Friday, February 15, 2013

Mixed Early Thoughts On Pandaria

When my initial impressions of WoW's Pandaria expansion were primarily negative, I made a conscious decision to hold judgement - and not post on the blog - while I tried to figure out why. 

I knew some portion of the issue was a disruption to my routine - after spending the overwhelming majority of my time in WoW during the last two years either running random dungeon groups or working on pet battles, suddenly the five new levels stood in between me and what I was used to doing for probably the first time in my MMO career.  Some portion was the learning curve associated with yet another major overhaul to the game's class system.  Some portion was that the story simply needed time to ramp up. 

I'm glad I took the time.  Having cleared the Jade Forest, and hit level 87 in the process, I have found truth in both the mitigating factors but also potentially some degree of disappointment with the expansion itself.

Changing the time-to-kill
Over the years, I've found that I'm notoriously bad at predicting what class I am going to like in a new MMO.  Many things that sound good on paper turn out to be not so fun in practice.  The one indicator that works most of the time is the time it takes to solo an individual mob - a seemingly highly technical thing to look at but a major impact on my personal playstyle. 

When individual mobs die very quickly, I would rather play a ranged character so that I'm not spending all of my time chasing after my next target.  (This was a particular problem for SWTOR melee because your NPC companion switches targets automatically, while I'm still trying to figure out what direction to run in.)  When mobs take comparatively long to beat down, I often prefer to play a melee character, as they are better suited to being in melee range and spend less time and effort kiting mobs around in an attempt to avoid damage. 

WoW has historically been a game that tended very strongly towards short mob life expectancy - in Wrath in particular, solo mobs could take no more than 2-4 hits and live a total of 10 seconds each - really short compared to soloing in any other MMO.  As such, it makes sense that I tried melee and ended up sticking with a mage.  With Cataclysm - and now especially Pandaria - it seems that they have made a conscious effort to slow combat down.  Health pools for both players and mobs are larger.  The mage has been given the tools to deal with this - all three mage specs can now have a snare on their primary nuke spell and access to previously spec-specific defensive abilities. 

POM, Ice Barrier, and Living Bomb, now all on one spec
Still, it's a big difference in feel, and this threw me for a real loop when trying to get back into leveling content.  In any other game, I would probably just switch over to one of my several melee alts (85 Warrior, 70 Pally, 45 Rogue, and instant Death Knight on the server of my choice), but with so many years behind this particular character as my main in WoW, that's a bit of a tough sell just because the class design winds are blowing in a different direction this year. 

Atmosphere of Pandaria

Assuming you don't hate the stylized graphics on principle, WoW has been getting prettier with every expansion.  Cataclysm's approach of tacking on a few new areas to fill in gaps within the old world map made the expansion in some ways disjointed, but they did a very good job of making each zone feel like WoW's take on a specific environment (desert, undersea, etc).  With a new, thematically consistent continent, Blizzard has tackled one consistent theme - China - and done so with some of their best results to date. 

On the downside, the story definitely took a while to grow on me. One Pandaren in Warcraft III was cool, and the idea of an expansion of them sounded cool, but the reality of an entire continent of bears talking in Chinese-accented English going on about the serenity - and comic appetite - of their people may be overusing the gimmick after all. 

Meanwhile, the story has inadvertently driven home how absurd WoW's current faction setup really is.  The majority of the expansion's content, as with past years, pits players against common foes, often on behalf of neutral NPC factions.  There is a strong effort to push individual storylines for the Horde and Alliance, but this only drives home how these are NPC factions that players are forced to live with. 

Players have no more influence over the actions of "their" side of the conflict than they do over the numerous groups of NPC's.  It is immediately obvious from the narrative that enlisting the local population to fight a war on a land where negative emotions can take physical form with catastrophic results is not a good idea.  However, your NPC's are no less hapless than any of the others in avoiding this outcome, and for this we divide the playerbase permanently in half, only to once again be sent off to kill common enemies once the storyline is complete.  At this point, the game would be better served leaving the two sides in place and having player characters be a third faction who can hang out with whichever group of NPC's they prefer for story purposes.

Moving Onwards
With the preliminaries resolved - the initial zone, two of the five levels, and yes, incidentally, taming pretty much every battle pet that moves on the continent so that's no longer competing with PVE questing for my attention - it'll be interesting to see how the experience shapes up.  The thing that's odd about my Pandaria experience is that I'm clearly not tired of the sandbox PVE experience - that's what's competing for my time in numerous other games.  It's possible that in another month, I'll be back to my routine of hitting the dungeon queue and doing whatever else strikes my fancy while I wait for the group to form.  Or perhaps I need to face reality and switch to a melee character. 

Regardless, my path forward in WoW is murky in a way that it hasn't been for years. 
At least there are Chinese dragons to collect?


  1. You had me up until "... tired of the sandbox PVE experience". What exactly are you referring to? What could be considered "sandbox" in the World of Warcraft?

  2. Two thoughts.

    1. Start a farm. The farm minigame is pretty fun, and keeps you active in the game.

    2. Don't give up on it until you do dread wastes, the zone in the far west of the island. Dread wastes turns the entire game around and it suddenly becomes good again. That area is amazing. Best questing experience in all of pandaria and cataclysm. It feels like being back in wrath. If only there were like 3-4 more Mantid zones of the same quality, I'd still be playing.

    If you can push through the painful, cringe-worthy 'save my vegetables' quests and training montages in the middle of the continent, there's a worthwhile reward at the end of it.

  3. Looking strictly from the outside in, the class changes in Panderia seem wrong headed to me. I felt that they got traits about right in Cataclysm, the new system doesn't appeal to me at all. There is no longer any trait system to speak of, and many of the "iconic abilities" you can choices while leveling aren't really choices at all (one of the three options is far superior).

    It also seems pretty late in the game to slow down combat so drastically that mages need to have snares available in all three spec lines to function. Such drastic changes in an old game seem to me more like change for the sake of it than a well thought out response to lingering design issues.

  4. Since your level 87, you can skip Valley of the Four Winds/Kasarang Wilds if it does not jive with you. It's the weakest of the Pandaria questing areas, save for some stuff in Kasarang and the ending that wraps up the plot of both zones. "The Road to Kun-Lai" quest will take you to Kun-Lai and from there the tone of Pandaria get's progressively more serious and better, I think. "Better Dead than Dread", which comes up at level 89, takes you to the Dread Wastes.
    Doing all the zones one of the other, in progressive order, give you the benefit of seeing some characters come back in later zones. Not necessary, but it can be cool.
    Personally, I'm woking on my 3rd 90 and I skipped Valley of the Four winds/Kassarang. It was kinda fun once, nice change of tone, but after that it can kinda wear on you. I do appreciate what the point of the Valley was though.


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