Know Your Lore: Mists of Pandaria in review

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.

With the introduction of the Warlords of Draenor cinematic, short story Hellscream, and the Lords of War animated shorts, we can pretty much tack an official "The End" on Mists of Pandaria. All tie in material has been or is in the process of being released, and all new and upcoming content seems to be focusing on the expansion ahead. Although Warlords of Draenor won't launch until November, we can pretty much consider Mists of Pandaria over and done with, story-wise.

Which means it's time to do one of my favorite things to do -- head back and review the expansion in its entirety. It's not really fair to review a book based solely on one chapter, after all. Mists of Pandaria might have seemed like a fairly simple concept from the announcement of the expansion, but it actually played out into a reasonably complex story over the course of four content patches. So how does the story of Mists hold up against its predecessors?

Explosive beginnings

Leveling through Mists of Pandaria was like a cram-session in lore, in a way. We knew virtually nothing of Pandaria, its native races, its history, or its unique culture going into this expansion -- we were dealing with a completely blank slate. So zones and quests in Pandaria had the onerous task of introducing us to all that lore and history, keeping us current with our place in said history, and setting up a story that would theoretically carry us through the entire expansion.

It was pretty clever in that aspect, because all dungeons, scenarios, and even the first tier of raiding concentrated on setting up that story. Here we are, strangers in a strange land, and our arrival sets off a chain reaction of events that throw this tranquil land into peril. Act I of Mists pretty much took place through the leveling and first tier of raiding, and dealt with introducing that conflict, and just as quickly setting us to the task of making things right. Getting to level 90 established what had gone wrong -- the mogu were acting up, the mantid were thrown off their cycle and corrupted by Sha that were released due to our factional warfare in the Jade Forest.

In between were the seeds for future patches -- the introduction of the Zandalari in Kun Lai. The heated conflict between Alliance and Horde that was never really resolved. Level 90 content played out in a series of daily quests -- some factions with overall story arcs that explained just what they were up to and gave you a good idea of who these various organizations were, others with little in the way of explanation, like the August Celestials that will likely remain an enigmatic mystery for good.

Tides of war

Act II of the story played out in a slightly different fashion, and introduced an intriguing new thread of stories with the Operation: Shieldwall and Dominance Offensive daily quests. That friction between Alliance and Horde was continuing to heat up and showed no signs of slowing down. More importantly, the ongoing conflict didn't just affect Pandaria's shores -- we witnessed the fallout from Garrosh Hellscream's reckless actions. Horde players nearly lost a faction leader due to Garrosh's assassination attempt; Alliance players nearly lost an important lore figure in Anduin Wrynn, Varian's son and future King of Stormwind.

In addition to the violence and escalating aggression, players witnessed the first signs of political intrigue, something we haven't really seen in game before. Certainly there were implied shifts in loyalty, but watching Jaina Proudmoore cheerfully kick the Sunreavers right out of Dalaran was fascinating to see, because it clearly established the Kirin Tor as a non-neutral entity. Meanwhile in Silvermoon, Lor'themar Theron's struggles with Garrosh Hellscream's directives, and his wavering loyalty to the Horde were equally fascinating to Horde players. Certainly the blood elves would never leave the Horde, but for a moment there, it looked like that option was slightly more likely than you'd think.

The climactic end to Act II was the confrontation with Garrosh as he rang the Divine Bell for the first time ... and for the first time, we were witness to exactly what Hellscream was capable of. For Alliance players, the callous destruction of Theramore had already made it clear that Garrosh had absolutely no qualms about destroying their faction. But for the Horde, this was a confirmation to the sinking sensation that had been growing ever since Vol'jin's attempted assassination -- Garrosh Hellscream certainly said he was acting in the best interests of the Horde, but his ideal Horde clearly did not include us.

Thunder strikes

Act III dove back into the plot in Pandaria, with the terrifying return of Lei Shen the Thunder King and the second coming of the Zandalari, enemies we'd encountered before in Cataclysm. The story here was interesting because it began to tie together what was going on in Pandaria with what was going on in the rest of the world. There was a dual dynamic going on in which we were trying to help the pandaren, which was what we'd been doing since our first foray onto Pandaria's shores in Act I, but this time that was pinned against a backdrop of that heightened aggression between Alliance and Horde.

Maybe Taran Zhu's words were a little self-righteous at the end of this particular story chain, but he was only saying what had been illustrated all along: as long as one side attacked and the other retaliated, there would be no end to the vicious cycle of warfare that threatened to spiral completely out of control. Taran Zhu had a vested interest in what we were doing because we were doing it on the shores of the land he had sworn to protect, and our actions were having a negative impact on that land. That was pretty much his reasoning for wanting to see the violence come to an end -- at least on Pandaria's shores.

And while we didn't exactly get a kiss-and-make-up resolution to Act III, we did see, for the first time since violence erupted in Tides of War, both Alliance and Horde agree to turn around, walk away, and end it. Not because they liked each other. Nobody was conceding, and there were no victories won. It was because both sides realized, as much as they hated to say it, that there was something bigger they needed to be focusing on -- and if they were consumed with fighting each other, they weren't doing anything for the people they'd allied with and said they would protect.


And it was with that in mind that we moved on to Act IV, in which the dissent sparked back during the Divine Bell incident had fomented into all-out rebellion. Garrosh Hellscream knew it was coming. He likely saw it coming all the way back in Tides of War. What he likely didn't expect was both Alliance and the Darkspear Rebellion working, if not together, at least parallel to each other with the same goal in mind -- taking him down. The lessons learned on the Isle of Thunder weren't there to magically make the Alliance and Horde kiss and make up and suddenly be friends again. They merely gave both sides a little breathing room and a moment to think things through and realize they had the same goal in mind.

And if both sides had the same intended goal, it would be kind of stupid to prevent each other from getting that goal accomplished. But while we may have been quietly not-quite-working-together out in the Barrens, Garrosh was busy with his own plans. Certainly the plan with the Divine Bell had failed, and the Alliance and Rebellion were clearly responsible for its failure. Yet the Divine Bell proved one thing to Garrosh Hellscream -- Pandaria had power, tremendous power ripe for the taking, power that could be used to his advantage.

We were focused on Hellscream and his Orgrimmar citadel, and in doing so we turned a blind eye to Pandaria. And that's where Garrosh made his final move. He'd already wrecked Theramore and made a sworn enemy of the Alliance. He'd tried to have Vol'jin murdered, in doing so showing his open disdain and disgust for a large portion of the existing Horde. The final thing he had yet to do was sever all hope of allies in Pandaria -- and he accomplished that with one grim task: stealing the heart of the Old God Y'shaarj and giving it a bath in the waters of the Vale.

The resultant explosion ruined the sacred Vale of Eternal Blossoms, and killed a giant swath of the Golden Lotus in the process. And Garrosh didn't care. He had his artifact, it was time to return to Orgrimmar, and wait for everyone to come filtering through that front gate to be murdered and pinned to the city walls.

Warlord's fall

Act V was the Siege -- a bitter, brutal struggle that brought Hellscream's reign to a screeching halt thanks to the combined might of the Alliance, and the joint races that made up the Darkspear Rebellion. But there was more than just the Siege -- we also had to make one last-ditch effort to cleanse the Vale, tainted by the essence of Y'shaarj, and see the golden valley put to right. Once that was complete, it was on to Orgrimmar and Hellscream's demise.

That's where the story of Pandaria started to fall apart a little, because for the first time in World of Warcraft's history, we didn't kill a final boss. Yes, we defeated Garrosh. We saw him locked in chains and dragged away. But we didn't loot his body. We didn't see him explode in a burst of light. We didn't see his father's ghost cradling him as he took his last breaths. We didn't see him devoured in a pit of liquid sun, we didn't see the huntress standing victorious over his corpse. It could be argued that the original release of World of Warcraft didn't include a final villain's death, as Kel'thuzad made a return in Wrath of the Lich King -- but at the moment of his defeat in vanilla he still flailed, cried out, and dissolved into a corpse to loot with appropriately frosty flair.

Mists of Pandaria has one of the most cohesive, well thought out stories of any expansion we've seen to date. Each patch, each piece of content clearly tied into the overall story and moved it forward in a way that was easily understood. You didn't get the strange bump in the road that was the defeat of the "final boss" on the box at the Black Temple, followed by another sudden jolt of story at the Sunwell. You didn't get the off-shoot Titan facility that was never really explained in context of the threat of the Lich King. You didn't get the convoluted jumble of raid tiers and enemies that were never clearly tied together with Deathwing.

Stalled victory

Yet while other expansions had dramatic, over the top final battles that ended in triumph, Mists of Pandaria ended on a note that was almost heartbreakingly dissonant in comparison. We have no evidence of our success. All we have is evidence of the destruction the expansion wrought -- there is no satisfaction to be had with the end of this particular chapter in Warcraft's story. There is no sense that we came to any kind of conclusive resolution at all. For those that play the game and forgo the novels altogether, there isn't even an indicator as to what Garrosh's fate will be. He's just gone. The Vale's still ruined, save for one little tree. The waters are gone.

Oddly enough, that dissatisfaction is almost echoed by Wrathion, who had his own tale wound through the entirety of Pandaria's story. He was looking for a decisive and definitive end to the war between the Alliance and Horde, and he didn't get it. He was looking for Hellscream's death, and he didn't get that either. And when things didn't go his way, he threw a dragon-sized temper tantrum, wrecked poor Tongo's inn and flew off without so much as a tip. But in a way, you almost have to sympathize with the little guy -- he didn't get a "The End," and neither did we.

It's a different direction for Warcraft. And it might have worked, had we not had a stretch of over a year without any new content to speak of. As it stands, Mists of Pandaria's story is one of the better stories the franchise has told, and has certainly had more action and character development for major lore figures than we've ever seen before. But that story comes to a screeching halt at the end of Siege, and we've been left waiting for a year -- waiting for a resolution, waiting for some note of finality, waiting for some indicator, some pause, some moment that we can safely point to and say "Yep, that's it, that right there, that's where we won."

Mists of Pandaria seemed to be trying to show us that we didn't need that moment of finality between chapters -- that sometimes just letting one expansion propel you into the next is enough. But it fumbled that narrative at the end -- and it was really through no fault of the narrative itself. We don't need that giant moment of triumphant finality to make an expansion good. But if we don't have that moment, if we don't get that moment, then we need to at least be moving forward, instead of holding our breath waiting a year or more for a resolution that may or may not live up to our expectations.

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.