It was bound to happen eventually. After more than seven years of supremacy as the MMO of choice for genre players, World of Warcraft’s new expansion is the first to feel like it’s not the definitive king of the MMO pack, even if its player count still dwarfs everything else. Star Wars: The Old Republic’s storytelling, Rift’s dynamic events, The Secret World’s innovative progression system, and especially Guild Wars 2 and its across-the-board evolution of genre conventions each borrowed heavily from Blizzard’s juggernaut while moving in new directions of their own. At times, World of Warcraft feels dated in comparison. Even so, Mists of Pandaria makes an excellent case that the game still has plenty to offer longtime players. If it’s not the undisputed champion, WoW is still certainly a serious contender.

Much has been made of the streamlined gameplay and user-friendly features that permeate Mists of Pandaria, but I found my journey beyond level 85 to be a smooth transition. Most of the changes to progression feel natural. The newly revamped talent system is simpler and has less number-juggling, but the core of my class remains familiar. The pet battle option (think Pokémon) is a fun diversion with a clever turn-based battle experience, but after several hours running my little animal friends through early zones, it’s hard to imagine spending endless hours perfecting the system. I feel similarly about the new farming and cooking options; these are major diversions for those willing to invest, but peripheral to the rest of the player base. For those most hardcore players, Pandaria delivers some painfully slow reputation grinds that, for better or worse, will keep you busy for a long time.

The real meat of the expansion is right where it should be, with a large new continent to explore, several strong dungeons, and a new chapter of storytelling for Azeroth and its greatest heroes. Pandaria taps its Asian influence from its opening zone and keeps the focus there throughout the subsequent ride across the massive island. The storytelling feels more structured than in previous expansions, with a core group of non-player characters that pop up throughout the tale, helping to ground your playtime in familiar faces and narrative threads. While the pandaren race might have started out as something of an obscure joke, Blizzard has done a fine job of fleshing out the culture, architecture, and personality of these big bears, and I enjoyed exploring their homeland. While Pandaria may not always feel as epic as a fight against the Lich King or a giant dragon, this expansion features Blizzard’s most cohesive storytelling to date.

Questing across Pandaria rarely offers any big challenges, but the quest hubs are well organized and smartly usher you forward to the next hotspot when you’re done. More thoughtful use of phasing than we saw in Cataclysm assures you’ll see some big changes to the game world as you experience events, but being phased away from fellow players along the way is less frequent. Blizzard includes a number of highly scripted quests that feel especially easy, but they do offer a break from routine. My favorites are the ones that put you in control of one of your heroic allies and you get to walk a mile in their shoes, albeit with a simplified set of powers. 

The new dungeons are uniformly strong, from the goofiness of fighting alementals in Stormstout Brewery to the mystical vibe of the Temple of the Jade Serpent. The focus is on big, challenging bosses over constant mobs, and those fights are rewarding and entertaining. Heroic versions of those dungeons (and one more only available as a heroic) are just one of many features meant to flesh out the endgame. A more varied approach to daily quests, new instanced scenarios, two new battlegrounds, and leaderboard-supported challenge modes for the dungeons all prove that Blizzard is still the best in the business at supporting level-capped play. In particular, Mists of Pandaria deserves credit for offering meaningful post-leveling content for all playstyles, whether you’re a lore enthusiast, a PvPer, or focused on competitive PvE. 

Dedicated players will want to check out the new pandaren playable race and accompanying monk class. The pandaren starting zone is the equal of the excellent worgen and goblin starters from Cataclysm, with an immersive mini-story that sets the stage for the rest of the game. Monks can fulfill any of the healer, tank, or damage roles, and I enjoyed getting a handle on the class and its chi building and chi spending abilities. Morevoer, the unarmed martial arts vibe has a style all its own that feels like an overdue addition to the class list. All that aside, players are looking at a long and potentially lonely trip from 1 to 90 if they want to take their monk the whole way up. 

Visually, Pandaria is a stunning and vibrant land to explore, but there’s no avoiding the fact that the game is beginning to show its age. That’s equally true with combat, which feels less tactical and mobile than recent competing MMOs. Blizzard has made strides in including more characters and voiced dialogue this time around, but it’s a far cry from what many players will be used to after the last two years of evolution in that regard. Despite these concerns, Mists of Pandaria’s ample content offers plenty of reasons to return, especially for longtime players with established characters. For those looking for a new MMO, it may finally be time to look elsewhere.

[This article originally appeared in Game Informer Issue #236]