The preview portion of the Mists of Pandaria press event was full of surprises -- surprises such as the game world has actually been expanded since BlizzCon. In fact, there have been two entirely new zones in Pandaria added since the continent was first shown off.
Dave "Fargo" Kosak, WoW's lead quest designer, told us, "We didn't just split up zones. We added a ton of terrain. We were developing these little subzones and thought that they really deserved to be their own experience, so we added a lot of terrain to support a robust quest experience, new stories, new characters -- the whole deal."
Cory Stockton, the game's lead content designer, chimed in saying, "We wanted to get more content into the game; we felt like there were a lot of stories we could tell, a lot of things we wanted to do here. It also gives us a less linear progression for players when they're coming through a second or third time."
Kosak and Stockton guided us through five of the MoP zones -- also full of surprises -- which we'll go into below. But the biggest surprise? Kosak ended the preview with the following: "So ... we're not talking about release dates yet. But I will tell you that, um, all of this (gesturing to Kun-Lai Summit, then Vale of Eternal Blossoms, then Jade Forest, then Krasarang Wilds, then Valley of the Four Winds) is completely quested. Full of content."
Wow. Let's take a look! For a quick jump to any particular zone, try the links below, or read the whole thing after the break.
Home of Yu'Lon the Jade Serpent, one of the August Celestials that watches over Pandaria, this is the first zone level 85 players will enter. The Horde and Alliance start off on different areas, à la Borean Tundra and Howling Fjord, making sure quests aren't too mobbed when there's heavy foot traffic in the zone. Adventurers from both factions have to deal with being marooned on this "undiscovered" continent; the Alliance expedition is shipwrecked, whereas the Horde has crashed their zeppelin. Chris Metzen pointed out that you don't land with an unending supply of troops; your faction has a pretty small group, basically a single platoon, that you get to know over the course of the adventure.
Knowing that the other faction is also on the continent, the first order of business is to recruit new allies to fight for you. Jade Forest has several intelligent (well, we'll get to that in a bit) indigenous species besides pandaren, and each faction chooses one with whom to ally themselves.
The Alliance runs into the jinyu, a wise, elder race of koi fish-people, and earns their trust by assisting them in their fight against the hozen, a wild, dim-witted race of monkey-men who, coincidentally, are recruited by the Horde. The hozen are the exact opposite of the jinyu -- Kosak describes them as "16-year-old cavemen, or more accurately, once the Horde equips them, 16-year-old cavemen with machine guns and rocket launchers."
Stockton noted that with the help of a new modular appearance system for NPCs, they're able to dramatically increase the variety in appearance of all of Pandaria's NPC races (including the hozen and jinyu) by way of armor, hairstyles, doodads, knickknacks, gewgaws, etc. "We can, in some cases, even completely change their silhouette. It's really cool."
The fighting between the two factions and their surrogate armies comes to a head at the Temple of the Jade Serpent. The Temple was constructed centuries ago as a monument to when the last Pandaren emperor vanquished the Sha of Doubt. Now, the pandaren are building a statue of the Jade Serpent, as seen above ... that is, until you jerks come along and mess everything up with a battle that ends up destroying it. "This has far-reaching consequences," Kosak said. The Temple of the Jade Serpent instance is where you try to fix what you've done.
Stockton mentioned in the preview that a design goal for MoP was to make factions more than a mandatory grind for a piece of gear. To follow through on that goal, the Jade Forest is home to the Order of the Cloud Serpent, a faction of pandaren that raises and trains, well, cloud serpents. These beautiful, Chinese-style dragons exhale cloud breath (the effect reminded me a LOT of Wind Waker, in a good way), and the Order is more than happy to train you to ride one -- provided, of course, that you can pass their tests. The process starts with an egg that can be hatched with a series of quests, and then dailies allow you to feed and train your newly hatched cloud serpent until the day it can learn to fly. Once you prove yourself on the racetracks and skyways of the Order, the serpent is yours to keep as a mount.
Alliance players in Jade Forest can also look forward to a quest line involving SI:7 agents trying to locate the missing "White Pawn" -- none other than Anduin Wrynn, who happened to be aboard your ship when it wrecked.
The Valley of the Four Winds is home to the second August Celestial, Chi'Ji, the Red Crane. Known as the breadbasket of Pandaria, it's home to nearly all of Pandaria's farmland. Magical waters that flow from the Vale of Eternal Blossoms in the north cause the fruits and vegetables planted in the valley to grow to enormous size -- a real boon for the epicurean pandaren. Of course, the pandaren aren't the only species in the valley that want to get their hands on the harvest. The insatiable virmen plague the farms of the Tillers, one of the three Artisan factions you'll encounter in Pandaria.
The Tillers are hardworking, salt-of-the-earth types who provide the rest of the pandaren with their food, but they're too busy to take care of some local problems, like the virmen. Help them out and you can become a Tiller too, complete with your own plot of land. Yes, you heard right -- your very own farm. Kosak explained that the farm will be in a mini-phase like your Molten Front tree so that you're never locked out of anything because of it. As your farm grows, you can plant more and more stuff in it, including cooking ingredients, consumable food, and even herbalism nodes (so you can farm while you farm). Kosak said they're even considering letting you grow non-combat pets.
The Tillers aren't the only Artisan faction, though. You can also find the Brewmasters in the Valley of the Four Winds, as well as all over the rest of the continent. Each Brewmaster is on the hunt for special ingredients for his beer, and when you run into them while traveling, each also has an associated PvE scenario. Complete it to earn rewards and reputation. And get drunk!
You may remember the most famous brewmaster, one Chen Stormstout, from Warcraft 3. The Valley is his ancestral home. The Stormstout Brewery is even named after his family. Unfortunately, it's in a state of disrepair when he arrives back on Pandaria, and you get to quest with him to fix it up.
Stormstout Brewery is one of Pandaria's early dungeons, and it follows one of Blizzard's core rules with zones in Pandaria: Any outdoor dungeons are full-sized and fully visible out in the world. The entire dungeon is right there, in the valley. Players enter it with Chen in tow to discover why it hasn't been running properly. Well, there are apparently a few reasons: drunk knife-fighting monkeys, rabbits in the hops, hungover ancestral brewmaster spirits, and, of course, beer elementals.
Wait, did I just say beer elementals? Yes. In fact, they're called "alementals." This should give you a pretty good idea of the more light-hearted feel of this zone. While it's not necessarily true that you won't run into more serious threats in the Valley of the Four Winds, as a Blizzard rep said, "I've saved the world a bunch of times. I'm OK with saving the beer right now."
The Krasarang Wilds were originally a small subzone of the Valley, but the design team members eventually found themselves falling in love with the area and wanting to give it a life of its own, so they vastly expanded its terrain and made the Wilds an entire zone. This area reminded me a little of the mangrove forest in Sholazar, but dialed up to 11. The jungle portion is dark and foreboding, and it empties out onto a series of small islands.
The Wilds serve a few important purposes for your time in Pandaria. The first is introducing you to the mogu, the race that enslaved the pandaren thousands of years ago and was eventually overthrown. The mogu have returned to Pandaria now that the mists have parted, and they want their empire back. Dotting the Wilds are mogu ruins and other, more sinister relics of the mogu empire.
Kosak gave us a fly-through of one of the mogu ruins, giving us a good look at the race's model. Much like the jinyu clearly make use of the good, all-purpose night elf male skeleton, the mogu utilize the male draenei skeleton, giving them a large, imposing look to go along with their foo dog faces.
The mogu aren't alone in the wilds, though. The jinyu have coastal settlements that are being besieged by the saurok, another new race. The mogu are talented "flesh-shapers," as Kosak referred to them, and during their reign, they created several races to serve them. The saurok lizardmen are one of these races, created to wage war for the mogu. And now they're out of control!
We didn't get quite as detailed a look at Krasarang as we did other zones, but what we saw looked good.
The White Tiger, Xuen, is the August Celestial that watches over Kun-Lai Summit, the northernmost zone in Pandaria. It holds Mount Never-Rest, the tallest mountain on Azeroth, according to Stockton. It dwarfs even the Temple of Storms in Storm Peaks.
The yaungol, seen above, were ancient relatives to the tauren before the Sundering, and they were stuck on Pandaria after it happened. Over time, they evolved to look more like yaks than the cows we know and love. (Seems like tauren have the most relatives of any other Azerothian race, doesn't it?) The yaungol -- literally "yak Mongols", says Kosak -- aren't native to Kun-Lai. They've been forced out of their home in the nearby Townlong Steppes by the mantid, the humanoid mantises we saw at BlizzCon, and they figure they'll just take up residence in Kun-Lai ... even if the pandaren already live there. The very first part of our Kun-Lai fly-through showed pandaren clashing with the yaungol on the trail.
We mentioned earlier that the mogu had the ability to create "lesser" races. One of these races is the grommles, a race of expert mountain guides that appear to be little groundhog sherpas. Between the yaungol, mountain hozen, and the treacherous nature of the peaks, everybody needs grommle help to get from one place to another.
Kun-Lai holds a secret or two, though. High in its peaks lies the secret order of Pandaren that protect the continent from its most powerful threats: the Shado-Pan. They're the most elite warriors in pandaren culture, and they have to keep their emotions in check to keep from inadvertently feeding or creating the sha, demonic physical manifestations of negative energy.
The Shado-Pan Monastery, home of the Shado-Pan and the White Tiger Celestial, doubles as a quest hub and dungeon, where players will need to assist the Shado-Pan in keeping a dark secret. Like Stormstout Brewery, it's full-sized on the outside. The best part of the Shado-Pan experience, though, is that they're a full-fledged faction, offering players the ability to move through their ranks and become an elite Shado-Pan warrior themselves. "And they have pretty cool armor, which we couldn't show in this build -- but trust me, they look awesome," Kosak said.
We don't have any screenshots of the Vale of Eternal Blossoms, the level 90 zone that Stockton describes as "the heart of Pandaria." It was the original seat of the mogu empire, where they harnessed the power of the Vale's magical waters to rule the continent with an iron fist. When the pandaren overthrew the mogu, they also walled up the Vale to prevent its power from being abused; they even left all of the original mogu architecture intact. In fact, the Mogu'Shan Palace, where the Mogu emperor ruled, is still there as well. It's also a playable dungeon.
Now that the mogu have returned, along with several other forces (such as the Horde and Alliance), the Vale is in more danger than ever, and it's up to you to keep it safe. You'll team up with the Order of the Golden Lotus, the pandaren chosen by the Celestials themselves, to protect the Vale. To this end, the Order sets up hubs for each faction on either side of the Vale -- little mini-cities with Auction Houses, a bank, a selection of vendors, and more. "Players will probably still go to Stormwind or Orgrimmar for stuff like the ethereal vendors or class trainers, but we bank on them spending a lot of time here in the Vale too." And after seeing the hubs, I can see why. They're meticulously detailed. Absolutely beautiful. "This is how we do faction hubs in Mists of Pandaria," Kosak said proudly.
To spice things up and add a little variety to the zone, a new area will be under attack each day, and devout Order members will be sent to these areas to keep the Vale safe. "They won't send new guys right to the front lines right away; you'll be working in several parts of the zone," Kosak noted. "We're showing progression with a giant Mogu vault in the center of the zone, and as you progress through the faction, more and more doors of the vault will open." It's not just a bar that fills up at the bottom of your screen -- each new reputation rank unlocks new story quests which conclude their arc at exalted level. "There's lots to do with your max-level character," Kosak said.
The Vale is also home to the Lorewalkers, the faction of scholars who keep track of all the lore of Pandaria. They've begun setting up their archive in the Vale for posterity, and they'll task you with bringing artifacts and lore objects to them. In exchange for this, the Lorewalkers will regale you with tales and performances related to the history of Pandaria on the stage in their sanctum. "We've got thousands of years of history we want to share, and this is a great, totally optional way to do it," Kosak said.
The west side of the Vale houses the Great Wall, which separates the Vale from the Townlong Steppes. The Steppes weren't presented to us, but they're where the mantid, the insectoid species that has a thousand-year cycle of aggression with the pandaren, accidentally awake a hundred years early. Their hive and its surrounding area are now known as the Dread Wastes after their disastrous early awakening. Players will need to travel through both zones to discover what caused the mantid to awaken, what's controlling them, and what can be done to stop them.
It was honestly pretty astonishing to see so many of the zones with such a high degree of completion. I can't wait to quest in them, and we'll probably get the chance very soon -- beta seems right around the corner. It's open warfare between Alliance and Horde in Mists of Pandaria, World of Warcraft's next expansion. Jump into five new levels with new talents and class mechanics, try the new monk class, and create a pandaren character to ally with either Horde or Alliance. Look for expansion basics in our Mists FAQ, or dig into our spring press event coverage for more details!