I’ve spent probably 15 hours since Friday in ArenaNet’s first expansion for Guild Wars 2, Heart of Thorns. In that time, I’ve had almost as much fun as I ever did in the game’s first months, but there’s also a hint of frustration as some systems seem a bit grindy at first glance. Today marks the first of several articles leading up to our final review, so read on for our initial thoughts.
Getting into the expansion content as smooth and painless, and I think it’s important to note that ArenaNet managed to launch this expansion with zero downtime (minus shutting down World vs. World the day before in preparation for its sweeping changes). There have been little to zero lag and connectivity issues, and the only crashes I’ve experienced are from loading story cutscenes before the game’s streaming client had fully downloaded the new expansion. Technically, though there may be bugs, this is one of the smoothest MMO launches in recent memory.
But let’s get to the actual content. Wisely and on purpose, ArenaNet only ever let us see the first tiny bit of Maguuma during the beta weekend events. Almost the entirety of the story and zones have been kept away from us, unlike how Blizzard usually has the full expansion on the Public Test servers for months in advance. Even how the game’s first story instance unfolds is different with the live version, as you’ll actually meet up with Braham, Taimi, and the rest of your Krewe before heading into Maguuma.
Story-wise, Heart of Thorns has been an immense improvement over vanilla Guild Wars 2, and more in line with the tone and character building of Living World Season 2. And while there’s loads more story to do (ArenaNet’s colin once told me it should take about 30 to 40 hours if you’re solely focused on story), I can say that I’ve already been taken aback once by the events of the story. No spoilers, but some of you probably know exactly what I’m talking about.
Design wise, Heart of Thorns is trying something unique and new to MMOs: they’ve built the zones of the Maguuma jungle like Zelda or Metroidvania games where you can and will find places and things you can’t do right at the start. Instead, you’ll have to progress your Masteries, a new form of lateral progression, and then come back to complete challenges and access inaccessible areas later.
In theory, this is a grand design idea, as it plays right into ArenaNet’s philosophy of not letting zones become “wasted” or dead content. The Masteries you gain are also account-wide, so you won’t have to progress them over and over on alternate characters. What you earn once, you keep forever. The problem, as I’m seeing on Forums and Reddit, is that the amount of experience points needed to level up the masteries far exceeds what players are used to from the 1-80 leveling experience. Granted, they’re account wide, so you never have to gain them more than once, but knowing that you’re gated out of some content or areas because you haven’t obtained a million or more experience points seems contrary to the very point of Guild Wars 2’s original no grind philosophy.
It feels really daunting to see that you’ll need to grind out millions of experience just to get to see all of the content in the game. This is similar to having to level up from 1-80 (or maybe 1-40), only with that experience the levels came faster so you felt the progress more. This pacing with so few levels of each Mastery path, and the story even being locked behind obtaining certain Masteries, all feels completely backwards from what has always been one of the most accessible games in the industry.
The Elite Specialization issue is a bit worrisome, though it seems on the official boards from dev responses that they’re already looking into addressing this. You see, currently, to even unlock the trait line to begin your Elite Spec, you have to completely unlock all of your core trait lines. This isn’t too much of an issue for long-time players who have done lots of the map, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Once you do unlock your Elite, you only start with the ability to use the new weapon. None of the other traits or Elite Spec skills are available for use. No drones on the Engineer, no traps on the Dragonhunter. To get all of those, you’ll have to spend another 400 Hero Points (formerly skill points), which you’ll obtain 10 at a time in Maguuma for completing Hero Challenges.
This alone isn’t a big issue, it’s not even all that much work. It’s akin to leveling up your character a bit more to unlock new skills. The problem is that by the time you have a fully working trait line for your Elite, you’ve probably already played most of the new content. And for most players wanting to use Elite Specs, this means you’ll either have to play gimped with traits missing while you do Hero Challenges, or use an older build you really don’t want to use out of utility and necessity. I suppose I can understand having to learn traits, but it seems to me that ArenaNet could have aleast given players their new weapon and skills at the start, instead of making them progress through most of the expansion to play something they thought they were buying outright with their purchase.
As of this writing, my little Engineer has been toying with lots of builds, and one thing I’ve really notices is that grouping seems very much needed in a lot of the open world content. This is probably “OK” right now, as the open tagging mechanic of GW2 means you just need to go where other people are and do what they’re doing to get credit for completing challenges and events. The game’s content in the Silver Wastes and Dry Top has been this way for the past year. But a lot of returning players, judging by the Forums and Reddit, expected Maguuma to be a little more in line with Old Tyria. Even though this is the new endgame content, people want to explore it at their own pace, do their own thing, and not feel pressured into finding a herd to follow.
This was also always one of Guild Wars 2’s biggest strengths, with its level scaling, massive zones, and freedom to explore. Maguuma, while gorgeous, ingenuitively designed, and packed with content, is not a place you will really want to explore by yourself. Events are filled with Legendary enemies, Hero Challenges, necessary for progressing your Elite are almost always intended for small groups or more, and loads of areas are flat out blocked off until you get the proper Mastery. It’s a major departure from how vanilla Guild Wars 2 was designed, and it’s understandably throwing people for a loop.
I’ve managed to unlock my function Gyro and 2 Traits so far with my Scrapper, and had I spent more time clearing the original Map in GW2 with my Engineer, I bet my Elite spec would be mostly finished by now. The old world has plenty of Hero Challenges too, it’s just the new Maguuma ones that give you 10 HP which seem way more efficient. The LFG tool does work though, as I’ve been able to find groups for certain challenges relatively quickly at all times of the day. I’m not one to think I should be able to solo all open world content. I’m glad to see bosses and big events requiring teamwork. But I think that maybe Hero Challenges should be solo-able and scale depending on how many people are in the area when it begins. These are essential to an individual’s actual profession progress, and there are plenty of other areas in the game where grouping can be required (Fractals, Raids, Meta Events, PVP, etc.).
This may seem like a downer of an opening salvo for Heart of Thorns, but I assure you it’s not intended to be. As a reviewer, I’m obviously more drawn to pointing out the flaws or chinks in a game’s armor. Frankly, I never really enjoyed the Dry Top or Silver Waste zones as much as others. I was worried that Maguuma would be more of this and I wouldn’t like it at all. With ArenaNet keeping so much of the expansion under wraps I was fully prepared to come in and feel dissatisfied.
But I’m having a total blast. I’m not 100% certain that all of their new progression design decisions are for the best, and I worry what will happen to these areas when the core of the game has shifted focus off of Maguuma. But right now? Right now I love exploring the zones, finding out there is a load of new stuff to discover and figure out, and I think in the long run I will be entirely OK with how long it takes to unlock masteries. The one thing I expect or hope should change is how Elite Specs are unlocked. Monsters are challenging, content is well designed, Adventures are nice little tests of skill that seem to sort of replace traditional Jumping Puzzles with other activities and rewards. I’ve only managed to get my Norn Revenant to level 3 so far, but will dive in with him more too as the weeks go on.
In essence, I think Heart of Thorns may be some of the best content ArenaNet has ever put out, but that it’s very different from anything they’ve ever done as well. It’s going to take time to see how it really pans out, and how much changes over the first few weeks as more feedback comes in. One of the benefits of Blizzard’s long beta tests for expansions is that they can tweak things before they launch. By keeping a lot of HoT behind doors, ArenaNet wasn’t able to truly gauge how players feel about these new systems, and it’s going to be a bumpy road to see how it all comes together.
In the meantime, I’m just going to keep working my way around, building my Scrapper up, and gliding my little heart out.