A new, ancient land
I quit the game early in Cataclysm, nearly three years ago but returned recently for a variety of reasons that started with the Warlords of Draenor announcement. When I got back in, I found myself a fantastic guild, then rushed through Cataclysm content to get to 85 on a favorite old character. I hadn't touched her since Wrath of the Lich King, but even with the intervening class changes she felt familiar and comfortable. After that, I decided to take Mists of Pandaria at a relaxed pace. I wanted to stop and smell the lotuses along the way, and I made the right choice.
Pandaria's Jade Forest puts me in the same mood as the Shire does in Lord of the Rings Online. Perhaps this isn't too surprising. Both are pastoral lands populated by a relaxed people who care more for eating, drinking, sleeping, and telling stories than leaving their mark on the world. Both have their share of menaces threatening their idyllic existence, but the locals are more interested in tasking you to spread joy than to fight evil.
The major difference between the two is that the Shire is threatened by an encroaching darkness from other lands, while the Jade Forest is threatened by the strife you bring with you and the ancient evil it rouses. A great evil was buried long ago in Pandaria, one that consumes negative emotion. The conflict between the Alliance and Horde, both eager to claim what they think is virgin territory, is a heady dose of smelling salts to that evil.
Although I have a lot of high-level Alliance to pick from, my heart is with the Horde. My Blood Elf Paladin (cue complaints about not being real Horde) took part in the initial conflict, which felt much like a better-executed version of the Horde's introduction to the Twilight Highlands. Explosions and airships and blood and thunder!
Nevertheless, I was pleased when the story branched out to let me explore and learn about the native Pandaren culture. This is a welcome return to the Wrath structure, correcting one of Cataclysm's great flaws, but weaves much of the zone's story back together for the climax. There are a lot of clever little narrative tricks on display, designed to keep the story flowing. NPCs will often act slightly differently, depending on what you've already done, frequently presenting the opportunity to get back to other story branches once you resolve their branch.
Sure, there are many menial errands to run for a mighty hero, but it rarely feels demeaning. These tasks serve to help you earn the trust of the locals and come to understand their ways. This made the destruction wreaked by the Alliance and Horde all the more distressing as I sympathized with those caught in between.
Hope follows doubt and despair
I had a choice of zones next, and while the peaks of Kun-Lai Summit piqued my curiosity, I really wanted to continue down my bucolic path into the Valley of the Four Winds. The zone is almost entirely farmland, and the bulk of the story is taken up following the legendary Chen Stormstout and his niece Li Li as they try to reconnect with their roots and brew some incredible beer. There were plenty of diversions, though, including the introduction to the farm feature.
This zone feels as if it has a little less to it than the Jade Forest. This didn't bother me once I realized the neighboring Krasarang Wilds is very much its partner. Part of the story branches off almost immediately to this zone, but it all comes back together for the grand finale of the Valley.
It's also here that the Horde and Alliance story takes another turn, with expeditions from Tauren Sunwalkers and Night Elf Sentinels. The two sides are more interested in exploring the new land and dealing with their own problems, in stark and welcome contrast to the belligerent armies of Stormwind and Orgrimmar in the Jade Forest.
The climax of these two zones was also quite a contrast. You've helped a lot of people along the way and learned some important lessons, all of which play a big part in stopping a disaster several magnitudes worse than the one you helped cause at the end of the Jade Forest. It feels earned.
Now I just have Nesingwary's Safari left to complete the Valley. True to Nesingwary form, I've been given some kill quests to start things off, which isn't very promising. Hopefully this will take a turn for something more novel, but either way it should get me to level 90. That means flight training and the continuation of the farm quests, both of which excite me.
Am I saying you should sub up to WoW just to play Pandaria's quest content? Well, no. That would be silly. If you are tempted to return or even start playing WoW for the first time, Pandaria's quest content is well worth checking out. That is what I'm saying. It seems a pity that Warlords of Draenor will be giving players free level 90s because I think Pandaria may be doomed to be the overlooked expansion. I know there's a lot more I've yet to see, but even just the little I have deserves notice.
There are so many weird and wonderful destinations to visit within the MMOscape, and Massively's Matthew Gollschewski hopes to chronicle them all for you every Thursday in his trusty Field Journal. Grab your camera and your adventurin' hat and join in on his next expedition, or just mail him some notes of your own.