World of Warcraft, that behemoth of MMOs, still reigns supreme nearly eight years after its initial release. Yes, its subscriber base has shrunk – slightly – and it has some loud, ferocious detractors (most of which still play), but it has secured its place as the MMO, the one that all others are compared to, the one that everyone has at least heard of. I say this not as a Blizzard fanboy, because I freaking hated Diablo III, and because I have quit the game about three times now, only to be drawn back in. They’re simply statements that are hard to argue.
The fourth and most recent expansion – Mists of Pandaria – adds a whole new continent to the world of Azeroth, and what a continent it is. Part of Blizzard’s success has undoubtedly been its uncanny ability to design and build a world and fill it with the details that gamers and geeks and even artists can get excited about. Pandaria is the culmination of everything Blizzard has learned over the last eight years fused with an overriding Asian theme. The scenery, obviously, is gorgeous. Stunning vistas seem to be around every corner with ornate temples perched on verdant cliffs, huge gates defiantly standing under ominous skies, or amazingly detailed farmland stretching to the horizon. Even the “icky” zones like the Dread Wastes have a surreal, terrible beauty to them.
But of course, it can’t just be pretty to look at. It is, after all, a game. There’s gotta be quests to go on, loot to find, and stuff to kill. And man, is there ever. There were certain moments as I leveled my Tauren Shaman, Slovtora, up to 90 that I was almost overwhelmed by the amount of quests available and uncertain as to what I should try and do next. Even at 90 now, I still haven’t completed all the non-dungeon, non-daily quests. Now, the basic gameplay hasn’t changed much since the birth of WoW. You get a quest, you kill things, you turn in quest, you get things. But there is a much greater variety to activities now. “Kill Things” is still the majority of your activity, but you can also find yourself collecting artifacts, riding a gigantic rampaging yeti, picking (or fighting) gigantic vegetables, and punting marmots. I ask you: who wouldn’t want to punt a marmot? The “Hardcore Elite” still whine about how much better it was back in “Vanilla” WoW before the expansions, but I think their rose-tinted shades block out how dreadfully boring and repetitive it was.
Not to mention the endgame. In Vanilla WoW, once you hit the level cap, you had but one option: raid. And if you weren’t in a raiding guild and if you weren’t willing or able to turn your entire life over to some insane schedule that turns your game into your job, then WoW was pretty much over for you until a content update or the expansion came. Now it’s almost as if hitting the level cap is the real beginning of the game with plenty of daily quests to run, factions to earn reputations with, and interesting rewards to reap from them. A very cool Cloud Serpent flying mount can only be obtained through a daily quest chain that sees you collecting a serpent’s egg, watching it hatch, and then gradually feeding, training, and watching the little serpent grow into your giant flying ride.
But probably the most interesting and unique faction in the game is the Tillers, a sort of co-op group of farmers in the Valley of the Four Winds. You earn rep with them the same way most endgame factions work: by running repeatable daily quests. However, you also must gain rep and become friends with individual characters to unlock new items and add things to your farm. Yes…your farm. In some very Harvest Moon-style gameplay, you actually till soil, plant seeds, and harvest crops on your very own plot of land. It’s probably one of the weirder meta-games WoW has tried, but I find myself oddly fascinated by it. Slovtora has just dipped her toe into that pool, though.
I wish I could report more on the dungeons, but I haven’t had the opportunity to set foot in one yet. Well, not really, anyway. Some quest chains actually do take you into a version of a dungeon, letting you take a peek at the interior even while playing solo. WoW has taken great strides in making dungeons and raids more accessible to those of us who actually have to engage the real world in meaningful ways. Again, the “Elite” see this as baby-fying the game, but I never saw how walling off high-level content behind the whims and schedules of other humans was a good idea for anyone. Pick-up groups aren’t an ideal option, mind you, but at least they are an option now…even for raids. And besides, there are some pretty epic encounters to be had outside the dungeons. “Mothran,” anyone?
Another much anticipated – or maligned, depending on the perspective – feature is the Pet Battle system which takes what were once purely cosmetic pets and turns them into another meta-game reminiscent of Pokemon. A number of folks claimed this was the death knell of WoW…which is a pretty heavy burden to put on what is a completely optional feature of the overall game that currently has no bearing on anything other than achievements. Most of the Hardcore safely ignored cosmetic pets before, and they can still easily continue to do so. For the rest of us, though, it adds yet another layer of different, new content to the game that will keep folks interested long after they’ve completed their “Kill 10 Bears” quests.
It’s not all perfect, though. It never is. Some of the daily quests are annoying and tedious. Especially a couple that require you to kill swarm after swarm of tiny bees or worms. The 89-90 zone, The Dread Wastes is weirdly cool, but after fighting alongside the Pandaren the whole time, you’re suddenly thrown in with a splinter group of what had been one of the primary antagonists, a swarm of humanoid insects called the mantid. It’s very jarring to suddenly be taking orders from the things you’ve spent the last five levels killing, especially when those things are freaky bug things that make gawd-awful noises. I spent about 15 minutes the other day berating my new Klaxxi “allies” in open chat, and I’m sure if other players were capable of giving me weird looks, they would have been. Another downside is that if you actually do go through and complete every quest chain in a zone before moving on like I did, you’ll hit the cap before you hit The Dread Wastes and are able to start running dailies. Which means you’ll also out-level the gear you’d been getting as quest rewards, and be somewhat behind in the arms race for dungeons, heroics, and raids.
Those are, however, minor concerns. The worst part about World of Warcraft is still the people. And there’s nothing Blizzard can really do about that. There are some incredibly ignorant, arrogant, entitled, obnoxious, and LOUD players out there that occasionally make you want to cancel your subscription on the spot. I know that there are good folks out there in Azeroth, but they are all-too-often shouted down by the idiots. It smacks too much of real life, where you have to deal with people you don’t like just to get by, so I wish the fantasy world were a bit more idealistic. But I’ll yell this to any one of the thousands of assholes on WoW: YOU ARE THE REASON NO ONE WILL GO OUT WITH YOU.
Bottom line, it’s a great, great expansion with incredible scenery, neat questlines with occasionally awesome pay-offs, plenty of things to do and see, and caters to a wider range of gamer than perhaps any WoW expansion to date.
That, and pandas.