The World of Warcraft is an expansive universe. You're playing the game, you're fighting the bosses, you know the how -- but do you know the why? Each week, Matthew Rossi and Anne Stickney make sure you Know Your Lore by covering the history of the story behind World of Warcraft.
If you happened to miss the first two parts of our year-end countdown, I'd suggest going back and reading over both part one and part two before continuing on with the final four developments featured today. I love the lore in Mists of Pandaria, and it's mainly because everything is so completely new that it is almost impossible to predict what's going to happen next. This doesn't stop Matthew Rossi and myself from coming up with any number of crazy theories, but it does make it harder to see where the story is going to go next.
That's actually a pretty good thing. Without that continual introduction of new material, the story, and the game itself, would get pretty old and stale. And while the rest of the top ten for 2012 offered plenty of points where Blizzard could improve on existing methods of storytelling, the top four are a little more absent of criticism. It's because there are points, in Mists, where success has been achieved to a point where it's hard to say something needs work.
That doesn't mean that I'm not critical, however.
4. Voice acting
The good Voice acting in World of Warcraft has never been better. There are a myriad of characters that have been given voices in Mists, and none of them sound the same. More importantly, there are very few that even sound remotely contrived -- the performances by the voice actors have all been on point and top-notch. Despite the abundance of voice-acted scenes this expansion, the presence of voice acting isn't hindering gameplay in the slightest. In fact, the placement of voice-acted scenes only serves to emphasize the importance of what is going on. In the end, it makes these scenes have far more of an impact than mere text could ever offer.
The not-so-good To be perfectly honest, there isn't a lot of not-so-good to offer in this instance. I have yet to run into a scene that warranted voice acting and didn't get it, like we saw in various parts of Cataclysm. And I honestly don't have any words of wisdom regarding improvement, either -- this latest round of voice actors and their performances have all been so spot-on that it seems like Blizzard's finally found its groove with this particular aspect of drawing people into the story. Blizzard's gotten the balance down, and now it's a matter of whether or not it can keep that balance in check.
3. Character development
The good Pandaria is full of people. Not just NPC characters that send you on random errands -- actual people with backgrounds that seem to be fairly fleshed-out. Somewhere along the line with Pandaria's development, someone hit upon a magic formula for developing NPCs, and it shows. It doesn't matter if the character is a hero of the Golden Lotus, or a hapless grummle taking a long trek with a heavy pack on his back. It doesn't matter of that NPC is helping Chen Stormstout find his long-lost family, or simply lighting the lanterns on the Wandering Isle. NPCs in Mists have personality.
More importantly, Pandaria isn't just about the pandaren. Each race that is present on Pandaria has its own history, and while we as players may not know the full extent of that history, it has been tied into existing lore in such a way that these creatures don't feel like otherworldly aliens. They're from Azeroth, and they feel like they are from Azeroth, weighted in the world just as readily as any human, night elf, or troll.
The mogu are menacing, yes -- but they're also a fascinating mystery that we're still trying to unravel. The mantid walk that fine line between enemy and ally in a creepily charming way that is ultimately riveting to watch. The hills of Pandaria are alive with the people that walk them, and it's reflected not only in every quest, but in every minor interaction as well.
The not-so-good On the other hand ... because we are dealing with a new continent, new races, and new history, our old friends from the rest of the world seem to have fallen by the wayside just a little. While Alliance and Horde characters in Pandaria are just as lively as their pandaren friends, faction leaders didn't really make an appearance until 5.1. And while some of these faction leaders are giving us an entertaining show, there are others that still haven't quite got that same sense of life.
Varian Wrynn seems to be in a perpetual limbo of trying. In Wrath it was about trying to re-establish himself after his long absence in vanilla and Burning Crusade. In Cataclysm it was about trying to get himself back together and resolve the issue of his dual personality. In Mists it seems to be about trying to earn the respect and support of his fellow faction leaders, and trying to reign in his son.
How things can improve Varian, dear Varian, I'm really tired of seeing you try to do things, and I'd like to see you actually do something. The Alliance doesn't need a leader that tries. They need a new lion of Azeroth. And while the Horde side of the 5.1 quests involve faction leaders like Vol'jin and Lor'themar to a major degree, and even bring in Baine for additional emphasis on Garrosh's failings, the Alliance side doesn't seem to have that same emphasis.
Tyrande is there in the scenario A Little Patience, but what does she do beyond that scenario? Genn makes a trivial appearance, and Velen gets a mention, nothing more. While the Alliance side of the story does seem to be making progress, the Alliance leaders are still woefully underdeveloped compared to the Horde. It's all about balance.
2. Attention to detail
The good Let me tell you a story about a hozen named Tak-Tak. Tak-Tak hangs out at the Horde camp for the Dominance Offensive. As you progress through the chain, you're told to speak to him to get flights to various areas -- the Horde shrine, Kun Lai Summit. When you fly with Tak-Tak, he'll give you a nice bit of exposition that catches you up on any story you may have forgotten about.
During one quest on the Horde chain, I was asked to head to Silvermoon City. At first I thought I'd just take a portal to the Horde shrine, and the Silvermoon Portal from there, because this was a logical way to go. And then I remembered Tak-Tak. And in a moment of what some may consider insanity, I went to speak to Tak-Tak. Sure, the quest didn't tell me to go talk to him. It didn't even mention him. But hey, Tak-Tak took me everywhere before, right? Imagine my utter surprise when he gave me an option to fly to Silvermoon City. I mean, what kind of trip would that take?
So, somewhat bewildered and curious, I clicked the option.
After I got done laughing, I marveled at what is ultimately number two on this list -- attention to detail. Let me explain what I mean. Someone creates a quest, and it has a logical progression of steps. The logical response would have been to head to my faction's shrine and take a portal as suggested. The fact that someone had the forethought and presence of mind to not only predict that some players would be peculiar enough to speak to Tak-Tak and expect a flight, but also write a response just in case someone decided to take that highly illogical option is nothing short of genius.
Pandaria's got a great story, and great quests to go along with it. But it's all these little, crazy, unexpected details that are just the icing on the cake. It's a quiet wink from the quest and lore development team, a little bonus for those that are just crazy enough to click everything. There are an untold number of these little bonuses scattered throughout Pandaria, and they only emphasize the sheer amount of attention and work that was poured into this expansion.
How things can improve You'll notice there isn't a not-so-good in this section, and that's mainly because something like this can't really be construed as bad. It encourages the player to explore, and offers a subtle reward to those that choose to do so. I love seeing things like this, and the only suggestion I can offer is to give whoever was responsible for these subtle little nods that pop up all over Pandaria a basket of cookies for doing an excellent job above and beyond what we'd normally expect.
1. Directional lore/gameplay
The good Number one on the list for 2012 may seem a little odd, especially when last year's list pointed out the overly linear nature of Cataclysm. But Mists is a departure from Cataclysm in the best possible way. It's found a really good balance between linearity and open-world, allowing players to explore and complete quests as they encounter them, but still managing to draw us in to a story that has been, so far, pretty riveting overall. And it's not just the story of Mists, it's the nature in which that story is presented.
We have the standard set of leveling zones, and the stories within those zones. But these stories are just the smallest building block in what is shaping up to be a pretty epic tale. It's not a tale of world-ending demons or kings of the damned, it's a much more introspective one. It's the story of us -- players, characters, Alliance and Horde. It's about what makes us what we are. As we play, we discover Pandaria and all it has to offer -- but it also opens up more questions about who the heck we the players are, and how we fit into this mad, crazy, sometimes funny and sometimes sad world.
And each aspect of the game only serves to further advance that story in a meaningful way, providing a direction for that lore to follow. Dungeons have been injected with stories that further the overall plot. Scenarios are being used to drive the plot forward. Quests have always been a method to tell a story, but even raids are being used as more of a functional storytelling tool. Daily quests may have been shaky at first, but the quests in patch 5.1 serve to offer up more story in a streamlined fashion that really works.
Sure, for some players the purpose of the game may be to get gear and fight dragons on the internet. But for others, it's about the story, and it's always been about that story. In vanilla, we really didn't see the story integrated into the game at all. That's been changing with every expansion, as the balance between gameplay and story has been carefully tweaked. In Mists, that story is part and parcel of the actual gameplay, no matter what aspect of the game you happen to be interested in.
The not-so-good In fact, the only place left in game where the gameplay really isn't injected with story at all is PvP. Battlegrounds are still very much a mechanical place where it's far more about what that guy at the other end of the field is going to do to you personally, rather than anything political going on in Pandaria. But let's face it -- those that participate in PvP aren't really doing so because they have a vested interest in advancing the story of Pandaria; they are there because they really enjoy smashing other players into a fine paste. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that at all -- PvP should be about PvP, not the outlying story of the world.
However, even though the story has been injected into almost every aspect of gameplay, there are still points where it falters. And it's not the fault of the story, which is good -- it's the fault of where that story is placed, and what's on the other side of it.
How things can improve There is a seamless quality to content and story in Mists of Pandaria, but it's not perfect. Combining all of those gear-gathering activities like dungeons, scenarios, raids and questing along with story advancement is an incredibly good idea. But for many players, the game is still about those purple pixels, and letting the story -- no matter how good that story happens to be -- get in the way of obtaining those purple pixels is a no-no.
I'm speaking of course about the choice to put valor gear behind dailies and reputation rewards. While valor gear isn't necessary to advance in the game, it still represents an improvement to your character. And if an improvement to your character is locked behind something, that something it is locked behind automatically feels like a chore. Story should work effortlessly alongside character improvement, it shouldn't be an impediment to progressing your character. If it can be viewed as such, then the story loses its value in the eyes of the player.
Blizzard has done wonders with the way that story works in Mists of Pandaria. Incorporating story in all the little ways that matter has made a world of difference in understanding the overall story of the expansion itself, even for those that barely look at the lore. It's a far, far cry from the convoluted and sometimes poorly presented story of Cataclysm. With all the advancements we've seen so far just from the outset of Mists, it makes me very excited to see what 2013 is going to give us, and what kind of innovations we can expect in the coming year.
For more information on related subjects, please look at these other Know Your Lore entries:
While you don't need to have played the previous Warcraft games to enjoy World of Warcraft, a little history goes a long way toward making the game a lot more fun. Dig into even more of the lore and history behind the World of Warcraft in WoW Insider's Guide to Warcraft Lore.