I will tell you this much right off the bat, in case you have not already noticed it or this is your first visit here (in which case, welcome): I am not a fan of Blizzard Entertainment or the stories they put into their products. I have found that the Horde’s leaders mainly consist of dickheads with whom Blizzard play a game of seeing how much obnoxious, arrogant shit they can get away with whilst maintaining slavish devotion from fanboys. I am finding the current implementations of the game so irritating in so many ways that I am starting to feel that Dave Kosak should be fired. So with that frame of reference, let us explore my opinions of the latest World Of Warcraft expansion, Mists Of Pandaria.
For a number of reasons that will still only make sense to me or people who really know me, I got in early and upgraded my account to Mists Of Pandaria well before it went live. When I finally logged in and started my first Pandaren character, well, I found myself in the digital equivalent of a crowded shopping mall. Note to Queenslanders: this means crowded by Parramatta standards, not yours. You could not even wiggle your nose without making contact with another Panda’s bottom. That was both good and bad. Bad in the sense that it made acquiring/handing in quests from/to questgivers a little more difficult than it should be. Good in the sense that whilst it was also difficult to get things to kill for quests that required it, the respawn time for such elements was not even a whole second. This meant a lot less sitting around with one’s thumb up their butt, in the end run.
The people of Pandaria, the Pandaren, are just what the name implies. A race of Humanoid Pandas who pretty much walk and speak like Humans. I believe the correct term for this is “anthromorphic”. They are slightly larger than is the case for real-world Pandas, but otherwise this is pretty much like playing the game as a bear, albeit only one of the eight extant races of bear in the real world.
As I have said in many different ways, how you introduce a given race or character type in your world depends largely on the grounding story you give them. On previous occasions, the stories given for each race have been funny (Gnomes), passable (Humans, Dwarrow, Draenei), or flat-out shit (the entire Horde). The Pandaren have the distinction of being the first race in the game that get a good introduction. Instead of pondering how this particular dickhead got to be in charge or how little sense the stated backstory makes, we are on board with the Pandaren and their little beginning quest. This marks the first time in World Of Warcraft history where the beginning quests suggest that the programmers actually sat down with players of all kinds of RPGs and investigated what makes a good RPG back-story.
The Pandaren opening story is a slow starter, I will say that much. At the beginning, one fights various things, retrieves various items, and covers the arses of visitors from both the Alliance and Horde until one’s character learns exactly why the turtle on which the starting land rests has taken so ill. Nobody who plays the game needs to be told that the Alliance and Horde are now engaged in open warfare. One who has been playing the game through the past month will know what it started over, so I am not going to repeat it here (there’s plenty of sites that can quote chapter and verse). What is worth noting is that one confrontation ends with an Alliance airship crashing into the side of the Pandaren starting area. Since said starting area is basically an island on the back of a living thing, you can imagine that this prompts a lot of back and forth between characters. That is also the final step in the starting a Pandaren toon thing (it feels like a very long-ass chain of quests).
The interesting thing about the Pandaren is that, in contrast to previous races included in the game, they start out faction-neutral. At the end of the island-saving quest chain, only then can a player on a Pandaren decide whether they wish to be part of the Alliance or the Horde. I doubt it will surprise anyone who knows me that I am pretty much always going to choose the Alliance. This is not because I like the leaders or characters associated with it, so much. In fact, the Dwarvish rulers (with one exception) and certain quest-givers aside, the best thing I can say about the Alliance NPCs is that I do not out-and-out hate them like so much of the Horde. But never mind. I think this was a smart move on Blizzard‘s part (for once). Past expansions where a race has been added to either faction have often been accompanied by moaning about why this faction gets this race and so forth. And let us be brutally honest here. Not only are the racial leaders in the Horde a bunch of utter fukking dickheads, the ways of self-expression programmed for individual characters does not make them a hell of a lot better from an empathising point of view.
Pandaren are largely based both on Chinese mythology and one of the animals peculiar to China, the Panda. Bearing in mind that I know next to nothing of Chinese culture, and only have a nodding acquaintence with their folklore, I can only state that to this partly Scottish boy who grew up in working class Western Sydney, the story line seems more respectful to what it is based on than has been the case for the back stories of the other races populating the game.
The manner in which the story resolves itself and presents the player with a choice between joining the Alliance or the Horde is also considerably better than has been the case for either the other races or the Death Knights. Although the circle around the Wandering Isle is a bit slow and ponderous, a fact not helped in the slightest by all of the quests therein basically being compulsory, the arc that begins after all of the spirits have been retrieved is something I would not be embarrassed to be credited with writing. That is a big step up where Blizzard Entertainment are concerned.
Blizzard Entertainment have also promised that a lot of things will be changed during the course of Mists Of Pandaria remaining “current”. Quite frankly, that worries me. If experience is any guide, this means that Blizzard will try to “improve” too many things at once, make some things drastically worse, and then leave them that way forever and ever, Amen. The current talent system is a very good example of this. One talent every fifteen levels or so, one of which has an effect that, perhaps I was not clear with you the first time, Blizzard, should be an entirely separate spell. I am sure it is not an isolated example. But I will beat that dead horse at another time.
Do I think Mists Of Pandaria will turn out to be a beautiful new rebirth of World Of Warcraft? Hardly. After the whole sales pitch we got from Blizzard just before Cataclysm‘s release about how the physical world would change, I think intelligent players realised the old saying was true. The more that things change, the more that they stay the same. The videogame industry has been locked into an inertia where it continues to pat itself on the back even when its methodologies are not working for so long now that I doubt even people of Jeff Bridges‘ age could remember a time when this was not the case.
The essential problem here is that World Of Warcraft was originally designed when high definition was still a “faraway” dream, and by people with less creative skill in its whole building(s) than people like Mario Puzo or Takashi Miike have in their nose hairs. And as people like Carmelo M. point out, rightly, the fact that World Of Warcraft did not fold in its first year has a lot less to do with the merit of the content than it does Blizzard Entertainment‘s salesmanship. As I have said before, Blizzard‘s business model is more akin to that of a heroin dealer than say, that of people who research and develop life-saving synthetic hormones. Granted, their product is the very definition of non-essential, but an ethical business concern would at least search for middle ground. Embarrassing public relations disasters notwithstanding, can you picture Sony Entertainment charging a monthly fee to enjoy one of their products, and regularly altering it in manners that make it less enjoyable for a substantial number of customers? I did not think so.
And that is the sad point that Mists Of Pandaria is laying bare at present. No matter how many new buildings Blizzard lay on top of World Of Warcraft, it only reveals that the soil beneath is sand.
It just makes me wish the videogames market was regulated enough for there to be any consequences to Blizzard‘s constant making like DarkThrone.