It’s time, people. It’s time to remember you should never say no to panda. Yes, we’ve reached one of World of Warcraft’s most weirdly controversial expansions with Mists of Pandaria, and if you’re mostly familiar with the expansion because of people making jokes about Kung Fu Panda or stating the expansion actually wasn’t that bad, you… wait, who are you?
No, really, I’m serious, who here started playing WoW only after this expansion? Was it anyone? I feel like it wasn’t.
Anyhow, we’ve got a format going here, so the point is that it’s time to head back to the dewy slopes of 2012 and talk about the absolute mistiest conceivable continent. That’s Mists of Pandaria, and it’s an expansion I have a lot of conflicting feelings about, at once a type specimen for so many of the problems that modern WoW has leaned in on while being pretty darn good on its own.
Premise & Setting
“Hey, fellow members of the Alliance/Horde? You know how much fun we were having beating the snot out of the Horde/Alliance while the world was basically literally on fire? Well that southern continent that had been surrounded by mist up until now is now… not surrounded by mist, and it probably has some people who would love to join the Alliance/Horde to beat up the Horde/Alliance with us! For the Alliance/Horde!”
Of course, that was really just the starting point; the reality is that Pandaria was a big continent with its own problem, at once resistant to the ways of outsiders and also being eaten away from within by its own problems that it scarcely was willing to acknowledge. After starting off with a very straightforward narrative, it quickly moved into an examination of what various forces were fighting for and why, and an examination of the ongoing mess of a conflict that was spilling into Pandaria.
The ultimate point, in some very strong thematic direction, was that the drive for power by both factions was ultimately damaging and the faction leader who could not walk away from that would ultimately lead the people to ruin. Story threads about discontent with Garrosh finally paid off with an outright Horde civil war that gave Vol’jin the seat of Warchief, but along the way we got to see just how badly mindless fighting could really be for the world around us.
Gosh, it’d sure feel dumb as hell if we just rehashed this in six years, wouldn’t it?
Pandaren are this expansion’s new race, and completely undoing any and all arguments about racial silhouettes that Blizzard is still pretending are a thing, the Pandaren can belong to either the Alliance or the Horde past the starting area. They’re also big and soft and furry.
Meanwhile, the game adds the first new base class to the game with the addition of the Monk, which is functionally identical to Druid except instead of turning into a bear or a kitty or a grumpy tree, you shout “HOOO-OOOH!” and then you heal people. Joking aside, I adore Monk as a class and it’s actually a lot of fun to play, even if the explanation for how you can have monks for other races has never felt… totally together. (A lot is pulled from the melee enemies dubbed as monks in Scarlet Monastery, but that seems to more suggest that at one point Discipline was a melee tree… ah, well.)
Of course, Monk has no talent trees because no one has talent trees any more. Yes, this expansion removed talent trees altogether, replacing them with single ability picks at certain levels and many of your abilities being automatically granted just by your spec. This was another major change to the status quo, starting the modern divide into less being about your chosen class and more about your chosen spec within that class.
The end of the expansion introduced the flexible raid tier, which was meant to be harder than the raid finder difficulty (and not queueable) but also scaled according to group size in terms of difficulty. The idea was that it’d be easy to form PUG runs with less demanding size restrictions, a change that would become very important with the next expansion.
Reputations were also changed; tabards were no longer worn to run through dungeons, but you could instead pick a specific reputation to champion and get a bonus for a random run. There were also… dailies. Lots of dailies. So many dailies. You got a random daily that sent you to another daily hub, which in turn had other random dailies, daily daily daily quests all day long. People who liked daily quests were happy. Unfortunately, this expansion also changed how badges worked; instead of high reputations having vendor gear and another vendor having badge gear, the reputation gear was also the badge gear, so it was another kick in the pants toward actual bad luck protection.
On a brighter note, this expansion brought in the farm, a phased region of content wherein players could explore and build up a farm (hence the name) as a sort of pseudo-housing content. It was fun. Lots of people liked it. It’s a shame it then went on to get so thoroughly mismanaged later… but now I’m previewing coming attractions.
It’s also worth noting that this was kind of the last point when leveling up generally would give you new abilities for a given expansion. Look, we can’t pretend stormclouds aren’t on the horizon.
For all the not-great future consequences I alluded to up there, the thing about Mists of Pandaria was that it was itself a pretty good expansion… that people hated right from the start because it was a bunch of pandas and it removed stuff like talent trees.
Some of this was justified. Instead of actually changing elements that people really didn’t like from Cataclysm, many elements of the expansion doubled down on what had already made people angry. The removal of talent trees altogether didn’t calm anyone, and when Cataclysm already had a tone problem, saying “our next expansion is fun animals” rubbed lots of people wrong straight off. Speaking for myself, I certainly wasn’t excited that an April Fools’ Day joke from Warcraft III kept getting more and more prominence, up to now being the premise of an expansion.
However, a lot of people were eventually won over by a combination of factors. Monk, for example, was really fun and well-designed as a new class. The actual story of Pandaria was in-depth and well-presented, with lots of novel NPCs and a good sense of pacing. (Although the Hozen wore thin pretty quick.) For many people, once you got over those initial speedbumps, what you found was a remarkably good expansion that didn’t feel as good as Wrath but definitely felt better than its immediate predecessor.
Of course, some of the bitterness was still there, and there was a hope that this was the start of a climb back rather than a resurgence before a backslide. Sadly, it… wasn’t going to last.
A wanted Classic experience?
Keeping in mind we’d probably be talking about 2027, I don’t really know. But the thing is that I can see how it might be… as a slice of amber, so to speak.
Whatever bad design choices we see in modern WoW that didn’t have their roots in Wrath or Cataclysm had their roots here, and so on one level I feel like this expansion might be getting looked upon even more harshly seven years from now… or more positively if things just keep getting worse. And a lot of what Mists did well was ultimately undercut by the fact that many of its most positive aspects were done even more effectively in Legion, easily the apotheosis of this era of design.
At the same time, Mists deserves a chance in the sun and a chance to be re-evaluated free of jokes about animated children’s films and the rawness of Cataclysm. And what there actually is in this expansion is good stuff. It’s a place of lovely environments, interesting story, engaging quests, and probably too many dailies until you see how aggressively they got pruned back. A lot kind of depends on where the game actually is when this would be up for Classic servers.
Still, you’ve got enough content and it is, in its own way, a classic. It’s not like it got abandoned halfway through, right?