World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria Hands-On Preview

There’s also a lot to explore. My investigations take me to an area where warrior monks are practicing a little Karate Kid action, standing in a “crane” pose atop wooden poles rising out of a pond. I have to bounce across them (with a series of simple mouse clicks) to ring a bell and prove I’m not a total moron to some quest giver or other.

In another area, I help defend a village (and its stores of beer) from the mischievous hozu, a monkey-like race that is generally at odds with the pandaren. Later, I’m asked to help defend pandaren farm lands from angry, sentient rabbits called verming. They fill a role not unlike kobolds, in that they’re goofy looking and yet always aggressive and therefore fun to kill. That they make off with vegetables gives them a bit of a mutant Bugs Bunny quality.

Very early, Mists of Pandaria strikes an interesting and altogether different balance from, say, Cataclysm. There’s a mysticism about the giant turtle and the pandaren themselves, but the lighter subject matter and tone makes itself felt almost constantly. Encounters with the hozu make them seem both threatening and comical; the verming are even a bit on the cartoonish side. The four elemental spirits you rescue in the early going in order to save the local villages are playful and almost seem like a group of children that have to be corralled. The world is extremely pretty and well varied, but it’s clear early that this isn’t Pandaria; you can walk up to the edge of the turtle and see off.

Toward the end of the pandaren start zone (right around when you hit Level 10), you leave the turtle and are made to choose between joining the Horde or the Alliance – a choice that’s unchangeable once you’ve made it. When you eventually return to Pandaria at Level 85, you’ll be like a stranger discovering it for the first time. The pandaren players control won’t be the same group of people to be found on the actual island, and that’ll be reflected in the way you’re treated and your experiences on the major continents.

The biggest takeaway of starting as a pandaren (and as a monk) is the focus on the very different culture of the new race as compared to those of the rest of World of Warcraft. The starting zone’s tone is less heavy, the world under less dire a threat. It’s almost as if the major horrors that have befallen Azeroth up to now haven’t hit the pandaren, and you get to start a character with a sort of innocence that makes for a different experience as you enter the rest of the game.

The monk class offers something of a different way to play the game as well, with its emphasis on a more active approach. During Blizzcon, there was some talk at panels that this way of playing wasn’t set in stone, but the offer of a character class players have to be even more actively engaged with is interesting. It’s probable – even likely – that the lack of auto-attack will turn off players looking to maximize their damage output for raids and so forth, and Blizzard may change it because of that. But at least for now, the monk, like the pandaren, offer a bit of a different angle on WoW. The expansion has a whole tends to recast what players are used to from the last few sets, and because of that, Mists of Pandaria could end up being very interesting.

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Follow Hornshaw on Twitter: @philhornshaw.

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