It’s a Panda Monk Pandemic
Blizzard has a tough time with World of Warcraft these days. I mean aside from the millions of dollars they make every month in fees, it’s hard to get excited about the game. As a business, they are living on easy street, but creatively I imagine they’re in a difficult position. If they do something completely new, a World of Warcraft 2, they can only cannablise their own customers (not literally) and so business-wise it doesn’t make sense. For whatever people say about the state of MMOs, WoW is still the undisputed king. So instead of a reinvention of the game we get these expansions, and as far as I know this won’t be the last one. So is it any good?
The short answer is yes it is, and I’m not having any fun with it. I’ve played WoW on and off since vanilla and I go through progessively shorter cycles of playing. The same issues always arise, namely that the entire thing is a grind towards gaining gear that is just a set of made up numbers on a screen that can be changed at any moment by the developers. The ‘game’ part used to be the progression, I’m not sure the actual gameplay was ever that fun. You click on things, you press hotkeys to fire off abilities, and you plan out your character. Of course as time has gone on the formula has evolved a little with placement becoming more important but essentially the game is the same. The developers have repeatedly tried to come up with interesting mechanics or events but it all gets theorycrafted to hell until there is a ‘right’ way to do it.
One of the biggest problems with WoW is the community. In order to be a meaningful member you have to follow certain rules, to the point of installing certain UI mods that tell you what a boss is about to do or makes healing trivial. You have to go to place like ElitistJerks to find out what stats you should be going for, which talents to pick and what gear you should be working towards. Things change of course but it rarely lasts for more than a day before there is a ‘right’ way to play. This makes the game feel like work, you follow someone else’s rules and you steadily progress, until there is no more content or the time demands exceed your will.
When games get to the point where they feel like work they stop being fun, and I stop playing. Every time WoW releases a new expansion, there’s fun new things to play with and experience, but each year the game is falling behind the curve in terms of MMO gameplay.
One of the first things I noticed in Mists was that quests are still printed in little text boxes for you to read. I almost instinctively closed the box right away by pressing ‘accept’ so I could just see my objective and the area on the map highlighted so I could start my shift. But I held back and thought ‘no, I should read this, maybe I’m missing out on a spectacular story. I wasn’t.
The story is mostly a vehicle with which to get you to visit different sections of the isle of Pandaria. There are interesting characters to be sure, and I appreciate the renewed focus on the conflict between Horde and Alliance, but the story never grabbed me, it felt like a diversion rather than the focus. I’ve been spoilt recently by the excellent voice acting and characterisation in The Old Republic and the attempts at something new in regards to questing with Guild Wars 2, but WoW’s system feels stale and dull. Getting through the starter zone was a chore, and getting my Dwarf Shaman to 90 was just as dull.
The new environments are lovely, don’t get me wrong. I’m consistently impressed by the flickers of life Blizzard have teased out of the aging engine, Pandaria does look stunning in places. But unfortunately it is only in places with scenic vistas. Indoor areas look fairly terrible and the lighting model in particular is showing its age. New enemies have poor models and animation, with little of the care that has been lavished on the Pandaren showing.
Speaking of the Pandas, I don’t find them as ridiculous as some others, but they’re incredibly unsurprising. It’s amazing how closely they have played the mythology with Kung Fu Panda given the inevitable comparisons. They are a stereotypical cartoon of Asian culture of the past, and aside from some farmland that struck me as particularly lovely, there’s nothing noteworthy about the race.
The new class is unsatisfying to play and shows the tough situation Blizzard are in when their original classes and the Death Knight are so well balanced they fill all of the possible roles. To me the Monk comes off as a combination of the Rogue and the Warrior, but lacks the personality of either. You don’t have the insanely high damage and mobility of the Rogue, and you don’t have the badass armour and ridiculous weapons of the Warrior. What you do have is the weakness assosciated with being melee and some sub par healing and tanking skills that don’t come into their own until much too high of a level.
The new talent system and pet battles are distractions but do nothing to solve any of the underlying problem s with the game. The pet battles in particular seem like a completely tacked on minigame that are fun and rewarding for those zoological kleptomaniacs out there, but it does feel completely seperate to your main adventure.
Overall, Pandaria is not going to win anyone over who was not convinced by WoW previously. I don’t think it’s even strong enough to justify returning to the game. It’s a well made addition to a game that has substantial problems and it does nothing to fix them. There’s a bunch of new content and zones so I’m sure existing WoW fans will love the variety and things to do, but then they’re not going to be reading this review because they’ll have already hit level 90 with a few of their characters and will be ploughing through the raid content.
As far as I’m concerned this expansion is like putting a nice suit on a corpse; it’s smartened it up a bit but that was never really the problem was it?