World of Warcraft and I never did really get along. Since its launch in 2004, I've lost track of the number of friends of mine who loved it. They'd tell me breathlessly about their druids, priests and hunters while extolling the benefits of the Alliance or the Horde. After ages of politely declining to join them, they've all moved on and given up on ever convincing me. Yet after all these years, the time may finally have come for me to re-evaluate WoW. Starting with pandas.
I've dabbled in a fair number of MMORPGs since I first dove into the genre in January, 2005. I played EverQuest II for over half a decade, but I've also put in a few hours here and there in games like City of Heroes and Lord of the Rings Online, as well as participating in something like a half-dozen different MMO beta experiences.
World of Warcraft, though, was always the elephant in the room. I last played WoW in 2006, when a dozen EQ2 friends went over there and begged me to come with. I lasted for about three weeks. I absolutely hated the UI, I didn't love the art, I wasn't a fan of the way movement and combat felt ("like steering a cow with a piece of string," I said at the time), and discomfort with my human rogue's build and animations were the final straw. I wished my former guildmates well and ran back to EQ2, where everything felt comfortable. For a while, it became a running joke: of course I would manage to be the one contrarian who hated what seemed to be the most popular game on Earth.
But in game terms, the difference between 2006 and 2012 can be like comparing the Roman Empire to the Information Age. I bailed on World of Warcraft before even its first expansion, The Burning Crusade hit, and years before Wrath of the Lich King or Cataclysm were even a mote in anyone's eye. The game has changed, and so have I. And so, when I found myself with a Mists of Pandaria beta key in my hand this week, the time had come for me to approach Azeroth once more.
I rolled myself a new Pandaren to start with, naturally, and a few moments after deciding that black patches around the eyes suited a rogue nicely I found myself standing in what was nominally a quiet, meditative panda village.
World of Warcraft has roughly 10 million subscribers, and in some ways it felt like every one of them was standing on the Wandering Isle with me when I first logged in. Still, I dutifully ignored the hundreds of other pandas-in-training crammed into the courtyard around me and tried to accept various masters' assurances of my uniqueness and skill at face value. After all, this is a challenge nearly every MMO has faced: when hundreds, thousands, or millions of players are coming through your levels, starting at different times, over the course of years, how do you tell every character that it is special, unique, or worthy? I blithely moved on, from one vaguely Zen instruction to the next.
I collected my weapons, fought dummies, and learned my basic skills, all as NPCs dictated. I gathered items, took down easy enemies, and collected my first bits of gear. The thread of quests led me easily from one NPC to the next, from temple to village to wood. My Pandaren backstabber gave me sultry, knowing looks when I left her idle, shifting impatiently until I had her running lumpily across the land once more. Not very zen of her, I thought; all of these masters extolling her calm and balance would be disappointed if only they could see what I saw.
Whether World of Warcraft has had some tweaks or whether I have grown more patient I couldn't say, but I did find that the experiences I've had trying on a number of games in the years since I last tried had mellowed me on the things I used to hate about WoW. The steering didn't seem so bad, I felt there was more of a flow to fighting, and the stylization and bright colours of the art no longer bothered me. I actually kind of liked it all, once I managed to get a few key binding options tweaked, and I prepared to settle in for an evening of questing.
But try as I might to read every word that appeared from quest-givers, and to think about what I was doing and why, my mind kept drifting. Killing eight of something is tedious, when you are barely level two and have only one weapon and one combat art to use. Killing eight of something that can land on your head, forcing a string of "you are facing the wrong way!" messages from auto-attack no matter which way you turn, is more tedious still. After barely an hour of the panda life, I wasn't frustrated, angry, intrigued, or enthralled. I was bored.
The Wandering Isle, and the entire continent of Pandaria, are still in beta. It's entirely possible (likely, even) that the beary experience will see many small tweaks before its official launch, curing the low-level tedium and fine-tuning the tasks.
Beta or not, though, it seemed that I was failing with WoW again as I had once before, where millions of others had thrived. I was so sure that this time would be different. What was wrong? Was it me, was it the game, or was it the Pandaren experience?
There was only one way to find out. I logged out of the Pandaren and created a new character. I stayed on the same Beta server, and I stayed with the same character class. (I pretty much always play rogue-types in everything.) But this time I rolled a Gnome. I knew I had played one before, in 2006, for about 10 minutes, but other than her baffling pink pigtails I remembered nothing about the experience. Whether it was original or had been revamped (a quick search tells me the gnome starting experience was changed with Cataclysm), it would be different from The Wandering Isle, and would give me a different feel for the game.
I kind of loved it. Gnomes are always fun, or at least I always enjoyed them in my EQ2 days, and I was pleased at how smooth, quick, and comical World of Warcraft's gnome experience was. I felt that I'd accomplished more in 20 minutes with her than I had in an hour with the Pandaren, and, most importantly, I wanted to keep playing.
Joining an MMO that's more than five years old doesn't always feel right. It's like coming late to a party and walking up to a knot of merry conversationalists just in time for them to share the punchline and disperse without even noticing your arrival. You might hang around for a few hours but you missed whatever happened at the start to tie everyone together, and that amazing dessert someone brought is already gone.
So considering all that, is Mists of Pandaria a good or worthwhile way for someone who's never played World of Warcraft, or who's been away from it for many years, to jump in? Ultimately, I haven't loved the Pandaria experience but that — again, like my failure in 2006 — might be just me. But I did, through my little gnome, have the chance to discover a much-changed Azeroth, as a much-changed player. I found it a good world, and this to be as good a time as any to explore it.