Dispelling the Mists – A Retrospective on Mists of Pandaria

I’ve decided, after the reception for my post on Warlords of Draenor, that I’d take a stab at every expansion, talking about cut content and the general reception of each expansion, working backwards!

So…let’s chat about Mists of Pandaria!

It’s Like, Totally Kung Fu Panda – Except Not At All

I still get irritated when fan discussions of this expansion trend toward how immature and uninspired the theme was. Right from the word go, at Blizzcon 2011, there were people talking about how the expansion was childish, uninspired, too close to children’s cartoons and not nearly engaging enough. Never mind that this was based solely on the reveal trailer and panel information.

And, to be fair – there was the possibility that the theme of the expansion could go that direction. We had Monks, chubby panda people, eastern flair everywhere. The concept art and the showoffs of creatures like the Hozen and Virmen were weird for a WoW reveal – seemingly cartoony. The potential did exist that it could be a giant weird cartoon played out in game, but Blizzard kept their hand close to their chest.

It’s one of the things I find most fascinating about Mists, really. Where other announcements saw Blizzard eager to spill the beans about everything that a designer had scrawled on a whiteboard – resulting in cries of cut content, Mists…didn’t. The announcement was, similar to Battle for Azeroth in a way, fairly light on details. We saw concept art, some zone videos, stuff about Monks, and it was left at that. Raid content? Not for discussion today. Dungeons? We’re adding challenge modes, here are some basic details about that. Basically, they didn’t end up being held to account for missed content because they didn’t really tell us about that much.

And that reserved excitement on their part paid off, in my view. The bright colors – greens, golds, reds – give way to darker hues and somber themes. If, pre-launch, you had told people they’d be getting one of the darkest WoW expansions ever, they’d have laughed at you. Early on, they’d still be laughing at you – there was a basic tale of how raw emotion can get the best of you in Jade Forest, but it was pretty light-hearted for most of the zone. Around Krasarang Wilds, it starts to turn darker, getting darker in Kun Lai Summit, and then ultimately leading to the odd brutality of Dread Wastes. There is a military excursion happening, a tale of what happens when a native people are pushed to the brink by a war that they are barely involved in. The bubbling conflicts of a pre-Cataclysm Pandaria boil over as well, with the Mogu pushing back hard and the Mantid swarming causing a ton of problems. All throughout, we are pushed to fix the damage our incursion has caused, while settling the age-old conflicts that tear the continent apart. We see the natives impaled on spears, fighting against each other as a counterpoint to what we do – if the inhabitants of this relatively beautiful place are consumed by war, is that the nature of living?

It was a well-woven narrative, because it relied on simple themes and revisited them each content patch and asked how they still apply. The opening cinematic asks “what is worth fighting for?” and throughout the expansion, challenges are raised that question our ability to answer. When the conflict in Krasarang breaks out, is it worth fighting? Garrosh is being a dick, yes, but is he worth running a coup yet? Maybe not – but over the expansion, the conflict boils over. There is the assassination attempt on Vol’jin, the direct injury inflicted upon Anduin Wrynn by Garrosh, the capture of the Divine Bell leading to the removal of the Horde from Dalaran, and the Big Blossom Mine, ultimately leading to Garrosh stealing away the Heart of Y’Shaarj. Early on, despite his agitations, we answer the question of fighting him with “no,” which makes the point in 5.3 where the Darkspear rise up against him and begin to push to take Orgrimmar more satisfying. While the story is fairly heavily Horde-focused, the Alliance has stakes in this too – the almost-death of Anduin, the constant agitation of Garrosh, and the bombing of Theramore.

What played to Mists of Pandaria’s strengths was that the underlying brightness and assumed childishness of the themes led to an excellent subversion. Many of us went in expecting a light-hearted journey and got something far different, which made the slow turn into darkness all the more interesting. We start off with a war in a lush forest that leads to Sha devastation, and we end the expansion having swept the streets of Orgrimmar as its citizens bleed out in captivity, warlocks who refused to follow along with Garrosh’s madness literally hung out to die, their limp bodies hanging from nooses overhead as we push into the Underhold.

Pandaria’s greatest asset by far is that subversiveness – the usage of the lighter elements of its story to gut-punch you later. The narrative arcs that follow are pretty great too. There is Lorewalker Cho, who trusts us (and is correct to do so), but that is contrasted with Taran Zhu, who doesn’t trust us, comes around during Throne of Thunder, and then sees his vision of us as monsters proven correct via Garrosh in Siege of Orgrimmar. The tale of the Shado-Pan is interesting, as we spend a great amount of time proving ourselves to them, both in the base game and later on the Isle of Thunder, and ultimately they serve as our best allies in pushing back the native conflicts, while being conscripted almost unwillingly into fighting against Garrosh. There is the story of Wrathion, gathering power for the threat of the Legion, which we will talk about momentarily! The wheels are set in motion here for Anduin’s development as a character, the effects of which have been paying off well going forward.

But there were a few misses, some ideas discussed publicly that were not delivered.

Monks with No Auto Attack: The initial idea of the Monk was an active class that had no auto-attack and required more management. The remnants of this idea were visible in the use of Jab – a fairly mundane generator attack. It didn’t proceed on to Legion because it was a vestigial piece of a (potentially) more interesting design. I would have been pretty fascinated to see how a melee class in WoW would play with no auto-attack. The possibilities we’ll never know!

Wrathion, In General: This is more of a loss of potential, but Wrathion was shaping up to be a huge player in the future of Warcraft. After a bit role in a revamped old world quest chain, and a starring role in the Rogue legendary daggers quest in Dragon Soul, MoP was Wrathion coming into full focus as an important lore character. He saw the real threat, you see – the Legion, and the point of the legendary quest early on was to give us the power, granted by the Titanic influence of Pandaria, to fight the Legion. When you consider that Legion was on-track to potentially be the expansion after Mists of Pandaria, it makes a lot of sense. What we got instead, though…he was great in MoP and then just kind of faded off into nothing. A whelp-form of his is present for part of the Warlords of Draenor legendary ring quest, though! Imagine what could have been if his narrative arc had properly continued into Legion – particularly when you consider that we now have a second uncorrupted Black Dragonflight member in Ebyssian, one who will be siding with the Horde in Battle for Azeroth too, interestingly. Which, according to what some folks saw in the 8.0 demo at Blizzcon, may start to develop into a full-fledged plot between the two black dragon siblings…but who knows for now? All I know is that he had the potential to have been far more involved, and yet nothing.

The Promise of Pandaria: The zones we got at launch, coupled with Isle of Thunder, were fantastic, with a strong, unifying visual kit that still felt distinct. It all felt vaguely Asian, but there was a lot of strong influence there, and not just the sloped, tiled ceilings we saw from the Pandaren. But I feel like there should have been more Pandaria zones – more stuff that served to showcase the continent and its people. I found myself wanting more Mantid things, more Mogu structures, and that fell through a bit. Now, I suppose with the link between the Zandalari and the Mogu that we could see something of the sort in Battle for Azeroth…and I hope we do. I feel like the lore setup is strong enough to justify it.

Legendaries for All!: A core tenet of the design of Pandaria was the differing approach to Legendaries. However, the concept kind of fizzled out somewhere in the middle. The early tier stuff just kind of vanished by late Throne of Thunder, and the value of a Sha-Touched weapon with the 500 stat gem and the extra Prismatic socket gave way to the later tiers, which made it clear that the system hadn’t really been fully thought out from the beginning. The cloaks were actually kind of cool, in my opinion, but they felt like a hail-mary for Blizzard, who clearly wanted cool effects but didn’t want to lock it to the weapon, as it seemed they might early on. But how cool would it have been to develop a weapon through the entire expansion? I’m sure they’d never revisit that idea…

Overall, I actually really throughly enjoyed Mists of Pandaria. Despite my wishes for more of it, it was a consistently good expansion that defied its early reviews to deliver a great experience. I do wish we hadn’t been subjected to the lull of 14 months of no content, and personally wish my life hadn’t been upended during Throne of Thunder progression so that I could have done it more while it was current, but overall, I’d rank Mists pretty highly in my personal favorite expansion list. And, to its credit, there aren’t many things we can point at and say content was cut.

Plus, I mean, that kazoo Inn music. Yes.

5 thoughts on “Dispelling the Mists – A Retrospective on Mists of Pandaria

  1. I ABSOLUTELY LOVED THIS, THANK YOU! I think MoP is so underrated! Yes, it’s my favourite expansion, so I may be a bit biased, but still! The story is definitely not for children, like some do say.

    That walk you described, Jade Forest, Krasarang, to the Dread Wastes… It’s such a powerful walk. Good description! Yes, I wanted more Wrathion. Shame 😦 The kazoo ahaha xD Yes, the kazoo inn music is a very strong reason to love Pandaria!

    Liked by 1 person

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