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Mists of Pandaria tries to breathe new life into an old World of Warcraft


Video games these days have a shorter shelf life than ever before. Titles fall out of the top ten within days or weeks (if they ever get there at all), there are awesome new releases arriving every month or so, and even the biggest games are on a yearly (if that) sequel schedule at this point. And yet World of Warcraft has remained a constant. Blizzard's MMO has held millions of players in sway for over half a decade, and those players have killed countless boars, cleared out endless quests, dungeons, and raids, and have vanquished not one but three world-threatening expansion bosses, in the forms of Illidan Stormrage, Arthas the Lich King, and Deathwing and his Cataclysm.

So Blizzard is perhaps taking on its hardest task ever with the upcoming Mists of Pandaria expansion. There's no question in the halls of the (recently quieter) Blizzard campus in Irvine, California that the game is at a crossroads of sorts. Blizzard's formula for WoW expansions (define a baddie, and lead a player to gear and level up to the final fight) has worked so far, but it's almost as if the company realizes that the old tricks are getting old.

Blizzard needs, then, to take World of Warcraft, one of history's most-played, most-traversed, and most-conquered games, and make it feel new. "This is definitely different fare from any expansion we've tried so far," VP of Creative Development Chris Metzen said in a presentation to assembled press. He then talked about the game on a much longer scale than a few weeks, a few months, or even a Call of Duty-length year. "The big global threat that's coming, to define the next couple years of WoW's gameplay, is really war itself."

Gallery: World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria (3/18/12) | 28 Photos

As players heard last year at BlizzCon, this war is going to arrive on the brand new continent of Pandaria, a realm heavily inspired by Asian culture in general, and populated by the Pandaren, a race that's only glimpsed briefly in the game's current lore. "We're creating this entire land that really has had very little stuff that's happened up to this point," production director J. Allen Brack told Joystiq. "So there's really not a lot of knowledge about what those zones or those stories are going to be like."

It's clear from playing the expansion for a few hours that those zones are definitely beautiful. Since BlizzCon, Blizzard has added two new zones to the map, which gives the high level Pandaria seven different sub-areas, each with their own look, feel, and questlines. The Wandering Isle is green and lush, with pagodas and farms dotting the landscape leading up to the area's first instanced dungeon, an ancient temple.

There are parts of Pandaria that hint at the Himalayas, huge mountain ranges (including one called "Mount Neverest") that hide secret monasteries and Pandaren factions. And the game's central hub area, the Valley of the Four Winds, not only houses ornately and beautifully portrayed faction-centric buildings, but also a battleground, where the Horde and Alliance will fight for daily goals and rewards.

The whole area is just drenched in shiny quality, as if Blizzard's artists were let off their leashes after simply revamping the world's look in Cataclysm. There is a definite sense of fun in the expansion as well. One of the NPC races, the Hozu, are mischievous baboons, and in the Stormstout Brewery dungeon (the legendary brewery founded by famous Pandaren Chen Stormstout's clan), the Hozu can be found getting drunk, having knife fights, and helping cause some chaotic magic that eventually creates "Ale-mentals" for players to battle.

Some of the dungeons "are pretty lighthearted," admitted lead encounter designer Scott Mercer. "We're really just trying to provide people with more like a changeup here." In addition to the nine new dungeons and three new raids, two old favorites are getting revamped. Scarlet Monastery and Scholomance (both from the original WoW release) are getting remade with new graphics and new bosses, being streamlined to play more clearly and a little faster.

Mercer said there's more planned as well: "Stratholme is one that I'm sure we'll come to later," adding "we haven't talked about this at all, but we're actually reworking Ragefire Chasm. Not to be a heroic, but we're actually going over the low level Ragefire Chasm so it'll be a little bit more enjoyable."

The Pandaren are joining both the Horde and Alliance as a playable race; the new class, the Monk, has gotten a few changes since it was first announced as well. "The first is, they have auto attack once again," said lead systems designer Greg "Ghostcrawler" Street. Originally, the Monk required players to press a button every time they wanted to do damage, and while Street agreed "it was cool because it was different," that idea didn't really work out. "You'd go up to start combat and your guy would just sit there. That felt really bizarre for World of Warcraft."

Instead, the Monk now plays a little bit more like a Rogue, with the Ki resource system not just defining what moves you can do, but actually allowing for combos (use an ability to send the meter into the black side, and then two that go back into the white direction). Also, as Street said, "all of their attacks have some little weird hook" -- one of the Monk's moves sends your character flying forward into the air with a kick, which can then be stopped at any time, causing damage where you land. And of course there's also a spinning crane kick (which does periodic AoE damage), and one move that lands a few quick punches all in a row.

Talents for all of the classes have changed a lot, and Blizzard has abandoned one of its most popular ideas ever since Diablo 2. The talent tree, as most players know it, is completely gone. "Somewhere out there there is a model that works. The truth is that we could just never find it," said Street with a hint of exasperation. Players have long been able to put tons of points into little boxes to set up their talents and abilities, but Street said the result of that system was that players would go read the best way to do that online, and just follow directions.

Instead, the new Talent system basically gives players three choices per level tier, boiling down the customization into just about five or six total choices rather than the more than sixty they had to make. These choices can be changed with a relatively cheap consumable item, so Street said he hopes players are able to find the character they want without a lot of trouble. "It's interesting that Diablo, StarCraft, and World of Warcraft all kind of hit on the same solution where the only way to make chracter customization fun is to have exclusivity, where you can have A or B but not both, and that is what is fun."

Pet battles are still planned for inclusion in Mists of Pandaria, but Blizzard didn't have them playable yet. It did show off a cute video of the system, using unofficial Final Fantasy-style battle music. "It's turn-based, and WoW has nothing turn-based, so we had to build a whole new system for it," said Street. Blizzard wants to make sure the pet battles are fun before anything else, so the system won't track losses at all, and players won't get the option to grieve -- names won't be shared during fights, and even the players fighting won't get to talk to each other directly.

And Blizzard isn't done with it yet, though the direction so far has been to pare it down to bare simplicity. Street said the main goal is to just get it right, even if it's extremely basic. "At BlizzCon, we talked about how you were going to have collars for your pets and gems on the collars, and we might still do that someday, but we'll put it off to get the basic form in there. And if it works and players are excited about it and it takes off, then we can always add more to it later."

Finally, lest players think the expansion is all cuddly bears, booze-based puns, and pet battles, there's at least one big feature meant strictly for the hardcore: Challenge Modes for dungeons. Players will get timed while attacking each heroic dungeon in the game with normalized gear, and those times will be posted on a series of leaderboards in the game, with bronze, silver, and gold medals (along with gear and title rewards for each) being given to the best times out there. "On our leaderboards we're going to go to like a thousandth of a second," said Street, which will make balance across the game that much tougher. "It's like a 50 yard dash, where you need that kind of precision, so even tiny little buffs are going to make a big deal."

And there's even more beyond that: The Pandaren will have factions that allow players to raise and grow their own Cloud Serpent mounts, or actually raise and build up a farm in the game world itself. Scenarios are special instanced areas designed to create group gameplay that are "more difficult than quests, but not as difficult as dungeons," Brack told us. And Street told Joystiq even after all of the bullet points, there are still more new things coming to Mists of Pandaria, like treasure chests returning to the game's overworld. "We have smaller dungeons we call micros, because they're not instanced, they're just the little caves or stuff you go into when you're adventuring," Street explained. "Players get to the bottom and say, 'There should be something cool here, I got all the way to the bottom.' And so we're going to put a treasure chest down there."

Blizzard's hoping that all of these things together will help convince WoW players, both old and new, that there's still life in this old game yet. WoW's oldest fans, players that played in the original beta and the early days of level 60, remember the feeling of setting out across a world that didn't have whole wikis associated with it, in which everything hadn't been found and documented already.

That's what Blizzard wants to have with Mists of Pandaria yet again. Brack hopes the expansion recreates what it was like "when you first played WoW in the brown box days, and just thinking that I have no idea what's over the next hill." Exploration and adventure are what he is aiming to make this thing about. "I think that's really what people are going to walk away with."

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