Developed & Published by ArenaNet. Released Oct 23, 2015. Available on PC (Reviewed). Review code provided by publisher.
The past few years have certainly been interesting for the MMO space. After its infancy in the 90s with Ultima Online and Everquest, then rampant popularity in the early 2000s following the success of World of Warcraft, a lot of the audience has disseminated into other games. Many of the social aspects and progression that originally drew players in has bled into other genres. MMOs just aren’t bringing in the crowds they used to. However, a few companies have been able to carve out a niche for themselves – largely by marching to their own beat.
One of those has been ArenaNet, the company behind Guild Wars and Guild Wars 2. While everyone else was trying to make the same gameplay mechanics and subscriptions models work, ArenaNet instead experimented with the core MMO formulas. Three years ago, I greatly enjoyed and lauded the initial launch of Guild Wars 2. The only reason I stopped playing was because I never found that core social group that ultimately keeps you invested.
Over the years, ArenaNet has continued to support Guild Wars 2 with interspersed content updates, from new dungeons and items to world changing story events. It was certainly confusing coming back to a brand-new Lion’s Arch, a primary hub city that was destroyed and rebuilt. However, Guild Wars 2 finally released its first full-blown expansion, and I’ve enjoyed jumping back in for the past few weeks – though I still need to find a good guild. In addition to new world maps, story quests, and the like, Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns takes some bold new directions n player progression and end game content.
There are times where it cracks along the edges, but Heart of Thorns is largely the same Guild Wars 2 that captivated me years ago. It’s an MMO that encourages players to explore, play, and adventure together like few other games do.
Let’s get the big one out of the way first. Unlike pretty much every other MMO expansion, Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns doesn’t increase the level cap… sort of. It’s a little more complicated then that. Currently, level 80 is the highest character level in the game, and Heart of Thorns doesn’t change that. However, you will continue to accrue experience in the game and this is instead used to level up account-wide Masteries. A Mastery can take many forms, unlocking specific high level crafting, special vendors, or letting you use certain map navigation tools and abilities. For instance, one of the first Masteries you’re going to want to get in order to progress in Heart of Thorns is gliding, which comes in handy for the new content’s rather vertical maps. Unlocking new Masteries is also how the game keeps you from blitzing through content like story missions.
Masteries work well in some places and don’t in others. It can sometimes feel like you’ve been arbitrarily cut off from content when you don’t have the right ability unlocked yet, even if it honestly it’s that different from a level requirement. It’s a little frustrating that you spend a great deal of time running around the map seeing players take shortcuts or explore areas you haven’t unlocked the ability to utilize yet, like large updrafts to facilitate gliding around. Though for some that makes getting it all the more rewarding. However, for anyone that’s ever played a normal MMO expansion, it’s certainly refreshing to not suddenly throw away your hard-earned gear for whatever slightly high level gear is now available. You’ll eventually find or unlock better stuff, but at least it’s not the first trash mob that drops some rusty chainmail. This can lead to a feeling that you’re not really progressing. For the most part you’re using the same skills and seeing the same numbers you always have. (Raids have just been introduced, which certainly offer the chance for some shinier loot.)
The other way that the game combats stagnation is with Elite Specializations. For those unfamiliar, Specializations are similar to talent paths or unlocks in other games. They define what your character is good at in relation to anyone else of the same class or profession. Elite Specializations are sort of a redefinition of the class itself, unlocking a new set of skills and weapons that previously were not available to the character. For instance, my Thief has the option of becoming a Daredevil, which lets you pummel foes with a staff and puts more emphasis on dodging. Think Robin from Batman. Though I honestly suspect some of the other professions have more interesting options – they offer a more radical change, like a Ranger becoming a more support oriented Druid.
In order to unlock skills and talents for your new Elite Specializations you’ll need to head out into the world. One aspect that Guild Wars 2 always excelled at is promoting exploration. There are all kinds of little vistas, challenges, and mastery points to unlock simply by stubbornly seeing what structures you can climb on top of or finding some little hidden nook. Once you’ve unlocked the necessary traversal mechanics and learned a few of the ins and outs, the new maps are quite entertaining to run, jump, and glide around in. There’s a huge emphasis on the vertical space, often with the canopy, ground floor, and everything else in between being separate areas. You might dive off a canyon wall to explore a airship wreck at the bottom, then ride an air current up to the peaks of the trees. It’s anything but a big flat open world.
There’s certainly plenty of local flora and fauna that’s less than pleased with your presence however. The story for the expansion picks up where the Living World left off. Another Elder Dragon as woken up to cause problems for everyone. This time around it’s the jungle dragon Mordremoth, who has a thing for plants and mind control. Many of the Heart of Thorns maps exude hostility. This often comes to bare in the game’s big world PVE content. Those familiar with Guild Wars 2 will remember the game’s renown quests. Rather than a farmer asking you to kill 10 bears, there would be a bunch of tasks in the area you could complete to help them out. You could pick up crops, drive away bandits, or feed the cows. All of these tasks would advance your completion of the quest, helping to solidify the world as more than quest giving NPC and monsters to murder – along with keeping players from camping spawns.
Heart of Thorns is similar, but on an even larger scale. Each area has ongoing events playing out that players can assist with. For instance, the first zone has the minions of Mordremoth sieging the players’ outposts at night. All the players in the zone need to work together to retake fallen camps, bring in supplies to enhance defenses, and group together to tackle powerful foes. Everyone that participated in the event in any number of ways will reap rewards at the end.
It’s this sense of camaraderie that always sticks with me. Rather than leveling being this solo affair, you’re constantly rewarded for running around in ad-hoc groups as you find events, or for jumping in to a help a downed player back to their feet so you can continue fighting a giant, murderous plant tentacle. The tasks themselves are pretty varied, certainly there’s plenty of “go kill this champion”, but there are enough unique ones, like holding high ground with sniper rifles while the NPC set explosives, to keep things interesting. The monsters themselves are even fun to fight. Nearly every foe has their own attack pattern and style. Giant armored and spiky lizards might roll around, so you’ll want to stay away from the sides. Snipers will mark you and fire off a big shot that’s easy to dodge – if you’re paying attention. And lots of enemies will have cones and aoes that you’ll need to avoid. It’s rare that you’ll ever just stand and exchange blows with pretty much any enemy in the game. Guild Wars 2 goes a long way to bridging the gap of an MMO and an action-RPG, and Heart of Thorns keeps that going
As mentioned though, there are a few cracks in the facade. Most obviously, the game can certainly show its age graphically. Don’t get me wrong, the maps, environments, and a lot of the characters designs are still really gorgeous. That’s something the game has always excelled at, but getting really close to some of these does not always yield the best results. There’s some in-game cutscenes that are done with character models, rather than the game’s typical painted animatics, that rob some key emotional moments. I’ve also encountered a few moments of getting stuck in a quest and needing to either restart or leave the zone to fix it. Ultimately, these issues are minor quibbles when weighed against the whole experience.
Bottom Line: Guild Wars 2 continues set itself apart by being an MMO that stresses and encourages players to adventure and tackle challenges together.
Recommendation: If you’re a hardcore Guild Wars 2 fan chances are you’ve already bought the expansion, but even if you’re a returning player, like I was, there’s plenty here to dive back into.[rating=4.5]