BlizzCon 2011 photos and news about World of Warcraft, Diablo III, StarCraft II

Wally Bahny covers the major announcements at BlizzCon 2011 about the next WoW expansion pack, Diablo III, and StarCraft II. We also feature photos of costumed attendees.

The 6th annual BlizzCon was held this past weekend in Anaheim, California. This year, there were 26,000 people in attendance and at least another 60,000 people watching over the Internet or on DirecTV.

In the welcome address, Blizzard Entertainment President, CEO, and co-founder Mike Morhaime (@mikemorhaime) talked about Blizzard's last 20 years ,and then Blizzard's Senior Vice President Chris Metzen took over to make the higher-level announcements about the next World of Warcraft expansion: Mists of Pandaria as well as the impending launch of both Diablo III and StarCraft II: The Heart of the Swarm.

Another major announcement is the new WoW Annual Pass. For a limited time, World of Warcraft players can commit to 12 months of World of Warcraft using their preferred payment plan, which will grant them extra benefits. Initial benefits include a free copy of Diablo III when it is launched, guaranteed access to the World of Warcraft: Mists of Pandaria beta, and an exclusive World of Warcraft mount: Tyrael's Charger.

Below I provide details about these announcements. If you'd like to start off with more of a visual tour of the event, check out the TechRepublic photo gallery BlizzCon 2011: Serious gamers unite.

Photo credit: D. Tortorella via Flickr

World of Warcraft

As most World of Warcraft players are aware, Patch 4.3 is coming soon. In this patch, raiders will be able to take on Deathwing the Destroyer himself, which is touted to be a very epic fight. Also, we will be seeing a new Raid Finder interface that functions similar to the Dungeon Finder that has been very popular. Players queuing in the Raid Finder will be restricted to 25-man raids only, which are lower in difficulty than the respective Normal mode. This is in order to enable raid groups who have never worked together to be able to complete the raid. Bosses will drop lesser gear than Normal mode and will not drop vanity items, such as mounts. Finally, there are new Legendary items in this patch: Fangs of the Father, which are daggers designed for Rogues.

Patch 4.3 is kind of old news now, though. The big news at this BlizzCon is Mists of Pandaria. Enjoy the trailer and the B-roll that flies through the new zones:

As you can see from those videos, this new expansion will contain a huge amount of new content and changes to existing systems. I'm going to go over them as briefly as possible for the casual readers, but there was a veritable fire hose of information about this patch, so it's still going to be involved. If you'd like more information, Blizzard has several official posts (Mists of Pandaria, Raids & Dungeons, Class Talent System) and sites such as MMO-Champion have extensive coverage of the event.

The core of this new expansion is a brand new continent: Pandaria. Pandaria has a long, storied history that has been magically hidden since the Sundering 10,000 years ago but was uncovered by the Cataclysm. It is a new land to explore that was accidentally discovered during a Horde vs. Alliance naval battle, but we may start to feel like we were actually led here by some mystical force. It includes five new level-up zones, six (of a total of nine for the expansion) new dungeons, and three new raids. It is home to the new playable race The Pandaren, as well as several other non-playable races and creatures such as Jinyu, Hozu, Verming, Mantid, Mogu, and Sha. From an art perspective, Pandaria has an Asian influence both in the architecture and in the environment. Also, while the name of the new hub has not been announced, there will be a central city that will contain an Auction House and a Bank. There will be no flying in Pandaria until level 90, the new maximum level.

Building upon the new continent is the new playable race: the Pandaren. The Pandaren are a unique race in WoW because they are playable by both the Horde and Alliance. Pandaren start out as either a Hunter, Mage, Monk, Priest, Rogue, Shaman, or Warrior in a brand new starting zone, which is on the back of a giant sea turtle! For 10 levels, players are faction-less playing through their starting zone, which is story-driven like the Goblin and Worgen zones. Once they reach level 10 (or perhaps when they finish the zone, if it takes longer - I'm guessing), they will be given a choice as to which faction they want to join. This new zone was completely playable at BlizzCon, which makes me feel like the expansion may ship sometime mid-2012 but no official announcement was made. Pandaren have some interesting racial bonuses that are based on both their affinity for cooking and eating and as their rotund nature -- not to mention their inherent mysticism.

The Pandaren race also brings along a brand new class: the Monk. Monks are a hybrid class capable of Tanking, Healing, and Melee DPS and are very martial arts-based. For example, while they carry and sometimes use weapons, many of their abilities are body based -- a lot of hands and feet. Unlike the last-added class, Death Knight, Monk is not a hero class; they start at level 1 and are playable as every race except Goblin and Worgen. Monks have no auto-attack -- each strike must be triggered by player action.

Because the Monk class makes 11 classes, and there are only 10 character slots per server, many players have asked "with the new class, will we get another character slot on each server?" The answer given was that they may switch to a per-account character limit instead of a per-server limit.

Expanding upon the new dungeons and raids mentioned above, we will see upgraded WoW Classic heroic dungeons again in this expansion pack. This expansion brings with it Scholomance and Scarlet Monastery -- the latter re-divided into two wings that have an even number of bosses. Also, the dungeon skill level categories have been altered -- normal mode is for leveling up, heroic is for max level, and they are introducing a new skill level: Challenge Mode. Challenge Mode dungeons force the players' armor and weapons down to a standardized skill level, which makes skill much more important than gear - you can't just overpower your way through the dungeon. With this new mode, they are introducing guild- and friend-level leaderboards, where you can compare your completion times and have some prestige. This mode will reward Valor Points and grant "sweet looking gear with no stats," which can be used for Transmogrification.

Not only are we getting a new class, but every class will be going through major changes again. It turns out, the changes made for Cataclysm to the talent trees weren't what Blizzard was hoping for - and neither were the fans. More "junk" talents are being removed; more talents will be made class abilities (so everyone in that class gets them), some talents will be made into spec abilities, and the rest will be moved into a new talent system where the player must choose one of three similar abilities for every 15 levels. The cool part of this is that talents that were deep in a different tree are now accessible to characters specced in the other trees. Also, we are all losing an item slot: the ranged/relic slot. This means that hunters' bows and guns will become two-handed weapons (with the stats of a two-handed weapon); caster wands will become main hand weapons (again, with appropriate stats); warriors and rogues will just throw their equipped weapon; and relic users no longer have relics. The druid is finally being fully split into the four specs they've really had all along.

The last huge announcement is the new Pet Battle System -- that is, Companion Pets. In this expansion, you will be able to level-up your companion pets by battling them against your friends (or enemies), name them, and acquire special abilities by defeating "masters." With this feature comes an all-new user interface for managing them and finding new pets, including "wild" pets. You will even be able to trade or sell on the Auction House your leveled-up pets for gold. Battles are turn-based, which will allow low-level and new players to more effectively compete, and are conducted with teams of three pets.

Many of you may be wondering, "Who is the major boss in Mists of Pandaria?" There isn't one. This patch will focus on the war between the Horde and the Alliance - a war that hasn't been seen since Warcraft 2.

Other news includes Scenarios - staged, instanced content designed for a few players - that seem to be like the battle for Undercity was during the Wrathgate storyline. These scenarios will have a Dungeon Finder-like interface that will likely have very short queues due to there being no role requirements in scenarios. Scenarios will likely award extra Valor Points, which will help players to skill their character up easier.

Read about Diablo III.