Since the first days of World of Warcraft, Blizzard has gotten better and better at designing quests for the game. For example, the starting zones for the worgen and goblin races introduced in the Cataclysm were better than the blood elf and draenei zones from Burning Crusade. The BC starter zones, meanwhile, were a cut above the low-level content from "vanilla" WoW. I hoped that Mists of Pandaria would continue this trend but unfortunately the pandaren starting quests are a step backward.

Yes, the pandaren are pretty much Kung Fu Panda. That doesn't bug me, though. I like the colorful, Eastern look of the pandaren and their starting zone, the Wandering Isle. It's a nice change of pace from the gloom of the worgens' Gilneas or the filth of goblins' Kezan. Shore to shore, the island is gorgeous.

The Wandering Isle is an island on the back of an enormous turtle, Shen-zin Su. This massive beast has wandered the oceans of Azeroth for thousand of years and a community of Pandaren now live in the grasslands and forests that have grown on his back. However, now Shen-zin Su appears to be headed toward the giant whirlpool known as the Maelstrom. In the zone's quests, players must find out what's wrong with the turtle and save the island.

The overall storyline is similar to the worgen and goblin zones, in that it presents players with a crisis that they must rush to solve. The problem with the pandaren starting area is that you never feel like the Wandering Isle is in danger. If you don't read any quest text, you'd have no idea that the island's on the brink of destruction. The quests never gave me any sense of urgency.

I think part of the issue is that Blizzard shied away from "phasing" the zone. Phasing is when the world looks different to different characters. For example, if I complete a quest to build a bridge, that bridge is now permanently in my version of the world and I can walk across it. However, someone who hasn't done the quest won't see the bridge. They could've used phasing to great effect in Wandering Isle, perhaps showing the weather get worse or the Isle start to come apart as we approach the Maelstrom.

Instead, though, Blizzard decided to limit phasing. They probably want to make it easier for players to be able to quest together. A zone without phasing means that players can help a friend with a quest even if they've already completed it. Still, we're talking about a starter zone so you really don't need help. Furthermore, even if you're the same level as a friend, you won't necessarily be able to play together because the questline for the zone is very linear. You'd ultimately have to wait for a friend to catch up to your progress before you could work on quests together.

The individual quests just aren't very compelling, either. There's one cool moment where you fly out to Shen-zin Su's head to speak with him but the visuals are the only real it's a memorable quest. None of the quests in the Wandering Isle is as memorable as say, the Battle for Gilneas City or the fight against Volcanoth. Most of the pandaren quests are simply about fetching items or killing enemies. While you could reduce most MMO quests to such basic descriptions, Blizzard has done a better job elsewhere of dressing up these basic quest types and making them more engaging.

Pandaren are unique in that they can join either of the game's two factions. Ultimately players find out that Shen-zin Su is ailing because an Alliance airship has crashed into its side. Players meet both the Alliance soldiers and their escaped Horde prisoners. This should, essentially, introduce players to the war between the factions which is central to the expansion's plot. However, you don't get a strong sense of the conflict between the sides; in fact, they put their differences aside temporarily to help Shen-zin Su heal. I don't think you've been given a proper introduction to either faction by the time you're asked to choose between them.

WoW has come a long way since 2004. The pandaren starter zone is leagues better than most of the quests that shipped with the original version of the game. However, it feels like a downgrade compared to the content of earlier expansions. Players will still level up pandaren characters because they're the new hotness but I'm not sure they'll remember much about the Wandering Isle.
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