Recently, Blizzard finally opened the floodgates and made public the Mists of Pandaria beta, and being that I’m one of the poor saps who agreed to Blizzard’s “Please don’t leave us for Star Wars; Promise You’ll Stay and You’ll Be Rich Beyond Your Wildest Dreams!” contract, I got into one of the first waves. It’s my first Warcraft beta since the first vanilla beta (despite having a launch-day active account for most of the past eight goddamned years and paying countless dollars of my own money for silly pets, name changes, race changes, faction changes, gender changes, frivolous mounts and slight polygonal modifications to my character over the course of the past decade; damn Blizzard’s beta selection process!), and frankly I’m more excited than I should be to roleplay a hapless, female panda bear gourmand running around a harmless forest. But here I am.
Pandaren: Dulling the significance of “War” in “Warcraft” since 2012.
I’ve actually been pro-panda since the beginning, and don’t really have a problem with them cuddlifying the world (of Warcraft). I think after the events of Cataclysm, taking a break from basing expansions around already explored lore (Illidan, Arthas, Deathwing), and creating some new lore is a great idea. They’re also promising a drastically heightened focus on the ongoing war between the Horde and the Alliance, and if Pandaria’s going to be the battlefield for said war, I’m cool with it.
But I digress. I gave a sizable chunk of my weekend to the beta, and while I’m neither blown away nor disappointed, I still felt…things about it. That much is for sure. Maybe it isn’t as epic as TBC and WotLK, or maybe I’m just getting too old for this s--t. But without further adieu, here are the five things that I couldn’t help but think as I traversed the new world known as Pandaria:
5. Monks are Sort of…Boring
I’ve been fairly dedicated to one toon in my WoW career (my Rogue), but I do have a crippling case of Alt-oholism. I have every class at 85 excepting Warlocks, some of them twice over, so of course the most interesting part of the beta to me was the ability to play the new class being introduced to World of Warcraft, the Monk. Every race can be a Monk except, strangely, Worgen and Goblins, but if I’m going to jump into a new class, I may as well do it as nature intended and jump headfirst into its lore by making a Pandaren Monk.
Isn’t she cute?! …I need a new hobby.
I’ll get into the specifics of the Pandaren in a minute, but first: The Monk. Much like most things in Warcraft, the Monk represented here is an amalgamation of real-world applications of the concept, as well as some of Blizzard’s own flair. WoW Monks are adept in hand-to-hand combat, well versed in herbal medicine, and are apparently rampant, raging alcoholics. As such, you’ll get abilities based off every one of these concepts, which ones depending mostly on what spec you choose. I have so far only reached level 20 on the beta, so my first-hand knowledge is not entirely comprehensive, but I was able to get a pretty good feel for each of the three specializations.
On a basic level, Monks feel most like Rogues. They use energy. They have chi, which is a lot like combo points: Some moves generate it, some moves use it. The major difference between chi and combo points is that chi is attached to the Monk, not its target (something Rogues have wanted for years). Being a Windwalker (DPS) Monk is going to feel fairly similar to a rogue with some obvious exceptions. Being a Brewmaster (tank) Monk is pretty cool because never before has a tank used energy as a resource. Unfortunately if you choose to be a Mistweaver (healer), your energy bar is replaced with a standard mana bar. Originally Monks were going to use energy to heal as well, but it was too difficult to balance against the other healers and understandably so. You retain your access to chi, which ends up making Mistweavers feel somewhat like Holy Paladins, generating and using holy power.
The class is unique in concept, but in practice it doesn’t really feel like anything different. When playing a Death Knight you felt different, in many ways superior. Your moves as well as your resource system felt entirely unique. Maybe it’s because they ditched the concept of Light and Dark Force to go with a familiar energy bar or maybe it’s because nowadays many specs have very unique resources (we now have specialty resources such as Eclipse, Runes and Holy Power), but Monks don’t feel terribly unique. It may also be an unfair comparison since Death Knights started at level 55 and were awarded defining abilities fairly quickly as a result while Monks start off at level 1 like the rest of us. Either way, I feel underwhelmed and dare I say underpowered whilst playing my Monk.
One thing that is awesome about Monks is the ability Roll. It initially doesn’t amount to much more than a more “fun” version of Blink, allowing you to roll forward quickly. You can eventually spec into attaching movement speed increases and even AOE damage to it though, which truly makes it a staple for all Monks. The only thing I can think of is how goddamned annoying it’s going to be to catch up to Monks in arena. Whee!
Tanking is interesting but needs to be fleshed out greatly, especially at lower levels. In concept; it’s definitely appealing: You don’t use shields, you don’t use plate armor, and you don’t even buff your existing armor. As a Brewmaster Monk, you basically just get shitfaced and either drunkenly sway, dodging attacks, or use your newfound imperviousness towards pain to absorb the damage. To alleviate damage in lieu of plate armor or shields, the tanking Stance (Stance of the Sturdy Ox) flatly decreases damage taken by 20% and allows you to stagger damage, taking 50% of the damage of an attack upfront and converting the other half into a nine second DoT. Sounds great on paper, but in practice, basic tasks are cumbersome or in some cases impossible, such as rounding up adds and pulling from a distance; things tanks are very much required to do. Things ease up at higher levels, but that leads to another issue that plagues every spec of Monks: Ability distribution feels way off. You get a couple core abilities at 10 and then are stuck using them for a very, very long time.
This is your AOE ability for a long time…oh, and it also does no damage and causes no threat. Great.
This isn’t just an issue with tanking, either; healing is more of the same. When choosing Mistweaver (the healing spec), you should hop into Stance of the Wise Serpent, which sees you hand in your energy bar to get a mana bar in return in addition to increased healing. You also start off with a grand total of one heal, and it’s a single-target channeled spell (think Penance, but a little bit slower). Not only does this make healing the first couple of dungeons almost impossible, it is strangely against the model they put into place for healers in Cataclysm: Every healer should have a flash heal, a big heal, and a mana-efficient smaller heal. I’m sure this will be worked out and you do gain more heals at higher levels, but at lower levels it feels incredibly clunky.
DPSers, also known as Windwalker Monks, are very rogue-like. Their stance grants a flat 20% damage increase. Nothing flashy, but it definitely works. You have a decent array of stuns and interesting damage mechanics, but again, at lower levels it feels very empty. You have Jab, which generates Chi (think Sinister Strike) as well as a move that uses the generated Chi (think Eviscerate). Some fun AOE abilities are in place as well, including Fists of Fury, which does damage and stuns enemies in a radius. I’ve always been a DPSer at heart, but I think Windwalkers look like the most fun out of the lot of them, but it’s also the one I have the least experience with. I look forward to playing around some more with Windwalkers in the future.
Overall, Monks are solid but underwhelming; promising but a little concerning. They have a long way to go, and I fear that Blizzard will pull a Death Knight on them and massively overcompensate to make sure people play them. I still wake up in cold sweats every now and then after dreaming of Death Knights slaughtering my Rogue with unparalleled ease and efficiency in Season 5, so I’m hoping against hope that this doesn’t happen, but I’ll also be rolling a Monk day one in case it does so that I too can reap some sweet, sweet Flavor of the Month rewards.
4. Pandaren Look Amazing…
It’s no secret that the core graphics engine in WoW has been starting to show its age over the past eight years, but every expansion Blizzard manages to revamp parts of it to keep it competing, and Pandaria is no different. This time around the fog effects seem to have been given a makeover, which is good given the fact that Pandaria is a very misty, foggy continent.
One thing that has always steadily improved, of course, is character models of new races. Blood Elves and Draenei were on such another level in terms of animations and overall “feel” compared to the original eight races, and Worgen & Goblins leapfrogged them. It’s no surprise then that Pandaren are the current rule of the roost. They’re plump, they’re bouncy, and their facial expressions are, at least in comparison to the other WoW race models, amazing. You can see the trepidation on their faces, enjoy their gluttonous smiles as they feast on bamboo, and feel their anger as they slice into their enemies.
Strangely, the males and females feel very different, however. Females are what you’d expect: bubbly, wide-eyed and sickeningly cute. The females can also be two species: the typical black and white Giant Pandas, as well as a raccoon-like Red Panda, replete with Super Mario Bros. 3 bushy tail. Never mind the fact that it makes zero sense logistically that the females can be an entirely different genus of animal, it’s cool, and it feels great.
In contrast to the bubbly females, the male Pandaren surprisingly look downright grizzly.
Of course, being named “Verifanci,” he might feel like he has something to prove.
That’s really the only complaint I have graphically with the Pandaren: their visual disparity. They both look great in their own way however, so it’s kind of a wash. I’m actually glad that they both offer their own flavor, giving a reason to make both, as opposed to some races where one gender is just objectively inferior (cough, female Tauren, cough). You’re going to have a great time playing a Pandaren, and the animations are timeless. Sadly some things are not built into the beta yet, such as dances and voices, but we’ll know how they get down in time.
3. …And So Do the Zones.
When Pandaria was first announced, my mind immediately went to the zones. The lush, green forest, the traditional Chinese architecture…I was basically envisioning some living, breathing amalgamation of Mulan and Kung Fu Panda. And honestly, that’s exactly what it feels like.
I know that a lot of people are going to give Pandaria flak for being too childish. I can agree to a point that each expansion seems to introduce certain kiddy elements, and I’m in no way going to try to argue that anthropomorphic Panda bears whose racial abilities include “Bouncy,” “Gourmand,” and “Wook at Da Wittle Fuzzy Wuzzy Panda Bear” (okay, I made the last one up) are menacing or otherwise adult in nature. They’re not. But it’s a video game, and one that has included two foot tall Gnomes riding skeumorphed mechanical ostriches from day one. That’s one of the things that makes Warcraft different to me; it doesn’t take itself too seriously. For every epic moment such as finally killing the Lich King at the Frozen Throne or hopping onto Deathwing’s back to end the Cataclysm once and for all, there are quests where you’re diving into piles of Elekk dump to find digested nuts.
The new zones as I said above feel like you’re in a Disney movie at times, but that doesn’t stop them from being breathtakingly beautiful at the same time. Both the Wandering Isle (the Pandaren starting area) and the level 85+ zones have their own niche appeal, and I think they blow the Cata zones out of the water. Whereas Hyjal felt like a beefed up Ashenvale and Uldum felt like an extension of Tanaris, The zones on Pandaria have their own personality and truly beg to be explored.
Another great thing I’ve noticed so far are the new mobs. There are new models for monkeys, equestrians, serpents, wind elementals, and many other new models that give Pandaria a very new feeling. I haven’t seen many recycled models (they exist, of course) and that’s a good thing; the fresher they can keep this game the better. It’s a wonder and a credit to Blizzard that they’ve managed to keep the game this fresh after this long, and Pandaria continues that tradition in stride.
2. You’ll Learn to Love the New Talent System
Possibly the most drastic change in Pandaria is the complete revamp of the spec/talent system. Blizzard has abandoned the tried-and-true talent tree system in favor of making things more dynamic. Their logic is sound: While Cataclysm made speccing slightly more interesting, there were still mathematically superior choices at almost every level, and many talents were still just passive no-brainers. The new system won’t completely alleviate that, but it does make things a little less linear. Basically, at level 10 you choose a spec, much like you do now, and you get one or two spec-defining moves right off the bat. You can also see what spells you’ll gain at what level, but unlike Cata, you don’t even have to visit the trainer to gain access to said abilities; you’ll just acquire them as soon as you hit that level.
Many people complain that this takes away one of the few remaining tethers to physically traveling around the world that remain, as now you don’t even have to periodically return to a city to get new spells while leveling. It’s just another convenience thing, and one that will likely be adopted by other MMOs soon enough. I can see many old-school MMORPG hardliners disagree with what Blizzard has done to the genre, but in an era where Final Fantasy games are basically 40 hour tutorials, you get Achievements for participation and you can skip levels you’ve failed too many times on, it’s just a sign of the times. Video games are becoming more streamlined and less hardcore, and it’s not entirely Blizzard’s fault. Why do you think WoW almost immediately became the most popular MMO ever to begin with?
Once you choose your spec, in addition to gaining new spec-related abilities are you level, you also choose one new ability every 15 levels, regardless of spec. So I can be, say, a Fire Mage with Presence of Mind, Ice Barrier, Temporal Shield and other goodies I could have never used before.
One more note: I had heard Blizzard say that respeccing was going to be as easy as re-glyphing is, but I didn’t think they meant it literally. You can now use the same Dust of Disappearance you use to erase glyphs to erase talent choices. And because nothing is bound together in the tree hierarchy anymore, these can be done on an individual basis.
It lends a lot more balance to specs, as class-defining abilities such as the aforementioned Ice Barrier can be given to all mages as opposed to only one spec. The choices are usually difficult though, so you don’t feel like you’re a complete god. As a rogue, you have to choose between Shadowstep and Preparation, which is just plain dirty.
Be sure to take a look into your spellbook, too. A lot of spells that once were spec-dependant are now baseline. Imagine my surprise when I, as a fire mage, could nicely Deep Freeze my foes as I nicely torch them from afar. In a phrase, feels good man.
And something about adding a comma to the damage just makes my e-peen grow that much more.
1. The Beta is Still Far From Complete
It’s kind of surprising how incomplete it is. A couple of my buddies were in the Burning Crusade beta, and from what I saw and played it felt like a complete game that we were just basically stress testing. While I can’t speak for the WotLK or Cata betas, the Pandaria beta definitely caught me off guard in that context. Zones are still inaccessible, many animations are still missing, and overall it feels more like an alpha than a beta.
Many quests are buggy and include testing notes in the quest text to get around the bugs. Then there’s also this guy/gal, who can probably be seen after work sharing a gender-confused beer or two with Birdo from the Super Mario series:
Of course you are, buddy. Don’t let anybody tell you differently.
I’ll be playing around with the beta a ton more as the weeks go on. Have a specific question? Want to see a specific screenshot? Let me know in the comments and I’ll try to nicely fulfill your request. I am but a humble servant, after all.
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