'World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria' preview: Hands-on with the beta
World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria is the first expansion Blizzard Entertainment has released for its multiplayer online phenomenon since it reshaped the world of Azeroth with the Cataclysm update in 2010. The new content has been in beta for several weeks now, so the developers still have some creases to iron out, but it looks like there'll be plenty of to get excited about when the final product launches.
Cataclysm is a tough act to follow, and with World of Warcraft's user base showing signs of dipping, there's a lot riding on this one. Mists of Pandaria is a lighter entry in the series, swapping the mass destruction of its predecessor with a tale about Kung Fu panda monks.
The expansion introduces a new continent to explore, an additional race that players from either faction can select, and the Monk character class, as well as expanding the level cap by five notches. While the beta has attracted an impressive volume of sign-ups, it's difficult at this stage to judge what kind of impact this new content will have on Azeroth as a whole.
Pandering to the crowd…
The Pandaren race is sure to be a big hit with the majority of the World of Warcraft fraternity. Anthropomorphic panda bears skilled in martial arts is perhaps a concept best reserved for a series of children's films, but don't let that put you off, because this new faction has a lot to offer the population of Azeroth.
The bear-like race resides in the realm of Pandaria, an Oriental-style setting steeped and myth and legend. It wouldn't be a World of Warcraft expansion without an epic storyline to accompany it, and this time around it's the old fantasy genre hallmark of an ancient evil reawakening to wreak havoc upon the world.
The ongoing conflict between the Horde and the Alliance finds its way to the shores of Pandaria, reawakening a malevolent force called the Sha in the process. This coincides with an attempt by the Mogu, a brutal warmongering race, to take over the continent and enslave the Pandarens.
Pandaria itself is a jaw-dropping sight to behold. Even at this early beta stage, the art direction and level of polish are hugely impressive. It's all serene mountains, lush jungles, and ornate temples rich in Oriental flavour. Blizzard has taken the opportunity to add another layer of gloss to the existing zones, but it's the environments and creature design that shine through.
The WoW factor
Playable Pandaren classes are Hunter, Mage, Priest, Rogue, Shaman, Warrior, and the new class of Monk. Not long after hitting level ten, you'll have a tough decision to make - whether to side with the Alliance or the Horde. This decision will dictate the course of the game from that point onwards, and defection is not an option.
Blizzard has never been afraid to shake things up, and while this latest update doesn't have the same far-reaching consequences as its predecessor, there will be some game-changers in store. The new talent system and class alterations are perhaps the most substantial tweaks to the existing mechanics, but the new Monk class and the continent of Pandaria itself are what players will be most keen to experience.
The new Monk class is shaping something of a mixed bag. While being a master of both magic and martial arts is not without its charm, this character type doesn't feel hugely different from the Rogues of old. Players can build up their power gauge and deliver the kind of special attacks usually associated with the Street Fighter series. Some of the more acrobatic finishing moves might be a spectacle, but the end result is little different to delivering a powerful melee assault with a Rogue.
The most significant change World of Warcraft's existing framework is the new class talent system. Classes will no longer have three sets of trees, with abilities chosen from individual sets every 15 levels. Each class has its own selection of talents which will be available to all members of the group regardless of their specialities. The idea is to provide a more flexible system where no talent is mandatory, enabling players to customise their skills according to their preferences.
New class talent system and Pokemon-style battles
Pandaria is a vast, sprawling continent with plenty to do and see. There are additional quests to enrol in, dungeons to crawl, and new activities to engage in. Scenarios are one such activity, allowing players to embark on a streamline alternative to full-on group quests. These essentially involve taking on a wave of enemies followed by a boss battle. A handful will be available at launch with more to be added later.
Pet Battles are one of the most anticipated features of Mists of Pandaria. These are shaping up to be casual minigames that provide an instance slice of fun. Taking their cues from Pokemon and Final Fantasy, these contests are turn-based RPG battles in their purest form. Pets level up individually and have four stats - health, attack, defence, and movement.
During each turn, you decide whether to activate an ability or switch to a different beast. Players remain anonymous while in combat, and chat is not supported here. Records of your losses will not be kept, only winning streaks, underlining the fact that this aspect of the game is intended to be light-hearted.
This is a hugely important update for Blizzard. With the excellent Star Wars: The Old Republic gaining new subscribers fast, and the hotly anticipated Guild Wars 2 coming later this year, the studio's mightly MMO has some viable contenders to its throne. There's still a lot of work to be done within the beta phase - bugs to stamp out, holes to plug and balancing to be applied - but Blizzard won't let this one out of the door until it's polished enough to see your face in.
World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria, with its anthropomorphic bears and Pokemon-esque batttles, is tonally different to what fans have come to expect from Blizzard of late, but it looks like it might just work. The serene backdrops of the new continent are essentially the yin to Cataclysm's yang, and the storyline and missions take the game back its its roots of warring factions. So, the purists can get past the talking pandas they'll find plenty to love about the new expansion.
Previous News: War College - Focus