WoW: Mists of Pandaria Announced

THE BIG NEWS AT BLIZZCON 2011 today, by a wide margin, was the unveiling of the Mists of Pandaria expansion for World of Warcraft. Due “when it’s finished” (assumedly the second half of 2012), the expansion will raise the level cap to 90, introduce a new Pandaren race, a new Monk class, and a new 5-zone continent called Pandaria.

With a clear Asian/Far Eastern theme, Pandaria looks to be quite a bit more lighthearted than its predecessors – zones are lush and colorful, and the Pandaren are big, jolly characters who love to eat and want to kick you in the face. One of their racials is even called “Bouncy,” which cuts falling damage in half, and their starting zone is on the back of a giant turtle.

Some people have already commented that the new continent of Pandaria (which will have 5 zones) looks like an entire expansion based on Kung Fu Panda, but I think that’s a little over the top – I suspect there are going to be a lot of WoW players excited to play the pandas (who will be the only new race in the expansion and be available to both Horde and Alliance).

The next big feature is the Monk, who will be the game’s 11th class.  The Monk will have three possible specs: tank, healer and melee DPS, wearing leather gear. Two misconceptions Blizzard quickly cleared up: it’s not a hero class – you start at level 1 – and it’s not Pandaren-only. In fact, you can create a Monk of any race except Worgen and Goblins.  (Pandaren, by the way, can be 7 of WoW‘s 11 classes, with the exceptions being the death knight, druid, paladin and warlock).

Shortly after the Blizzcon opening ceremonies, WoW’s Tom Chilton and Greg Street took the stage to go over some of the expansion’s other new features. Dungeon “challenge modes” will add another level of difficulty beyond normal and heroic dungeons, adding time trials, medals and leaderboards. Oh, and they’re completely revamping the talent system… again! But I’ll save that for a different post.

Maybe the most fascinating new addition coming in the expansion is a “Pet Battle” system. You know all those cute pets you have? Blizzard is adding many more of the adoptable critters, some of whom you can only find in the wild at certain times in certain areas, and you can level them up and give them names and battle each other in turn-based skirmishes … and if you’re thinking Oh My God They’re Doing Pokemon you’d be exactly right. And knowing the way WoW players seem to love their pets, it’s probably going to be an insanely popular part of the game. (I’m a Pokemon fan myself, and have over 100 pets, so I’ll probably be there, too.)

Of course, there’s plenty more to talk about, such as how the devs are looking to create a more compelling quest experience, whether that’s by not having such a linear progression (a common complaint with Cataclysm) or not allowing flight in Pandaria until you hit the level cap. Or new dungeons and battlegrounds and raids, or even revamps of old favorites like Scholomance and Scarlet Monastery. Or “scenarios,” which are sort of a hybrid between multi-stage dungeon encounters and group quests, where you only need a few people and don’t need to worry about group composition.

If there was anything to take away from all the new features unveiled at Blizzcon, it’s that Blizzard realizes there’s a serious need to give people something compelling to do at the level cap other than traditional raids. The challenge modes, skirmishes and pet battles are all things you could easily see eating up players’ time at the level cap, not to mention the new Raid Finder feature, which Blizzard is hoping will make raids far more accessible to the casual player. With Diablo III and Star Wars: The Old Republic on the horizon, and Blizzard’s next big project getting closer to taking the spotlight, this could be WoW‘s last big hurrah, and they’re clearly making a big push to keep subscribers hooked as long as possible.