First Look: Guild Wars 2 – Heart of Thorns

Well, hello there!

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.

29 Comments

  1. cluster says:

    The extension seems to look like what I feared, an improved bigger patch of the type of content they are already pushing. Seems like we are far from the GW1 expansions with a full new campaign. Except the new class what is really different from one of the free patch we got over the last couple of year ?

    In short if you left GW2 because you were really bored and not interested by the living story I don’t see what’s the apeal in what is described for now. And that’s too bad, I really wanted a reason to come back to GW2.

    • lumenadducere says:

      The Mastery system, which is essentially adding horizontal progression to the game, and the class specializations, which open up more options for builds and roles. Both of these are small(ish) as of now, but they’re laying the foundation for future content patches to add to. Devs have specifically said that’s one of the major goals of the expansion, is to get these new systems in place so they can add more through the LS patches. It’s much easier to start adding new class specializations in a living story patch than an entirely new class. And easier to add new mastery tracks than to increase level caps or balance new gear tiers, etc.

      But if you’re looking for dungeons or raiding in the continual gear progression that other MMOs have, GW2 does not have that. And the games have always had a slightly nebulous “fashion wars” endgame where the main goal is to get cool-looking things rather than particularly useful things. Endgame is very self-directed and depends on players doing what they find fun. So if you’re after that continual rate of progression that you only get from feeling stronger by X%, and anything without that seems boring or pointless to you, then GW2 isn’t for you.

      For others though, I think the expansion is a good accumulation of what they’ve learned through player response to the Living Story. Progression, but without chasing the gear dragon? Check. More lore and discovery with stronger ties to already-established lore? Check. Larger and more expansive maps that have tiered exploration, Metroidvania-style? Check. Stronger class identity that can be built upon in the future? Check. Personally, I’m excited, and I’m looking forward to seeing what they do with these in the future.

  2. Zalifer says:

    Mallyx the Undying (self-denial? Irony?)

    Incorrect? His name is Mallyx The Unyielding

  3. satan says:

    ‘burgeoning professional scene’

    I… was not aware of this in GW2 but I’d be interested to see how it works.

    • nearly says:

      They’ve actually been pushing this idea since launch and it’s clear that the sPvP system was designed around the dream of professional tournament play. I don’t think it’s ever going to catch on, though, and especially not the way they want. They put out improvements now and then to try and grow the very limited scene (like finally adding better spectator options recently) but I don’t think MMORPG PvP is quite engaging enough. Even WoW can’t make a tournament exciting.

      • Hauskamies says:

        Since launch? I beg to differ. It took them almost a year just to implement custom arenas and an observer mode. It was so plain to see that they just abandoned pvp for such a long time to cater to the bigger pve demography.

  4. mgardner says:

    Great job on the closing parenthesis triple combo (yes, they are very rare (I have only ever managed two myself)). It’s hard for me to believe GW2 is only two years old, it feels like it’s been much longer since I stopped playing it/MMOs in general.

    • Martel says:

      You just need to write more code (or at least scripts (PowerShell, Python, etc (depends on the OS you prefer)))

      • Bugamn says:

        (if (try LISP)
        (find enlightenment)
        (judge (multiple parenthesis) silly))

        • Caerphoto says:

          { really: [{ you: “just”, need: “to”}, { write: “deeply”, [“nested”, “JSON”]}, { by: [“hand”]}]}

  5. RegisteredUser says:

    You won’t fix MMORPGs until you fix that combat is mashing a set of hotkey bar keys.

    Kingdom of Amalur did it right: Direct action combat is actually fun. Either commit to the whole action angle, or make combat truly strategic. The latter however usually works horribly in a realtime online setting, so I say go the path of actual direct action.
    There is nothing worse than the indirect control standard for camera, movement and combat in established MMORPG logic and it has been and remains to be one of the factors of what is keeping me far, far away from them.

    • ScubaMonster says:

      I liked what Neverwinter Nights Online did with combat, it was more action oriented without auto target. The game has some other issues, and the cash shop somewhat puts a damper on the game, though I never used it.

    • mashkeyboardgetusername says:

      Yeah, this. I don’t know why but attacking with left click just feels so, so much better than hitting the number keys. It’s not like games with mouse attacks and abilities on (say) Q/E/F feel unnatural at all, any MMO doing this sort of thing would probably get me back into the genre.

    • Menthalion says:

      Combat Mod 1.1 improved Guild Wars 2 combat immensely, making it far more akin to Amalur than any other MMO. It only makes use of the default GW2 interface options combined with a simple toggle that freezes the mouse midscreen and an overlay of a crosshair. That way where you look is what you target, without needing to click it.

      I’m still baffled why Arenanet didn’t implement it as an option themselves.

    • nimbulan says:

      Except that KoA’s combat is rather slow, deliberate, and clunky. It gets repetitive pretty fast despite the initial positive impression. Control responsiveness is very poor since most combat animations are quite long for an action game and the lack of dodge cancelling is a real killer. It really doesn’t help that most enemy attacks will interrupt these long attack animations and the timed blocking system only works well on small groups of enemies and won’t block magic attacks.

      I find GW2’s combat much more enjoyable. It is a much more action-oriented system than most MMOs and even feels more action-focused than KoA despite using hotkey attacks. ArenaNet also added an option a while back for ground targeted skills to use a mode where the reticule shows up on pressing the key, and executes the attack when you release it rather than needing to click to attack. Limiting you to 10 skills cuts down a lot of the hotkey madness that MMOs tend to suffer from. I also rebound the keys for skills 6-10 to QEZXC to make them easier to use quickly.

      • RegisteredUser says:

        I obviously did not mean 1:1 KoA in terms of everything timing, attacks etc. But a direct control scheme is a much more impactful experience than “HAH, I done pressed 1 for attack and sometimes 5 for buff real good on that doggone evildoer, I tells ya!”.
        At least to me(having played both GW2 and KoA). Of course this is subjective, hundreds of thousands of people still bear with the autolock and typing of the dead combat despite me.

        The whole point is you can’t start experimenting into exciting variations of it until it actually becomes more widely used in the first place.

    • po says:

      I’d like to see an MMO use 3rd person along with something more like you’d find in a fighting game. I’ve never been much into console games, but when I had a go at Ninja Gaiden, and saw how you unlocked combos as you progressed, rather than just getting a new ability to put on a button, I thought that would be a a great way to handle combat in an MMO too, and would actually be a way to reward player skill (being able to memorise and pull off a lot of combos).

  6. Laurentius says:

    I still can’t understand why they did change the skill system from GW1 to GW2. Deck building a la card games is on the roll these days, someone miscalucalted on this one.

    • capntao says:

      100% this. i spent almost as much time on the various GW1 wikis scheming over unlikely combos and pairings as i did actually playing the game. had a necro/paragon combo that was the most fun ever once i got a train of summoned beasties rolling. i had super high hopes for GW2, especially PvP and those were dashed quickly after launch. Tried to get back into it with a group of friends who got it a year later but i just find the whole experience tedious.

    • mechabuddha says:

      Granted, the number of choices are limited in GW2 compared to GW1. But deck-building still exists. Yes, you’re forced to pick one healing and one elite skill, leaving you only 3 skills to choose out of a list of like 30. But it’s still there, along with weapon selection that matters since that’s another 5 skills.

      • Orful Biggun says:

        I disagree. To me, GW2’s limited choices are not anything like the deck-building in Guild Wars.

        The potential choices offered by GW’s primary/secondary class structure, attribute point structure, and “8 skills in the hot bar” structure (chosen from a list of hundreds) is an entire universe away from choosing among a small list of weapons, swapping the weapons, and three “open” skill slots. It’s not merely 8 vs. 3, it’s not even that and the difference in pool size … it’s a whole different ballgame.

        Back in 2005 ArenaNet touted Magic: The Gathering as one of the primary influences for Guild Wars. I personally believe that this was one of GW’s greatest strengths, and one of the things that made it so gloriously different. I’m not knocking GW2; I play the game myself. But honestly, do GW2 and M:TG even belong in the same sentence (even though I just did it lol)? I agree with the poster above who wondered about this. I wonder, too.

        I suppose it made financial sense for ArenaNet to go the GW2 route (to pick up WoW players), and/or they couldn’t stomach the idea of spending the next ten years tweaking skills to keep broken PVP builds at bay, or whatever. But I and a lot of my fellow gamers sure miss it. In fact I miss it so much that I play both games now, and in GW2 I prefer the Elementalist; IMO he’s the closest thing we get to the flexibility we had in GW.

        If ArenaNet ever brings back, or a new company releases, anything like GW’s skill bar, with all those skills and elite skill caps and such, I’ll be the first in line to buy it.

    • jamesgecko says:

      They’ve said that the deck-building dual-class system in Guild Wars 1 was next to impossible to balance. Assassins can use smoke bombs to teleport! Everyone agrees that it’s a reasonable thing for an agile, slippery, squishy class to be able to do. But now monks, warriors, elementalists, etc can also teleport. That might not be as reasonable.

  7. Premium User Badge

    Mungrul says:

    Gave up on this game a long time ago now, and see nothing about this update that would tempt me back.
    On release, the game had promise, but it quickly became a callous grab for players’ time and money.
    The one thing I can say about it is that it finally weened me off of the exploitative model of gaming that is the modern MMO.

    • Farsi Murdle says:

      a callous grab for players’ time and money.

      Weird game to level that accusation at, considering there’s no subscription fee, the store items are totally optional, and the game’s had years of free updates. With this expansion they could have easily raised the level cap to make everyone get new gear, but instead nothing’s been made redundant. GW2 is far better in this way than any other MMO of its type.

      • Premium User Badge

        Mungrul says:

        Not really; Guild Wars, both 1 and 2, have always took pride in the fact that at maximum level, the rewards for playing become almost completely about aesthetics. You’ll play to get a nice looking weapon or armour model.
        Guild Wars 2 gradually warped this system and ensured that eventually, the vast majority of new cosmetic items could only be obtained from the gem store.

        I also have problems with their over-reliance on achievement points rather than actual content, but it’s the focus on the gem store that really disgusts me.

        • Premium User Badge

          Mungrul says:

          As I can’t edit, here’s an addendum.
          In short, they made the same mistake in GW2 as Blizzard did with Diablo 3: when the best rewards in the game can be bought with cash, you’ve taken away any incentive to actually play.
          Blizzard saw the light and removed the real money auction house from Diablo 3, but I think the bods in control of ArenaNet are too greedy to do the same with GW2.

          • Orful Biggun says:

            I agree with this completely. I’ve had GW2 for a while and am playing it quite a bit now, I have 5 characters roughly around level 40 or so. But the more I learn about GW2’s gem store, the more it reminds me of Diablo III’s Auction House.

            Blizzard learned too late that they’d made a grievous error. Can’t really speak to if ArenaNet has learned anything from their gem store or not, but I really wish they’d kept treating real-world money as something ONLY for cosmetic stuff (as Guild Wars did). Not to mention that Guild Wars was built around skills and not items, but that’s another subject.

  8. Thirdrail says:

    The amount of money I would have spent on GW2 had they not done that incredibly dumb thing where they display your account name to everyone, instead of your character name. Oh well, no time to discuss it, I’m off to buy another fifty skins for LoL…