When Blizzard announced Mists of Pandaria--the next major expansion for World of Warcraft--little was revealed, save for the fact that it would take place on a new continent with Asian-influenced aesthetics and feature a new race of Panda-people (Pandarens) and a new playable class (Monk). That all changed last week at Blizzard headquarters when a veritable deluge of new details were shared at a press event that Lead Game Producer John Lagrave playfully likened to getting hit with a "data fire-hose." A host of brand new game systems and a number of refinements to the World of Warcraft formula are being implemented, with significant attempts to enhance the experiences of both casual and core players.
The first thing that struck me about Mists of Pandaria is how pretty it looks. There's no mistaking it for something other than World of Warcraft, but the overarching pan-Asian influences in the areas I saw and explored definitely gave the new continent its own unique flavor. Pandaria is a neutral land caught between the conflict between the Horde and Alliance, and shares a symbiotic relationship with its denizens. A force called "The Shaw" reacts to the host of negative emotions that come along with war, and affects Pandaria's inhabitants in mysterious ways. Pandaria's heroes find themselves in a situation where they will need to choose sides in the war for Azeroth.
"The land itself reacts to the forces that work upon it," Lagrave told me. "So the Horde and Alliance start warring upon Pandaria, and the Shaw--all those different forces--come to life. All those negative emotions trigger the Shaw: the Shaw of Fear, the Shaw of Hatred, the Shaw of Anger. Because of that, the races on the land respond."
There were a number of considerations as to how the new continent would be constructed. "We knew we had to make a connected continent," said Lead Content Designer Corey Stockton. "There was no way we could do fractured zones again."
"We've got things that feel like Mongolia and the Himalayas in the northern zone. And the first zone, The Jade Forest, feels very specifically Chinese," Stockton said. "Then we've got rain forests and jungles that feel like Vietnam. So we really have this pan-Asian influence over everything. You can't really say it's one specific place."
Based on my time playing as a level 85 Pandaren Monk, I'm happy to report that the new race and character class are nice additions to World of Warcraft's stable of choices. The hand-to-hand combat and animations are different and engaging, and finally give players a chance to create their own personal WoW-themed martial artist with a specialization as either a healer, tank, or damage dealer. I was able to sample a host of different punches, kicks, buffs, other abilities, including the power to roll for short distances. In short, it seemed like a class that folks will have a lot of fun checking out.
Core WoW players will be happy to note that Mists of Pandaria raises the game's level-cap to 90, includes nine new dungeons to explore, and unveils a host of new races of creatures to fight, ranging from the Mogu--a race of warlike creatures that once ruled Pandaria--to the Hozen, a race of monkey-like creatures that are equal parts filthy and mischievous. The talent tree has also been revamped and simplified quite a bit, allowing players to quickly enhance their characters in meaningful ways while mitigating the risk of buyer's remorse.
Mists of Pandaria will also include a number of new game modes and systems, some of which offer optional (yet deep) distractions that have the potential to appeal to both casual and core players, alike.
Pet-based combat is being added, for example. In this optional mode, players will be able to engage their pets in turn-based battles against other players' pets, in a mode that's similar to the battle system prevalent in early Final Fantasy games. With somewhere in the neighborhood of 150 different pet-types, including a brand new Panda Cub pet, the number of possible pet-battle combinations is quite large. Pets will level up as they progress, and the mode is quite friendly to casual players. The system will keep track of how many times a player wins one of these battles, but loss statistics won't be shown in an effort to keep players from getting discouraged.
"I compare it sometimes to our achievement system, where we have players that are really, really into achievements, and other players just don't want to mess with them at all," said Lead Systems Designer Greg Street. "With StarCraft, for example, even trying to do very casual PvP is really intimidating for [some] players, particularly players who haven't done it before. So we didn't want pet battles to be a scary thing. There's not much risk involved. No one is going to make fun of you," he said.
I asked Street if pet combat might expand, should the community embrace it. "If it takes off and there's a lot of depth there and people really gravitate towards it, then sure. We would do more with it in the future, and try to support that. BlizzCon pet tournaments or something," he said.
Seven new reputation factions are also being added to the mix, and though--like pet battles--they're entirely optional, there are some pretty cool nooks and crannies to delve into. The factions include, for example, a group of elite Pandaren fighters known as The Shado-Pan, and a faction of LoreWalkers that gathers bits of mythology and history comprising "the story of Pandaria" spread throughout the land. "We're trying to put a bookshelf in that room that has your collected scrolls and books of things you've found. Every time you visit it, you try to fill up the shelf with all the stuff, and then you can read it that way," Street explained, illustrating how faction-based activities will yield their own tangible rewards.
Just like Jet Li, but fuzzier.
There are even a trio of Artisan-based factions: the Brewmasters, Tillers, and Anglers. The Tillers--which were discussed in the most detail--deliver optional gameplay inspired by games like Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing, Street explained.
"You have this farm. And it's really something that you as a player have to deal with and take care of. You can go plant seeds, and the next day you might log in and water the seeds. And the next day you might log in and harvest the turnips. And then you take the turnips back up to the little farm area where all the farmers hang out. Maybe one of the Pandaran might buy turnips from you and, in return, give you apple seeds. Maybe you can grow flowers to give to a girl Pandaren because she needs them for her boyfriend. We almost have this little social interaction RPG on the side."
When I had spoken with Stockton earlier, he had also hinted that the farming aspect of the Tillers faction could serve as a precursor to putting housing in World of Warcraft.
"We've always wanted to put housing in WoW, but that's a whole team's worth of work. So this is kind of a way for us to test the waters a little bit. You get your own (instanced) farm, but it feels like it's yours, and that you're changing the world. You start with one little plot [of land], and over a series of daily quests, you can clear out up to nine plots," he said.
New "Scenarios" are also being added, which are basically PvE missions for multiple players that are a lot easier to get into than traditional RAIDs or dungeons. Stockton told me that "scenarios" fall right between the two. Players basically queue up for a scenario in which they'll be presented with a common goal, and then get to work. "Our engineers have told us we should literally have zero queue times because there's no sort of actual role [prerequisite required]," Stockton said. "Doesn't matter if you're a Tank, Healer, or DPS; you're just going to get right in."
Core World of Warcraft players looking to test their mettle will likely enjoy one of Mists of Pandaria's other touted additions: Dungeon 'Challenge' Modes. Described as the "ultimate 5-player time trials" Challenges yield prestige rewards (like awesome new armor sets). They're also one of Lead Producer Lagrave's favorite additions.
"I'm a huge fan of the challenge modes," he told me. "If you're an achievement junkie, there's a lot of awesome hard achievements to get. Two, if you want to be distinctive, that armor set is very distinctive. There's going to be unique mounts. And you're going to be able to brag. We're going to have leader boards for the guilds." In short, it's a team-based PvE mode where you'll be able to see how you stack up against other players when facing the same challenge."
Challenge modes also balance player gear. Street told me that you'll never hear a story of someone soloing a Challenge by overpowering their gear. I remarked to Street that it seems like a natural fit, and asked him about the creative impetus behind the new mode. "It really came out from our struggles with difficulty. Coming out of Wrath of the Lich King, dungeons started feeling really easy," he said. "We started hearing from players that say, 'You know, I used to love dungeons. I liked the challenge. I liked trying to use every ability I had. Like, we can't beat this boss; what can we try to do differently.'"
The Pandaren are a powerful, Zen-like race that will find itself in the middle of the conflict between the Horde and the Alliance.
"They loved the intellectual part of it, whereas, for a lot of players now, dungeons are very fast. [Players] don't have to communicate a lot. It can often be really anonymous, if you're with a group of strangers. They just weren't enjoying it very much."
Cataclysm, Street noted, featured a return to some difficult dungeons, but those unable to invest the time commitment necessary to build up a party for a RAID felt a little left out in the cold. Dungeon Challenge Mode is another way to deliver a more challenging experience while reducing the time required to participate. "It just comes back to having this gigantic player-base that's super diverse," Street said.
"Because those Challenge modes don't reward any power at all, we can keep them as an optional thing," Street said. "They're not a barrier to advancement."
Street also revealed that the loot system will be undergoing a significant change that's more player-friendly. "For RAID-finder from now on, rather than having a random roll where you compete over the item, we're just going to do 'per-player loot,'" he said. "You'll be happy when someone gets an item, rather than bitter."
He also mentioned a new system, tentatively titled "The Bonus Roll." Currency is earned by doing daily quests, and that currency can be exchanged for a "Bonus Roll." After defeating a boss, the player will have the option to use it to yield an extra reward. It's randomized, akin to a slot-machine. Sometimes it'll give you an item off that boss' loot table. The idea behind the new system is that it'll encourage players to perform daily quests before dungeons because doing so could yield some better loot.
My overall impressions of Mists of Pandaria were quite positive, and there seems to be an extra effort this time around to appeal to both casual and hardcore players with the new systems being introduced. Post-release patch content is already in the works, the first of which will see the Alliance and Horde dropping anchor and setting up battlements on Pandaria's shores, and the last of which will culminate in a conflict with Orc Warchief Garrosh Hellscream in Orgrimmar. All in all, it looks like World of Warcraft fans will have a lot new stuff to get excited about when Mists of Pandaria finally arrives.
The landscapes in Pandaria are quite striking, with a variety of different Asian influences on display throughout the continent.
A Hozen. You'll beat the tar out of a lot of these guys in Pandaria.