It has been exactly one week since World of Warcraft's latest expansion pack, Mists of Pandaria launched and here at Geek Speak we thought it was high time for a preliminary review.
Unlike a number of people who have either taken time off work or are embracing unemployment to get to the coveted 90 level cap by gaming at least 20 hours a day, yours truly has had to fit in a substantial amount of gaming time around real life to bring you this.
While I hear you thanking me for my pearls of gaming wisdom, it's important to note that this week has been focused on the first "half" of the game; levelling a new character from scratch.
After Blizzard sadly lost a million WoW subscribers over the last fiscal year, blamed largely on the two-year wait for new content following Cataclysm, there have been a number of incentives to draw you back in.
If you have a friend that had deactivated their WoW account, an active player can "invite" the player to come back and have a free boost to level 80. Queue the launch day and within 5 minutes of launch, both Horde and Alliance were riddled with artificially boosted level 80 Pandarens, the new playable characters.
Any WoW gamer will tell you that it is essentially made up of two games in one.
The first is levelling your character all the way to the cap, which is now raised to 90. Once you reach the levelling cap, a new game emerges for the more pro players, whether it will be through dungeons for better gear or raids that requires 25 or more players to bring down a big boss.
But for the first part, this is where many of the faux level 80-plus Pandaren players lose out, as by skipping all the levelling until level 80, they have missed out on some of the best newly constructed content in recent years.
Welcome the Pandarens
When you play WoW on a daily basis, it does feel like you become married to it.
So as with all long lasting relationships, strong foundations and keeping it exciting will keep you coming back for more and with this latest expansion, MoP does just that.
As a couple of senior Blizzard developers told me last week, there was a big challenge in creating new characters, storylines and lore that have not been necessarily been written into Azeroth.
Like most people, I approached the news that WoW was including pandas in its new expansion with trepidation, as it appeared a quick fix solution to appease and its growing China-based gaming community, which could lead to a bleed of existing subscribers.
However, after rolling the new character of Pandaren and seeing all that Blizzard had to offer, in terms of new content, character and class construction, it completely blew any doubts out of the water.
Storylines and Animation
The Pandarens have been deftly written into the game's lore, while also enabling the developers to push their creativity to new heights.
From the outset, the cinematic sequences were breathtakingly beautiful, and seamlessly explained why the WoW universe hadn't encountered the new race of characters, the Pandarens, before.
With this, developers managed to create a new eye wateringly awesome set of land and content, which would have been easy to bypass, after its construction of the Blood Elf race a few years ago.
With the Pandaren's homeland placed on the back of a floating turtle, reminiscent of Terry Pratchett's Discworld opus, it skilfully weaved the character's background into a world that was previously made up of three kingdoms.
From years of playing Cataclysm, which moved the storyline onto the destruction and obliteration of the old kingdoms, it was a refreshing change to see animation that was crafted around Chinese culture and settings, in a rare untouched setting that mixes brighter and cleaner graphics alongside Asian animation and manga.
New Quests, Content, Classes
As with all races, there is a starting zone that is exclusive to the group and the Pandaren's low level zone is breath of fresh air.
Whereas before, much of the new content constructed for newly introduced races, such as Worgen, Dranei and Blood Elves seem to just tweak existing quest lines with a spritz of new animation, the Pandaren starting zone is ultimately, completely different.
It implements a lot of real-life Oriental lore and superstition, as well as concepts that are prevalent in traditional and modern day martial arts. Voiceovers, character personalities and running quest lines are like no other.
While sceptics would have believed Pandaren's were a shameful excuse of cashing in on Kung Fu Panda, there really is nothing similar to the DreamWorks movie franchise, other than, well, a panda doing martial arts.
With the new characters come new playable classes, including "monk". With similar skillset and tree of a rogue, the new class allows the player to "train" in this class and then to officially pick a tank, DPS and healing class in a more user friendly way for those who haven't played WoW before.
While this has inevitably led to the starting zones being indundated with about 1 billion monks, the form of gameplay has reinvented some of the classes that have become tired over recent years.
Tweaks like this, compared to older gameplay, certainly has made it easier for new and old players to get to grip with the characters and hit the ground running, whereas some previous race incantations left some players stumped when it comes to bettering their toon.
Pandarens are also unique in terms of deciding factions. Whereas previously players would have to decide from the outset whether to fight for horde or alliance from the creation of their toon, the new race gets to choose after the starting zone.
As one of the only downsides to the new expansion pack, the new starting content doesn't seem to go on for long enough. After just breaking the double digits levelling line, players choose whether to be sent to existing WoW areas, respective of choosing a faction.
However, additional content is yet to be explored post level 80 in Pandaria, which will be reviewed by Geek Speak over the coming week.
Enhanced Existing Playability
While Pandarens are brand new, so are the hozen, which is a fantastic, yet quite irritating, race of evil monkeys that are the new additional bad guys to the game. Much like the Panderens, they have their own storyline and animation that has never been seen before in Azeroth.
Keeping the gameplay fresh, the hozen are central to many of the starting level quests and later on in the level 80+ dungeons and scenarios.
As previously detailed, the relatively short gameplay time in the Pandaren starting zone is slightly disappointing, but where there is a falter in new playable hours, new quest lines in existing lands have been added.
For instance, as a horde player, you can bypass Northern Barrens' quest line, especially for those who have followed that quest line several times over when levelling characters over the last decade, and navigate through Azshara.
This is a major plus for new and old players alike, as it seamlessly weaves into old lands but gives a breath of fresh air to the quest lines that would have been completed to death time and time again.
While levelling, which can sometimes be painful when starting from 0 and trying to get to a relatively high level of 80 onwards, it is difficult not to become consumed by basic tasks such as raising gold, getting better gear and grinding mobs to gain experience and boost to the sweet spot of levelling.
However, Blizzard developers have crafted new side quests and for the completionists out there, myself included, it can add hours onto game playing time and is linked to your Battlenet account, rather than being character specific.
For instance, you are now able to level battle pets. Take a look at my delightful pug (below) that I garnered from racking up over 100 random player groups in total.
Previously pets were nothing more than decoration but now there are new sets of achievement from levelling up the little critters in Pokemon style sparring. You need to train them and can have up to three to battle against different levels of Azeroth animals.
Of course, new achievements are up for grabs.
While I have still yet to venture into post level 85 territory, after resisting the urge in order to concentrate on the first half of the game, it has been clear from the outset that the two years of construction were well worth the wait and this only reinstates the reason why Warcraft is one of the best games in the world.
Never letting the game become stale, developers have successfully crafted another world and race that will keep old players coming back for more and netting new gamers into the fold.