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World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria review: Levels 1 to 20

Exploring the Wandering Isle and picking sides in Blizzard's huge new expansion

The streets of Orgrimmar feel different. It looks the same as it did in Cataclysm, but now there are giant pandas everywhere. Big, cuddly pandas whose pot bellies wobble when they run. Say hello to the pandaren, Azeroth's newest race, and the stars of Mists of Pandaria.

There are pandaren in Stormwind too. This is World of Warcraft's first neutral race, and you get to decide whether you join forces with the Alliance or the Horde. But before you pick a side, you have to complete your training on the Wandering Isle - an island resting on the back of an enormous turtle which serves as the starting area for all new pandaren characters.

This is the first major expansion for World of Warcraft since 2010's Cataclysm, and it adds - and changes - a surprising amount. The level cap has been raised to 90, the talent system has been completely revamped and an addictive pet battle system has been added - but is it enough to win back players who've defected to Guild Wars 2? It's hard to tell at this early stage. The servers are heaving, and armies of level 85 players have descended on Pandaria to try out the new content, with hilarious, buggy results. But every MMO is busy at launch, so we'll have to see whether these people stick around for the long haul.

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There's something inherently ridiculous about the pandaren, but we like them. Their starting area is vibrant and colourful, and the (slightly hackneyed) Asian influence makes it distinct from anywhere in Kalimdor or the Eastern Kingdoms. This is actually quite shrewd of Blizzard. There are around 457 million internet users in China, two thirds of which play MMOs. They're unlikely to dethrone the country's most popular MMO, which has a user base of 25 million, but Pandaria's Eastern aesthetic may see a growth in Chinese subscribers.

PICKING SIDES

The eight year-old engine is, unsurprisingly, showing its age, but the environment design still packs a visual punch - especially the towering Temple of Five Dawns at the centre of the island. It's all a bit twee, though. The colourful world, fluffy pandas and syrupy dialogue wouldn't feel out of place in a Disney film. The storyline revolves around Shen-zin Su, the great sea turtle whose back the Wandering Isle rests on, falling ill because of a 'thorn' in his side - which is actually a crashed Alliance airship. After helping him and completing your training, you're finally given the chance to leave the island and side with either Garrosh Hellscream or Varian Wrynn. When you make your choice you'll appear in the capital of whatever side you choose. You won't actually see Pandaria itself, a level 85-90 zone, until much later in the game.

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The pandaren come with a few interesting racial passive abilities, mostly revolving around their considerable girth and love of food. Epicurean doubles the stats from the Well Fed buff and Gourmand increases your cooking by 15. Bouncy cuts falling damage in half, and Inner Peace doubles the length of your rested experience bonus. There's a physical ability too, Quaking Palm, which stuns an enemy for 4 seconds. It's a decent selection of powers and makes them a hardy race. They can be hunters, mages, warriors, priests, rogues, shamans, warriors and monks.

Monk is a new class for Mists of Pandaria. It's a hybrid class that, like the druid and paladin, can serve as either tank, healer or DPS. You can roll a monk for any race except worgen and goblin, but it feels tailor-made for the pandaren. The quests on the Wandering Isle are clearly designed with monks in mind, which can actually feel a bit weird if you play as another class.

Monks specialise in hand-to-hand combat, and their moves all sound like they've been ripped straight from a classic Shaw Brothers kung-fu film. Flying Serpent Kick allows you to streak towards your target from a distance; Touch of Death instantly kills an enemy with less health than you; Spinning Crane Kick is a powerful AOE attack. You're still just tapping the number keys to attack, of course. The monk brings some new tactics and flavour to World of Warcraft's time-honoured combat, but not enough that it significantly alters the gameplay.

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