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First Look: Guild Wars 2 - Heart of Thorns

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Guild Wars 2 [official site] launched with a promise – to fix MMOs. Strident, attention-grabbing, patently doomed schtick that was nevertheless suffused with just enough gosh-shucks-darn-it-I-want-to-see-them-try zest to make it a journey worth tracking. That was two years ago.

The mission met with mixed results, as lead designer Isaiah Cartwright admitted to me when we spoke in Brighton during a hands-on with the game’s first expansion, Heart of Thorns. We were among the first to play the expansion and all of the details are below.

When you see another player in GW2, you’d have to be a raisin-hearted miser to resent their presence. ArenaNet instanced resource nodes, so no more fruitless loops around a map just behind some irritating elf with Boots of Walking Ever So Slightly Faster Than You. Simple, but effective.

However, they also blurred the lines of the Golden Triangle, or Holy Trinity, or whatever you want to call it. Tank. Healer. DPS. A bold move that ruffled more than a few feathers. When every character can heal themselves, it tends to undermine the social and mechanical benefits of that traditional three-way relationship.

Fnarr.

Despite these challenges, it’s clear from the brief presentation we get at the start of the day that innovation is still a top priority. ‘Innovation’ is a crowd-pleasing word, especially in a genre dominated by the unignorably huge, powerful, but creaky mastodon that is WoW. People fiddle with the formula all the time, but arguably we’ve yet to see something that represents a genuine and widely embraced evolution. (Please do leave a comment if you disagree (or agree (and, frankly, I’m only doing another one of these for the indulgent joy of conjuring up the rare triple closing parenthesis))).

The focus of the day was largely on a handful of bullet points that ArenaNet considered the juiciest, or at least the ones that were most ready to be shown off. We certainly didn’t see absolutely everything the expansion will offer.

There’s a new zone. A ninth profession. A new PvP game type. A rejigged progression mechanic. The two mantras, oft-repeated, were “it’s about the journey, not the destination” and “defying convention”. All of these are significant, for different reasons, so let’s get our teeth into the details.

The zone is a huge, lush jungle called Maguuma. It has a vertical emphasis, and continues GW2’s interesting/aggravating love affair with exploration and jumping puzzles.

We played a brief story instance in this verdant new setting, which almost immediately featured a binary narrative choice. Side with this NPC, or the other? Unfortunately, one of the options was disabled for the demo, so it wasn’t clear how impactful the decision actually was.

Once the little slice of story was over we were spat out into the world, where we could engage in more open world activities, and end with a group battle against a flame-spewing wyvern for shiny loot. None of this was hugely interesting. Polished? Sure. A necessary element of an MMO expansion? Absolutely. The more interesting bit, however, was the profession that we were all playing.

Right now, pre-Thorns, there are eight professions. Three wear light armour, three medium, but only two heavy. The Revenant finally redresses this imbalance. On the one hand, it’s a familiar trope – the anti-paladin or dark knight, menacing spikes and all. On the other, it has a pretty unusual identity. Revenants have a connection to ‘the Mists’ and channel long dead spirits to gain unique abilities. You will be able to pick two at a time from a pool, and switch back and forth to change your role.

We had access to two spirits, both of whom are plucked from the considerable lore that has built up over both Guild Wars games, but were assured more were in the works. How many more? We weren’t told, and I suspect even ArenaNet may not know for sure yet.

One was a demon, Mallyx the Undying (self-denial? Irony?), the other a dwarven king called Jalis Ironhammer. The latter allowed us to conjure up a section of stone brick road ahead of us, slowing enemies, which was actually much cooler than it sounds.

Using the (oft-revised) trait system, the Revenant can specialise in one of three directions. Corruption deals in boons and conditions, Retribution is tanky, and Invocation broadly covers self heals and buffs. Overall there’s a sadomasochistic flavour, with many abilities giving the player benefits when afflicted by debuffs.

They also wear blindfolds for reasons that eluded me, although I guess blindfolds are cool.

All in all Revenants felt surprisingly long-ranged, considering their ostensibly rugged nature, with almost every attack able to hit from a decent distance. Hammers circled me defensively, I hurled chunky chains out to taunt foes, and it felt… like Guild Wars 2. Lots of buffs, debuffs, targeted abilities, potential combos, and big ol’ tooltips.

Are Revenants overpowered? Underpowered? Frankly, after only a couple of carefully-controlled hours playtime, I have no idea. No doubt that will be a spirited (ha!) discussion in various forums for some time after launch. My character didn’t feel as sturdy as I expected, but that may just be my unfamiliarity with the best ways to use my abilities, plus a necessary trade-off for the aforementioned range.

When we were given the chance to run through the new PvP mode called Stronghold, almost everyone picked Revenant again. I’m an idiot, though, so I tried to support and heal with a Mesmer. A bloody-minded desire to be different may have come into play. I also wanted to hang back and stay alive, because I’m a coward. It didn’t work.

Stronghold is new to Guild Wars 2 but the format will be familiar to fans of similar MMOs. There are a bunch of objectives on the map. Pick up the things, go to the place, and spawn a friendly soldier. Find the thing and use the thing to summon a powerful NPC ally. There’s even siege weaponry to repair/destroy and an enemy ‘guild lord’ you kill to win the whole darn thing.

It’s heartening that ArenaNet are committing significant resources to keeping PvP fresh and interesting, and in the presentation they mentioned that they had been surprised and delighted at the burgeoning professional scene. There are already big tournaments in the States, Europe and Asia with serious money on the line, but when I had a curious poke around Twitch (at 8pm on a Sunday), GW2 was relatively low profile. Sixty-three streamers, but only six of those with viewers in triple digits, and just barely. It will be interesting to see how Heart of Thorns changes that, and for how long.

Mastery might not be the flashiest bullet point on the list, but it’s the one that intrigued me the most. As I mentioned, the trait system has been fiddled with quite a few times in the last two years. This is troubling, as it’s a crucial element of player progression and power. The changes that Heart of Thrones is bringing are a bit complicated, but basically an unpopular element of one of the trait reworks is being excised, expanded, and is now called Mastery.

You’ll earn Mastery points while levelling, but can only spend them at max level. You get an assortment of cool stuff, including access to NPC traders and ways of reaching previous inaccessible areas, and these are both zone-specific and account-wide. We only got a glimpse of the system, but it has a lot of potential.

A couple of other features – specialisations, allowing each profession access to a previously forbidden weapon type and therefore suite of abilities, and guild halls that are apparently ‘grown’ in the jungle – were notable by their absence in that chilly day in Brighton. There’s still a lot of work to do.

Doubtless more details will emerge over time. Right now there isn’t even a release date. ArenaNet certainly seem to be willing to keep taking risks, and they do admittedly have a tremendously beautiful, feature-rich game. It would have been nice to see more stuff coming for new players, but I understand the need to cater to veterans who are starting to twiddle their thumbs to the bone.

It’s the way in which ArenaNet are catering to those veterans that is intriguing. It wasn’t mentioned very much during the press day but the cap, 80, isn’t being extended, and that’s interesting. There are no new tiers of gear to make your previous stuff redundant. Purple is not, after all, the new green.

The introduction of new tiers as a sort of soft reset on player power is pretty much the industry standard method to keep people hooked year to year. Avoiding it is brave and more than a little risky. While ArenaNet have certainly shown enough meaty content to create a convincing case to buy the expansion, their gambles have backfired in the past. That said, this genre needs more risk-takers, and I for one hope it works out for them. The Mastery system will have to be pretty bloody good, though.

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