Monday, October 8, 2012

Review: Mists of Pandaria! My Road to Level 90!

In a year thick with new MMORPGs, perennial favourite World of Warcraft is facing many challenges. Saddled with an aging engine, all-too-familiar mechanics and an increasingly rare pay-to-play model, WOW has been steadily losing subscribers. And the announcement of Mists of Pandaria, an expansion set on a continent of anthropomorphic martial arts pandas was enough to send Warcraft’s more embittered critics over the edge.

But let’s not get too crazy. Warcraft still has millions of more subscribers than any other MMO, subscribers who have invested a great deal of time and energy into levelling up and kitting out their characters, and aren’t going to stop now. And I’m one of those subscribers. Neither excited nor disappointed by the pandas themselves, I was more keen to take my main character on the journey to level 90 and see what this new chapter had in store. And there’s certainly no shortage of things to do.

To find out what I thought of all this... join me after the jump!

At first it’s overwhelming. The new content provides you with three new options and I found myself constantly split between the activities on offer. You can start a new level 1 panda monk and explore their 10-12 level starting area, you can mess around with the new Pokemon-esque pet battle system (which will require you to spend a lot of time revisiting low level areas), or you can take your level 85 character to the large new continent of Pandaria to quest your way to 90.

Having participated in the beta I was in no rush to start a new panda character, but did manage to delve in a few days after launch and spent the few hours it takes to conquer the starting area. With the exception of some added cut-scenes, not much has changed since my beta playthrough and, while it’s an enjoyable enough ride, once I made my faction choice (my monk, Cakecakes sided with alliance) I found myself back in Westfall repeating overly familiar quests. I’d love to use this new character on the actual Pandaria content, but the idea of leveling up all the way there, passing through lesser expansions like Burning Crusade, is a daunting task. Cakecakes is on the backburner for now, but I do like fast combat monk mechanic and will no doubt return to it in the future. Unleashing fists of fury on an unsuspecting animal is so satisfying that you will almost feel guilty for punching the shit out of everything.

Better yet is the new pet battle mechanic which is something that I can get very lost in very quickly and dominated my first few play sessions of the new game. All those tiny, useless vanity pets that you’ve amassed over the years have suddenly become aggressive and useful. You can pit them against each other in three-on-three Pokemon inspired brawls. I say “inspired” but it is actually pretty much 100% Pokemon - your pet has a type, e.g. “humanoid”, “flying”, “aquatic” and much of the skill comes down to anticipating what your opponent will field and trumping them by exploiting strengths and weaknesses.

You can also now capture pets in the wild, with most zones having a series of roaming critters that you can belt the crap out of and stuff in a crate. More enterprising players can then level up extras and attempt to profit from them on the in-game auction house where the battle pet trade is currently booming. The only issue is that the pets in Pandaria are high level, so if you want to go straight into that content you may have to put pet capturing aside for the time being. On the other hand, if you’re leveling up your new monk, then capturing pets along the way is an added incentive.

With hundreds of pets to choose from the system is quite deep and saturated with options. There are endless combinations for your three pet team and you could lose countless hours experimenting with them and unlocking their various abilities. You can queue for a random battle with another player quite quickly and this is not just a handy way to level up, but also a good way to study other people’s pets and strategies. I found that in the initial hours after release I was kicking all manner of arse in these random battles but there became a point where players really started to perfect their teams and now I constantly get my arse kicked. Oh and did I mention that you can name your pets now for that added level of personalisation? My star pet battler is Nuggo, a circus monkey who cripples his foes with a banana barrage.

The final pleasing addition to this system is that pets and mounts are now shared by all of the characters on your account. If level 10 monk Cakecakes captures a rabbit in Elwyn forest then my main, level 90 warrior Radler, can also access that rabbit. Most achievements are account wide too now meaning that you no longer have to grind through the same content with all of your characters. It feels that Warcraft is becoming increasingly friendlier to casual players, which may piss off the hardcores but makes me happy. The game shouldn’t be a chore and I’m glad they’re finding ways to create enjoyable experiences that don’t necessarily take up a huge amount of time.

But the bulk of the new content is the seven zone continent of Pandaria itself, which your level appropriate character will be summoned to immediately via an urgent pop up quest. This initial content did differ somewhat from the beta, with your entry into this new world becoming far more engaging than it was previously. You’re thrust into the thick of a large battle and the story unrelentingly ramps from there.

My first instinct was to criticise how formulaic the quests have become (“kill ten of these, fetch ten of those, heal ten injured troops then kill the boss”) but that criticism really only holds true on the surface. Blizzard injects a lot of variety into the way that these quests take place, assisted by an ever present overarching story and varied environments, so many of the mini experiences along the way feel somewhat unique. But I think the real reason for this formula is that it has proved to be efficient. Questing is very fast in Pandaria and most groups of three or so closely knit quests can be completed within ten minutes. The downside being that when the odd quest does manage to slow you down it really breaks the flow and feels like a drag. There’s an early quest where you collect slowly dropping turtle meat that seems to bring everything to a screeching halt. This quest was an issue in the beta and it hasn’t changed.

Although much criticism has been levelled at the “kidified” pandas, for me the game is most enjoyable when its fun and whimsical. Some zones breeze by like the large farming area filled with giant vegetables and rodents. However, like many an expansion before it, by the time you get to the final zones where the real battle is raging everything becomes bleak, desperate, and in my mind less enjoyable to play. There are hordes of Geonosian-like insect men towards the end there that keep appearing out of nowhere and thoroughly gangbanging me, making those final few bars of experience a bit of a slog. But overall, levelling up was very quick. I hit level 90 after just under two weeks of casual play, averaging no more than a couple of hours a day.

Which is not to say my journey has ended. I’m yet to try out any of the dungeons, raids or additional content that opens up in the endgame. There appears to be a lot of reputation grinding too so that you can earn awesome perks like cloud serpent riding. It’s this latter part of the game that I know very little about so, with my urge to quest sated, I’ll periodically dip my toe into the endgame content over a far longer time. It’s the hardcore part that usually eludes me.

Did I mention Pandaria is very pretty? Warcraft has really never looked better. It’s rich with cherry blossoms, jade monuments and golden pagodas. So stop being so sour faced about it. Give it a try. And we’ll still have plenty of time for Guild Wars 2 later.

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