initial days of the Mists launch. Crowded and difficult. And a little bit weird. I know the comparisons to Kung Fu Panda are tired, but in this environment, with all these damn sexy pandas jumping around you, it’s kind of difficult to think of anything else. There’s not much classic Warcraft in here - nothing really grounds you back in that Warcraft world.

Oh... except for one thing. The quests. And I’m sorry to say that despite how pretty and accomplished the design is, the gameplay is everything you’ve already done a billion times before. You’ll still be killing six of these and gathering eight of those. And none of it is particularly engaging or challenging - in fact the only challenge here is jostling past the giant crowd of bears.

I understand that a starting zone isn’t really supposed to be a challenge - it’s more about learning how to use your character and discovering their background, but for me it still lacks the innovation seen in the quests of the goblin starting zone for example. You won’t be controlling creatures or vehicles or playing strange mini games. Most things are incredibly straightforward. Even a promising battle with a large flying dragon is reduced to right clicking a barrel of fireworks again and again and again - never in danger of the dragon even touching you.

And the beta is often a frustrating experience - one task requires you to light a torch from a brazier in a cave, but only one character can use the item at a time. This resulted in a massive panda pile up where the brazier couldn’t even be seen, let alone clicked upon.

I spent a frustrating ten minutes waiting for the crowd to disperse (it didn’t), reading everyone’s complaints and abuse (which was plentiful) before finally resorting to a graphics exploit (if you turn your graphic settings to low and then back to high again the brazier loads a few seconds before the other players do, allowing you to click). These are minor things, and I’m sure they’ll be addressed, but it still makes me wonder how Blizzard benefits from giving me this unfinished experience and asking for nothing in return.

But it’s not without its highlights. Be warned that significant story SPOILERS reside in the text and images below so if you want to go into Ewoks of Asia unspoiled you may wish to back away now.


Now those squares are gone I can show you all the good under-the-counter stuff. Did I mention that you get to fight monkeys!!

Monkeys are the natural enemy of pandas (I guess) because they run riot around the villages tearing shit up. Later on they also desecrate sacred scrolls by replacing them with motivational messages about throwing faeces. They can also sometimes jump on top of - and ride on - your head, which I tried to get a screencap of but couldn’t because I was too busy flailing and screaming.

You don’t get to control any vehicles, but you do get to ride from town to town in a delivery cart pulled by a yak. I’m not sure what the pandaren ground mount will be (it also fails to appear in this beta as far as I can tell) but these yaks are pretty sweet. And I’m sure they’re full of milk.

You also get to fight these deceptively cute rat/rabbit hybrid monsters who are stealing vegetables from a farm. 

This cuteness appears to have spread across the expansion and feels like the biggest clue towards Blizzard attempting to appeal to the more casual market. It’s all rather fun and inoffensive. When you’re not punching out brightly coloured enemies, you’re generally frolicking with cute elemental spirits in caves and ponds.

So where is this island anyway? How does this all fit in? A hot air balloon ride later and...

ZOMG! IT’S NOT AT ISLAND AT ALL! We are on the back of a GIANT TURTLE. Called Paul. Okay, I don’t remember his real name, but it sounded pretty exotic.

You see, the great turtle is in pain because the Horde and Alliance have crashed a ship into his forbidden forest (not a euphemism) and it falls upon the ridiculously sexy Cakecake to clean things up. You get an opportunity to help both Alliance and Horde, mostly by killing tigers and gathering bamboo reeds. Remember that next time you’re in a life-threatening emergency. “Hello? Yes! Two cars just had a head on collision on the freeway. I’m going to scout for tigers immediately! Tigers would only make this thing worse!”

After clean-up and your forced exposure to a far larger world, it becomes abundantly clear that the pandas are going to have to join the craft wars. And here’s where the panda race differs from all others - you get to choose which side you’re on, resulting in good pandas on the Alliance, and evil bastard pandas on the horde. I chose Alliance and was promptly treated to a spectacular video of Cakecake leaving for Stormwind. Actually, I was treated to a spectacular promise of a video of Cakecake journeying to Stormwind.

Once there I had to go and meet up with King Varian Wrynn who took me for a suspicious walk and talk before asking me to belt the crap out of him in a private garden. I think it was some kind of Furry sex thing because he didn’t fight back and when I knocked him down he laughed and thanked me and said he hadn’t felt like that for a long time. He had a Cakecake awakening or something. 

And then, my friends, we kind of hit a dead end. I can journey to Westfall and level up as per normal and experiment further with the monk class, but I think I’ll save repeating all those quests until the game actually hits. And while the monk is an intriguing idea, there’s nothing too spectacular in those first few levels. While your friends are summoning demons, blasting fireballs and taming savage beasts, you’ll just be punching and kicking. A lot. And you have to hit the key each time.

So after all that I probably sound a little mixed to negative, but surprisingly that’s not really how I feel about the upcoming game. I’m more frustrated with the beta itself, and that we’re really just getting a small closed off corner of the expansion so that Blizzard can meet its commitment to subscribers, rather than an in-depth test of the actual game.

Despite any reservations about the premise, it’s the 85-90 content that I’m really interested in, and having come this far already with my main character, Mists of Pandaria will still be a day of release purchase. I look forward to trying the real thing, but this clearly isn’t it.

Yet. More as more develops.

No comments:

Post a Comment