Chris Metzen looks tired.
The normally indefatigable senior vice president of story and franchise development, no doubt taxed by myriad projects, falls over his words and momentarily pauses during the Mists of Pandaria press event at Blizzard's sprawling Los Angeles headquarters.
Then, with traditional Metzen panache, a few jokes are cracked and it's back to business.
"In a lot of ways, Mists of Pandaria isn't really predicated on some big world boss, or some big grinding global threat.
"The big global threat to define the next couple of years of WoW gameplay is really that war is coming."
Pandaria then isn't comparable with any of the three previous World of Warcraft expansions. Bold as it may be, it won't attempt to capture new or existing players with tales of massive, unseen foes lurking in challenging instances. Rather, the Eastern setting features lush forests, bountiful wildlife and shimmering seas reminiscent of the time when the level cap was a mere 60, and the paint had barely dried on Blizzard's massive MMO.
"This is all gearing up to be something we believe players have wanted for a very long time", continues Metzen.
"There isn't a huge central villain, but there's a huge central storyline."
After three expansions, it's clear from a development perspective that Blizzard is at the top of its game. Pandaria has progressed significantly since last year's BlizzCon, with the majority of the Pandarian island entirely populated by quests. The additional development time has afforded the art team to stir their creativity cauldron, as themes extracted from multiple Asian-orientated cultures dominate the landscape. From the bright red pagodas, stepped farmland, jade statues and endless blossom trees, to the more monumental achievements such as the Great Wall of Pandaria, massive temples and a new contender for the highest peak in the game, the Pandaren design philosophy is representative of the new life Blizzard is attempting to put back into its ageing leviathan.
With Blizzard's obvious desire to provide a back-to-basics approach comes an associated risk. The content is extremely susceptible to good-natured ridicule, and Blizzard themselves aren't beyond using Pandaria as a vehicle for their own sly humour. Consider Stormstout Brewery, the first new dungeon on display. This unlucky facility has been overrun by Hozen; a diabolical race of malevolent monkey-like creatures who are utterly ruthless when sober, and downright dangerous when drunk. By requisitioning an errant barrel and perching precariously atop, players can roll around the floor the brewery smashing Hozen before eventually tackling Virmen – small, rodent-like creatures under the control of their super-sized boss Hoptalus.
Then it's time to take on the Alementals – reskinned, reanimated versions of elemental whirlwinds found elsewhere in Azeroth – until the final boss Yan Zhu The Uncasked is revealed. It's a veritable pun factory, but in typical Blizzard fashion, when viewed against the backdrop the irreverence simply works. Considering that players are controlling an anthropomorphic panda with considerable martial arts skills, taking on a boss capable of making beer pour from his attackers ears isn't really any more unexpected.
Continuing the tradition of updating dungeons where possible, Scholomance has now come under the scrutiny of the art and animation departments. Creepy paintings and statues with eyes that follow the player now add to the haunted theme, and some pathway modifications will see previous passages closed, and new doorways opened. As can be expected, texture and model quality has been bumped, along with creature and boss animations. Darkmaster Gandling, in particular, will surprise many with his new, colourful abilities.
Two new PvP zones will feature in Pandaria, the first of which seeks to utilise an artefact to add a new dimension to combat. Players who pick up this artefact steadily accumulate points, the quantity of which is determined by their proximity to the centre of the zone. Nothing is ever that simple however; whoever possesses the artefact is struck down with a healing curse, and simultaneously buffed with additional damage. The location – a large, outdoor area dominated by a giant pagoda – captures the quintessential architectural cues central to Pandaria.
The second zone, located beneath Stranglethorn Vale, features plunging mineshafts populated by slow moving mine-carts atop switchable tracks. By default, each cart will eventually end up at either an Alliance or Horde node, supplying a more or less uninterrupted supply of points. Those wishing to deny the opposing faction swift accumulation of these points must use levers located along the rail to switch the carts to a more laborious path, slowing down their transit. It's a clever concept that will undoubtedly have many scratching their head as to the most efficient areas to defend, and which levers offer the best opportunity to damage the enemy's supply route.
Seeking to capitalise on the popularity of the exceedingly difficult Amani Bear and Baron Run timed events, the newly-implemented Challenge modes offer five-man teams the ability to compete for Bronze, Silver or Gold status and the accompanying glory and loot. Leaderboards track the successful, including information about their party make-up, and new armour sets on offer for the victorious feature class-specific animations; the only on display featured large, shoulder-mounted dragon heads breathing fire at random intervals.
World of Warcraft players are universally good at burning through new content at an alarming rate, so to top off the Challenge mode, Blizzard will also offer new content in the form of Scenarios. These are PvE challenges designed for groups of between three and 25 players according to the nature of the event. Scenarios will task players with coordinating efforts to complete a specific goal – the example on display involved assisting a Pandaren brewmaster to complete her brew during an electrical storm; high voltage being a prerequisite for a good kick. After managing this, she needed to be escorted to a temple where players used the power of the brew to defeat various minions and a final boss.
Blizzard also has a "Scenario Finder" in the works that will assist players to quickly locate a group in order to participate.
Perhaps seeking to slow rapid discovery, there's no immediate ability to fly in Pandaria. Instead, players will need to attain a particular level, then visit a flying trainer to adopt a new mount. These multi-coloured Cloud Serpents must be acquired from an egg, and raised through obligatory daily quests in order to mature to a fully functioning creature. Rather than a swooping dragon, these creatures move gracefully, their wings providing the heavy lifting, with their long tails billowing like a streamer behind them.
Having previously served a purely cosmetic use, pets will have added functionality in the form of Pet Battles. Keen to demonstrate this, Blizzard set up a short video showing Arthas and Illidan selecting pets to do battle, with each creature using their own innate skills to eventually determine the winner in turn-based combat. There's no record kept of each victory, so this mechanism represents about the most hands-off, non-competitive action between any two players in the game. Whether or not Pet Battles have any staying power amongst even the most casual of players will be interesting indeed.
The Monk class due to be introduced with Pandaria has undergone numerous changes, yet still retains the same focus on swift DPS through chained combo attacks and the re-inclusion of auto-attack. In addition, the Chi point accumulation seems to err on the side of caution; players are encouraged to spend it quickly, as there appears to be little advantage to accumulating five points when many abilities that require one or two Chi are more than capable. But perhaps the most astonishing addition to this class involves the seriously complex animations now afforded to this fighter. Levitating and skimming the ground, the Monk can fall into battle, accumulate a few Chi points swiftly then begin a spinning kick that can swiftly knock the life out of any foe within range, all of which is masterfully rendered.
As for the future, Blizzard are quick to point out that the boxed copy of Pandaria is a different beast to the inevitable patching that will occur after launch. While at release, players will be progressing through a complex, story-rich environment with the ultimate aim of stockpiling assets for war, future content will deal with the eventual invasion of Pandaria, and the unseating of the hated Garrosh Hellscream.
Metzen's back on track, focused anew as he talks passionately about the lore of the land.
"I'll just cut to the chase. The final patch of this expansion set does not occur in Pandaria. Things get so naughty, and so out of control, with war crimes committed that it kind of spirals into crazyville.
"The final patch for Pandaria will actually be the Siege of Orgrimmar, where both factions for various reasons pretty much lay siege to this city to bring Garrosh down.
"We're leveraging a lot of our main characters, and I don't think we've had this much fun building a Warcraft story in many years".
Approaching its eighth year and facing a downturn in subscriptions, World of Warcraft needs Mists of Pandaria. It marks a deviation from the staid artistic evolution shown in previous expansions, instead offering a bright new land ready for exploration and eventual domination. Those put off by sceptical reactions bandied about at Blizzcon 2011 will likely be surprised by the serious attention to detail Blizzard has committed to this project.
Indeed, assuming that the cutesy outward appearance of the citizens of Pandaria implies anything approaching a lack of care on Blizzard's behalf is a grievous mistake.