As the sixth expansion to World of Warcraft looms ever closer, our Gnome Hunter-led tour through the previous five takes us to post-draconic apocalypse Azeroth and an ancient land filled with beautiful sights and ridiculous pandas. Given the speed of even the most casual levelling in World of Warcraft these days, I've decided to double up on expansion packs three and four, Catacysm and Mists of Pandaria. After raising the level cap by 10 for The Burning Crusade and Wrath of the Lich King, Blizzard slowed progression for the next two expansion packs, delivering five fresh levels in each. For one of the two, this made sense.
World of Warcraft: Cataclysm is one of my all-time favourite MMORPG expansion packs, not for what it added to the end of the game, but rather what it did to the beginning. After six years of the same old levelling experience, Cataclysm tore Azeroth a new one. The dragon Deathwing erupted from the elemental plane of Earth, raining destruction down upon the core continents of the planet.
Zones that players knew like the back of their mouse hands were now completely different. Some were torn in two, others completely flooded. Two new playable races emerged from the chaos, the wolflike Worgen and tiny green Goblins, each with their own dramatic tale of introduction to their respective allies.
For high-level characters, Cataclysm offered a series of new zones, each with its own exciting story to tell. It's not a massive amount of content, but it's high quality stuff, gripping even at its dullest points.
Speaking of Quality, I decided to give my Gnome Hunter the full under-the-sea experience. That's right, I went straight to Vashj'ir, the most contentious of Cataclysm's high level content zones. Don't worry, my nephew already called me a dork.
While I am as much a fan of Mount Hyjal and the Twilight Highlands, I'll always have a soft spot for the strange solitude and crushing weight of World of Warcraft's expansive underwater world.
We all float down here.
Riding a seahorse through gorgeous ocean depths to the accompaniment of even more gorgeous music is such a welcome change from riding and/or flying over land. Just listen to these sounds and look at these sights, courtesy of YouTube's Everness.
Blizzard managed to do quite a lot with the underwater setting. We got to explore the insides of a massive creature, communicating directly with its giant brain.
We explored the rise and fall of the Naga, inhabiting the body of the race's greatest champions.
All of this while feeling the weight of an entire ocean pressing down on your very soul. I found myself gasping for air this time around more than once, savouring the rare moments I found myself above the waves.
Originally intended as a zone for levels 80 to 82, by the time I got to the end of my Vashj'ir adventure, I was bubbles away from level 85. I killed Cthulhu and moved on to brighter, sandier things.
I wish I'd had more time in my next destination. The Egyptian-themed Uldum only lasted me a few quests before reaching level 85. I'd really love to go back one day and make it more than the zone I portal to when Tanaris is being invaded by demons.
But it was time to move on to my least favourite World of Warcraft expansion, You Thought Pandas Were Funny? Well Here's Your Damn Pandas.
Mists of Pandaria is an incredibly aesthetically pleasing expansion pack. The music is top notch. The Asian-influenced landscapes are breathtaking. It's a lovely place to just sit and look around. I just can't stand playing through it.
With only five levels' worth of experience to earn, Pandaria slows advancement to a crawl, bogging down players with endless inane quests that eventually lead to some pretty cool stuff — if you have the patience. I didn't back when the expansion was released. I'm a little better now.
Part of the blame lies in the Pandarens themselves. No offence to folks who prefer playing them, but they feel like a joke that was taken way too far. I switched my long-time mage to a Pandaren for the expansion when it was released back in 2012, and stopped playing her at level 87, having had enough. I tried playing her again during the past couple of weeks and couldn't get my heart into it. Then I changed her to Draenai and fell in love all over again. I, apparently, am racist against Pandarens.
Perhaps it's the serious setting tackling serious issues like the effect of war and hate on the spiritual well-being of generally peaceful people, filled with cuddly-wuddly pandas rolling about. Goofy dungeons set inside breweries (pandas love drinking) with giant rats as bosses.
Stumbling over the combination of spiritual and stupid at every turn, I still had issues playing through Pandaria a second time. Being a Gnome Hunter certainly helped, making the tedious bits go by faster, allowing me to enjoy things like random sniper mini-games much more.
It's hard not to come out of Pandaria feeling like an arsehole. These stupid panda people take us in, teach us their ways through art and meditation and kill X number of Y quests.
We repay them by turning a once peaceful race of fish folk into aggressive warriors, destroying the vessel of a retiring spirit dragon, kill their animals, deface their temples and otherwise make complete arses of ourselves.
In Cataclysm the Alliance and Horde learned how to deal with a world ravaged by deep and painful changes. In Mists of Pandaria they learn how to fuck everything up by themselves.
Still, it's quite pretty, though the singular focus on Asian influences can wear a bit thin when completely immersing one's self in the levelling process. Yes, we get it. Asia. Yes, dumplings. Monkeys everywhere. We get it.
Thankfully the entire Mists of Pandaria experience went by quickly. Before I'd even entered the gates to the expansion's main city, it was time to move on to a completely different sort of gate.
Here we go again.
Next week we go back through the Dark Portal to meet the Warlords of Draenor, Blizzard's sneaky way of redoing The Burning Crusade without redoing anything. After that, we're Legion-bound.