Into the Mists: Beyond the Wall

Looking out over the Townlong Steppes and the Dread Wastes in World of Warcraft: Mists of PandariaMy journey has ended, sooner than I expected. My warlock is now level 90, and I have completed all of the leveling zones included in Mists of Pandaria.

But before I fully throw myself into the endgame gear treadmill, I have one more (spoilerific) “Into the Mists” column to write.

The Townlong Steppes:

There are two main things that struck me about the Townlong Steppes.

My warlock leveling in the Townlong SteppesOne is that it’s a great example of an important but often overlooked aspect of good story-telling: anticipation. Think about it; even the most epic, exciting event won’t be interesting if it just comes out of nowhere. Building anticipation puts things in context and makes the climax all the sweeter when it comes.

Since very early in our journey in Pandaria, we’ve been hearing about the wild lands beyond the Serpent’s Spine, and the threat of the Mantid. We’ve learned there’s something terrible going on over there, though not exactly what.

All this anticipation made the venturing into Townlong Steppes feel like an epic experience even before I picked up my first quest, and thankfully, it didn’t disappoint from there. The zone provides a gripping, emotional journey, full of action as we battle both the Yaungol and the Mantid. Once again, we come face-to-face with the terrible consequences of our war.

A kypari tree in the Townlong SteppesAnother example of the power of anticipation is Townlong’s Sha of Hatred arc. The Sha is introduced very early on in the zone (and sooner if you do the Shado-pan Monastery dungeon), but it takes most of the zone’s storyline to finally track it down, and that again allows one to build anticipation for the final confrontation. It makes it feel a bit more epic than just fighting another quest boss.

The other thing that strikes me about Townlong is how far Mists of Pandaria’s story is from what it was advertised as — and that’s a good thing.

“Kung Fu Panda game for the eight year-olds” was the cry of every QQer prior to the expansion’s release, and while I doubted this myself, the previews seemed to fall mostly in line with this theory. The intro cinematic seems more like a Three Stooges skit than the opening to an epic Warcraft expansion, the announcement trailer basically boiled down to two minutes of “lolpandas,” and the previews were all bunny-men and alementals.

Thankfully, though, that’s not the game we got. MoP has its silly side, mostly in the early zones, but most of the time, it’s actually quite dark. I would go so far to as to say it’s darker than Cataclysm.

The Sha of Hatred in World of Warcraft: Mists of PandariaThis is best summed up by the tragic tale of the husband and wife team of Suna and Lin Silentstrike in the Townlong Steppes. Lin is captured by the Yaungol in battle, and a desperate Suna sends players to find her husband.

But by the time the player arrives, it’s too late. Lin has been tortured to death. Mad with grief, Suna runs into the wilderness, swearing to slaughter every Yaungol she finds. The player must aid the Shado-pan in tracking her down, eventually finding her in an area where the very land itself has become choked by hate. It becomes clear that Suna has been possessed by the Sha of Hatred, and players are forced to put her down.

Yup, pandas are for kids all right.

In terms of aesthetics, I wasn’t a huge fan of Townlong. It was neither ugly nor pretty enough to be truly memorable, though I’ve certainly seen worse zones. The music is largely excellent, though.

My warlock meeting with Taran Zhu and the other Shado-pan in the Townlong SteppesOverall, Townlong is probably my favourite zone of the expansion, though it’s in a dead heat with Kun-Lai.

The Dread Wastes:

The Dread Wastes are a good example of the balance that needs to be struck in video game design. The zone has a great story, and if this were a book, that would be enough, but World of Warcraft is a game, and that’s why this zone falls short.

As I said, the story is good. The Klaxxi are a very interest bunch, the lesser of two evils and our reluctant allies against a greater monster. I absolutely loved the idea of the Paragons. They’re a concept strong enough that an entire game — or book, or movie, or whatever — could be based on them.

My warlock battling the Mantid in the Dread WastesBut yet, even as the lore nut that I am, I wasn’t overly impressed by the Dread Wastes. Why?

The quests are boring.

It’s just that simple. The story behind the quests is good, but that story makes little impact on the content of the quests, and from a simple gameplay perspective, the quests just aren’t interesting.

Mostly, I just seemed to be killing animals to feed to the Paragons. Seriously, how many expansions need to go by before Blizzard realizes that killing a dozen turtles for their meat when only about half them drop it (because apparently the others are made of paper machè or something) simply isn’t fun?

My warlock flying across the Dread Wastes with the help of a Mantid ParagonGive me a vehicle quest. Give me some phasing. Give me something.

The Klaxxi dailies are no better. There’s an epic war going on between millions of Sha-corrupted Mantids and every other living thing on Pandaria, and you’ve got me killing turtles, picking up amber, and beating up Saurok? Really?

(As an aside, I’ve also found the Golden Lotus dailies extremely dull and uncreative. So much for the innovative new dailies we were promised — these are all major steps back from the Molten Front, and even from many Wrath dailies.

But anyway, back on topic.)

The Heart of Fear in the Dread WastesOn the plus side, the Dread Wastes is probably one of the best zones Blizzard’s ever produced from a visual perspective. It’s bleak, but it’s spectacularly bleak. Like in Icecrown, you feel like a badass just for having the courage to be there. All the Sha corruption is surreal and dreamy (if those dreams are nightmares), and the vaguely Gothic look of the Mantid architecture is just great.

On the other hand, the music is pretty weak, distractingly bolstered by reused tracks from Outland and Northrend. And not even particularly good tracks from those continents at that.

Blizzard did a lot of things very right in the Dread Wastes, and they also did a lot of things very wrong. In the end, it averages out to a zone that is neither great nor terrible, but merely mediocre.

A Sha-tainted kypari tree in the Dread Wastes* * *

How about you, dear reader? What did you make of Mists of Pandaria’s final leveling zones?

Into the Mists: Kun-Lai Summit

Having left behind the lush pastures of the Valley of the Four Winds and the haunted jungles of Krasarang, I’ve moved on to the north of Pandaria and the mountainous zone of Kun-Lai Summit. I mostly played this zone on my rogue, but I also did a few chains on my warlock.

The snows around Mount Neverest in Kun-Lai SummitInsert obligatory spoiler warning.

The snows of Kun-Lai:

Kun-Lai Summit is the first zone since Wrath of the Lich King with a significant quantity of snow. There was never any significant chance I wouldn’t like it.

The visuals aren’t the only thing I liked about Kun-Lai, but they’re certainly a big plus. It’s a beautiful zone, but it’s not pretty, if you catch my meaning. I much prefer zones with this kind of harsh beauty to more welcoming areas. Teldrassil is beautiful, but that’s its problem. It’s so nice that it’s impossible to feel any sense of danger or adventure while questing there.

Binan Village in Kun-Lai SummitKun-Lai is incredibly beautiful, but its a stark beauty. It has an edge to it, a feel of mystery and menace that makes you want to charge toward the horizon and face whatever it can throw at you.

The landscapes are unusually varied, too. Kun-Lai includes everything from snowy peaks to harsh steppes to tropical coastlines.

These visuals are complimented with some truly impressive music that combines the harmonious Asian influences heard elsewhere in Pandaria with an ominousness that underscore the zone’s wild feeling.

When it comes to the quests, I find Kun-Lai reminds me of Krasarang. There aren’t really any mind-blowing or extremely memorable moments — barring one, which I’ll get to — but everything is solid and well-done. There are no glaring examples of bad design or story-telling. And unlike Krasarang, Kun-Lai’s stories don’t feel rushed or unfinished.

The zone does have its lackluster moments, mostly surrounding the Grummles, but even those aren’t actually bad. I expected to hate the Grummles, as I dislike most any race designed as a cartoonish representation of one character trait as opposed to real people. See: Goblins, Gnomes, Hozen, and every Star Trek alien pre or post-Enterprise.

However, I found myself developing a certain fondness for the little guys. I think one key reason for this is that, unlike some similar races, they fit well into the universe. Goblins and Hozen are too obviously the invention of modern culture. They stick out like a sore thumb.

The graveyard in Zouchin Province in Kun-Lai SummitGrummles fit, though. They remind me of all the eccentric gremlins and fairies you see in old myths and folklore. It makes sense to me that there’s a race of tiny, superstitious oddballs living in the mountains of Pandaria.

Kun-Lai continues to hammer home the devastating consequences of the arrival of the Horde and the Alliance with its quest chains surrounding the Sha and Yaungol. Meanwhile, the NPCs from the Jade Forest make a return and steadfastly ignore the way their actions have made the Pandaren suffer. Simply put: We are horrible, horrible people.

I have to say, I’m loving this whole arc. I like any story where expectations are reversed, where the heroes have to confront the possibility that they may not be as heroic as they thought. This more mature type of morality is reminiscent of the good old days of Warcraft III, and its return makes me very happy.

The Sha of Anger world boss in Kun-Lai SummitBut I’m also wary. The story isn’t over yet, and it won’t work if there isn’t some great change or revelation at its conclusion. If Mists of Pandaria concludes with the Horde and the Alliance still at each other’s throats as they always have been — and realistically, I don’t see how it couldn’t — this will all have been for naught.

Getting back to Kun-Lai specifically, I also enjoyed the arc revealing the alliance between the Zandalari and the Mogu. I’m not really a big Mogu fan — they’re too basic, too crude — but linking them to the Zandalari is a great way to make the events on Pandaria feel connected to the rest of Azeroth.

It brings the Warcraft universe together rather nicely, and the revelation that the Zandalari lost their home shows that Blizzard is not going to just ignore the consequences of the Cataclysm. This kind of continuity is necessary for a truly great story, and it’s something World of Warcraft has tended to lack until recently.

The Shado-pan Monastary in Kun-Lai SummitI mean, how many WoW players who never played Warcraft III realized that WoW takes place immediately after what amounts to the apocalypse? How many realize the Alliance and the Horde were at peace before WoW?

That’s an old rant, though.

While the Sha and Mogu plots were fun and hold greater significance when taken in the context of the whole of WoW’s story, they ultimately weren’t exceptional quest chains. They’re not the “home run” moments we saw in the Jade Forest.

But there is one quest in Kun-Lai that stands out for me: Anduin’s debate with Xuen in which he tries to convince the Celestial that there’s more to the Horde and the Alliance than the violence they’ve shown on Pandaria.

The Serpent's Spine in Kun-Lai SummitI loved this quest. It was very fun gameplay to battle all the Sha mini-bosses, but it was even more enjoyable from a story perspective.

Now, maybe this is just down to me being an Anduin fanboy, but I thought it was quite interesting to hear him trying to argue for the innate goodness within us, while Taran Zhu takes the opposite viewpoint off to one side. Interestingly, I found myself agreeing with both representatives in a lot of ways.

Though small, I also liked the role played by Sunwalker Dezco. It was good to see signs of dissent within the Horde. It’s long overdue, as the implication for the last two expansions has been that the Horde is entirely okay with Garrosh Hellscream’s honourless tactics and genocidal goals.

A snowstorm around Mount Neverest in Kun-Lai SummitOverall, Kun-Lai isn’t my favourite WoW zone by any stretch of the imagination, but it might be my favourite Mists of Pandaria zone so far.

More zones like this, please.