How to Train Your PandarenThe improved design really becomes apparent once the player reaches level six. It starts small, with running through a gauntlet of fire spouts—good practice for about two-thirds of boss fights in the game. A later quest asks you to complete the typical “kill __ monsters” objective, but it offers a twist. The monsters in this case—water gliders—tend to group together in numbers large enough that single players will not be able to handle them all. Anyone that reads the quest text or pays attention to the movements of the monster groups will notice that individual mobs will patrol away from the pack to the edge of the water, where they can be pulled safely one-at-a-time. Someone familiar with running dungeons or raids in high-level play will recognize that activity. Soon after, the player must navigate a pond filled with hostile cranes to grab items. The twist here is that the pond curses you to turn into a defenseless frog as long as you remain inside. Because players cannot pick up the items while cranes peck at them, players must learn how to estimate the aggro radius of mobs, yet another skill useful for dungeons and raids. Once the player finally finds the water spirit they were looking for, it wants to play before it will go anywhere. The method of this “play” involves it marking a spot on the water that the player must run to in time to get launched into the air. I’ve seen many people on the last boss of Vortex Pinnacle that could have used more practice running between marked locations in time. Even the encounters start to bring in elements of high-level play, such as the new hozen monkey-people that have abilities that will kill anyone that fails to run out of melee range, or their leader who fires targeted missiles at the ground that must be avoided. Skillful use of the Pandaren racial ability allows players that have yet to master these other skills by temporarily crowd-controlling enemies.
In short, the new quests have finally started doing something the game should have done long ago: train players to succeed in higher level PvE. Bombing and turret quests are fun, but they do not prepare players for endgame. If leveling can teach new players how to play even a little better, the game experience improves for everyone.
The new tutorial aspect to these new quests works even though at no point does the game say, “PAY ATTENTION, YOU WILL USE THESE RANDOM SKILLS LATER.” I was reminded of Mr. Miyagi from the Karate Kid training Daniel in the guise of trite chores such as the famous “Wax on, wax off.” Considering the content and theme of Mists of Pandaria, I cannot help but wonder if that was intentional. A brief look at the achievement names in any Blizzard product shows that the developers love nerdy references.
A Colorful World
As for the rest of the level experience until level ten, little else stood out to me except for the graphics. For a game so behind the cutting-edge of graphics, Mists of Pandaria looks quite beautiful, with a design that calls to mind a mixture of Mulan, Kung Fu Panda, and Okami while still feeling like part of the Warcraft universe. The stylized visuals prove once again that games do not require top-of-the-line photorealistic graphics to create an immersive world.
Legends of the Hidden IsleThe storyline of the starting zone feels straightforward, with the player collecting four spirits representing each of the four Western elements for a ritual to discover why Shen-zin Su—the turtle that carries the Wandering Isle—is hurt and how to save him. Along the way, the player meets two fellow students of Master Shang Xi, Ji Firepaw and Aysa Cloudsinger. The former prefers action to planning, and the latter prefers planning to action. To dispel any lingering doubt as to which faction each will eventually choose, they are color-coded for your convenience. The journey to heal Shen-zin Su leads the three of you into the Horde-Alliance conflict and the choice of faction. While nothing spectacular, the story does serve its function well and maintains a tone appropriate to the setting.
The new starting experience provides an enjoyable introduction to the game for new players and an intuitive and easily conquered zone for WoW veterans with a couple fresh ideas. Nobody’s mind will explode from awesomeness overdose, but if the thought put into the design carries through into the rest of Mists of Pandaria, minds may explode down the road.