Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
I couldn’t, for the life of me, get worked up either way when Blizzard announced the release of Mists of Pandaria. This was the fourth expansion of World of Warcraft: same song, different verse. I play World of Warcraft in my spare time, so, of course, I was going to buy it. It’s what I do. With the annual pass, I was able to get access to the beta version. I tested the expansion in an attempt to iron out the bugs, help improve the game, and get an impression of where Blizzard was heading with its flagship product.
Mists of Pandaria takes place on a new continent, Pandaria, which, for the record, isn’t very misty. The environments, the gear, the lore, and the new Monk class are all inspired by oriental culture. Although stunning, the whole thing feels out of place for a game that, up until now, had mostly based its look on medieval Europe. Imagine if the producers of Game of Thrones set an entire season in Africa. Some viewers might find it a nice change of pace, sure, but the rest would still press the “Info” button every five minutes to make sure they’re watching the right show.
Then, of course, there are the pandas or “Pandarians”, the new race presented for this expansion. They’ve previously appeared in a single mission of Warcraft III and in multiple April Fool’s jokes throughout the years, but that alone doesn’t make them interesting or compelling, nor does it mean fans wanted to see them become the focus of their favourite videogame. Why would I want to play as an animal that sits on its ass all day eating bamboo? Look, I gave the fuzzy butterballs a fair shake and found their starting quests quite fun actually, but their cutesy design made me feel like I was playing a computer app for three-year-olds.
However, if you think warrior pandas are the height of ridiculousness, brace yourself for Mists of Pandaria’s exclusive pet battle system. To call it a Pokémon rip-off would be an insult to Nintendo and Game Freak, as 1999’s Pokémon Silver for the Gameboy Advance offers a deeper gameplay experience. In fairness, this new feature doesn’t constitute the heart of the game, and, as Blizzard is quick to explain, it’s simply there for players to kill time when they’ve got nothing better to do. You’d think the developers would have tried to fill our time with exciting stuff related to World of Warcraft instead of wasting resources. If I felt I had nothing better to do than to play a Pokémon-like game, I’d go ahead and play Pokémon.
Another innovation in Mists of Pandaria consists of the challenge mode, which grants players a vanity prize if they beat certain dungeons within a specific time with their gear scaled down. I understand the appeal, but it seems to me the feature goes against a founding principle of the RPG genre: gear upgrades should make you stronger. The whole point of World of Warcraft is to get better and better equipment so that you can overcome greater and greater challenges, not to spend hour upon hours hunting down quality gear so that you can scale it down whenever you enter a dungeon.
Mists of Pandaria also increases the importance of daily quests in the overall gameplay. In previous expansions, you could improve your reputation with different factions by running dungeons. Now, you must do dailies, repeating the same tasks every day ad nauseum. This makes World of Warcraft feel like a chore rather than a game. I mean, do you know how often I can complete a quest before getting bored with it? Once. More to the point, I don’t understand why the developers didn’t have their cake and eat it too, allowing players to gain reputation through both dungeon quests and dailies.
However, the biggest problem with Mists of Pandaria actually started a few expansions earlier: as character classes gain new abilities, they all become the same. Take the tanks for example. It used to be that warriors survived mostly through dodge and parry, paladins relied on their shields, druids absorbed damage in their highly armoured bear forms, and death knights made up for their weakness through cooldowns. Nowadays, all the tanks follow the death knight model, leaving only a few cosmetic differences between them. When everyone can do everything, associating with a variety of characters becomes moot, and replay value goes out the window.
From the beta version alone, I found myself less than impressed with World of Warcraft’s new direction. The game had changed too much for my liking. After talking with friends who tried out Mists of Pandaria and then quit the title, a thought occurred to me: could I conceive of a life wherein I did not play of World of Warcraft? After all, MMORPGs hold little value if you can’t share the experience with your friends, and Blizzard as a company had started to display a less than stellar attitude toward its client base. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how Kung Fu Panda (2008) helped me kick the habit and close a chapter of my life.