The highlight of this year's BlizzCon was the never before seen World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria. Even before going to BlizzCon, I knew that there was going to be a new WoW expansion unveiled at the show and that it probably had something to do with pandas. Although I wasn't expecting that much beyond a new playable race, I was more than pleasantly surprised by what I saw and played. Next year's expansion is packing a lot of content: the Pandaren as a new playable race, the Monk class, a new starting area, a small level 85-90 continent, and most surprisingly, a Pokèmon-like monster battle system thrown in for good measure.
At the convention, the entire Pandaren level 1-10 starting zone and the Monk class were available to play on the show floor. I was able to reach about level 9 in the demo, so I got a great feel for the Pandaren race and the Monk class. When you first load into the demo, you are a new recruit at a Pandaren Monk temple. You are guided through much of the starting area by the quest-giver Master Shang Xi who has decided to take you under his wing. The first thing I noticed when I started the demo was how colorful and vibrant the starting area was. Blizzard has really gone all out with the Chinese and Kung Fu themes. This WoW version of China, with touches of Japan and Korea, feels genuine and loving, crafted by people who truly enjoy East Asian culture. Mists of Pandaria feels more like a homage than a cheap cash-in on easy stereotypes. The line between the two can be fine, but Blizzard never crosses it. Even the wispy classical Chinese music in the background feels genuine and adds a lot to the atmosphere of the game.
The Pandaren themselves also look fantastic. During a WoW art panel, the developers mentioned that there are ten times more bones in the face compared to previous character models for the game. There are also a lot of new Pandaren and Monk specific animations in the expansion. As a result, the Pandarens are very expressive and have a real weight to their movement. Unfortunately, none of the character creator options were in the game yet, so everyone had to play the same, generic Pandaren male.
"I like the Chinese feel, the Pandaren race, and the active and fun Monk class"
I chose to play the demo as a Pandaren Monk. The Monk class instantly feels unique thanks to its lack of an auto-attack. As a result, you are a lot more engaged in combat and focused on creating combo attacks. The Monk has two resource systems that lend themselves well to the fighting game-like feel that Blizzard is going for. The first is a Chi meter that quickly recharges and is used for your basic jab attack and to roll. The roll curls your character up into a ball to immediately roll around the map. During the demo, rolling was the primary mode of transportation. In fact, I rolled around so much that during the demo, I got an achievement called "Panda Express" for rolling more than 100 times. The jab, on the other hand, is your primary attack. Every time you hit the jab button, you lose a bit of Chi. However, you build up the second resource available to the Monk: Dark and Light Forces.
At the center of the screen, there is a meter with a dragon at the center and four empty orbs on either side of the dragon. As you use your jab, you build up energy on each side. These Light and Dark orbs are then used to activate other attack skills. By combining your jab attack with Light and Dark skills, you are able to do powerful combo attacks. For example, during the demo, I would jab a couple of times to build up my Light energy, and then unleash a Tiger Palm attack. The Tiger Palm attack gives bonus damage if used on an enemy whose health is above 50%. Once below 50% health, you can then use Dark energy, such as a round house kick. If the round house kick is used to finish off an enemy, an orb of dark energy will be returned to you. The Light and Dark resource system combined with the lack of an auto-attack did a lot make to me more involved in my attack rotation and combos than I would have been otherwise.
The Pandaren starting area was a lot of fun to explore. The story involved proving your worth to four different elemental spirits. After finding them and gaining their trust you then had to bring them back to a temple at the center of the turtle island. Yes, I said turtle. The Pandaren starting area takes place on the back of a giant turtle in the middle of the ocean. This turtle is so large and old that the wandering Pandarens on his back have built up ancient villages and temples there. It is an interesting back story and the art direction and sound design do a lot to sell it.
One highlight in the demo for me was the auto-learning of abilities during level ups. Whenever I leveled up and gained a new ability, the ability instantly appeared on my hotbar. Even when I was far away from town or in the middle of a fight, I was instantly able to put my new skills to use. Another highlight was the variety of areas in the starting zone. I got to see everything from ancient temples, to rice paddies, and to farms filled with vegetable-worshiping rabbit kobolds. This variety does a good job of making the Pandaren starting zone feel both old and new at the same time. It feels old and new in the sense that you are experiencing a long lost culture and its people for the first time in centuries.
Prior to BlizzCon, I had let my subscription to WoW lapse. After this year's convention, I will be renewing it as soon as Mists of Pandaria arrives. I like the Chinese feel, the Pandaren race, and the active and fun Monk class. I also can't wait to try out the Pokèmon-like pet battle system. There is certainly a lot here for WoW fans to like, and there may be enough to get some new people to jump on board too.