It has been three years since the launch of Guild Wars 2. ArenaNet has spent those three years hard at work providing two full season’s worth of content for the MMORPG, creating new stories for Tyria that were distributed for free to a player base that pays no monthly fees. Earlier this year, ArenaNet announced that they would finally launch a paid expansion pack for the game, and almost eleven months later, Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns is finally upon us.
At the end of the The Living World Season 2, the player’s personal story has been focused intently on Glint’s Egg, the last remaining part of the Elder Dragon that assisted Destiny’s Edge years before. All the while, the multiracial army called Tyria’s Pact led by Tyria’s most famous heroes sailed into Meguuma to destroy Mordremoth. The Elder Dragon Mordremoth cast out his thorns and obliterates the fleet, sending the army into disarray. Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns picks up just after the crash. The player is trying to balance the hunt for the egg, while attempting to rally the broken army. To complicate matters further, Tyria’s Pact is not only physically broken.The Elder Dragon isn’t just raising the dead to serve him, Mordremoth is causing weak willed Sylvari to serve him which is leaving Tyria’s Pact demoralized and distrustful of their own Sylvari members.
The story Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns spins is entertaining and epic enough to expansion pack material. The racial tensions that erupt create a tense atmosphere in the camps, especially for Sylvari players. It was hard not to feel uncomfortable as I strode through the camp, listening to the non-Sylvari soldiers talk and argue among themselves about things like wanting to get rid of all the Sylvari or if they should be trusted at all. ArenaNet is continuing with Guild Wars 2’s personal story that tailors the game based on the player’s race and the answer to a small survey during character creation. Too bad the options don’t have much of an impact on the story.
ArenaNet made a pretty interesting choice with Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns. It could have been incredibly easy to do what most big MMORPGs do when expansions are released and just increase the level cap, slap in a new story, and call it an expansion pack. Instead, ArenaNet has opted to expand the end game content at level 80, with a deep focus on group based content, and add new content for the base game.
Guild halls have been added to provide guilds with a physical meeting place. It has been designed to cater to guilds of all sizes, requiring only five friends to get the ball rolling. Tucked inside the Guild Hall is the expansion’s new crafting discipline, scribe. This one is a little different compared to the others, as its focus is on outputting items to support groups and provide decorations for the guild hall. The guild halls in itself is a group endeavour, starting off with a quest and needing quite a bit of resources to add using buildings to the hall. It’s a nice way to help build some unity in a guild by giving people a common purpose, even if it is a bit of a resource sink. The halls are an even greater addition for Guild Wars 2’s role playing community, providing a private space for players to hold events.
Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns introduces the new Revenant character profession. The heavily armoured Revenant brings the profession count to a total of nine, with light, medium, and heavy armour wearers having three professions each. The Revenant is a unique profession. As per Guild Wars 2 mechanics, the weapon equipped decides the first five skills. Unlike other classes, the Revenant equips a legendary figure from Guild Wars lore as their partner, which determines the remaining skills. I found the Revenant has a lot more personality than its other two heavily armoured professions, which has a greater focus on the very bland “offensive” and “defensive” archetype.
Instead of tacking on ten more levels and an extra skill or two, ArenaNet has opted to create an Elite Specialization for each class. Designed to go hand in hand with the Mastery System as Heart of Thorn’s progression system, Elite Specializations unlock a new weapon and specialization skills. It is a much more interesting way to handle new character content in an MMORPG expansion pack. Traditionally, each class may get a new ability or two plus a few talents that might get jammed somewhere in the rotation. Since Guild Wars 2’s skill system revolves so heavily on weapons, a new weapon type gives players an entirely new play style to try out. But because the new specialization is technically optional, players are more than welcome to stick to builds that completely forgo the new content if they like. It is a great opportunity for players to revisit old characters they were maybe on the fence about or to just get a little variation in their favourite profession. The actual progression system is in a bit of a flux. The original 400-point requirement has been dialed down to a slightly more reasonable 250 points. Still, it is a pretty high number that will require some serious effort to complete.
The Mastery System is the second progression tree in Heart of Thorns that provides account wide progression. ArenaNet is looking to replicate the experience of becoming an veteran fighter with Mastery. Once a character hits 80, all experience goes towards toward an active mastery skill. Once a Mastery level is completed, players spend Mastery points collected from the course of the game to pick up a new ability. The old content and Heart of Thorns have two separate sets of Mastery skills to unlock. The base game’s Mastery skills focus on more practical things like crafting, Fractal dungeons, and group play. In contrast, Heart of Thorns’ Mastery seeks to create a feeling of growth from an outsider struggling to survive to a veteran jungle fighter. ArenaNet has done a good job in creating that feeling, as manoeuvring around the multi-level jungle maps becomes significantly less dangerous thanks to a variety of movement options and the jungle becomes much more generous as the player progresses. On the other hand, I think the Mastery skill that lets players challenge a champion each day for a daily prize feels a bit too much like filler.
I have a bit of a love hate relationship with the Meguuma maps. They lack the multitude of quests in each zone, leaving them feeling a bit empty. On the other hand, it feels like ArenaNet has decided to focus on what makes Guild Wars 2 different from competing MMORPGs as each map is packed with several events that drives the meta-plot forward. The events range from humble supply runs to truly epic world bosses requiring the coordination of multiple large raid groups to complete. Even as a veteran MMORPG player, the final meta-map event in Auric Basin still ranks as one of the most epic MMO experiences I’ve encountered. Unfortunately for the lone wolves, the maps are balanced towards groups of players working together, which makes exploring solo a bit of a pain.
The slightly more organized group events have seen a bit of an update in Heart of Thorns. Fractal dungeons have been revamped to be a little more accessible and a new area has been added for Guild Wars 2’s famed World vs World vs World PVP zones. A MOBA inspired Stronghold map has also been added for those preferring smaller PVP instances. Interestingly enough, ArenaNet has opted to not release the much vaunted raids on the release of Heart of Thorns. Instead, it will launch in the coming months in the first content update. While it is hard to say how good the ten person raids will be without participating, I can applaud a decision to hold back content until its polished until pushing it out the door in a messy state. Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thrones reflects a good overall polish, with hotfixes getting pushed out at an impressive rate. However, in my playtesting, I did encounter a few bugs, including one that broke a personal story quest because I moved too far from an NPC.
I must address is the game’s pricing structure. When it was originally announced that Heart of Thorns was going to include the base game for the price, there was some confusion and some understandably angry gamers. Let’s make this clear, Guild Wars 2 has gone free to play, with some restrictions for new free account, with these restrictions removed back for original Guild Wars 2 owners. Those who own the base game but skip out on Heart of Thorns get the same experience they purchased. Moving forward, all new Guild Wars 2 buyers simply need to buy Heart of Thorns to get the full Guild Wars 2 experience. It’s not the greatest situation for those who have owned the base game, but considering the steady stream of free content updates the base game received and the fact the game has no monthly fee, I’m not too upset by this. Although ArenaNet may have flubbed the initial delivery a bit, they are on the right track when it comes to new buyers. It is a much better system to have one purchase price for everything than having to figure out what expansion packs or DLCs you also need to own to get the full game experience.
Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns looks good. It doesn’t feel like the graphical engine has seen much of an upgrade from the base game, but it hasn’t aged too poorly either. The game’s cutscenes are definitely the weakest part of the game, as they are rather blurry. It’s especially noticeable with the graphics maxed out, as the cutscenes are significantly worse than the actual in-game quality.
Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns continues to provide a strong audio experience. The voice acting is excellent, the sound effects are solid, and the music is enjoyable. There is plenty of voice acting NPCs around the world, which really help build a great atmosphere for the game.
Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns is the expansion pack the game deserves. ArenaNet made a bold move to expand the existing end game content instead of tacking on some extra levels. Heart of Thorns isn’t perfect, but it’s an incredible experience. If you haven’t played Guild Wars 2 yet or you haven’t picked up the game lately, there is no better time to play.
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