There will be spoilers for Mists of Pandaria in this post.
So there's no other way to say this: I am enjoying the heck out of the stories I am being presented with in the Mists of Pandaria beta. I'm actually reading quest text. (To be fair, I do that a lot anyway -- lore nerd and all.) Frankly, as Anne pointed out this weekend, one of the things that's best about this expansion is that everything we experience is new to us. Mists of Pandaria isn't just the story of the pandaren. In fact, while the pandaren are very cool, I find myself absolutely drawn to explore everything else up on the buffet table. The Mogu and their astonishing ruins, the mantid threat in the Dread Wastes, the entirely foreign threat of the Sha -- these are all compelling and fascinating to me. Better still, I'm being presented all new ways to explore these story options.
More so than any expansion in the history of World of Warcraft, the Mists of Pandaria are parting to show us an entirely new world, one we know very little about. If you're an old codger like me, that in and of itself is an interesting departure. But it's being backed up by all the innovations and discoveries of the past seven years of quest and zone design. Frankly, this first post-Cataclysm expansion owes a lot to the teachable moments of the massive zone redesign effort made in the previous expansion. The fruits planted then are being harvested now, and the results are in places stunning.
Carve yourself onto a blank slate
With Pandaria, we're exploring what happened somewhere we have never been before. Granted, we'd heard of Pandaria before, because of Chen Stormstout's appearance in the events surrounding the foundation of Orgrimmar. But that was all we had, an awareness that this one character had come from somewhere.
Now, with the Mists parted, we finally get to explore that place and discover for ourselves the truth of an entirely new approach to things we take for granted. In Pandaria, things as simple as the history we've been taught about the formation of the world could end up being challenged. The spirits have their own hierarchy. The natives approach the land entirely differently. Everything from custom and tradition to warfare is approached in ways that have evolved in isolation for century upon century, millennia after millennia. There are entirely new peoples unheard of in the rest of the world, going about their lives without a thought to the war between the Alliance and the Horde that looms so large to us.
Of course, that war expanding to the shores of Pandaria is part of the new lore, too. The clash between these cultures, each with new ideas the other has not seen before, is an engine driving our exploration forward. It's handled very deftly in Jade Forest, as the Alliance and Horde forces make pacts with local peoples (the Hozen and Jinyu) and begin exploring, only to be party to a great calamity that helps kick players out of the zone and into the wider continent on a journey as much for personal redemption as exploration.
Pandaria's story -- stories, really -- use the unknown as a lure and a promise to motivate further exploration. Every place you explore has new sights, new ideas, and at times new forms of menace that must be confronted. To a degree, at times you're facing this danger because it's related to your actions, but there's also a sense of the outsider in a new world being given a chance to become part of that world.
The gate of the new world
I was floored with just how many interweaving quest lines cut through some of the zones. Kun-Lai Summit has quests involving your faction expanding into the new zone, quests completely departing from that to explore the history of the area, quests involving the Temple of the White Tiger and the native spirits of Pandaria weighing your actions, quests that reveal the Zandalari-Mogu alliance and its origins, and quests detailing the Shado-Pan and their influence on the world and how the world has influenced them. If you ignore the quest text, you're doing yourself a disservice here.
The zone is liberally strewn with story beats. And it's not unique in that aspect. Every zone I've explored has been similarly festooned with crazy shrines unfolding the origin of the Mists and how the last pandaren emperor saved Pandaria (and why he didn't just save his own empire, but also even the lands held by his people's enemies) or giving tantalizing hints about the mogu or the mantid.
Better yet, you are absolutely in the middle of all of this.
In the process of playing through the zone, you learn more about the mantid, the yaungol, and the cycle that produced the Great Wall in the first place. It's really great to see the questing innovations we saw in Cataclysm not only used but exploited to the very edges of their capacity and improved upon when they prove insufficient. It makes learning about the world part of the gameplay, and I can honestly say I've spent more time than I was expecting to just exploring for new quest hubs to find out what happens next.
Pandaria is a whole new world, and we're about to learn more than we have since the game launched.
While you don't need to have played the previous Warcraft games to enjoy World of Warcraft, a little history goes a long way toward making the game a lot more fun. Dig into even more of the lore and history behind the World of Warcraft in WoW Insider's Guide to Warcraft Lore.