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This past weekend as BlizzCon raged around me, I managed to find an hour on the show floor to play through the Pandaren starting area in World of Warcraft's upcoming expansion, Mists of Pandaria.  The result was a richly beautiful gameplay experience that was high on polish and steeped in artistic style.  

I decided it was best to try out the Monk class while I was at the keyboard, so what follows is a spoiler-heavy account of my time on the magical island shrouded in mists.  In the interest of saving those who would rather not know anything about the expansion, you'll find all the pertinent information below the jump.  Just stay above the crouching panda and you will be fine.



Kickin' it Monk style

The Monk class is built on a Rogue-like architecture with a couple major variations.  First, they use a new resource type called Chi, and can build up both dark and light Chi in order to complete their big finishing moves.  Also of note is the fact that this is the first class in the game that does not have an auto attack.  You have to be actively hitting buttons throughout the entire encounter, and make sure you are managing your Chi along the way for maximum effect.  

Combat is frenetic and fun when you're playing a Monk.  Each move is highly animated, and you really feel like you are kicking butt and taking names.  There is a heavy Bruce Lee vibe as you play, and the abilities are so over the top they lend themselves to theatricality.  While playing the Pandaren Monk I got the chance to try a Flying Crane Kick, complete with feathers.  Yes, it was that awesome.

I really had no problems with the class on first playthrough.  The Monk is agile, clever and easy to master in just a few moments.  Heck, I had a seven year old in line with me in the VIP section, so you know they're easy to play. I do have to remind myself that how the class plays in levels one through ten might night be how they feel in a raid composition or in a battleground.  I'm sort of fascinated to see how this class blends into raid play.  

Because I only got the chance to play the first levels of the class, I didn't really get to experience the tanking or healing aspects of the Monk.  Seeing how a melee fighter heals will be interesting, no doubt.  Do they stop to prey in the middle of battle, and if so wouldn't you trip over them as they sit cross-legged at the boss' feet?  

As time goes on we'll have more information about the Monk, and we'll probably get the chance to play him again next BlizzCon, hopefully in a 5-man setting, so I'll have more of an opinion on the class then.  For now they definitely feel like a heroic class without the moniker.  It's about time the DKs got a run for their money.

The Snail on the Turtle's back yells 'Weee!'

Playing through the Pandaren starting area, you definitely feel the joy the development team had in making this expansion.  It's as if after so many years of destroying Azeroth, the devs got a severe case of virtual battle fatigue and decided to break out of their rut with some old fashioned cute.  Everywhere you look Pandaria is a celebration of the beautiful, from the sweeping Mulan-like vistas to the adorable creatures that inhabit the world.  While not everything in the starting area is light-hearted, you do get the sense that this expansion is more about fun than it is about doom.  

Pandaria is an idyllic lush world unlike anything we've seen from WoW before -- except perhaps Nagrand or some portions of Northrend.  Beauty is all around you, and all of it woven in an Asian tapestry that makes me want to spend more time at the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena. 

Quests in the Pandaren starting area are steeped in Asian traditions, and while there is much to like about the storylines therein, I'm sad to say that the design and feel have nothing on the brilliance that was the Goblin quest chains.  There is an over-reliance on collection quests which gets annoying when you're grouping with a friend, and at least three points in the story we were sent up into a dead end area and then forced to have to hoof it all the way back to our starting position to turn the quests in.  

While the Pandaren people seem to love cooking and beer you get no sense of that joy in the quests themselves, and in fact spend most of your time babysitting elementals who are both cute and annoying.  I just feel like there is so much more to the Quest design toolkit on the WoW team now, and expected the same sort of deft phasing and killer story that we saw from both the Worgen and the Goblin starting areas.  Part of me would like to say that it's still early, but the starting zone looks mostly finished with the exception of a few missing quest responses and models.  It saddens me to say this, but I think this will be one of the first starting zones designed in recent years that will be forgotten as soon as you leave it.

As a taste of things to come, my playthrough with Mists of Pandaria was a success I feel.  I got the chance to taste what the Monk is like, got an opportunity to see what the WoW dev team does with Asian culture, and got the chance to diagnose a giant turtle's illness.  I hope that the design for the starting area gets modified, but even if it doesn't, there are still some strong moments there, and plus we still have the entire continent to explore.  It's strange to think that I played ten levels and never even set foot on Pandaria.  

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Only those who do not fear spoilage shall venture beyond the crouching panda! It has been foreseen!

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