Initially, it looked immature – almost a prank. Prior to the release of Mists of Pandaria, the fourth expansion for World of Warcraft, many players shared the fear that the inclusion of the Pandaren race of humanlike kung-fu pandas represented one dumbing-down too far for this beloved world. It seemed to show a cartoonish brush off for the warmongering history of the eternal feuds between the Alliance, the Horde and whatsoever imposing faction each expansion entered.
Although the storyline overall may be more self-assured, wherever this new expansion catches a heel on the catwalk is in the laborious nature of that storytelling. Frustratingly, the way your objectives unfold in the continent Pandaria as you advance towards the new level cap of 90 is an evolutionary regression for a game that has learned in recent years to shower its audience in a delicious river of experience opportunities.
The Asian-themed landscape of Pandaria at the start seems repetitive too, until the recommencement of flying at level 90 also brings it to life. This is a continent designed to be viewed from above: the grandeur of the striding Great Wall, the imperial stone guardians and the multi-coloured patchwork paddy fields of the farm- lands.
In these early quests, senseis flit around the scene under the power of animal spirits, players leap across slim poles to ring resonant gongs and aspiring warriors battle to unleash elemental spirits from the caverns deep underground. At the finale of this tightly-tuned initiation, a balloon ride over the island puts the splendour of the artwork and lore on a magnificent pedestal – in a manner that’s far more artfully achieved than in the high-end levelling.
The videos of video games cutscene. It’s sort of a hot topic amidst hardcore gamers. “Why are the cutscenes so long?” “I can’t skip this crap? Are you bantering me?!” “What is this, a motion picture?”
The list of bellyaches can go on and on, but whether you love or hate them, most games these days will have these cinematics or in-game movies to some extent. A cutscene is simply a sequence in which the player has little or no control over the game. It usually breaks gameplay action for the intention of advancing the plot, presenting character growth, and providing things like background fact, dialogue, clues, and ambience.
WOW has touched perfection in aspects of its previous expansions: the artwork and themes of Wrath of the Lich King, the freedom of questing opportunities in Cataclysm and the hard-won dungeon progress that gave The Burning Crusade its brutal but rewarding pace. It’s yet, however, to bring all of these moments together into one glorious whole – and in the max-level heroic dungeons of Pandaria, the game still struggles to find its Goldilocks moment between adversity and accessibility.
Pandaria’s greatest endgame achievement takes place behind the scenes, however. Previous expansions have been blighted by the length of queues for dungeons for those filling damage roles – but now, at level 90, you can queue for both a scenario and a dungeon at the same time. The scenario will almost certainly become available first but, once entered, your dungeon queue continues to tick away in the background. Whatever matchmaking magic is happening to ensure that these two pools of players come together just as a scenario concludes works exceptionally well, and you’ll barely have a moment’s pause between group adventures.
In spite of its successes, though, Pandaria doesn’t quite feel like the finished product – and it still clings doggedly to questing crutches that the likes of Guild Wars 2 have begun, gleefully, to kick away. The true impact of that now-archaic questing experience, so fractured on the long road to level 90, won’t likely be apparent until players take a second character through the journey. Thankfully there are treasures in abundance at the end of that often frustrating adventure – even if most of it lacks the fiendish fever to accompany the fun.