Second Wind: World of Warcraft

World of Warcraft

When I originally started playing World of Warcraft, things were different. Priests were still waiting on their first big class patch. Regular mounts required level 40; most players couldn't afford the 100ish gold fee without a loan from their guild. Epic mounts were so prohibitively expensive as to be considered rare. Raids required the dedication and skill of 40 players, and only a couple of guilds per realm actually even bothered to run high-end content. WoW was, as they say, srs bsns.

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.

World of Warcraft

Entering the world provided a shock. I haven't been serious about WoW since Wrath launched, though I did run Cataclysm dungeons long enough to hit level 85 and gather some heroic gear. The last time I really cared about World of Warcraft, everyone was busy hunting Time-Lost Proto Drakes, mining Saronite, and hanging out with Arthas; suddenly, everyone's on crazy Chinese New Year's dragons. Also, there are panda bears? What the heck is going on? After standing in Orgrimmar for a few minutes trying to make sense of the chaos around me, I logged out, overwhelmed.

"Maybe I don't want to play World of Warcraft after all."

On my next attempt to play, I opened my talent tree to find that the entire system has been redesigned. I don't know what any of the icons means or how to effectively choose my healing abilities. Totems, once the hallmark of my favorite class, are gone. Everything I know about being a Shaman is apparently wrong. My previously reflex-familiar action bars are a mystery -- some familiar spells remain, but others have vanished and new ones have taken their place.

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.

WoW Dungeon

Somewhere between my third and fifth dungeon run, I realized that I was having fun. Lots of fun, in fact. Everything I've always loved about World of Warcraft -- smooth casting, dynamic boss fights, attractive spell effects, and a screamingly fast loot progression -- was there in full effect. In just a couple of hours of dungeon running, I shed piles of epic gear. I accidentally got drunk on a beer spout. I interacted directly with a Pandaren character and it didn't make me immediately want to uninstall the game. I had a good time with a few complete strangers.

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.

World of Warcraft Boss

But it's not all about dungeons. If I really wanted to get a bearing (get it?!) on this Pandaria stuff, I was going to need to leave the comfort of the LFG tool and venture to the continent myself. This, my friends, would be the moment of truth.

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?

Pandas in Pandaria

I didn't have much time to dread the incoming shark-jumping of WoW. My gunship was set upon by Alliance soldiers, and I was quickly dragged into a battle for my life. After a few cutscenes and some quick action sequences, I was dropped on the ground for my first set of quests, which were, of course, centered on killing Alliance defenders and generally causing havoc. I went through the paces, following the map and ticking off objectives, until I faced off with the leader of the Alliance troops. Because he was Alliance, of course, he ran away -- everyone knows Alliance are cowards.

"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.

Pandaria Starting Zone

The story of two warring factions crusading to claim land they clearly do not own, land with a peaceful, intelligent population already present, is strong stuff. Seeing Pandaria's peaceful culture uprooted by the almost-mandatory fighting between the Horde and Alliance evokes sharp memories of real-life colonization and its effects. And most importantly for the game, it calls into question the entire original plotline of World of Warcraft and forces the player to think about why we're so intent on fighting in the first place.

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!