As a retired World of Warcraft player, sitting down to spend a few hours with the starting zone of the upcoming expansion Mists of Pandaria, is a bit like someone on a diet going to an all-you-can-eat buffet. Not to eat, but just to check out the menu and see how nice the place is.

So it’s kinda sucky, but not too bad. Did my time with the xpac make me want to dive back into WoW? Nope. It does not represent a significant enough of a change or refresh to pull me back in. Granted, the pet battle system and new talent tree system were not on show, but even if they were I doubt it would have made a difference.

However, is the new area, race and class worth the time for someone new to WoW and loves pandas? Totally.

You can read my impressions of the new race and class after the break. The starting area only covered up to level 10, so it’s not an entirely representative slice, but it did highlight a lot of interesting elements to the upcoming xpac.

So, Pandaria. It has pandas. The starting area does not take place in Pandaria itself, but rather on the back of a giant turtle swimming in a large body of water somewhere, presumably, near the Eastern Kingdoms or Kalimdor. The pandas running around atop the turtle have built all the expected Eastern-themed trappings: temples, monuments to the four elements, more temples, kitchy bridges, wading pools with poles in them, and more temples.

While the thematic style of the zone is rather trope-fatigued, it remains quite pretty, colorful and detailed. The demo machines were running NVIDIA cards with the ambient occlusion forced on, which looked great.

As for the Monk class itself, it has no auto-attack. All the attacks have to be triggered manually, and the Monk must juggle two types of combo points; I’m just going to call them Light and Dark for now. The main punch attack skill charges the Light combo pips, while other attacks charge the Dark. There is an additional Chi bar used for acrobatic moves like a speedy roll (which makes getting around on foot much easier), which refills itself automatically at a rate which lets you roll once every four seconds or so.

The opening area starts with some basic quests: go here, punch these things X amount of times, go back and get your reward. Actually, the entire 2 hour opening was pretty much just that. Thanks to the Monk class being a bit more involved, chaining together specific movesets while balancing the Light and Dark pips, these “Kill X of Y” quests weren’t too overbearing. But for veterans of all the starting areas of the current WoW races, you’re not going to find anything new or divergent in the quest styles. A more jaded person would say Blizzard phoned it in for the Pandaren starting area, a less jaded person would say they’re adhering to a template that has clearly worked for them.

One of the last skills the Monk gets before hitting level 10 is a hurricane kick (yes, just like Street Fighter) that you can maneuver around to hit multiple enemies. It’s pretty good for crowd control. The Pandaren themselves are very well modelled and animated, the /dance command wasn’t working yet unfortunately.

At the end of the opening questline (which involves blowing up a ship that crashed into the side of the turtle, leaving a giant hole in its side), you’re presented a choice to join either Horde or Alliance, which is permanent from that point forward.

Mists of Pandaria doesn’t represent a sea-change for World of Warcraft, though some could argue it doesn’t need it. It looks to be a decent expansion that injects some extra spice into the mix, though how the completely revamped talent tree system will play out remains to be seen.

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