Thoughts on WoW: Mists of Pandaria

Monks are awesome! Shame they're the only awesome part of Pandaria.

With the beta soon to come to a close, it’s time to look upon my time in the Mists of Pandaria beta and draw a conclusion on it. It’s certainly been the bumpiest ride of any World of Warcraft beta so far, but it hides the horrid realisation that the reason it’s so bumpy is the car is old, decrepit and has bad suspension…

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Mists of Pandaria is a good expansion.

I want to get that out of the way because some may think my thoughts will be tantamount to whinging – perhaps, but not because I hate the game. World of Warcraft gets an awful lot of hate, and yet it’s very clear that technically, it’s the most accomplished of all the MMOs out there. It is this polish and ease with which made the game such a sell-out success; when it began there was hesitation, repetition and deviation from the norms of the genre (a bit like Just A Minute!), but slowly it began to develop and what we got was an incredible MMO experience that anyone could enjoy at any level.

The problem is, this peaked in The Burning Crusade and time has not been kind to World of Warcraft, and most of all – World of Warcraft has not been kind to itself. Blizzard have a number of deep-seated and well-rooted issues with which they should be tackling to keep the game at the top of the pile, and yet for the most part are content to let them stew. Mists of Pandaria is the end result of this rush to build upon rotting foundations, and the end result is gorgeous – but structurally unsound. Too much neglect of the past has created weaknesses that Blizzard see fit to merely ignore.

Of course Mists of Pandara, the new areas and new races, is gorgeous but then you put the new Pandaren next to the Orcs and Humans and you begin to see my point; the old race models are now ten years old or so, and have had relatively little done to their visual frontage aside a few extra polygons to ensure new animations are smooth. Pandaren are a gorgeous, brilliant, witty-looking race; it plays to the strengths of new techniques and technologies that these creatures are so expressive and alive. But it just makes every other race out there look a bit lifeless as a result; the large, glinting eyes of the Pandaren are a far cry from the lifeless blobs that reside within the older races.

It’s the same with questing – if you did it in Cataclysm, then there’s no real change from the path set out. Worse for Pandaren, by the time you pop out of their gorgeous starter area, you will be faced with a serious problem – often too high level to head into Azshara, and too low level to head to Northern Barrens or join the Dungeon Queue to break the ice. It’s a careless, annoying quirk that used to be there in the old days, when you got stuck between areas for questing purposes, but by this time and with Cataclysm being so smooth, this hiccup is all the more noticeable and all the more unforgivable.

Outland and Northrend remain unchanged narratively and expressively, another indicator of Blizzard’s inability to move some things on. You HAVE to go through these areas, but they’re so finicky in comparison to everything else. Outland is over in two or three zones, Northrend sadly goes on for far too long. Both areas no longer fit within the creative arc of the rest of the game, and being made to slog through them AGAIN, with no change, is perhaps a little bit silly.

You may see where I am going with my criticisms, but classes are the real problem where this issue is so eloquently displayed in all its glory. You see, Monks – the new class – play a lot like Rogues, one of the original classes. And it allows for a deep and meaningful deconstruction of the game when you can put them side by side, and see exactly why Blizzard are losing subscribers.

The Monk and The Rogue play fairly similarly. Both use energy as a resource, both use a points-based moves system that allows you to generate and spend points. Both wear leather equipment. But the differences are that the Monk is a very modernist, very forward-thinking class. The Rogue, in comparison, is starting to look antiquated and archaic.

Monks have three very different specs – tanking, DPS and healing – which allows them to cover all the bases. And they’re very good at covering all the bases – the Brewmaster, which has been my spec of choice, is a gloriously silly but very capable tanking variation that focuses on dodge, disorientation and magical shields to mitigate, offset and soak up damage from enemies and damage being sent to those around you. In an AoE phase of a boss, a Monk is the most glorious of all classes – a monk pops a shield to absorb damage, then a move that soaks up 90% of everyone elses damage to boot. It allows in some of the older instances from Wrath and Cataclysm where positional requirements were a necessity, to ultimately ignore them and just keep on pummeling. Monks make great trash-pack tanks too, with their AoE aggro and a glyph that allows them to disorient large swathes of opponents, generating aggro, applying a dot and keeping them from actually attacking.

If Monk is Progressive, then Rogue is Traditionalist. Blizzard argue that Rogues are in a good place, but in comparison, their mobility and moves set is ultimately outdated and outmoded in new content far more tailored to a new, intelligent sort of class mechanic. In some of the older content Rogues do indeed still sing, but that isn’t where they should sing. Side by side, rogues are rusty and worn. Blizzard’s countenance to not change much means that what changes have been made – to the new talents and glyphs system – makes it all the more obvious that they can’t survive if this is their new ideology. Whereas so much effort has gone into revamping other classes like Warlocks to make sure they survive in this brave new world of end-game content, Rogues have become homogenised and samey. Without clear distinctions between the specs now, without clear talent choices, the rogue class just doesn’t have the same verve or jois-de-vivre that it used to. Rogues may indeed have the best energy system, but it’s been copied for Monks – and what they’ve done with Monks, so much of it so obviously rogue-related – makes you feel like Rogues (like Outland) have just been ignored in favour of a new child.

It’s this problem that makes Pandaria so difficult to judge. What new stuff is there is nice, but it’s mired in complacency and a laissez-faire attitude that also makes it rather annoying and dull at times. More dailies, without limits, masks the problem that in reality, there’s still not much end-game content there. They’ve just tried to mask it as best they can. More dungeon modes, although a time-attack Challenge mode isn’t especially original or innovative. Elite Heroic Modes for raids – effectively further segregating and dividing an already incredibly divided raiding community, where simplicity should be key Blizzard make their work impossibly hard to balance everything. For every new area – Jade Forest – there is an old zone, such as Stonetalon Mountains, that is completely broken and unplayable.

I don’t mean to sound nasty because there is plenty to like in Mists of Pandaria, but it’s just a real pity that there is also so much to criticise and hate as well. It’s telling that whilst Blizzard have been making Mists of Pandaria, we’ve seen the fall of yet another pretender to the throne; The Old Republic, which tried to do much of what World of Warcraft has done. Arguably, this is the reason it failed. World of Warcraft is broken, buggy and far too over-complicated and divided for its own good. World of Warcraft largely trades off its name these days – it’s a brand. And we’ve sort of forgotten to point out that it IS flawed and problematic. Copying the game in this state, without the virtue of a loyal userbase or understanding market, means you expose yourself to unnecessary ridicule and embarrassment.

But it’s so frustrating that Blizzard, with all that money and talent, are still playing this so goddamned safe. There’s no fireworks with Mists of Pandaria, there’s nothing in it that is a standout selling point. It’s more of arguably the same thing they’ve been selling for the past four or five years, just with some prettier bits. Blizzard are in the best position to revive and revamp the entirety of their behemoth franchise; but they can’t or won’t do it. We’re told to wait for race redesigns, which may come next expansion. Or may not. Rogues are told they are in a good place, where they are losing raid spots and guild placements due to their broken, old-fashioned design. We’re told that things are moving forwards; so why doesn’t it feel like things are?

The recent announcement that in the last three months, Blizzard lost more than a million subscribers does not shock me. Mists of Pandaria is going to be the tipping point I fear when Blizzard’s lack of ambition and understanding for the game they have created will bite back, people will see through it all and be unimpressed. And it will be the time when such criticisms are more valid than ever before; with WoW eight years old and with three expansions under its belt, this is no small studio trying to crack the market; this is a multi-national company coupled with the marketing clout of Activision, who make millions every month from subscriptions alone, let alone the extras and the merchandising. This is a game that should be growing, taking risks and challenging newcomers onto the scene like Guild Wars 2, and The Secret World. It should be amazing by this point.

Mists of Pandaria is a good expansion. But relatively speaking, at this point, it’s just not good enough.

And it makes it very hard to recommend it unless you’re a loyal fan of the franchise.

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