This morning, I got up early and sat down to a freshly patched World of Warcraft to play a brand-new Pandaren. I still don't love the WoW art style — I never have, it's just personal preference really — but even I had to admit that the vivid blue streak in my panda's pigtails was kind of cute. And if I didn't love the way she ran, well, at least I could get used to it, and the vivid colours of the vistas she merrily stabbed her way through were worth appreciating. The experience started out smoothly, if a little on the slow side.
About half an hour in, I made my first mistake: I tried to throw a dagger while running toward my target. Red error message text popped up across the top of my screen, helpfully reminding me that I couldn't cast while moving. I stopped dead in my tracks and threw my dagger once again, hoping that my target would then run to me, and waited patiently for it to lope within range of my other combat arts.
My second mistake was trying to dodge the kicks from the ghost of a Pandaren monk. I ran around, looking like a fool dodging for position, but there's no way to avoid the attack of a mob that has targeted you. I couldn't tuck, dodge or roll. Once again, I couldn't attack while in motion.
My third mistake was hovering over new weapons and armour in my inventory and in the character screen, desperately willing them to show me tooltips comparing the stats of my currently equipped gear with the newly-acquired gear in my bags. Alas, none appeared.
After an hour of play and a helpful cup of coffee, I finally realised that all the silly mistakes I kept making, all the ways I kept anticipating the game would behave, were because I've been playing Guild Wars 2 for a month, and other, newer MMORPGs like The Secret World before that.
World of Warcraft, alas, doesn't behave like Guild Wars 2; it behaves exactly like World of Warcraft. Had I not been playing at the slow hour of 7:45 a.m., I no doubt would have made an ass of myself by stealing someone else's kill, item, or node without meaning to. I would have been a jerk not from malice, but from a lack of habit. Newer games have taught me not to wait my turn, but to dive right in and help.
The general feeling I have picked up from my first, brief, newbie foray into Mists of Pandaria this morning is that even in its newest content, World of Warcraft remains a product of its time — a time that now feels archaic. WoW itself did not invent the MMORPG, but when it launched in 2004 it refined the genre in such a way that it became a juggernaut, an unstoppable snowball of popularity. In the years since, every new MMORPG has faced accusations at one time or another of being a "WoW clone".
For a player who never really had a World of Warcraft heyday, though, the little ways in which the genre and industry have moved along and evolved in the last eight years highlight how hollow that accusation rings. The static combat of the WoW era has been replaced with more dynamic, fluid motion in newer games.
Isolated, clannish ways of moving through the world as quickly as possible have shifted into a more participatory sense of space in GW2. A hundred players could stand together on the Wandering Isle of Pandaria, and yet each of us is concerned only with the bubble of our own quest log. If I pay attention to other players at all, it is because they are a hindrance; the game provides no real mechanism through which we can help each other, at least not in the low levels.
I can travel off the beaten path in Pandaria if I want, but there is no real reason to do so. I will find no vista points to show off the lavishly-constructed views; I will find no collectible nuggets of lore buried beneath the leaves. Falling off the road doesn't tumble me into a new and exciting adventure here; it just means I need to find a way back up to the road while having irritating monkeys nip at my heels.
After a month in Guild Wars 2, Mists of Pandaria feels like a time machine that shows me how far the MMORPG has really come — and how far back the innovations World of Warcraft once boasted now stand. The king of all online games is getting old enough that it could really stand to take a cue or two from its upstart younger siblings.