An Article by TemperHoof (August 2012).
Are the Dragon boss fights of Guild Wars 2 really as epic as they say they are? I’m going to come right out and say it — no, no they are not. Early footage of the great dragons of Guild Wars 2 has been available on the web for nearly two years now, and what betas and additional footage have revealed in recent months do paint a pretty clear message of what we can expect from Guild Wars 2 post release. But what I aim to wager with this article is that Zhaitan, the most powerful and supposedly most epic boss of the first stage1 of Guild Wars 2, may not be as epic as some may expect.
In recent vodcasts, the ArenaNet team has spoken a great deal about the Ruins of Orr, a great land mass that Zhaitan himself erected from the deep sea. The peninsula remerged and became known as the lair of Zhaitan, the great elder dragon of the undead. While the events leading up to Zhaitan himself may be epic in their scope and scale, the battle itself may be quite lackluster in comparison to those events. But in what way exactly will such a fight with such a massive dragon be considered lackluster?
Just because Zhaitan will be big, doesn’t mean the fight will be anything more than an impressive visual: an unarguably stunning show of cinematic craftsmanship. Will the battle itself truly feel dangerous and have the kind of real skill driven difficulty it takes to make such a powerful dragon truly memorable for all who encounter it? Probably not! The key to this reasoning is looking back upon the trends of MMO gaming and taking a look at some of the most epic dragon battles. We will see why Zhaitan may not be as epic as he could be, and why we have to deal with that reality. We will also look over what we as customers can do in the future to help improve our overall gaming experience, and question ourselves what it is we really want — and what really, truly is... epic.
While there are many definitions, only two really seem to come to par with what we as gamers tend to relate with the word.
- heroic; majestic; impressively great.
- great size or extent.
We also have to remember, what may be epic to one person may not be epic to another. Everything boils down to experience, and let’s be honest with ourselves — a lot of people who are going to be playing Guild Wars 2 may not have actually experienced many impressive MMO battles and may have a very low bar of expectation. Some people on the other hand have seen it all, and have taken down some of the greatest dragons that gaming has to offer — and it is those people who may see Zhaitan as coming up a bit short. Yet that doesn’t mean the battle will be any less visually impressive.
For me, Epic means not only big and visually stunning, but also incredibly challenging and difficult to master. Something which takes a lot of work to overcome and the chance of failure is so high that managing to come through by the bare skin of your teeth is utter satisfaction. So to this degree, I do not expect Zhaitan to live up to such expectation and standards. If anything, I may be harshly underestimating him by looking through the lens of age, experience, and also a realistic prospective of Guild Wars 2’s true core PVE audience — the casual MMORPG gamer.
Guild Wars 2 wants to be inclusive, not exclusive. They want to include you as a gamer into some of those big, great moments of monumental cinematic history. Instead of feeling the risk and potential stress of massive failure, they want you to be a part of a greater moment of unanimous success. You are but one of many people, not Aragorn ready to challenge the dark lord Sauron, but one of the many faces who get lost in the crowd who stand behind that truly epic figure. You are not merely watching the battle from a sofa prospective, but watching the battle in a more intimate viewpoint in the middle of the chaos.
And chaos Guild Wars 2 offers aplenty. Instead of epic, these dragon battles are more chaotic in nature. The chaos comes from every direction, and the more people who are present for the battle the more chaotic it is likely to become. This is what the developers intend, for if there is much more chaos on the screen then the player will be less likely to notice just how static and potentially uninteresting the actual dragons they are fighting really are. Is this a harsh critique of ArenaNet’s choice of boss fight style? No, I see it as more of a compromise.
ArenaNet may be meeting people halfway, giving them a little bit of what they expect and taking it a step forward without going all the way in the direction of cliff-steep difficulty scaling. They want you to have your cake and eat it too. Let’s be frank here, ArenaNet will likely want users to win fights more often than lose them. All of this is just critical foresight, but all of it comes from reasoning. Dragons are not new to MMOs, and have really been a staple in a lot of RPGs since the old days. Everyone looks forward to a big fight with a dragon, and over the years some of them have been much harder than others.
The Dragons of Old.
Let’s roll back the clock a little and look at some of those big dragon battles from other RPGs and see just why it is that the west seems to desire a more light-handed approach to the subject. Why do western RPGs pussyfoot around when it comes to what are supposed to be some of the biggest bad-asses of all gaming? So now we take a brief glance of some major dragon battles of gaming that have taken place between 1999 and 2012. To get a fair look, I’m going to separate western and eastern titles in order.
One thing you’re going to notice is that I pull in quite a few dragons from World of Warcraft and especially Monster Hunter. Let’s put it this way, Monster Hunter is the World of Warcraft of Japan — I’ll go into this later.
Kerafyrm - The Sleeper – Western Dragon – EverQuest (1999)
This massive dragon was a one-time only boss. Known for being the most difficult boss in EverQuest and considered unkillable for a long time. This great beast took a lot of cooperation and hours to take down. While it only offered a handful of animations, it was a challenging battle for many EverQuest players. And those who took him down had a real pleasure — because once he was killed he would never-ever respawn on that server again. As the video shows, there isn’t much to him in the way of cinematics. As a matter of fact, by today’s standards he looks silly. Yet his poor looks didn’t make him any less challenging or memorable.
Xanxicar Pre-Nerf – Western Dragon – Dark Age of Camelot (2001)
The great twin headed dragon of the Crystal Cave, Xanxicar, before his difficulty was reduced, was perhaps one of the hardest raids available in any game at the time. While once again not a cinematic masterpiece, this limited animation creature still proved a great challenge for those in the game. People who defeated him still look back fondly and wear their victory as a badge of honor. Those who beat him talk frequently about it when looking back on their exploits amidst gaming with good friends and good times.
Bahamut – Eastern Dragon – Final Fantasy XI Chains of Promathia (2004)
Final Fantasy XI was really one of the first MMORPGs to really weave a massive dragon boss into a rich story. Seen in several cinematic encounters throughout the historically long and difficult campaign that was Chains of Promathia — fans of Final Fantasy finally had a chance to test their metal against the king of all dragons himself Bahamut. Before and after the battle there were cinematic movies, but the fight itself was still just a standard collection of scripted animations and basic attacks. The script and numbers were more impressive than the actual look of the fight, despite Bahamut having a beautifully detailed model.
Lao Shan Lung – Eastern Dragon – Monster Hunter (2004)
Before World of Warcraft there was Monster Hunter. While it was only released for the Playstation 2, it was an entirely online game. The single player didn’t even have most of the game’s content available to play, and players who enjoyed the online experience had to face Lao Shan Lung as a Right-of-Passage to gain full access to that content. That’s right, he wasn’t the final boss — Lao Shan Lung was just the sub-boss. Lumbering and large, he never really directly attacked players except when he stood on his hind legs before a bridge. Otherwise most of the battle was just beating on him as he ventured through a canyon.
The battle had many cinematic encounters, but each time the player was physically part of the cinematic. Players could even man ballista, cannons, and a massive drill which could penetrate the massive dragon’s belly if properly timed. It required skill and teamwork, but the dragon seemed rather oblivious to the player most of the time. While massive in scale, Lao Shan Lung was actually one of the weakest and uneventful of the encounters in Monster Hunter — but it was and forever will be an entirely memorable experience.
Fatalis – Eastern Dragon – Monster Hunter (2004)
More difficult, more cinematic, and more memorable than Lao Shan Lung; Fatalis, the final boss of Monster Hunter, really put the player in the middle of a fight with a big dragon. After a grand entrance with thunder and lightning streaking across the sky, the massive black dragon would drop down into the courtyard of the castle and the players had to deal with him the hard way. While cannons and ballista were available, they were largely ineffective against this massive beast.
Players had to utilize either powerful close range weapons to knock him down or use explosive ammunition and guns to shoot him out of the sky. There were no stages to this fight other than you could repeatedly repel him three or four times in 45 minute intervals. During the battle he’d show signs of scarring, including his eye being ripped out, horns being blown off, wings being torn, and his chest being scarred.
RPGs in the East began to take steps toward bringing dragons to life with more lifelike animations and more unpredictable behavior. Less and less were fights about numbers, but more about the fighting the beast as though it were real — and really, really hard.
Onyxia – Western Dragon – World of Warcraft (2004)
By now a trend had begun to be set in stone in the west. Clearly people were alright with large dragons that remained fairly static throughout the battle and performed merely a handful of animations. Onyxia is just one of those big dragons who performed difficulty through code and predictable stages. Long seen as one of the premiere raids in World of Warcraft, this impressive dragon was long sought after for rare loot and bragging rights. Yet while difficult, there was nothing visually striking about this dragon — but players who fought and defeated it found it memorable. A shame that all Onyxia is good for these days is really amusing Meme2.
Valakas – Eastern Dragon – Lineage 2 (2006)
With a slightly more cinematic approach to massive dragons: Valakas was, for a while, considered the ultimate boss of a server. About as large as Onyxia from World of Warcraft, this blistering fire dragon sported a mixture of cinematic intro and outro with some quality animation during the fight itself. Indeed, it only sported a handful of animations, but the model it boasted made an impressive show. While the battle was not quite as dynamic as a more action RPG approach like Monster Hunter, the battle was still one of the most impressive dragon battles you could find on the PC at the time.
White Fatalis – Eastern Dragon – Monster Hunter 2 (2006)
Still leading the way in realistic dragon animation and action, Monster Hunter once against proved its merit by sporting a new version of Fatalis. This time the creature is white and sports a number of new animations. While there have been many versions of Fatalis before this one, the White Fatalis is known for being a very cinematic experience as you battle this beast on the highest floor of a ruined tower. With a storm raging all around you, the massive white Dragon often rained down lighting upon his foes making the fight very unpredictable. Not to mention, the music really does have a big effect on the battle itself.
Nightbane – Western Dragon – World of Warcraft: The Burning Cursade (2007)
Another oversized and perhaps silly looking undead dragon from the World of Warcraft era, Nightbane did a least mix it up a little with brief periods of flight and minion summoning between each of its standard animations. Though it’s pretty inescapable that even after years, dragons really haven’t evolved very much in their looks and behavior in the west. They are more about looks than behavior, and they certainly do look like dragons but still perform like any standard everyday monster.
Sunlathir – Western Dragon – Warhammer Age of Reckoning (2008)
For people who were new to Warhammer back in 2008 and decided to play the Dark Elves, they were introduced to a pretty impressive dragon for such low levels. But while the fight was interesting for mixing it up with a big gold dragon, many people couldn’t help but notice that dragon had similar behavior and animations that were familiar to creatures of Everquest back in 1999. While the dragon looked better, there was still lack of actual fluid movement.
A hit box that didn’t make sense confused players and an oddly rotating pivot point based around that hit box made for ugly execution — western dragons simply were not evolving in how they moved and reacted to the player. At the time, Western MMOs began to come across as being trapped in the past when it came to large scale dragon fights.
Monster Hunter Dragons (2008 – 2009)
Clearly Monster Hunter continued to dominate this field for several years by throwing down new and more impressive dragons with each update and expansion. Since that game specializes in massive dragon hunting and slaying, it pretty much owned this department in many ways. I would argue Monster Hunter was truly the cutting edge of dragon hunting, but I can’t help but still feel that its potential will be forever held back by lack of quality localization and a company who has turned Monster Hunter into a product pusher in recent years — this too I will clarify on later. But for now, these just speak for themselves.
Berukyurosu – Eastern Dragon – Monster Hunter Frontier (2008)
Jhen Mohran – Eastern Dragon – Monster Hunter Tri (2009)
Raviente – Eastern Dragon – Monster Hunter Frontier (2009)
Shinryu – Eastern Dragon – Final Fantasy XI Heroes of Abyssea (2010)
Final Fantasy XI still managed a visually impressive dragon, despite being limited on an aged engine. Shinryu kept the Eastern tradition true with cinematic into and outro, realistic animations, and powerful attacks that can be seen as well as felt. With difficulty that is on equal ground with several tough bosses — Shinryu’s only flaw is the game system itself. Sadly he was far too easy to kill with the right tools, and once he was defeated the hard way a chain-reaction occurred, which only made him easier and easier as time pressed on. Beautiful arena though. That alone is probably more memorable than the fight itself!
Deathwing – Western Dragon – World of Warcrtaft: Cataclysm (2011)
Finally deciding to mix it up a little, Blizzard took a page from Eastern dragon battles and added some cinematics. Though the attempt merely broke the battle up into separate arenas where the players would still be gathering in a cluster and beating on odd things that weren’t very dragon-like. Indeed, the overall size of Deathwing was so big that he just wasn’t visible to players most of the time. The only time where he was actually visible was in the very cinematics where the player really didn’t have much an impact on the fight itself. It did show some evolution in the west, but clearly not enough to make a memorable impression.
The battle did do its job, but the dated engine and low quality graphics really took away from the overall experience. As many games were already miles ahead, World of Warcraft joined the party way too late to have a meaningful impact on the evolution of dragon battles.
Why So Different?.
Well, back in 2004 there was an interesting division.
World of Warcraft — A highly advertised game came out for the PC in the United States but wasn’t released in Japan.
Monster Hunter — A highly advertised game (in Japan) barely made a blip on the radar in North America, wasn’t advertised at all in the United States, and was released only on consoles — which wasn’t a heavy hitter for gaming state-side just yet.
Gaming companies took it as cultural differences, evolving certain gaming mechanics in two vastly different directions. The west embraced World of Warcraft, which steadily made gaming easier, and the east embraced Monster Hunter, which steadily made gaming more challenging. Both of these games have existed for just about equal amounts of time in the gaming world, and both are suffering from age and decline.
While it has been well versed why World of Warcraft is on the downslope, it is important to cover why Monster Hunter is suffering too. Currently the game is struggling because the company releasing it is mainly using it to push outdated products. Instead of evolving and pushing the limits of gaming systems with complex AI and rich graphical battles, Capcom is content making low quality ports that don’t strive too far beyond what they’ve already achieved. Risk and experimentation have been replaced with familiarity and normality.
Like World of Warcraft in the west, Monster Hunter has deeply seeded itself into casual gaming culture which probably is the biggest hindrance to its evolution. Capcom exists in the exact same trap that Blizzard is in with World of Warcraft — profits and sales mean more than the continued evolution of gaming.
Where does ArenaNet fit into all of this mess?.
Well this article is about Zhaitan after all. There may be expectation that perhaps Guild Wars 2 will offer the next bump up in evolution for MMO gaming, especially in the dragon battling department. But from what ArenaNet has put on display so far, it’s pretty clear they’ve decided to find a more neutral ground on the subject to please both camps. This is the element of the compromise I mentioned before.
By observing some of these videos, we can see some of the bigger dragon battles that Guild Wars 2 offers to us this year. Are these dragon battles bigger and better than all the rest we’ve seen before? No, and that’s pretty clear in the videos themselves.
Tequatl the Sunless – Guild Wars 2 Dragon – (2012)
We can see already that Tequatl has a more classic Eastern introduction. While the animation is very cinematic in nature, it doesn’t stop the flow of gameplay for a full on movie — this perhaps is one of the few new things these dragon battles do offer to the table as potentially new. Whether or not Sunless has a theme song is also unknown, many of these tech demos were filmed well before the game was fully completed. So it’s tough to say just how much has changed in this encounter, but it’s safe to assume that the structure of the fight hasn’t altered too much since last year.
By watching the video we begin to see that Tequatl has only a handful of movements and animations and he remains largely static and stationary throughout the entire battle. His model and animations are a step way above average Western MMOs, giving him a very fluid look for each of his actions. Yet instead of merely pouring down massive amounts of code and script to overblow the overall difficulty of his limited animation sets, ArenaNet has decided to litter the battlefield with various forms of busy work to keep several players distracted and occupied.
In many of these dragon encounters there is more to worry about than just a dragon. There are dragon minions being unleashed, guns to man and repair, obstacles to take down, and players to support. With so much going on there is little time to notice that the dragon itself is still pretty docile. This feels like more of a hybrid of western and eastern dragon encounters, but still strongly leaning more towards the more bland western side of the equation.
Another example comes in the form of The Shatterer, a sizable champion dragon that still is dwarfed by the still unseen Zhaitan.
The Shatterer – Guild Wars 2 Dragon – (2012)
Once again we are blessed with an amazing cinematic intro, outro, and various fluid animations which are superior to other western MMOs. But as the battle progresses, we are left with very much the exact same formula as Tequatl the Sunless. The Shatterer is indeed a very big and visually impressive dragon, but one which only utilizes a handful of animations and doesn’t move at all from its fixed position upon the battlefield. Players keep themselves busy in numerous ways, being tasked with lots of distractions throughout the entire battle.
Zhaitan may not be so different.
More than just Boss Fights.
But this is not a purely negative outlook on Guild Wars 2. What may make up for the lack of depth and evolution in these grand dragon encounters may be made up for in how much these dragons effect the world outside of the quests they’ve been driven into. With the exception of World of Warcraft Cataclysm to some degree, many of the massive dragons witnessed in MMO history have not had a direct effect on the game they exist in. They were merely there waiting for players to come to them.
Guild Wars 2 changes it up by pushing the envelope with a Live Team3 which creates unpredictable events caused by the dragons during normal gameplay. Zones which may seem predictable to some, can suddenly become corrupted by The Shatterer just casually flying by.
This by far is more than just new --- it’s also hard to fully imagine. So without risking over hyping the game with assumption, I am merely going to leave it here. The dragons may have numerous parts and encounters throughout all of Guild Wars 2, and it is unlikely they will be so easily beaten upon the release of the game. Many of the most powerful dragons may continue to haunt and plague the world for months to come — giving you as the player even greater stake and reason to truly hate them as you witness their impact.
Predictions of Zhaitan.
The ultimate boss of Guild Wars 2 is, upon release, Zhaitan the Elder Dragon of Orr. I stated at the very beginning that the battle with Zhaitan, and that is the final battle with him, may not be as epic as we may want to believe. Yet it is my strong belief that Zhaitan is much more than just a creature waiting to be reached — he does not merely linger in a lair at the end of a long dungeon. The end game of Guild Wars 2 has been spelled out pretty clearly by ArenaNet, they have spoken of the Ruins of Orr and the great siege upon it.
But there needs to be reason to advance upon Orr, there needs to be a drive more than just merely the swarm of undead flooding from its borders. Zhaitan may appear in the story at choice portions, making Final Fantasy XI-like cinematic appearances potentially leading to brief but memorable moments throughout the game. Everything will inevitably come to a battle with a large stationary dragon that’ll probably play out much like Deathwing from World of Warcraft. A truly massive dragon is likely to have stages, and in each of those stages will become weaker and weaker.
Whether the dragon itself will be slain so soon in Guild War 2 is tough to say. But without a doubt there will be plenty for lots of players to do during the battle with Zhaitan. Cinematic moments are inevitable at this point, but each one will probably play out without stopping the game to watch a film. How big Zhaitan is and how much players will be able to physically affect him with normal attacks has yet to be seen, but it’s probably safe to assume that just about anything a player has in their arsenal will largely be useless.
Furthermore, ArenaNet may be potentially sitting on something we haven’t seen yet. While I won’t go as far to say that an entire zone could very well be Zhaitan, it is safe to say that an entire zone can be devoted to merely fighting him if it comes to that. Either way, because of his size, he’s going to have limited movements and animations. He will not depart too far from western traditions aside from his fluid animations and cinematic impact. He will be beatable, and not overly impossible for people to slay. Because it will take an army to defeat him, it is unlikely an army of players will end in failure each time.
Will Zhaitan be difficult like Eastern Dragons? Unlikely.
Will Zhaitan be killable? Unlikely.
Will Zhaitan have Deathwing-like stages? Likely!
Will Zhaitan’s battle match the formula near beat-for-beat like The Shatterer and Tequatl? Likely!
Will Zhaitan have a Theme Song like Eastern Dragons? Very Likely!
Will Zhaitan remain static and largely motionless like Western Dragons? Highly Likely!
Will Zhaitan only have a handful of repeated animations and signature moves like Western Dragons? Highly Likely!
Will Zhaitan have lots of busy work for players to do during the battle so they don’t have to focus on Zhaitan? Highly Likely!
Will Zhaitan and all events relating to him be memorable? Highly Likely!
Will Zhaitan have cinematic impact like Eastern Dragons? Extremely Likely!
ArenaNet’s Guild Wars 2 may not step up to plate for evolving and furthering massive scale dragon battles very far, but what they do bring to the table is taking the dragons out of the battle and putting them into the world. Sure Zhaitan may not be the most revolutionary gaming experience, but it may be all about the journey — not the destination. So far ArenaNet has proven that they can bring something new to the table, and it is clearly not the dragons fights themselves. They’ve not only promised, but shown they can have dragons shape and affect the world to help drive a great story through the work of an active Live Team.
Because of that reason alone, the battles with the dragons themselves may pale in comparison to the rest of the game. They may truly be lackluster and limited in their execution, and may keep player’s senses busy with distractions to avoid seeing the clear lack of animation and variety. Yet the actions of a dragon can be much more than just mere animation and attack. The actions of a dragon can be far reaching due to the efforts of a diligent Live Team constantly changing the game as it is being played. This alone gives the dragons infinite possibility outside of the battles they are normally seen in, and put them in a unique position to provide emotional impact on the player.
Perhaps one day we can urge companies like ArenaNet to go a step farther and make those battles more lively and unpredictable. The resources are there, and now with Monster Hunter on the decline there is certainly a vacancy to be filled in the area of more lively and action driven battles. Indeed, I would love to see Dragons in future installments of Guild Wars 2 be much like those beasts of Monster Hunter. Zhaitan doesn’t have to be so complex, but there is absolutely no reason why smaller dragons can’t be just as memorable.
Without a doubt we all love dragons, maybe ArenaNet can pick up the fallen torch from the east and carry us all into a new age of dragon hunting. Maybe we can all finally enjoy the thrill of the hunt that has long been postponed in the west!
Unlikely, but I remain optimistic.
The potential is there, and if we want to see dragon battles become more rich and complex — all we have to do is make it known that such a thing is really in demand in the west as well. Are we really satisfied with big, beautifully animated sitting ducks that wait to be shot at? I believe western gamers are better than that. Then again, I’ve been wrong before.
1 First Stage – Guild Wars 2 will have several updates and expansions that will continue to drive the game forward and shape its overall story. While not everything may be available at launch, it is likely things will emerge in a matter of Stages. These can be considered Episodes, Updates, etc. But the first is of course, where it all begins.
2 Meme – The Onyxia Meme I speak about is the famed 50 DKP Minus raid rant.
3 Live Team – Guild Wars 2 will have a full time team of operators overlooking several zones of the game and dropping in random events that may never happen again. This is the whole idea behind the ‘Living, Breathing World’ they aim to present. The major story behind the game are indeed the Dragons, and it is likely many massive events will be related to them as the game matures.
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