Since Wrath of the Lich King, Blizzard have always made great starting areas for their World of Warcraft expansions; with fulfilling storylines, great characters and a brisk introduction to the game mechanics. The Wandering Isles is the new Pandaren starting area; it’s available in the beta to play right through. Guess what: it’s wonderful introduction to being a panda: full of life, culture and humour - probably one of the best zones Blizzard have ever produced. Here’s why.
First off: if you’re still furious that WoW, a game about talking cows and gnomes, is way to serious for sentient pandas, you’re best not playing as one. Ever. Even a few moments in The Wandering Isles, where Pandamania is raised to a near exponential level, will drive you to tears. It has angry monkeys, a ridiculous subplot about overgrown rabbits, and a bit where you turn into a skunk. Seriously - it’s better for your blood pressure if you walk on by.
For the rest of us: OH GOD IT’S FULL OF PANDA.
The Wandering Isles themselves, as revealed at Blizzcon, are sat on the back of a giant turtle. It’s only hinted at at first. As you leave the training temple where your Sensei, Master Shang Xi, completes your training, you might spot a giant flipper raised into the air. But that’s as far as it goes. In reality, you’re more likely to be struck by how lush and verdant the landscapes are; the Wandering Isles are WoW at its most colourful.
The opening scenes and quests have you meeting friends and routing the Hozen - a group of angry monkeys that are causing bother nearby. Eventually, you’ll discover that four spirits of the elements have gone missing and they need to be brought back to the Temple of the Five Dawns at the centre of the island. These spirits aren’t like the elementals we’re used to in WoW, they’re playful, cheerful little creatures that bounce along beside you like eager children - one, the water spirit, even demands you play a game by jumping into spouts of water that he summons in his favourite pond.
It is almost relentlessly silly: you fight off giant rabbits, steal an overgrown carrot, save a brewery... the drama undercut by a sense of real play. At one point, you’re even asked to pull down posters that the Hozen have defiled (favourite quote: “Mouth only hole that banana go in”).
It’s only once you’ve rescued the air spirit that the mood changes; by this point you’re at the eastern tip of the zone, high in the mountains. It feels chillier, less verdant. And you can tell something is up.
Spoilers follow from here onwards.
At that point you mount a balloon to talk to Shen-Zin Su, the giant turtle you’re living upon. In a slightly clunky scripted sequence, he reveals a ‘thorn’ has grown in his side, and that he’s ‘bleeding’. The balloon then continues on its journey revealing what the thorn really is; the crashed Alliance Gunship Skyfire - last seen taking on Deathwing. The crash has cut into Shen-Zin Su’s flesh and he’s bleeding profusely. The answer, obviously, is explosives.
First though, there are some introductions to be made: you meet the local commanders of the Horde and Alliance who are, somewhat predictably, at each-other’s throats. However, the two separate camps are under attack, need medical supplies, and injured soldiers treating. A few quests later though; you’re ready to deal with the Skyfire: by collecting explosives and blowing it out of the wound. It works, in a fashion, the Skyfire is clear, but the wound is still bleeding. It’s only staunched by the combined might of the Alliance and Horde healers.
Theoretically, that’s the end of the zone. But there’s one important choice. You’re to be sent into civilization to learn about the Alliance and Horde. But before you do, you need to make a choice: who do you adopt?
What’s fascinating is how quickly Blizzard indoctrinate you into your faction: you’ll immediately meet Garrosh or Varien Wrynn, and both make it absolutely clear that you’re expected to live and die for the Horde or Alliance. And that any friends and relationships from the Wandering Isles need to be put aside and sacrificed for the greater good. Total downer. You’ll immediately be pining for the old days; when you were beating up monkeys and digging up oversized carrots.
That’s a good mark of how pleasant your time in the Wandering Isles will be.