Why I am looking forward to Mists of Pandaria

Currently, I am debating the game more than I am actually playing it. The current content is sparse, to say the least, and the economist in me speaks. I am currently raiding 25mans with Unity, we have a 10man Alts run going on as well and I gear up whatever alt I favor at the moment through LFR. This seems sound, but for some reason I cannot escape the feeling that I am bogged down somehow.

That sinking feeling

It probably is safe to say that the success of an expansion hinges not on how much content is released, but how much is perceived to still be “up Blizzard’s sleeve”. By that token, Cataclysm was a short and ironically uneventful expansion. It shouldn’t be that you hit the final raid of the expansion to find the bosses quite easy on Normal mode and then proceed to beat around the bush with hard modes because that’s all you have left. Hard modes are awesome, but once we clear them, the expansion’s just about over.

Over – with no sign in sight for Mists of Pandaria.

Yes, there will be a beta where 90% of the WoW population will join (mind you, when you signed for that annual pass they didn’t promise you what stage beta you’d be joining) and daily snippets of Blizzcon footage are wound off their reels again to keep people interested. Logical, in the light of quite a few contenders in the MMO territory for the more casual player – which is exactly what MoP seems to be targetting.

Taking it easy for a change

After a plethora of world-shattering bosses (Illidan, Kil’jaeden, the Lich King, Deathwing) it will be a breath of fresh air to enter an expansion where we aren’t immediately rushed into doom and gloom. After all, that’s what it felt like and it echoed through every sliver of Cataclysm. Deathwing’s coming, hit 85 quickly, assist the Molten Front with post-haste, quickly defeat Ragnaros and then face Deathwing. Time for a change of pace.

Exploration, discovery and lore matter quite a bit in any story. Finding Pandaria and its mysterious inhabitants, magic and monsters will give us a new insight into Azeroth and its secrets. This way, Blizzard can slowly up the tension to the level of mid-TBC and prepare for another expansion or two before another world-shattering incident.

The joy is in the eating

One of the greatest changes in WoW currently is a shift in focus from the hardcore players from Classic to the people in Cataclysm who are, effectively, playing a lifestyle. It’s a lot less about the cutting edge gear, split-second tactics and perseverance. World-first raiders and upper-echelon PvP masters are now part of the e-sports celebrity community and thereby elevated far above even the UNcommon player.

This means that aside of raiding, PvP and collection games (Archeology, achievements, reputations, mounts, pets, Transmog gear) more needs to be done to capture and entertain the audience. A few of these things are announced for MoP and while derided as childish by some, I am quite looking forward to it.

  • Pandaren represent a first option for a race in both factions, and I am interested how they build on the sparse lore from before (which states nothing more than them being fun-loving ale-guzzling martial artists).
  • The Monk class will, if it resembles the form it was announced in at Blizzcon, a new avenue in class design. More active abilities, requiring a different set of skills and with no one who has mastered it opening it up as a new choice for many. Like DKs, many will fail before it will be embraced by the community.
  • Pandaren and its evil spirits are dear to me because of the imagery, use of color and having an area that deviates from the more traditional heavy-handed High Fantasy. While you could taste this in an Asian MMO, it’s nice to have a change-over on the scenery.
  • Pet Battles may resemble a certain collection game a lot, but in the end it’s just a fun little diversion while you wait for your other raid members to arrive (or your LFR/LFG queue to pop). With Blizzard’s intent to lessen our desire to all cramp together in one city and lazily wait for our next adventure-on-demand window to pop up, this can only improve.
  • A new expansion means a new chance to give our opinions and influence the way the game will be. A game can only be a success if everyone’s desires are met in one way or the other. And as much as people have been moping about it (hah!) fact remains that this is still a wildly popular game – and probably will remain (one of) the largest until the release of Titan.

Right now it feels like we, as players, carefully ration ourselves with the current content. Likely we will have to wai thalf a year at least before the new expansion hits our welcome mat, and we will have to make do with the content we have. Currently the lore has “run dry”. There might be a few more big bads to run on (At least two old gods, C’thun is still not dead again I believe, and at the end of the road is Sargeras) but as sad a state as Deathwing has been reduced to in terms of a fight, having him be topped in his own expansion a la Kil’jaeden topping Illidan would be even more of a slap in the face.

What I hope to see

There’s a few more checks-in-the-box for things I’d love to see in Mists of Pandaria. Things that would make me happy and (among them) continue blogging about. It’s no secret that one of the reasons I am writing less is because there simply is less to write about – and I’d like to see that changed.

  • An epic opening cinematic for MoP, and preferably a half-time moment of jaw-dropping awesomeness (a la Wrath Gate)
  • The Monk class being exciting, dynamic and difficult – but with corresponding rewards in visual displays and feel-good moves
  • Pet battles becoming secretly embraced by people who detract it currently, leading to a new brand of e-sports
  • A storyline that slowly ramps up in scope, not breaking out of its box in the first 30 minutes of play
  • Monk/Martial Art training tools that actually work and allow you to show off your WoW-Fu – danger room, please
  • Emphasis on quality raids with doable LFR, challenging normal modes and fiendish hard modes
  • Loot that does not look like it was taken out of a Slaine comic book
  • Lore revealed which meshes with existing lore, yet gives us inrigueing insight into an isolated culture
  • Classes which have a stronger theme as foundation, meaning less stepping on other’s toes in terms of lore, looks and feel
  • Content being paced properly, allowing us to not have “expansion left at the end of the content”

All in all I have a good feeling about MoP – but the risk remains that watering down the game for the benefit of too large a group will cause it to go stale. I mean, look at a very successful family game like Wizard 101 which is very fun for kids – but not challenging at all for (most) adults.

Warhammer fell into the trap of catering to a single group (PvPers), Age of Conan offered too little content and meandered all over the place, RIFT simply was too complex and its shiny exterior hid a multiple-personality syndrome, D&D Online simply didn’t live up anywhere to its legendary tabletop origins and the various superhero MMOs (Champions Online, DC Universe, City of Heroes/Villains) coped with a serious image problem when it came to more mainstream gamers.

Currently the main contender for my personal attention is Star Wars: The Old Republic. It features strong lore, clever storytelling and class-personalized quest lines. Sure it will be old hat after the second time or so, but for now it feels very clever and well-made. Endgame is still a question, as a lot of bugs have been removed only recently. It does feature reasonably balanced classes with a strong theme – which is one of the things WoW is in danger of losing.

My hope is that in the run towards Mists of Pandaria classes will have a stronger theme, balanced visuals and a unique selling point. Without it, people may burn out on frustration.

Without epic class quests (Paladin and Warlock Mount, Anathema/Benediction, Warlock Doomguard and Infernal, the epic quest line for Hunters, and so on) and the continued attempts and balance through homogenization we currently have a situation where classes are in some cases cardboard cutouts for each other, where you can practically see the “cut along the lines” indications on abilities.

Conclusion

Even though WoW is a old workhorse of an MMO, it is by far the most popular and has shown much innovation in its time. Now it will have to make a great metamorphosis, evolving to endure the coming onslaught of next-gen MMOs. Mists of Pandaria might be the chance the game developers need to show that they can cater to the newer, more casual gamer while still honoring the time-old veteran’s tradition of elbow grease and theorycraft.

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