World of Warcraft (WoW) is an interesting - and unique - game to assess. Originally released in 2004, the base title has been continually expanded over time, and in many ways barely resembles the version many of us first logged on to eight years ago. Considering that, however, the WoW we play today does still have a lot in common with its 1.0 iteration, and games that have been released much more recently have certainly moved the genre along.
Which makes the latest expansion for the game, Mists of Pandaria, somewhat challenging to review. In many ways, it's a disappointment; it lacks many of the tweaks and improvements that games like Star Wars: The Old Republic and the more recently released Guild Wars 2 have made to the general MMO formula. Not only that, but there's now a large amount of legacy material you have to wade through when playing for the first time or starting a new character, and each tier of content, as introduced by each expansion, changes the rules somewhat, resulting in an inconsistent experience from level 1 to the new cap of level 90.
But you also have to consider the fact that World of Warcraft is a much better place to spend time in, now that Mists of Pandaria is available. Arguably, this is the most important metric of all, as it is this version of World of Warcraft that players - once they've leveled, of course - will spend their time in.
The single largest contributing factor to this new and improved world (of Warcraft) is the addition of many new (and mostly interesting) things to do. Typically, on reaching the level cap, most players begin the gearing up process by running dungeons over and over, so they can then run heroic (harder, with better loot) versions of the dungeons over and over, so they can then run raids (much harder dungeons, designed for 10-25 players) over and over - all in their quest to become as powerful as they can.
That sort of end-game is still there, for those who are still motivated by it, but now there are several other things to do as well. One popular pastime, for example, is the new Pokemon-like pet battling system. With it you can find and battle critters all over the world, leveling up your own pets in your quest to take down WoW's pet battling champions. It's well implemented and great fun, providing an excellent alternate revenue stream too, thanks to the fact that you can sell your leveled-up pets and find rare ones in the wild.
Scenarios are a new form of dungeon that play out a lot like a quest and, thanks to the fact that they connect up any combination of three players (rather than a tank, a healer, and three damage dealers for a normal dungeon), they're super easy to get into as well. Beyond that, however, their long-term success is somewhat less than guaranteed as you earn very little from participating in one; other than seeing each of them once or twice, and trying to unlock the various achievements to be found within, it's unclear what can really be gained from completing them repeatedly.
The reputation system has been given a slight tweak this time around, with Mists of Pandaria factions often linking together in interesting ways. To unlock access to some, for example, you have to get to a certain level with others. Or, to purchase gear earned with currency acquired in those repeated dungeon runs that are so popular, you'll need to be of good standing with the faction that sells the gear you want. Yes, it's a bit grindy, but that does fit well within World of Warcraft's general set of mechanics, and the interrelations between game systems are a definite improvement on the way things were.
The new class - the Monk - is great fun to play, if a little dominant in any given situation. Leveling, they pretty much destroy anything you put in front of them, and at the end-game they always seem to populate the upper end of tables that measure damage, healing, or tanking prowess. Still, Blizzard have proven that they're great at normalizing classes that are too good or too bad at any given role, so over time I suspect any balance issues that actually exist will be brought into line.
Dungeons and raids are fun, with each - like most of the quests, for that matter - combining familiar experiences and new mechanics to result in something that's both approachable and fresh. Difficulty feels about right, to me at least, falling somewhere between Cataclysm's first tier of heroics (which were mental-hard to play with strangers) and the second, which were a tad on the easy side. You need to pay attention, and not be a muppet, but you can figure out what's going on largely through observation alone - something that indicates smart, considered design.
The fact that there's a strong beer-related theme running throughout the expansion, including in its dungeons, didn't hurt my enjoyment, as I'm a bit of an enthusiast in that particular area. But it's something to be aware of - especially if alcohol in general is something you try to avoid.
Visually, Pandaria is an amazing place to spend time. In particular, the hills and mountains are superbly executed, with a clear change in the way verticality is approached - both by designers and by the technical team. The whole "Asian-inspired" aesthetic, too, is carried off incredibly well and when simply chilling out in Pandaria, whether flying high on the back of a cloud serpent or exploring a river network on a raft, the world feels big and full of wonder; a marked comparison to the rather stunted and discrete experiences found elsewhere in Azeroth.
Ultimately, then, while it falls short of the entirely voice acted and personally driven narratives of modern MMOs in some ways, Blizzard have yet again proven that they know what it takes to deliver compelling content to their captive audience. There are still a few little quirks, and likely still some balancing and other changes required, but it's clear that this is a great World of Warcraft expansion, and that the team behind the game are still focused on giving WoW players what they want. Recommended.