Blizzard's focus is, as they've repeatedly professed, "to create the most epic gaming experiences ever." But for all the world-ending threats we've encountered in the last few WoW expansions, Azeroth just isn't that big. The entire Eastern Kingdoms are about the size of the island of Manhattan. We're made to believe that hundreds of thousands to millions of people of various races inhabit the planet, but examining the amount of residential space in each zone shows us room for far, far fewer.
Now, yes, the Azeroth we see could simply be an abstraction of some other, larger, "real" Azeroth that doesn't tangibly exist. But this one is the one we get, and it seems sillier and sillier each time when you ponder things like where exactly King Wrynn managed to find a hundred thousand troops to send to Northrend, or where night elves have lived for the past ten thousand years. The same goes for Azeroth's endless supply of doomsday villains and the cultists they inevitably find to do their bidding. They had to come from somewhere. And they definitely don't live in Stormwind.
But the problem isn't even really where they live. It's how they live. It's where they come from. Outland presented a unique opportunity to show us the how and why of the many strange alien races on an entirely new planet, but we learned more about how they died than how they lived -- the fate of most non-player races in World of Warcraft. Their homelands were a theme park, a casino, and we run through pulling levers, grabbing drinks, buying t-shirts. Nobody lived there.
Pandaria, though? People live there. The continent feels more like a brand new planet than even Outland ever did.
There are more buildings in Jade Forest than in several old-world zones on our own planet combined, and most importantly, they make sense. There are orchards and wharfs and farms where the pandaren work and play. We know that because we can see them do it!
Really, from the second you step onto Pandarian soil, you get it. This place has been around for a while. But it's not just the land, with its ancient buildings and statues built by a long-deposed race, that has history. So do the people. By the time you hit max level, you probably know more about Pandaren history than you ever did about human history. The sheer amount of lore available is immense, and there's even more if you really look, thanks to the Lorewalkers, Klaxxi, and other factions that grant you lore reveals as you gain reputation with them.
There's just as much present as past in Pandaria. You're traversing terrain inhabited by multiple civilizations and cultures, with cultural relics just waiting to be happened upon. In my first hour or so in Pandaria, I came upon a shrine with a "loot me" glitter on it, and so I clicked it -- only to discover (via special debuff) that the 10 gold I received was someone else's offering to the dead. Of course it was. This object wasn't involved with a quest; it wasn't an objective of anything. It was there because, well, why wouldn't it be, knowing Pandaren culture? And that's hardly the only object of its type out in the world. You find them all over the place, belonging to all of Pandaria's sentient races.
And those races are where things get shaken up a bit from previous expansions. Sure, we learned a little about the arakkoa, but we learn more about the grummles, the minorest of minor races of Pandaria, in just a few dialog bubbles than we learned about the Astley-dancing birdmen. They're not window dressing. They're a part of the world. Pandaria wouldn't be the same without them. And these guys are fleshed out the least of Pandaria's cultures, which makes it all the more astounding.
And for once, even the bad guys have clear motivations, made clearer by their history. We all know that Blizzard decided not to go with an overarching Big Bad for Mists, opting instead for smaller, more directed antagonist forces and focusing on the Horde/Alliance war and its effects on the continent. It was a really good idea. The three main bad guys -- the sha, the mantid, and the mogu -- are all completely different from each other, not only in terms of aesthetics but also goals. And what makes the goals great is that they all make sense only in the context of Pandaria. The way the antagonists act on those goals results in personal, intimate stories of those affected.
That's not to say that there aren't any "epic" moments on Pandaria, because there are, but all of my favorite moments have been in questlines that were only tangentially related to the main story. A prime example is Sunwalker Dezco's story in Krasarang Wilds. People discount Krasarang because it's the smallest Pandaria zone with ostensibly the smallest story impact, but Dezco's questline (and the Alliance equivalent) are wonderfully compact, emotional tales. And they have nothing to do with the world ending. I'd take more quests like this over more "Go'el!"s any day.
The bottom line is this: quests and zones like what Pandaria offers help me connect to the continent's people. The more I connect with the people, the more I care about the continent, and the more I care about protecting it (or, in some cases, fixing it).
People live in Pandaria. And I want to help keep it that way.
It's open warfare between Alliance and Horde in Mists of Pandaria, World of Warcraft's newest expansion. Jump into five new levels with new talents and class mechanics, try the new monk class, and create a pandaren character to ally with either Horde or Alliance. Look for expansion basics in our Mists FAQ, or dig into our spring press event coverage for more details!