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Heart of Thorns - A Foundation of an Expansion

William Murphy Posted:
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We’ve put well over 50 hours into Heart of Thorns on the road to reviewing Guild Wars 2’s massive expansion. Not a single aspect of the game missed out on some new addition of another, so there was a lot to take in. We even got to play a bit of the new incredibly challenging raids that launched on the 17th before scoring our review. So then... how does Heart of Thorns stack up? Read on for our full review.

I’ve catalogued the good and not so good parts about Heart of Thorns already. Suffice it to say, Heart of Thorns is often exquisite, but also often frustrating. Almost every single major game system has seen a sort of revamp, and as ArenaNet put it, Heart of Thorns is laying the groundwork for where the game will go in the next year or more.  Things like Masteries (account-wide horizontal progression) and Guild Halls add some much requested systems to the game that its playerbase has been asking for for years.  But while the latter seems to be a resounding success, the former has some kinks to work out.

Masteries sound great on paper. You earn XP towards a path of your choosing, and spend Mastery Points to unlock tiers in each Mastery: from mushroom bouncing to more glide control in Maguuma to Mentor tags and precursor weapon crafting in Old Tyria, you now have clear cut paths to pretty much every piece of content in the game’s wide-ranging PVE ecosystem.  The problem then is that you’re often tasked to do something you don’t care to do, in order to just rank up the Mastery enough to unlock something you do want to do.

Now, early on we saw people claiming they were a pure grind, but it’s worth noting that Masteries are account wide. Once you unlock gliding ranks on your main, it’ll be unlocked on all your alts too. You never have to re-earn Masteries. But the act of earning them in the first place is a long slog through XP grinding events or whatever content you think is most efficient. And there’s the rub... Guild Wars 2’s Masteries made me stop doing content I wanted to do and instead had me focusing on just finding the best XP for my time.

Where the original game’s leveling curve is so level, this slog, even being across the entire count, feels very slow and very grindy. Ultimately, I learned to just force myself to do the content I wanted, and stop worrying about the speed of obtaining Masteries. But that’s the problem when a developer levels a carrot in front of your face... you pretty much wind up wanting to chase it. Some games have loot to grind for, GW2 now has Masteries. At least you can get Masteries by doing whatever you want to do.

Story-wise Heart of Thorns is wonderfully improved over its original campaign. Besting even the wonderful Season 2 story, HoT’s main campaign is superb from start to finish. Though there are a few steps locked behind obtaining a certain Mastery, it doesn’t feel like it takes too long to get to the next step and if anything I wish the story wasn’t over in the 30 or so hours it took me to complete it. The final boss fight against Mordremoth more than makes up for the lacklustre fight that was Zhaitan.  Add to this that the game’s technical wizards finally made it possible for the hero to talk outside of cutscenes and the narrative is probably the biggest improvement in Heart of Thorns.

The brand new profession, the Revenant, is absolutely a keeper too. While a lot of GW2’s professions take time to feel impactful or powerful, the Revenant will make you feel like a boss within the first 10 levels of the game. As you unlock more Legends to equip (think stances, but you can only ever swap between two) you’ll realize you can play whatever role in a group you feel like playing from heals and support to straight ninja assassin.  I haven’t personally leveled mine to the endgame to see how he fairs in Maguuma and the tough content there, but I’m hearing positive reports from those who’ve made the Rev their new main.

Speaking of that tough new jungle content, that’s another mixed bag for Heart of Thorns. On one hand, there’s something epic about roving around an MMORPG’s open world with a herd of players and taking on massive world bosses.  While most MMOs these days seem to relish the small groups and solo play, Heart of Thorns seems aimed squarely at guiding and directing people in the open world to play near and with each other. But in so doing, ArenaNet may have lost some of what made the level 1 to 80 game so sticky for its millions of players.

Maguuma is not a very friendly place. As end-game content, I’d liken its difficulty to old Orr or Southsun when it first launched. It’s very obviously ANet’s attempt to keep us playing together, following commander tags, and zerg rushing content. This is fun, don’t get me wrong. But I also find myself really missing the more relaxed solo and small group exploration of central Tyria. It’s something I hope ArenaNet hasn’t lost by latching onto the zerg mentality with its openworld event direction.  The events, the day/night cycles, it’s all superbly crafted. But the roving adventurous aspect of exploration has been replaced by just following the herd.

The new Elite Specs for professions, especially after the amount of Hero Points needed to fully unlock each of them was nerfed, is a wonder. The Hero Challenges themselves are often really challenging, and sometimes absolutely mindboggling. Thank God for guides like Dulfy’s that helped me get my Scrapper to Master for this review. I can only comment on the Scrapper and the Dragonhunter, but I love both so far. Scrapper, with the new action camera that makes targeting more like TERA, is absolutely fantastic. I’m definitely at a disadvantage in targeting for PVP, but it’s so fun I don’t even care.

Speaking of the PVP, along with the advent of the ESL Pro league, Guild Wars 2’s newest PVP mode known as Stronghold is easily the game’s best. With two lanes, guards, creeps, siege weapons, and a pile of resources to fight over, Stronghold is unlike anything before it in GW2, and has quickly become my preferred map. If there was any one thing I’d like to see ArenaNet do with PVP, it’s add more maps of this mode-type, and forget about the others. It’s that much more fun.  Of course, I’m wishfully thinking here, but that’s just how I feel.

I could go on for pages about this expansion. I haven’t even touched the Fractal changes, which are just as divisive as the other systems’ changes.  But I think you’ve just about gotten the gist here: Heart of Thorns strives valiantly to expand the systems of Guild Wars 2 and make the overall game more sticky for an even wider array of players. New systems like Guild Halls, Masteries, Elite Specializations, Raids, and more all lay the groundwork for where ArenaNet wants to take Guild Wars 2 in the coming years. And while I don’t think it’s successful on every note, ArenaNet has been watching and listening to its players and iterating on its design in these first few weeks. 

Heart of Thorns may not be a perfect expansion, but it’s definitely something I think every fan of the game should check out. Just be prepared to rove about Maguuma in a pack, you’re going to need some help to get the most out of the jungle.

GAMEPLAY - 8 The core experience of Guild Wars 2 is still here. Big group events, loads of places and things to do, but not every new system is perfect. The grind to unlock higher levels within the new system takes away from the overall experience.

VISUALS AND SOUND - 9 The score for this expansion absolutely eclipses the original’s in every way. I can’t say this enough: the music is some of the best in MMORPG history. Visually, the jungle is a treat, the level design and depth of the zones is staggering.

LONGEVITY - 7 There’s a lot to do here with Masteries, Guild Halls, and the new Raids. But the story is over too soon, and as big as the zones are there are still only a handful.  Definitely some staying power for those who wish to see and unlock it all, but not everyone will stick around for that.

POLISH - 9 While the expansion crashed a few times on my laptop before the 64-Bit client was released, I’ve had nary another major bug since launch. It’s definitely a polished experience, and the fact that there was no downtime to deploy the expansion is nothing short of eye-opening to what a studio can do for its fans if it tries.

VALUE - 8 $50 on top of the now free game is a steal, but I can’t help feeling that ArenaNet tried to please everyone with this expansion, and instead made it so that each area that was added to feels somehow not fulfilled. Still, if you’ve never played GW2, $50 for extending the content by several dozen more hours doesn’t seem like a bad deal at all.

  • Elite specs & Revenant are great
  • Fantastic map & content design
  • Wonderful storytelling
  • Lacks some freedom to explore solo
  • Masteries are a grind
  • Story is too short


William Murphy

Bill is the former Managing Editor of MMORPG.com, RTSGuru.com, and lover of all things gaming. He's been playing and writing about MMOs and geekery since 2002, and you can harass him and his views on Twitter @thebillmurphy.