Mists of Pandaria and the new age of World of Warcraft

Back in March during a press event for the fourth expansion for World of Warcraft, Blizzard's VP of Creative Development Chris Metzen said that the release of Mists of Pandaria would mark a turning point for the grandest of MMOs. "This is definitely different fare from any expansion we've tried so far," he said at the time. Mists of Pandaria, Blizzard believed right in the middle of its development, wasn't just about five more levels or pet battles or big, playable Pandas, though all of those things are in there. It was about designing the next cycle of content for World of Warcraft. "The big global threat that's coming, to define the next couple years of WoW's gameplay, is really war itself," Metzen said.

At the end of the last expansion, Cataclysm, Blizzard did need a new plan. Long ago, even before the game's first Burning Crusade expansion, word had leaked out that the development team had ideas for expansions about the world's Northrend continent (which eventually became the Wrath of the Lich King expansion), and the setting's elemental planes (which was reworked into Cataclysm). But Pandaria was never on that list, or any other lists that have reached the public's eyes before it was announced.

So Mists of Pandaria, then, does represent a new turn in the already long and still growing story of World of Warcraft. It represents not only a turn in the game's lore (which up until this point has been heavily based on the series' previous titles), but a turn in the game's direction, the first step in answering how (and even why) you keep a PC game this old and this unwieldy still profitable, fresh, and growing.%Gallery-150969% It's hard to recommend Mists of Pandaria to someone who has never played World of Warcraft before, much less any MMO. For one thing, it's an expansion pack: While the core WoW game (up to level 20) is completely free to play, half of the Mists of Pandaria content is all the way up at levels 85-90, so it'll be hours and hours of gameplay before anyone who pays $40 today can see that part of the world themselves.

Not to mention that, after eight years of expansions and content updates, the game plays like a patchwork quilt, with various threads from different ages and development philosophies running this way and that. Story lines have been crissed and crossed so many times in the game's history that it can get absurd: Technically, the Lich King doesn't sit on the throne in Icecrown any more, but that doesn't keep players from spending a few zones fighting his influence with everything they've got.

At the same time, however, Blizzard has used its huge pool of both resources and game design expertise to keep things as fresh and involving as possible. The Cataclysm revamp of the lower level zones not only gave longtime players something new to see, but also helped to smooth out the experience for new players, making quests easier to understand and complete than they first were when developed in 2004.

In that sense, one of Mists of Pandaria's biggest accomplishments is that it overhauls many of the game's systems in the way that Cataclysm overhauled much of the game's content. The talent trees as players knew them are essentially gone now, replaced with a more simple series of talent choices (similar, incidentally, to Diablo 3's skill selection). Classes in general have been simplified, too, with basic mechanics boiled down to five or six skills used in a few different orders. Stats have been smoothed out, and even pet and mount mechanics have been cleaned up, making it much easier for new (or more casual) players to fill out the game's various cosmetic collections and equipment.

The world of Pandaria is gorgeous, in a way that hearkens back to the first beautiful scenes of World of Warcraft.

In the past, WoW players might have complained that these changes made the game too easy, that Blizzard was nerfing things for casuals. But that's not what's happening here. Instead, Blizzard has smoothed things over so that it can add complexity underneath. Newbies to a class can simply read the in-game guide to see how to use their skills, but veterans and advanced players can time their abilities out just right for maximum damage. And even simplifications to cosmetic features like the pet collection interface have opened up Blizzard to take advantage of new complexity, like the enormously popular Pet Battle system, where players have had plenty of fun finding, fighting with, and leveling previously non-combat creatures.

Now, all of those changes are core to the game's code, so players won't even need to buy the expansion to experience those updates. But even when it comes to the new Pandaria content, Blizzard has elected to simplify in order to complicate. The world of Pandaria is gorgeous, in a way that hearkens back to the first beautiful scenes of World of Warcraft. The first two zones in particular, Jade Forest and The Valley of the Four Winds, are incredibly well-made, with Chinese-inspired towns and temples embedded in shaded green glens and peaceful fields of crops.

These serene landscapes hide some of the best quest design Blizzard has ever done. Star Wars: The Old Republic earned a fair number of accolades for providing voice acting for every single quest, but Blizzard has instead used the effect judiciously, painting out the character of Pandaria's native Pandaren when it really counts. Lorewalker Cho especially stands out as a charming and deep character. He's introduced in a dialogue-heavy quest early on, and seems to show up wherever the action is happening after that, always in a very welcome way.

While the quests (and new mechanics like a full farming system and refined phasing techniques that allow for some really interesting storytelling moments) are very impressive, what's most interesting about the story of Pandaria isn't necessarily what's happening in the levels from 85 to 90. It's what's to come. As the players of the Horde and Alliance explore the land of Pandaria, which first seems pristine and then is more and more ravaged by war and Warcraft, you get the sense that there's a growing darkness here. The game's next patch brings even more war to the shores of Pandaria in a series of daily quests, and all indications are that things are going to get worse for the Pandaren and their land, not better.

Which brings us back to Metzen, and "the next couple of years" of the World of Warcraft. The story of the game so far has been about how the Horde and Alliance factions have dealt with external threats, how they've had to fight the Burning Crusade, the Lich King, and the legacies of all of the series' previous titles. But Mists of Pandaria feels different: As much as it is about this land of Pandaria, it also threatens to focus the spotlight on WoW's own players rather than the next big bad guy.

How do you keep an enterprise like this going, after all? WoW is more of a subscription gaming service than a standard game at this point -- it's an ongoing social network, persistent character simulator, and mini-game collection all rolled up into a single login costing a monthly fee. The other expansions were legacies of World of Warcraft as a video game, individual stories and content pieces available inside a standard retail box.

But Mists of Pandaria (especially with its digital success) represents the future of World of Warcraft, an experience where even war itself is just one of the many things you can do in between instance running and pet battling and farming and crafting and whatever else you find. The World of Warcraft has been running for almost eight years at this point, and yet Mists of Pandaria shows very clearly that the possibilities for Blizzard are still just getting started.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.