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Is There Enough in Guild Wars 2's Heart of Thorns Expansion?

Bleeding heart.

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My biggest surprise during my recent hands-on preview of Guild Wars 2's upcoming Heart of Thorns expansion was a comparatively little thing, but looking back on it a few days later, it may mark a significant step forward for the genre. Simply put, my character talked in combat. Other games accomplish this through secondary avenues--good ol' boring quest text, shouts when abilities activate, or cutscenes that yank you fully out of the action--but none to my knowledge have ever let player characters shout out whole lines of relevant story information to NPCs in the thick of fighting. Guild Wars 2 itself usually keeps such things limited to awkward cutscenes where two speakers face each other as in the match screen of a fighting game, but that tired convention never showed its face here. It's something more at home in single player-driven games like Dragon Age: Inquisition than an MMORPG, and in that moment, I saw a glimpse of a design decision that could further break MMORPGs out of their humdrum conventions, which is well in line with the goals Guild Wars 2 originally set for itself in its well-known manifesto from 2010.

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Nothing I saw over the rest of the weekend approached the same level of surprise during my roughly five hours of gameplay, but I did walk away impressed. I suspect my comparative lack of excitement had much to do with the fact that we'd already heard about most of the major features weeks before at PAX South. This was instead a chance to see some of the highlights in action--the mastery skills that provide a form of horizontal leveling, the jungle environs of Maguuma, the new Revenant class, and new Stronghold maps for PvP--although ArenaNet remains silent about key aspects, such as the upcoming Guild Halls and specializations for each class (er, "profession," to use the game's parlance). Generally, it all worked about as well as intended, and even at this early stage of development, only a single bug marred the fun.

The odd thing is that this made me wonder how representative our experience was as a whole. We played through the entirety of story mission that kicks off right after the end of Guild Wars 2's latest patch, in which vines shoot out of the Maguuma forest and pull down an entire airship armada, but the rest of the demo took place in a small area that felt too tightly crafted to reveal the expansion's scope. An interview later with lead game designer Jon Peters seemingly confirmed this, as he pointed out that a wyvern we fought in the area actually calls another part of the jungle home, and had been imported there to show us one of the more-or-less completed minibosses in action. It was a good choice, however, as it allowed us to see that ArenaNet lent a little diversity of experience of fighting its smaller world bosses, which previously relied excessively on getting a bunch of players together and mindlessly beating the thing down like a pinata. Here, we used chains to pull the beast down, and rolled out of the flaming trails it left behind.

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But if the constrained map demonstrated one thing really well, it was the so-called "verticality" of the expansion. It's not as extreme as I imagined it: I'd expected to see players fighting and completing dynamic events on the top branches of the forest and then dropping down hundreds of feet below to the forest floor to do the same without breaks between zones. Fat chance, apparently. Looking down into the abyss from the top of the vine-riddled zone we played through only revealed more vines, and when I took a leap of faith, I found myself dead for the trouble.

The verticality instead has a much more immediate focus. It's here where the new Mastery system shows its true potential, and it involves scouring the surrounding world to find glowy balls that grant points that expand your hero's abilities. Some deal with learning languages to assist in gossiping with forgotten Maguuman races for new gear and quests, but the more obviously effective ones unlock and upgrade perks for a new glider and the ability to use springy fungi to bounce up to out-of-reach areas. (Guild Wars 2 always did love its jumping puzzles.)

The glider is near impossible to live without; it lets me fly from branch to branch without taking tiresome long routes around, and it lets me float down to precariously perched mastery points as long as I've climbed high enough. ArenaNet even worked it into the wyvern flight, as it provided a way to get back onto the battlefield after getting knocked off by the creature's wings, thanks to the help of upward drafts from all-too-conveniently placed oscillating fans.

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The big question is whether it's strong enough to drive an entire expansion. Moving away from level cap increases and refraining from forcing players to part ways with hard-earned top-tier gear is a noble goal, but unlocking options like the glider never quite granted the same satisfaction of "dinging" a new level or earning new abilities with new weapons. I suspect the new combat specializations for each class will remedy much of this, though, and it's thus a shame that we didn't get to see any of them in action. (No, not even the Ranger-into-Druid metamorphosis made an appearance, and that's the only one that's officially announced for now.)

Even the dynamic events had an unfortunate touch of familiarity about them. While it was fun to see how well ArenaNet has worked at keeping each one relevant to the main story and how they worked in verticality through events that bid us use sniper rifles to protect our friends, they repeat as before, predictably progressing from orange circle to orange circle on the minimap. I try to convince myself that the design seeks to capture the near-futility of the actions of the players involved, but it's a falsehood I can't sustain for long.

Thankfully the new Revenant profession injects a healthy dose of excitement. ArenaNet says the class draws on the world of Tyria's past for power, and that's accomplished by clicking on F1 to switch between the powers of the dwarf king Jalis Ironhammer and the demon Mallyx the Unyielding. And it's fun--fun in a way that no other class in Guild Wars 2 until now has struck me. The switch between entities also swaps out the normally static abilities to the right of the weapon bar with each transformation, allowing Jalis to, say, surround the player with whirling hammers or lay down a frickin' road on top of opponents. Switching to Mallyx, I could push off all of my conditions (essentially damage over time abilities) onto surrounding enemies. Juggling the two in quick succession effectively allows for a second heal, although the class' energy system does much to keep it from getting too out of hand.

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It's fast-paced, fluid, and it comes closer to the ideal of action combat than any class that's come before it. I worry, in fact, that it's too fun, and that Guild Wars 2 runs the danger of becoming Revenant Wars 2 not long after Heart of Thorns' launch. But if the profession-specific specializations and new weapon options for most of the other classes prove to be as wonderful as they sound, that shouldn't be a problem. Indeed, the Revenant suggests that Guild Wars 2 is on the verge of shaking up its existing pace of play, and last week's preview session thus hopefully provides only a taste of what's in store.

The session concluded with a preview of the new "Stronghold" PvP battleground. It's fun stuff, even if the two playthroughs I experienced were barely enough to get a firm grasp on what we were actually doing. But in its favor, it's a bit like world-versus-world lite. Rather than just beating on other players, I fetched supplies to summon archer and doorbreakers, the latter of which live up to their names by breaking down the doors to the enemies' keep (which players can't do). Given enough time, both sides summon big, bad bosses, who can turn the tide of battle when hope looks all but lost for a losing team. Through it all, players kill other players at supply dumps and attempt to keep their minions away from the gates. It's thus one of the first Guild Wars 2 battlegrounds I've been attracted to in some time, as it relies on necessary but manageable strategies rather than mere wholesale slaughter for victory. (I wonder, though, if it works so well when players actually know what they're doing.)

I worry, in fact, that it's too fun, and that Guild Wars 2 runs the danger of becoming Revenant Wars 2 not long after Heart of Thorns' launch.

And that was more or less that. Last week's preview mainly focused on the vision of what could be, as we saw (and heard) nothing about noteworthy features such as the new class specializations, guild halls, or even the multiple zones of Maguuma itself. (Tellingly enough, we didn't hear jack about the first-person perspective announced on Friday at the event.) So much remains unanswered, to the point that the preview seemed more like a demonstration of the level of polish and sense of direction ArenaNet has achieved since Guild Wars 2's launch. It was a demo in the truest sense of the word, and not, I fear, any different than what hundreds of players will get to experience just a couple of days from now at PAX East.

All the same, it's an expansion I can't wait to experience. And if ArenaNet manages to pull it off properly, their horizontal approach to expansion progression--new skills, not levels--could present a viable alternative for MMO development much as their initial launch proved that we need not be chained by subscriptions and the grating tyranny of transactions. It's expansion with heart, and not all of it has thorns.

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Esotericus

Leif Johnson

Leif Johnson (pronounced "Layf") is a freelance writer whose works have appeared on GameSpot, IGN, PC Gamer, Official Xbox Magazine, GameTrailers, and a host of other publications. He still considers GameSpot a "home" of sorts, though, as he got his foot in the door through GameSpot's blogging platform. He lives on a ranch north of Goliad, Texas..
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