If I had to describe Heart of Thorns in one word, it would be ‘humongous.’
Even after two weeks in the Maguuma Jungle I still haven’t traversed all of the new multi-layered zones, which in turn means I haven’t unlocked all of the masteries or taken part in all of the different events. Of course, all the content in the world means nothing if the game is no longer fun, but that is certainly not the case – Guild Wars 2 continues to be an enjoyable MMO experience, and Heart of Thorns adds to that with its own, non-traditional progression.
Most MMO title launches, and even expansions, tend to come with launch day issues. Less intensive titles like Destiny have fallen prey to this apparent curse, and even World of Warcraft’s servers couldn’t handle the sudden influx of players back when Warlords of Draenor launched last year. It’s something that most of us on the MMO scene have come to accept as the norm, and so we bunker up around launch time for the inevitable bumpy ride.
But it didn’t happen with Heart of Thorns. No, everything went smoothly.
Exploring the jungle
Players were able to log in the new content without any problems, the new zones didn’t fall over as the population rushed towards them, and the old content remained just as active as before. It’s something that really shouldn’t be praiseworthy because that’s how it should be anyway, but here we are – praising ArenaNet for keeping their servers stable. In fact, there has been minimal downtime over the last week as well, with only a few hotfixes and one balance patch (which we’ll get to in a bit.) The important thing is that ArenaNet nailed the launch, setting a great first impression for the expansion.
The positives continued to roll out as I took my first steps in the Verdent Brink – HoT’s first zone –Looking out over the cliff into the zone below gave an indication of how big the zone was, but once I finally started exploring I was able to appreciate the verticality of the level design. Visiting the dizzying heights of the top to its dangerous depths had the explorer in me busy for hours, and it’s a testament to the designer’s work in creating zones with such geographical complexity. Every nook and cranny has been thought out, every path considered, every play space – and the events that take place in them – finely tuned. What’s more impressive is that even with the added verticality each zone, and the layers within them, have their own vibe, meaning a change of scenery is never too far away.
More importantly, the difficulty has been ramped up.
While soloing GW2’s open world content had been possible in the past, the truth is that HoT encourages players to work together to overcome the Mordrem threat. Well, I say encourage – if you don’t you will die. A lot. Enemies are not only grouped up in such a way that one false move can have a player overwhelmed, but their abilities can crush a whole group of players, let alone one (Smokescales in particular are bloody aggravating.) That’s not the main reason HoT’s is so challenging, though. The timed event chains that happen throughout each zone, replacing the renown hearts from the old world content, culminate in a climactic boss fight (or six.) Coordination across the entire map is key here, as players need to work together to unlock certain bosses, enable bonuses to make some encounters easier, and ultimately gain the best rewards. Some of them are certainly on par with Tequatl or the Claw of Jormag in terms of skill needed, which is as it should be for level 80 players.
Progressing with Mastery
It’s not just about winning loot, though. While meta-progression measures player activities across the entire map and dishes out bonus rewards as appropriate, it also gives out extra chucks of XP. It’s the same deal for individual contribution too, encouraging players to dive headfirst into event chains, because XP is just as imported in HoT despite the level cap not being raised. This is because XP now goes towards Mastery skills which grant news ways to travel around the jungle or unlock new vendors.
At first glance this new system seems incredibly open, allowing the player to pick and choose which masteries to work towards first, but in truth players need to follow a specific order to successfully access certain areas, bosses or, more to the point, progress through the personal story. To my dismay, when I was two-thirds of the way towards earning the second tier of gliding I discovered that I needed to unlock Itzel Language mastery to continue the personal story. While I was happy to try out other event chains to earn the XP needed to complete both, I do think that a “recommended” highlight may have been better to guide players to the optimal masteries path.
Considering how many times players will need to run through the chains (especially early on in Verdant Brink, the grind may prove a little much initially, even for GW2 veterans. It’s not all doom and gloom, though. Firstly, mastery progression is account-wide, so players won’t need to unlock masteries for all their alts. Secondly, the event chains are often so involving that it’s easy to get swept up in the momentum to complete them. Event chains become more varied as the player travels beyond the first zone, but it should be noted that a full sequence takes around 45 minutes. Sure, you can dip in and get some of the glory, but you’ll need to be around for the full event to get the best rewards, making it a more time-intensive affair than the old days of doing just world bosses around Tyria.
Well, I say old days, but fighting familiar foes like Tequatl or the Fire Elemental aren’t over thanks to a specific mastery line for older content. These rewards, much like the HoT ones, are account-wide but offer Quality of Life improvements such as a special Mentor badge, speed increases for the player’s party, and improved resurrection speeds. Then there’s the mastery path for crafting, and the one for taking on the Fractal instances, each requiring just as much XP to complete as the HoT specific ones. It’s certainly not something that will be done in a week, especially as progression doesn’t continue across content (eg. you can’t level gliding while fighting Tequatl, or level mentoring while in Maguuma.) I felt it gave mastery choices more meaning, and as a lateral progression system I think it succeeds quite well. Additionally, It encourages players to return to content old and new, ensuring zones don’t run out of players.
Elite Specs & the Revenant
Another new addition for HoT is the Elite specilizations. These new sub-classes provide a new way for players to use their characters in battle. For example, it can turn the ranged-only Engineer into a melee-focused Scrapper (and back again) at a moment’s notice. However, like the standard class progression they require Hero Points to unlock. This initially caused a storm for players, so much so that last week ArenaNet reduced the total number needed from 400 to 250. Personally speaking, I think it was the right call. With mastery paths require so much time and effort to complete, allowing players to access the class they want to play as shouldn’t be as time-consuming. Anyway, the point is that the Elite specs offer more choice, which is a good thing.
Speaking of more choice, the addition of the Revenant class is one I have been looking forward to, and it certainly doesn’t disappoint. The hammer-time antics of the legend-invoking melee class looks and feels great in action. It also doesn’t seem to overshadow the roles of the Warrior and Guardian, and while I have yet to try the Herald Elite specialization its differing playstyle certainly has me interested in giving it a look at some point. Again, there’s so much to do (and unlock) that it might be some time before I get there, but that’s part of what gives Guild Wars 2 its lasting appeal – there’s so much to do and experience.
One aspect I have managed to experience in its entirety is the new Personal Story for HoT. Continuing from the cliffhanger of the Living Story’s Season 2 finale, ArenaNet’s hard work has paid off in both a technical and narrative sense. Pre-rendered cutscenes have been left a minimum this time around, allowing the player character to be involved in the action. Likewise, while not a new concept for MMOs, lip-syncing animations for characters helps to build immersion compared to how chatter was previously handled. The usual route of multiple ways to complete an objective is still there as well, adding a level of replayability via achievement hunting.
The story of the Pact’s fight for survival after the devastation of their airships is well told, with some genuine shocks and fantastic moments throughout (Taimi being a personal highlight.) That said, despite the fantastic final boss fight, the resolution wasn’t satisfying overall. Perhaps it was the tease at the end, or the lack of reflection with the main characters afterwards, but something was missing. Hopefully ArenaNet will kick off Season 3 of the Living Story in the new year negate with this feeling, but overall I found the new Personal Story missions to be an entertaining romp through the jungle.
Activating the Action Cam
While combat remains the same as it has been, ArenaNet have added what it calls the Action Cam. Effectively turning the game into a third person shooter complete with crosshair, the system works… but at the same time I felt like I wasn’t enjoying it. Perhaps it’s because I was spending most of it aiming at the ground for AoE placements, perhaps I need more time getting used to it, or maybe WildStar’s combat as shown it can be done much better, but something felt off. For now, I’ll be sticking with good old tab-targeting.
Finding PvP glory
Most of the review has been spent covering the PvE side of things, but PvP has also had two new additions as well. WvW home battlegrounds have been revamped for all players (so you don’t need HoT to play on them.) While certain aspects of the old maps remain such as keep and depot placements, the new verticality that ArenaNet have added is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, the new layout is a breath of fresh air after years of playing the same map, but on the other the introduction of the shrines comes off as overly complicated for the sake of something new. It doesn’t help that most players have flooded to the Eternal Battleground for the no-frills familiarity, making the home battlegrounds empty most of the times I went on them. I hope that ArenaNet can find a middle ground, making the new map more accessible and enjoyable, as a rollback would be disappointing. Perhaps in time players will get used to it. Maybe.
Thankfully, the new Stronghold mode in sPvP is great fun. The blend of MOBA-esque gameplay with the Guild Battles from GW1 creates a tense back-and-forth fight that I enjoyed, which is surprising given I’m not a huge fan of MOBAs. I would personally like to see another Stronghold map in rotation, as currently there is only one available. In fairness, the ESL partnership will probably make sure that happens sooner rather than later.
So here we are, after 2 weeks of game time, it’s quite clear that there’s still plenty of progression to achieve and areas to discover. The lateral progression of the Mastery system hits the mark in offering new experiences without raising the level cap or adding new a new equipment tier, so long as you aren’t expecting instant rewards or a quick route to the end-game finish line (that many theme park MMO expansions suffer from.) It’s also evident that ArenaNet are listening to player feedback, as shown with the Elite Specs. Hopefully this will also translate to the WvW PvP area as well.
But there’s more to come for HoT, and Guild Wars 2 in general. ArenaNet have already announced their plans for the rest of the year – including the first raid dungeon for the game – and I expect there will be even more announced in the new year. As a day-one player of Guild Wars 2 I’ve enjoyed my first few weeks in the Maguuma Jungle, and I look forward to experiencing even more of it in the months and years to come. As an expansion it's certainly worth its asking price, and for newcomers it's probably the best value for money you'll ever get from an MMORPG.
Hell, if Heart of Thorns is your introduction to Guild Wars 2, you’ll be busy for a long, long time.
- Multi-layered designs of the new maps are fantastic.
- Mastery System successfully brings interesting lateral progression.
- Plenty of content and activates, with the Personal Story being a highlight.
- Initial Mastery progression suggestions would have been helpful.
- New WvW Battleground tries to do too much, and is need of refinement.
- Action Cam, while functional, doesn’t quite hit the mark.
The Short Version:
With staggering depth to both its map design and new Mastery progression, Heart of Thorns gives Guild Wars 2 players old and new plenty of engaging ways to keep playing. There are still refinements to be made in certain areas, but ArenaNet have shown they are up to the task, making this a worthwhile expansion for MMO fans.
8 – GREAT: Great games typically provide competent production values with a degree of innovation, personality and soul that's sometimes absent in titles that score lower. Or even just exceptional raw value on top of competent execution. There'll usually be a little something to stop games like these from reaching the very top - innovative but slightly flawed, fun but not groundbreaking - however you can buy games that score 8/10 with confidence.