Has enough time passed to call Mists of Pandaria a flop? No? How about just a disappointment? That makes sense. The irony of its also featuring some of the best content found in the game is not lost on me. There are two sides to this Panda-coin, folks, and with Warlord's of Draenor looming on the horizon, the time seemed ripe for a return visit to Azeroth. This week, we're looking back on an expansion of miss-steps and forward strides and one that may well be remembered as a turning point for World of Warcraft.
WoW was my first true MMO love. I remember being awed by everything when I made my first character, captured in the wonder of what lay ahead and the mystery of all around. It was scary, and thrilling, and extremely fun. I bought a cheap laptop just so I could play during my breaks at college. When I discovered instances, I called a friend who was also new and gushed. He logged right on and joined me in the Deadmines. I won the blue mage staff from the last boss and believed that I'd found something so rare that I was in the money. Shortly after, I was scouring the internet trying to figure out how to un-soulbind an item. This was the mystery, the adventure, and the compelling thread that drew me through the next three years.
From then on, the game's grip on me seemed to wane, and I was far from alone. Cataclysm, for all of its old world rending magnitude, loosened the hooks formed in Wrath of the Lich King. Mists of Pandaria continued the trend. It introduced Pandaren, the Disney-esque joke race which still causes arguments to this day. It was a joke! It wasn't a joke! I'll make no bones about it. I hate pandas. Not real ones, mind you, just the “we want your ten year old” kind born on the back of flying turtles.
For all of you thinking that I'm some jaded ex-pat, think again. I love WoW. It is a great game, but let's call a spade a spade: Mists was a let down. Not all of it but a lot. Enough to warrant an expansion that changes some of its core tenets. Now, there are a million and one articles for WoW bashing. This isn't one of them. Let's talk about what Pandaria got right.
Jade Forest remains one of my favorite leveling experiences in all of World of Warcraft. It captured so much of what Blizzard has learned over the years. There was humor, sadness, and horror. The questing felt natural and the story unhurried. There was voice over – really well done voice over! – and excellent writing. It's hard to argue with old Scottish Sully and his pet raccoon, Socks: a relationship witnessed through the lens of a sniper rifle. Jade Forest captured the creativity of the entire expansion. When I finally reached its epic conclusion, I was pumped, ready to dig into the next great adventure.
The next zone came in like a truck. The pace ground to a halt. All heroism and adventure was replaced by guarding turnips and killing varmints. It was textbook poor design and more than a little jarring. Thankfully, guarding the Fat Bear Homestead was short-lived. Soon enough the pace ramped back up but never again hit that all-in-one innovative stride of Jade forest.
Each zone was still good, mind you. They were, as always, beautiful and filled with far more quests than one person need complete. The interesting ideas of Jade Forest resurfaced, one by one, throughout the zones but never in the same density or with the same sense of style. Leveling was fun, as always. It was varied, one minute manning a giant beast determined to kill hundreds of monkeys, the next climbing to the top of a snowy mountain peak. It was streamlined and left little guesswork; you knew where to go next, be it through a pre-found flightpath, or yellow masses of exclamation marks on the minimap. This gave the story a great sense of flow which trumped anything Blizzard had previously accomplished.
Also, buffalo people. Just seeing them made you pull out a glove and challenge them to a duel.
The reward systems remained excellent. Scenarios, smaller-than-small-group dungeons, were added that gave players loot and access to even more story content. The five-mans remained excellent and when you hit the level cap, even more opened up. The raid finder came in. And flex raiding. This was an expansion that blew the doors off of accessibility. It was a smorgasbord of content.
The patches were fundamental to Pandaria's success. Who will forget the utter shattering of the Vale of Eternal Blossoms? That, my friends, was incredible. Blizzard took a place of beauty, let players get attached to it, and then ripped it from our very hands. You could feel the sense of outrage of the Pandaren then. And let's not forget the Timeless Isle, the zone that lit a new fire under tired players backsides. Or the epic finale against Garrosh.
If I were to put what went wrong in two words, they would be: daily quests. Dailies are the epitome of lazy design and by the end players felt forced into completing them. For this, I had no tolerance. Repeating the same content outside of dungeons has never been my cup of tea and grinding it ad nauseum was just not going to happen. Unfortunately, many other players saw it as the path of least resistance and it hit them hard. The burn out caused by dailies still leaves streaks in the air. It's no surprise that Warlords of Draenor isn't going to include them. Mists of Pandaria never should have.