Cataclysm was a good expansion for lore development. There were several new tools brought in to help the merger of gameplay and lore. There were just as many old tools that were reworked and reimagined in a way that made the story behind the game a fluid and interactive experience. And I'm not just talking about game mechanics like phasing and new quest technology; I'm also referring to the larger presence of novels and short stories that tie directly in with the game universe.
This isn't to say that Cataclysm's story was perfect. In fact, despite these innovations, there were problems abound with Cataclysm's storytelling methods. Zones played as seamless stories, but to many players, they felt as if they were on rails. Worse still was the lack of cohesion. The main storyline of Cataclysm felt to many just as scattered as the new zones we had to explore and level through. While Cataclysm was full of innovation, it seemed as though that very innovation led to an experience that ultimately wasn't as satisfactory from a story standpoint.
Mists of Pandaria is a stark contrast to Cataclysm. To be perfectly honest, it's a stark contrast to any WoW expansion we've seen to date. Throw your preconceptions of a world on rails out the window, because we're about to make the leap into dynamic storytelling.
Once upon a time
I've discussed the deeper meanings behind the Mists of Pandaria cinematic shown above. Those deeper meanings do exist, placed in the cinematic as a nod to what has come before and what is yet to come. Yet there are still those that are confused or somehow unsatisfied with the cinematic and what's in it -- and there's a reason for that.
Every cinematic we have had to date has been a demonstration rather than an introduction. They've all been demonstrations of the powers of some unspeakable horror or enemy we have to fight, highlight reels of the worst of Azeroth, of what to expect from the game we're about to play. It's not an interactive experience; it's a flashy show of various characters and scenes to demonstrate what the expansion is all about. We don't get that with this cinematic -- and that's what makes it so jarring for some.
Here's an exercise for you. Close your eyes and clear your mind. Forget about seeing the cinematic at Gamescom; forget about seeing it on whatever news site you happened to first set eyes on it. Instead, think of yourself having purchased a brand new game. Think of yourself unwrapping the box, installing the game on your computer, and then pressing play for the very first time. Now open your eyes, and watch that cinematic again.
You're not watching a demo reel of what you're going to see throughout Mists. You're watching the prologue, the opening to a story. It's a story that begins with a battle between two ships, a fight between two shipwrecked survivors, and a mysterious stranger who interrupts the fight. And when that cinematic is done and you arrive in the game, a quest is waiting there for you.
Your faction leader tells you that you must go the shores of this continent. And with that, you leap from prologue to the opening lines of chapter one to begin the extraordinarily dynamic tale of Mists of Pandaria.
When you arrive in Pandaria, you aren't part of some elite army. You're not part of a mass of Alliance or Horde forces, not even part of a community. You're just a member of a small group of soldiers that was hastily thrown together at the last minute, with little to no preparation beforehand. And from the moment you arrive on Pandaria's shores, every move you make, every quest you finish has a direct influence on the world around you. You matter, and your presence matters.
What Blizzard has done with Mists of Pandaria is something that it's tried to do since the days of the Isle of Quel'Danas. It's given us a real sense of the passage of time. There's a weight to your actions and to the choices you make. Every moment spent traveling through the zone feels like time is ticking by. And it didn't take phasing or other complicated game mechanics to make this happen -- all it took was some amazing writing.
The only possible drawback I can see to this is that players will invariably hearth back to their capital cities as they level and then head back to Pandaria when they're done with their ordinary tasks. Because of this, I have an out-of-the-box suggestion for those of you who have yet to play through Mists. Don't zone out of Pandaria once you've arrived. It's possible to level to 90 without doing so. There are vendors to empty your bags with and mailboxes to mail things to bank alts if you need to.
There's this sense of immersion about Pandaria that will cling to you if you don't leave. There's a real feeling not quite of desolation but of being stuck. You wrecked your ship getting to Pandaria, and it stands to reason that you can't really get off of Pandaria until you find a way to do so. There is a way, keep in mind -- once you've gotten to the Vale of Eternal Blossoms, there are portals available to every city. But you have to get there first.
With that immersion comes a far greater sense of story to those who are really in love with Blizzard's lore. And although the Jade Forest has a fairly straightforward quest progression element to it, there are enough side areas that it doesn't quite feel as if it's on rails -- nowhere near the state of Vashj'ir or Uldum or Hyjal. Jade Forest is easily the most linear zone in Mists, but it's so far removed from the linearity we were shown in Cataclysm that there's no comparison. It's a wholly different creation on a wholly different scale.
After moving on from Jade Forest, the story of that zone moves with you. You can't get away from what happened in that first zone because the results of your actions follow you wherever you go. What you choose to do after the fact is entirely up to you. The rest of Pandaria is loosely defined in the sense that you need to be a particular level to move on, but how you get those levels is entirely up to you.
This brings back something that Cataclysm lost somewhere along the line -- the element of replayability. In Cataclysm, you literally had to finish each quest in a chain before you could move on. That's no longer a factor in Mists. You can pick your path as you see fit, finishing what you like and leaving behind what you don't care to do. And if you play an alt later, you can try following that other path to see what happens.
It's not a dynamic experience in the sense of games like Skyrim, where the quests change with every play-through, and it's not dynamic in the sense of other RPGs whose paths change depending on how you respond to various characters. The story of Pandaria is already written and set in stone. The difference is that there are a myriad of directions you can view that story from. If you choose to completely finish each zone before moving on, you'll get the whole and complete story.
But there's no penalty for not completing everything, either. Valley of the Four Winds and Krasarang Wilds are sister zones with quest hubs, and each hub has its own story. That story not only leads you through the zone, but it also directs you to another hub, where you can then complete another section of story if you wish. You can do all or just a few of them. If you do complete all of the major arcs, there's a really unique event that signals the end of the zone. If you don't, you aren't necessarily missing anything. You can move on, but the world will remain as it is behind you.
That dynamic story permeates everything that happens in Pandaria. Is there the usual run of fetch-and-carry quests? Yes, of course -- but they're done in such a way it's just not a chore to complete them. There's an easy flow to what you're doing and why you're doing it. There's no bizarre moment of reflection, no moment of wondering just why the heck your character is doing what they are doing. It feels natural.
I'm not going to spoil the story of Pandaria, because it's something that I feel people need to experience with a fresh set of eyes. But for those of you who are looking at the lists of dailies that need to be done and the reputations that need to be ground out and moaning at the amount of work that needs to go into these things, it should be pointed out that just as the cinematic of Mists, you're viewing this out of context.
I think that it's that lack of context that has people confused. I repeat myself endlessly to those that complain about dailies, and I always say the same thing: Wait until you do them. I've played through the beta with numerous characters, and at the moment, I have one level 90. Every time I've logged on to that level 90 to check out a new series of dailies, I've been amazed at what I'm seeing.
Let's go back for a moment to our story of Mists. The cinematic was the prologue, Jade Forest was chapter one, and each zone that follows is an additional chapter to that story. Level 90 is not the end of that story; it's the beginning of another set of chapters. If the leveling process from 85 to 90 was act one of a story, level 90 feels very much like act two. The reputations, just like the zones that preceeded them, are their own chapters to this story. The raids are more chapters. The scenarios are more chapters.
If you're getting the sense that this is a very large and weighty book -- well, I think it's safe to say you're right. Let's take a little speculation into account, shall we?
Remember how I said when you arrive on Pandaria, you're part of a tiny, hastily thrown-together task force? You're essentially the scouting team. The impression given is that after you leave, preparations will be made for a much larger force to follow you. It'll take much, much longer for that force to arrive, of course -- far longer than just your lone ship or squadron took.
When you arrive on Pandaria, make your choices, level through the zones, that's part one of this massive tale that Mists has to tell. When you reach max level, you continue to deal with what you've done throughout part two. You continue making friends with the pandaren, helping out these odd, neutral allies that you've made. There's a real sense of connection with Pandaria's residents that can't be ignored.
It can therefore be inferred that patch 5.1 is going to bring with it the arrival of those major fleets that are coming some time in the distant future after you've left Stormwind or Orgrimmar. And that's where the story is going to continue, because suddenly that odd isolation from the rest of the world, that connection that you've made, that story that you've been playing through, is likely to be tested in a major way.
5.1 will be the moment that we jump to act three in this story, and that act is apt to have just as many chapters and moments as the ones before it. This is where Mists departs from other expansions before it. Each section of this expansion is another definitive chapter in this dynamic story, and there's enough progression with what we've seen so far that it's safe to say we'll continue to see this through every patch to follow.
The biggest falter of Cataclysm's story was not its overt linearity. It was that it lacked real focus. There was a larger story going on, but that larger story was lost in a sea of zones that played well independently but didn't really work together as a whole. It's a pity that Deathwing's expansion had to be the one to teach this lesson. Deathwing likely deserved far more than he got.
But for lore hounds like myself and many of you, Mists reads like a soft-spoken apology for any falters that've been made before. It's a breath of fresh air in a world that has been torn asunder. It's a story that has far deeper meaning than first glance. And though the lore is new and strange, it's that strangeness, that new and dynamic quality, that makes it such an entrancing experience. For those expecting another Cataclysm, you'll be pleasantly surprised.
While you don't need to have played the previous Warcraft games to enjoy World of Warcraft, a little history goes a long way toward making the game a lot more fun. Dig into even more of the lore and history behind the World of Warcraft in WoW Insider's Guide to Warcraft Lore.