World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria Preview Panel Reveals Big Changes

Mists of Pandaria will offer a new playable panda race, monks, a Pokemon-like pet battle system, and much, much more. Get the details in our BlizzCon 2011 panel report.

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Who was there: Game designers Tom Chilton, Cory Stockton, and Greg Street.

What they talked about: The subject of this panel was the many, many, many new features that Mists of Pandaria, the next expansion for World of Warcraft, will add to the game. The panel began with designer Tom Chilton admitting that the previous expansion, Cataclysm, might not have added much in the way of new things to do. To that end, the expansion will attempt to "get people back in the world" with new features like player-versus-environment (PVE) scenarios (which will offer large-scale encounters outdoors), and it will also offer a completely revamped character talent system that Blizzard refers to as the "talent system 2.0," which the designers hope will encourage players to play more with their talent choices, rather than sticking to a few "cookie-cutter" talent builds that are optimized for raids or player-versus-player (PVP) competition.

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The designers then introduced the new Pandaren continent of Pandaria, which will consist of five adventuring zones arranged in a circular pattern around a central hub zone--a new area for beginners that will actually be built on the back of a giant turtle. The idea is that Pandaria is a remote island that had previously been shrouded by magical mists, but as a result of the ongoing conflict in WOW's original continent of Azeroth between the Horde and Alliance factions, the mists part, and combatants from both factions wash up on Pandaria's remote shores. Fortunately, since the expansion will offer a new playable race in the Pandarens, as well as plenty of high-level content for veterans from Azeroth, the continent will have an auction house, a bank, and a questing hub so that players won't have to return to their home cities to take care of business.

Pandaria itself will have a totally different, pan-Asian look and feel--the Pandaren people live in pagodas and temples built on top of misty mountains and under waterfalls. The new continent will also be home to a variety of new creatures, including the fish-man Jinyu; the monkey-like Hozu; the small and pesky rabbit-like Verming; the sentient giant insects known as the Mantid; the muscle-headed Mogo, the continent's original inhabitants; and the Sha, the manifestation of negative energy, which exponentially increase in population once the feuding forces of the Horde and Alliance arrive.

However, the Pandaren race itself will be the game's first "neutral" one--that is, Pandaren will not start the game as belonging to either the Alliance or the Horde, but once characters of this race reach level 10, they will be dragged into the conflict and will be required to permanently join one of the two factions. They'll have the following racial abilities: "epicurean," which grants 100 percent benefits from eating food items; "gourmand," which grants +15 inherent points of skill in the cooking profession; "inner peace," which doubles the experience bonus from a character being in the rested state; "bouncy," which reduces falling damage by half; and "quaking palm," the ability to put an enemy to sleep for three seconds.

The Pandaren race will be able to play as any of World of Warcraft's classes other than the deathknight, the druid, the warlock, and the paladin for both game balance and lore reasons (deathknights, for instance, start off at a high level since they're intended to be the remains of already-powerful heroes unearthed by the Lich King of Azeroth…a far cry from the Pandaren population). As you may have heard, the expansion will also offer a new playable class in the monk--a melee fighter with three specializations: "brewmaster," a drunken master warrior who can step up to the front lines and soak up damage for his teammates (also known as "tanking"); "mistweaver," a warrior with healing abilities; and "windwalker," a fighter that deals lots of damage in battle (also known as dealing "damage per second," or simply "DPS"). Monks will not be a "hero class," meaning that unlike deathknights, which start out at a high character level, monks will start off at the first level. However, all the game's races--except for the worgen and goblins--may be monks. (Apparently, the Pandaren have already spread their influence across Azeroth and have begun training both Alliance and Horde races.)

In terms of their combat equipment and tactics, monks will tend to use fists and feet in battle, though they will apparently also use weapons to deliver "finisher" attacks. Currently, monks are planned to use leather-based armor, along with staves and fist weapons, plus one-handed axes, maces, and swords (they may or may not be able to dual-wield weapons). Like other characters in World of Warcraft, monks will use a "resource" system in combat to accrue power points called "chi." Interestingly, monks will have two flavors of chi, light force, and dark force, represented by four light slots and four dark slots that appear on a resource bar smack-dab in the bottom center of the screen. The monk's basic attack is the "jab," which generates both light force and dark force points--and these points are used to power all the monk's other combat skills. The designers emphasized the point that the art team has created many new animations for monks and showed a brief video of a Pandaren monk in action, fighting against a few monkey-like Hozu and finishing them off with a Street Fighter II-esque spinning hurricane kick (which got the most applause from the crowd).

The designers then shifted gears to discuss the changes to the talent system in the new expansion, pointing out that Cataclysm's approach to tweaking talents removed some of the "junk" talents but still left plenty of useless skills and overall didn't offer enough choice, which led to players finding a few optimized "cookie-cutter" talent sets and using only those. Mists of Pandaria's talent system 2.0 will still let players first start specializing at level 10, but will instead give you talent choices only once every 15 experience levels, on up to the expansion's new maximum level cap of 90. In addition, certain talents that the WOW team felt were essential for specific classes will be removed from the regular pool of choices--instead, players will get those essential abilities automatically. And every 15 experience levels, you'll choose one of three talents which each offer a similar function (for instance, a warrior might choose a new talent from a pool of three very different talents that all increase his ability to survive in battle, but in different ways) so that players won't be faced with the current game's talent tree opportunity cost--which, in some cases, tends to reward players who specialize in one or two talent trees at the cost of ever unlocking the potential of a different tree. And thankfully, players will be able to change talents--not in the heat of battle, but in a process that should be about as easy to change as glyphs.

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Next, the designers turned their attention to the game's PVE scenarios, which will "give players things to do that don't make sense in a dungeon" and will reuse parts of the outdoor world in interesting ways. These scenarios will include "short instances for a few players"--that is, multistage quests that will involve multiple objectives that must be completed in order. A theoretical example provided was turning the low-level Goldshire quest line to hunt the kobold Goldtooth into a multistage quest, which might start with killing off a certain number of kobolds, rescuing a certain number of children from the nearby mine (which would trigger Goldtooth's appearance), and then killing the giant kobold himself. The designers suggested that these scenarios might also be larger-scale affairs that act as "PVE battlegrounds," such as a hypothetical scenario that turns Grizzly Gulch into a Defense of the Ancients-style adventure in which you must kill 50 soldiers and then destroy six towers and an enemy barracks, which would cause General Drake to spawn as a boss monster. While the details of PVE battlegrounds are still being determined, the designers plan to have scenarios yield valor points as a reward and to remove player-on-player collision from them. PVE scenarios may even have a queue system similar to the already-implemented dungeon finder tool, minus any class role requirements (that is, while dungeon finder will not place a party into a dungeon until it has a requisite number of healers and warriors, a scenario finder tool might put together a party that just has enough people, regardless of their class).

In addition to scenarios, Mists of Pandaria will include "challenge mode" dungeons, which will essentially be timed challenges that yield bronze, silver, or gold medals if you and your party can complete them within a limited amount of time. In challenge mode dungeons, your party's weapons and armor will be "normalized"--in other words, if your characters have items that would normally be too overpowering when used against the denizens of a certain dungeon, they'll be de-powered in the challenge dungeon to offer a proper challenge. Challenge mode dungeons will yield valor points as well as "sweet-looking" clothing and armor that grant no actual bonuses but will be useful for the transmogrify feature that lets you combine the bonuses of one piece of armor with the appearance of another. Challenge mode dungeons will also have in-game leaderboards that track your statistics, medals, and completion times for certain dungeons and will let you quickly compare your performance against those of your guild, as well as against the rest of the players on your server.

Next, the designers unveiled the most talked-about new feature in Mists of Pandaria, a "pet battle" system that will let you "collect, level, and battle with companion pets," including pets your characters may already have captured, as well as "wild" pets that you can find in the world with varying statistics and that may appear only under specific circumstances, such as during certain seasons of the year, certain weather conditions, and certain times of day. The pet battle system will be accessible to all players of all levels and will offer lots of ways to customize your pets, such as changing their names and their abilities (pets will be able to learn up to six combat skills, and you can equip up to three of them in three slots to bring into battle). Pet battles will be turn-based, and if it wasn't already obvious, the artist's rendition of a pet battle that showed both the owners and pets onscreen made it crystal clear that this new system is inspired by Nintendo's smash-hit Pokemon series. You'll even be encouraged to build up a team of pets and get each of them up to level 25--you can track them in the in-game pet journal, which will let you track potentially hundreds of different pets. Most pets will be tradable and can be sold on the auction house as well. You'll even be able to bring pets into PVE and PVE battles and earn "master abilities" as part of quests when you defeat a pet battle master in the world--these master abilities will further strengthen your pets in battle. Pets will be shared among all characters on a single account.

If that weren't enough, Mists of Pandaria will also add nine new dungeons (six appearing on the continent of Pandaria, with the other three as "heroic" updates of classic dungeons, specifically, level-90 versions of Scholomance and Scarlet Monastery, with the latter split into two separate dungeons). The expansion will also offer three new epic raids that prominently feature the expansion's Mogu and Mantid races, and these raids will also carry the option to be played on the easiest, third "raid finder" difficulty level accessible through the new raid finder option in World of Warcraft's 4.3 update.

According to the designers, the expansion will also offer lots of new quests, with more of a focus on players at the highest experience level. The expansion will also provide incentives for hardcore dungeon explorers and raid adventurers, such as, hypothetically, a reward for performing five daily quests that enables a secret, random chance at a high-end loot item. It'll also remove flying except for players at level 90, because the team feels that the current game's option that lets players of various levels fly just about anywhere sometimes sacrifices some of the game's excitement and atmosphere when players use flying mounts to bypass the majority of challenges on a quest to fly straight to the boss. The expansion will also offer new faction rewards that will give players more ways to get hold of the rewards they want.

Mists of Pandaria will also add three new battlegrounds and a new arena. The battlegrounds will include Stranglethorn Diamond Mines, an area with a "payload"-style objective that requires opposing teams to seize control of mining carts and deliver them to their team's depot until one team stockpiles enough minerals to win; Valley of Power, a battleground with a "murderball" objective that requires each team to try to pick up and carry around a specific artifact item, which earns points over time for being held and earns even more in point multiplier zones--but also deals an increasing amount of damage to the bearer over time; and Azshara Crater, a mode that more closely resembles Defense of the Ancients. The arena will be known as Tol'vir Proving Grounds, a competitive area with a simple layout inspired by the popular Nagrand Arena.

The expansion's huge list of additions and changes isn't over. It will also make fundamental changes to certain character classes. For instance, hunters will no longer be required to put distance between themselves and their marks, but they also won't be able to equip melee weapons. Conversely, every class in the game other than hunters will no longer have a ranged weapon slot, though rogues and warriors can throw their equipped melee weapon. Warlocks will now have a unique resource for each type of specialization--affliction warlocks will still use soul shards; demonology warlocks will have a new "demonic fury" resource that, when filled up, will temporarily change your warlock into a demon; and destruction warlocks will have a new "infernal embers" resource that will fill up as warlocks cast fire spells and will build up to a hugely damaging conflagration spell. Shaman will be losing all enhancement ("buff") totems--they will have only totems that provide utility options, such as the new "earthgrab" totem that will root nearby enemies in place, or the "repulsion" totem, which repels nearby enemies, or the "bulwark" totem, which acts as a damage absorption shield for the shaman. Druids, designer Greg Street suggested, "always felt like they had four specializations, so now they do"--specifically, "feral" (cat form) has been split from "guardian" (bear form), though all druids will still be able to take either form.

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The expansion will also include various other tweaks and changes, such as account-level achievements and new types of achievements. The expansion will also remove the relic slot in players' inventory, since most players didn't seem to be using items in this slot, while wands will be treated as primary-hand weapons. Spell books will be "cleaned up," and spellcasters will no longer need to return to a trainer to learn new spells when they gain levels--trainers will still offer the ability to respecialize your talents. More importantly, resilience--the all-important ability directly tied to your ability to survive in PVP--will be tweaked so that all players will have a baseline amount that will increase over time with more PVP battles. This important change is being made so that PVP will be more accessible, even for players who only have PVE gear.

Quote: "(Thunderous applause and laughter at the appearance of the Pokemon-like pet battle interface.)"

Takeaway: With the Mists of Pandaria expansion, World of Warcraft will be changing. A lot. Blizzard hasn't confirmed a release date, beyond "when it's done."

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