Rising Flames just may be a turning point for Guild Wars 2 in the post Heart of Thorns Tyria. There’s no mistaking that the expansion was divisive, despite being initially well-received by players, due to how content and its replayability ended up. In the months since launch, the way content in Maguuma is handled has been overhauled drastically, and the first episode of Season 3’s Living World was well-received for its new (but small map) and bombshells with the story. Episode 2, Rising Flames, goes one step further by bringing back a content structure people fell in love with in the original game – and it’s a ton of fun.
Like Jason Winter wrote, Out of the Shadows made big strides in providing long-needed content since the launch of Heart of Thorns back in October of 2015. It’s now almost a year since HoT, and we’re coming full circle. The Heart missions are back, and while some liken them to just “fancier quests”, I always enjoyed the obvious sense of direction they brought to zone. In Rising Flames, and the accompanying new zone Ember Bay, they’re repeatable daily (unlike the original hearts which were one and done). They also often begin part of a much larger chain of events – like the steps you must take towards activating and helping the giant Golem known as Smooshatron.
It’s been about 2 months since Out of the Shadows launched, and I expect most people will be glad to leave the small but tightly designed zone of Bloodstone Fen. Ember Bay is much larger, with a load of new content, and new armor and weapon skins to earn in the game (not from the Gem Store). There’s a new PVP map, one that honestly looks like a lot of fun, but the big bulk of this update is most assuredly focused on adding a brand new map, with a new way to travel, new enemies to fight, and new content and secrets to discover.
One of my chief complaints about Heart of Thorns at launch, after, and until the revamp update went life earlier this year was that the zones degraded quickly into “follow the zerg”. The original Tyria was fantastic because it allowed every player so much freedom in how to explore the world, where to go, when to do things. You could wander solo, happen upon a group, and play with them without joining up formally. Bloodstone Fen felt a lot like Heart of Thorns originally did – the zone’s main event involved jumping from rock to rock fighting off hordes of enemies. You basically ran with a zerg. Thankfully, Ember Bay seems to go 180 degrees and right back to what made vanilla Tyria so damned intoxicating.
I only had about 30 minutes with ArenaNet, and another 30 minutes after our tour was over to explore the test server, but I’m thankful for my sneak peek. I’ve not played Guild Wars 2 dutifully since Heart of Thorns launched, enraptured, and then lost me with the monotonous playstyle of its opening content. I gave the expansion a good score early on, because it originally felt quite new and refreshing. But it wasn’t designed with long-term replayability in mind. Heart missions are basically daily quests, yes – but their simple inclusion, being able to do them solo, being able to do them at any rate or in any order – it brings back a lot that was beloved by me in my original 9.3 review of Guild Wars 2.
If ArenaNet can design content like this moving forward, if their next expansion’s zones are built with the casual explorer in mind (note I’m not saying casual as a bad thing), then it’s likely they can recapture some of the magic they had in 2012. Ember Bay is one shining beacon of a step in the right direction, and props go off to Josh Foreman, Nellie Hughes, and the whole design team for bringing us back to the good stuff. Ember Bay is right in the heart of the Ring of Fire Islands, one of the pivotal locations of Guild Wars 1, and where we first encountered the Mursaat.
I won’t spoil the story for you, but you’ll start off back at Rata Novus with Taimi, hear what she’s learned about Primordus, and then it’s off to Ember Bay where things get awesome and hairy (or fiery) in a hurry. There are new Destroyers, hybridized with the forces of Zhaitan, Mordy, and now Primordus driving them. They look wicked, and I kind of want a mini one for a pet. Make it happen, ANet.
Not only is the new zone fantastically fun to play in, but its story is solid too. The Thermal Propulsion method of travel is a hoot, and doesn’t require nearly as much Mastery Grinding as the top tier Gliding trait, but they’re only part of the fun. Josh Foreman’s insanely difficulty jumping puzzle will drive you all mad, no doubt. And while you need to purchase Heart of Thorns to play the Living World Season 3 content, I’d say if you’ve yet to jump on board this content update is the final reason you should have been waiting. With the revamp of the Maguuma Jungle zones and content, the addition of the fun but small Bloodstone Fen, and now Ember Bay? Heart of Thorns finally feels like the expansion it should have been at launch. I cannot wait to see what the rest of Season 3 brings.