But that was eight years ago. Since then, World of Warcraft has seen four enormous expansions (Burning Crusade, Wrath of the Lich King, Cataclysm and Mists of Pandaria) and countless minor content updates. Edges have been softened, skills refined, classes reinvented. Subs have ballooned to a peak of over 12 million, waffled up and down for a few years, then fallen most recently to 9.6 million.
Some would argue that the World of Warcraft of 2013 bears only a passing resemblance to the one we played in 2005. Others would claim it's still the same excellent/terrible game, just gussied up with fresh paint.
As a longtime WoW lover but recently lapsed subscriber, I ventured into Mists of Pandaria to sort it out for myself.
The old, familiar faces
Logging back into my WoW account after months of being away felt like finding a box of my favorite childhood toys in the attic, abandoned and dusty. These things, these characters, they were familiar to me but short of context. I know, for example, that my Shaman is a healer, but are Shamans still healers? Are they still good healers? What of my Mage? Is Frost even a spec anymore? I recognize the names but hardly know the characters.
"Maybe I don't want to play World of Warcraft after all."
I logged out again. Maybe I don't want to play World of Warcraft, after all.
Hitting the rhythm
After some time in the WoW meta, I was ready to log in and give Mists of Pandaria another shot. I loaded up my Shammy, gave him a decent healing spec borrowed from a raiding guild, re-organized my bags (filled with items I don't particularly understand or remember), and jumped into the random dungeon finder. It wasn't long before I was dropped into a group, and a few minor hiccups later, I was Chain Healing, Riptide-ing and Ghost Wolfing just like my old self. Being a healer is a bummer, though, since staring at health bars means I don't get much of an idea of what actually happens while we're running the dungeon. I was vaguely aware of some rolling barrels and extremely aware of a Rogue not understanding that standing in poison is bad, but the rest is a blur. I queued again.
It was going to be a few levels before I can explore beyond the two entry-level Mists dungeons, but everything I'd seen so far captured the original joy of WoW and punched it up with myriad innovations and improvements slipped into the game since launch. I could tell, even with this small sample size, that instance-running in Mists of Pandaria was good. As good as WoW dungeons have been since Wrath, to be sure.
Pandas are dumb
A couple of quick quests completed in my capital city sent me on the path to Pandaria. On the way, I grimaced as I remembered that I'm traveling to a land of pandas and forced "oriental" art design. Mists of Pandaria, from its first reveal, always looked stupid to me. Now I was on my way to see this stupidity in person. How long would it be before the walking, talking panda bears wore thin and the whole thing started to feel like a farce? Minutes? Seconds?
"All they wanted to do was hang out and brew beer, but we had to stagger onto their shores and turn our conflict into their destruction."
That's when the pandas started turning up. Pandaria, the land over which we were currently battling, already had a population. It also had a secret. The continent isn't simply a collection of jungles and lakes but a living, breathing organism that reacts to what occurs within its bounds. We Horde and Alliance folk, what with our constant fighting, have corrupted the continent and caused it to go all sorts of haywire. Animals that were content to co-exist with the island's other inhabitants became upset and angry; tigers pounced on anyone who walked by, and monkeys stole people's eyeballs (seriously, this is a quest). Generally speaking, we really screwed the place up.
That was when I realized that Mists of Pandaria is about so much more than Kung-Fu pandas and revamped skill trees. It's about more than new dungeons, a new loot crawl, and a new class. The real core of Mists, the main idea, is that the Horde and Alliance have become so wrapped up in their own hatred that they're completely unaware of how it affects the world around them. The Pandaren turn out to be excellent foils to this narrative precisely because they are so cute and unassuming. All they wanted to do was hang out and brew beer, but we had to stagger onto their shores and turn our conflict into their destruction.
I'm not super far into the story. But watching Blizzard so masterfully turn its original concept upside-down by asking players to experience the Horde/Alliance conflict through Pandaren eyes gives me great hope for the content to come. I misjudged Mists of Pandaria because of its cute characters and colorful art design, but the savvy quest writing, innovative dungeons and clever tweaks to a game that's nearly a decade old combine to make it quite possibly WoW's second-best expansion (I still loves me some Wrath).
Mists of Pandaria is good. Excellent, even. And if you, like me, have been avoiding the expansion because of an irrational hatred of cute things, it's time to give the new content a look. Perhaps you'll be surprised as well.
MMOs are constantly changing, and our opinions can change with them. That's why we're here to give some beloved (or not) games a second (or third) look. Has that game that was a wreck at launch finally pulled itself together? How do the hits of yesteryear hold up today? That's what we're here to find out as Massively gets its Second Wind!