Blizzard has just launched its fourth expansion to its industry-leading MMO, World of Warcraft, with servers live at midnight PDT.

Mists of Pandaria takes the game in a new direction with a previously unexplored continent serving as the main hub for the expansion’s content, including questing and endgame raiding. Earlier expansions took place in zones that were new to World of Warcraft, but not to the Warcraft franchise in general which goes back as far as the mid-90s. The continent of Pandaria gave Blizzard a blank slate to work with.

pandarenmonk 520x280 Blizzard launches fourth World of Warcraft expansion, Mists of Pandaria

Aside from the new continent, the expansion brings a raft of new features to the game. Players can elect to create new characters that belong to the Pandaren race, which are essentially talking pandas with martial arts expertise. The starting zone for these guys is an island on the back of a giant turtle, and I’ve surprisingly not heard one person mention how derivative of Terry Pratchett this seems.

A new hybrid class called the Monk, similar in utility to Paladins and Druids, is also available. Hybrid classes are those than can fill more than one role in the classic trifecta — damage, tanking and healing — and the Monk is capable of all three.

Mists of Pandaria introduces Challenge Modes, which add another layer of difficulty to dungeons beyond the existing Heroic Modes. These are essentially speed runs and reward players for coordinating well enough to down bosses and complete dungeons faster.

The Pet Battles addition allows you to catch pets and fight them against NPCs and other players, a Pokémon-esque feature aimed at casual players as you can see in this screenshot which shows an Obsidian Hatchling facing off against… a hare.

petbattle 520x293 Blizzard launches fourth World of Warcraft expansion, Mists of Pandaria

Pet Battles has caused a bit of controversy among hardcore players — much like the cartoony Pandaren themselves — who feel Blizzard is sacrificing the complexity of the game to attract Farmville players. It’s hard to argue with them when one of the other new features is, essentially, a farming mini-game.

But as with every expansion, those hardcore players are catered to with what is considered the core attraction of World of Warcraft: endgame content known as raids, which require a group who work together to get better gear and hone their strategy to defeat the most challenging aspects of the game. There will be four new raids at launch with more to come over the course of the expansion — including an ultimate showdown against the current leader of the Horde, one of the game’s two player factions.

World of Warcraft hasn’t had the best year ever, seeing the biggest subscriber drops in the game’s history and even a recent user data breach. Many attribute this to the dearth of content since the final raid of the Cataclysm expansion was made available, but the gap between that raid and this release was in fact shorter than the gap between expansion two, Wrath of the Lich King, and Cataclysm.

The digital standard edition of Mists can be had for $39.99, while the Digital Deluxe addition — which comes with a variety of in-game items for WoW, Diablo 3 and Starcraft 2 — can be had for $59.99. There’s also a Collector’s Edition which will retail for around $79.99 and come with a bunch of physical goodies as well as the digital bonuses from the Digital Deluxe edition, if you’re lucky enough to find one — these tend to sell out well before launch night.

If you haven’t decided whether or not to upgrade your World of Warcraft account, take a look at the cinematic which — if nothing else — features some impressive rendering.