I don't write about it much here because, let's be honest, this isn't a site dedicated to that oft-lamented and oft-played MMO that everyone knows, World of Warcraft. There was a recent addition to the in-game universe however by the name of Mists of Pandaria. It opened up an entirely new continent to players and once more into the breach I went.
My love affair with this game is approaching near a decade now and, frankly, it doesn't appear to be slowing down any time soon. The early years were hot and heavy much like the early halcyon days.. the honeymoon phase! I was a hardcore raider who spent his nights on the bleeding edge of content with my guild conquering digital foes and acquiring loot on the regular. I've rarely spent more than a few weeks away from the game since launch and though, these days, I'm nowhere near the "hardcore" player I once was I still do sink a lot of time in to Azeroth.
Cataclysm brought about the bane of Deathwing and the remaking of the world. It was a fundamental change to the game that not only improved quality of life but also brought the low end of the leveling game up to par with the rest of the journey. Leveling a character 1-60 these days is a sheer joy as opposed to only a few years ago. The zones are well stocked with quest hubs and come with a complete story arc for each section. You are asked, as players, to do things that, frankly, can be downright questionable at times. You will feel heroic, you will feel kinda scummy but ultimately the experience is one well worth going through if you've never experienced it.
Blizzcon rolled around and, well, it was expansion announcement time. Pandas? C'mon man that's for kiddies! Pandaria? You mean a whole land of those Kung-fu Panda bastards? You gotta be kidding me. THIS GAME IS SO OVER, DUDE. That refrain was echoed throughout the playerbase time and time again following the announcement of the latest expansion, Mists of Pandaria.
The dissenting voices seemed to rise to a cacophony until launch came and people actually got to experience what waited for us. The entry into the Jade Forest, for both factions is one full of tension, constant subterfuge and a sudden culture clash that we've never experienced in this game before. These Pandaren are an ancient people who believe in balance. This balance is paramount to their way of life yet the presence of these warring factions now that the Mists have parted is causing upheaval.
A moment that really stands out for me is the Battle of the Jade Serpent. The journey through the Jade Forest was one that was full of many ups and downs. I'd had my emotions toyed with and pulled in numerous directions and, frankly, the questing was some of the best I've ever experienced in an MMO. Storytelling was tops here and it all came to a head with the great conflict at the Temple.
That statue toppled over and from the debris arose a great monstrous thing. A Sha. A Sha of Doubt. Growing worry and doubt had been rising within the path along the way to this point in time. These things are manifestations of anger, doubt and fear. This creature.. was it here because of me? Was I a reason for this land now suddenly being torn asunder? This great scar upon the Forest was it my doing?
I had to take a moment and sit back. It was rare that something in a quest had ever made me have to immediately stop and reflect like that. This new land that we had come to was now beset by violence and the scars of it were physically present in these new monstrosities.
That is where the genius of what the developers, story and otherwise, have managed to accomplish here. Jade Forest is only the beginning. The Valley of the Four Winds offers a much more layed back approach to the madness giving players a sort of breather from that stress-filled finale of the Jade Forest. Things begin to ramp up, however, once Chen Stormstout and his niece, Li-Li, enter the picture. Simple endeavors to fetch some grain for a good brew soon turn into a rousing battle upon the steps of Stormstout Brewery to reclaim a family's pride. The Valley gives way to Kun-Lai Summit where the land is rough and tumble yet the resolute folk who inhabit it are attempting to stand against the rising tide of invasion from the Yaungol and the beginnings of the resurgence of the Mogu. Townlonge Steppes is where the power struggle between the sworn defenders of Pandaria, the Shado-Pan Monastery, square off against any and all invaders foreign and domestic. The mantid have overrun the Dread Wastes and the Krasarang Wilds are where the stage is set for the growing offensive of the Horde and the containment strategy of the Alliance.
Each zone dovetails into another naturally and the types of stories the players are exposed to are greatly varied and choices are made. It is an interesting idea that these Pandaren who ask for us to slow down and appreciate the wonder of things and to shun violence are constantly needing the assistance of us would-be adventurers in perpetuating violence. Ultimately this expansion starts to ask the question of not only how Pandaria will affect us but how we will affect Pandaria?
This formerly untouched landscape, shrouded in great Mists for over 10,000 years, is now suddenly available to the world. The cruel unforgiving world that has stood against the coming of numerous extinction-level event threats time and time again yet here this continent sits a relative paradise in comparison. The Sha are an example of our effect on it but further still how are these relatively peaceful Pandaren now suddenly becoming more like us warring heathens?
I've always been a roleplayer. I'll admit that right now. So, I've always tended to view things through the lens of what my character might think. The changing politics and motivations of both factions have been of great interest as the story has developed. The entry into Pandaria saw both factions picking at each other and, at times, coming to great skimishes but not all-out war yet. The next phase has seen Landfall. The warships have come and expedition forces are on the march.
The Horde side has seen Garrosh Hellscream in charge of the Horde after the exit of Thrall to deal with the threat of Deathwing and to aid the dragon Aspects in Cataclysm's timeline but now he is really starting to kick off the war machine. Theramore's destruction was but a taste of things to come and, frankly, Blizzard made no bones about it that Garrosh will be a raid boss come the end of the expansion. Things will change yet again. The seeds of future storylines that were planted in Wrath and Cataclysm will start to flourish during Mists and beyond. The Alliance player has been privy to the growth of Anduin Wrynn as a stronger presence but ultimately as Varian has been vilified in the past this expansion has seen him as much more of a strategist and as a leader that feels conflicted in what to do. The Horde is a definite threat, moreso than ever, yet attacking head-on in these new lands is not the answer. Containment is the answer, so he says.
There is a LOT going on in terms of the already rich tapestry that makes up the soul of the in-game universe. More is coming in regards to the Rise of the Thunder King and future content. That is what sets this expansion apart, in my mind, from ones before it. Yes the iconic villains and stories from the lore have been addressed (The Lich King, Illidan, The Burning Legion, Deathwing) but now it is time to strive forward and forge new tales. Ones that will, ultimately, enrich the story further and make for a much better game overall.
The quality of life changes that were made in Mists, again, help to insure that no matter one's play style there's still a way to advance a character as, let's face it, that's what it's about. Advancing forward in some way. There are lots of dailies to do and reputations to grind. There are pets to battle and numerous other time sinks that did not exist a year prior. Those are nice but it is what the story has done to evolve and grow along with just how important the player's role has become in all of this that makes Mists my personal favorite expansion thus far. The lens of nostalgia is powerful and because of that Burning Crusade has always been one of my personal favorite times for the game but, for my money, Mists outdoes it. We aren't even through the entire cycle of content yet and I'm finding myself more enthralled by this game than ever before.
Well done, Blizzard. I appreciate that, above all, this new content that you're giving feels like it REALLY had a lot of heart and soul put into it. Lovingly crafted, as it were, and it shows.