If you've never heard of World of Warcraft, then I'm impressed. It's been around since 2006, it has the largest subscription player-base of any Massively Multiplayer Online game on the planet, and it promotes a lot of passion amongst those who play it. You're either Alliance or Horde, Red or Blue, good or evil. The makers of the game, Blizzard Entertainment, like to push the warfare aspect as often as possible. After all, what's not to like about pitting two polar opposites against each other? The problem has come over the last seven years with knowing who exactly is the good guy and the bad guy in the continuing battles on the lands of Azeroth--a fantasy land in which the game is set.
We're back to familiar territory with the latest expansion, "Mists of Pandaria". Both Alliance and Horde are at war, but have discovered a significant new race has been lurking in their midsts, one that may help tip the balance in their respective efforts for supremacy. Enter the Pandarens, who existed in Warcraft lore long before Jack Black voiced THAT particular black and white bear in Kung Fu Panda.
Once you get over their uncanny appearance to said Kung Fu Panda and grasp their significance, the race seem a very relaxed fit into the existing game dynamics. Their home-world may look like it was lifted from a series of Kung Fu Panda storyboards as well, but it seamlessly meshes with the existing inhabitants: what the Pandas also bring with them is a return to the principles and dynamics of the game which (by Blizzard's own admission) have been slowly lost and eroded over the years.
So, what can you expect when firing up Mists of Pandaria? Well there's a new game class, the Monk (available in a wide range of fully customisable skins and hairstyles) with three distinct roles to fulfil. There's one of the best starting area experiences Blizzard have ever offered in game to teach your fledgling Monk about why they are here and the world of Azeroth they are being flung into (I’d strongly suggest everyone level at least one Monk to experience it for themselves).
Finally there is their homeland: a massive island zone which promises more than simply quest-driven dynamics and the same thematic approach, that anyone who's played an MMO in any format knows only too well. This is not a place to just explore or plunder (depending on your personal preference) but it is an environment steeped in lore, deliberately stocked with distractions that have the ability to genuinely surprise. You can choose to participate with others or go it alone, and there is no real penalty beyond the abuse from your peers that "you're not Level 90 yet".
This is not a place to just explore or plunder but it is an environment steeped in lore, deliberately stocked with distractions that have the ability to genuinely surprise.
Blizzard's plan for this expansion was simple: "bring back the fun". Most criticism from the existing player base focussed on a lack of sustainable, immersive content. This time around there's not just the staple quests and multiplayer content, but also a vast array of secondary distractions. Companion pets, so long simply cosmetic additions, have been given the ability to beat each other to a pulp via "Pet Battles", a Pokemon-esque mini-game that appears to be charming even to those with the hardest of hearts. You can cultivate your very own in-game farm (feel free to make the obvious comparison), which will provide raw materials to help you level character skills elsewhere and assist you with that all-important end game content.
What Blizzard have made a conscious effort to present is that they are listening to the concerns of those who pay their regular monthly fee for this product, something that is becoming less and less of a norm in the cut-throat MMO market. When you have a subscriber base larger than any other, it does pay to not skimp on the customer service. People wanted their game to be more than simply repetition of the same ideas and rewards.
Blizzard's stock is on the up: Diablo 3 has been a massive hit this year and Pandaria looks like it is likely to continue the trend. The launch was trending on Twitter yesterday and this morning, with massive gatherings of people across Europe all ready and willing to not simply part with cash for the game, but to commit to a monthly subscription to continue playing. The key will be the next few weeks and months, where it should be come apparent whether the Blizzard juggernaut is ever going to run out of steam, or could be well on its way to surviving as the number one played MMO for almost a decade.
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