|Yes, this is a Beta, in case you’d not grasped that fact…^^|
Time to talk about the 1-10 starting experience for the new race, I think.
It’s not done, let’s be clear about this. It may look wonderful but there are a lot of holes, and it’s clearly taking cues from the Worgen/Goblin experience in terms of both questing and pacing. There is nothing particularly taxing about this entire first ten levels, either. The only time I died was when a vehicle mechanic bugged and I got nibbled to death by cranes. Hardly a trauma, you will agree.
What I think was the most striking thing about the entire experience (and this excludes the visuals, which I will come back to) is the fact there is no baddie here. The inciting incident that ultimately forces you to choose a side is NOTHING to do with a Big Bad, or a motivating evil, or indeed anything combat related. It’s an accident. When you finally meet the Horde and the Alliance (at least as of the situation on Beta) no-one is being openly aggressive to anyone else. They’re both out of their depths, scared, and they’re as much an unknown quantity to the Pandaren as each other.
What brings them there, and what has happened before you meet them, could paint one side as bad and the other as good (if you consider the dynamics between Horde and Alliance: being deliberately vague here as to not to spoil too much) but as a Panda you don’t see that, you just help them, because they’re causing a bigger issue you need fixed. The way in which that scenario is resolved demonstrates that the two Pandaren traits that we know Horde and Alliance ascribe to. It is perhaps deliberate therefore that positions are reversed for the Red and Blue Teams when they first cross your path. However, it matters not. Pandas aren’t about this fight, they’re joining it very late in. Their motivation is subtly different.
They are here to learn.
This is the key to making the choice before you leave as to your race completely logical. There’s not a massive schism that splits the Pandarens in two, you’re leaving to help one of these two races, and it’s entirely your choice, because it’s that’s what Pandas do best. If I were a roleplayer I have to admit I’d be rubbing my hands together in glee at this prospect, because here we have the closest thing I think we’ll ever get to a lawful neutral/chaotic neutral race. The only reason they have to hang a colour on you is because that’s how it works for dungeon/raid/BG content, it seems to me…
Needless to say, for me at least, this is a master-stroke. The desire to play a Panda to learn about the new healing abilities is now very strong, because I can identify with a new race, one who comes to this seven year battle with no baggage. I’m sure there is some, and I’m pretty certain as an 85 I’ll discover that the new continent isn’t as serene and balanced as my impressions now are telling me. There are hints of evil before I leave, that all is not well, but that’s all there is for now, an elegant foreshadowing of the chaos the now-Mortal Races carry with them, regardless of the colour of their banner.
All this is most definitely helped by a backdrop that is, at times, jaw-droppingly beautiful. I’ve said before that one of my great loves in this game is the background, and how it often helps make the mundane something quite special, and nowhere is this more true than with this starting area. There is a real sense of being utterly isolated too, that this is a bubble in which we find ourselves, that the outside world has never encroached on this place. The Design Department really should be applauded for not going for the obvious and instead creating something that is truly different but yet does not feel out of place in the Azerothian context. You know you’re not Over the Rainbow, but there’s still the real understanding that you left Kansas for somewhere altogether more distinct.
For someone like me, who will mark story over mechanics, I’m going to say I’m sold. I’ll take a Panda to 90 far quicker than I have either a Draenei or a Worgen, that’s for sure. What now sells me completely is what happens to my character once I reach Azeroth, and how the Pandaren story is integrated into the fabric of the existing Universe. Needless to say, this first step on the journey is pretty solid.