Well, it is! I've heard all the explanations and justifications. How it's just a part of the first map, which in turn is just a part of the Region. How there are hidden areas and places where access is gated by events. How it's three-dimensional with all the crystal-jumping so it's bigger than it looks.
Most especially I understand that this is The Living Story, it comes in bi-weekly segments and what, you didn't really expect to get the whole of Maguuma in one go, did you? Fine. I get that. It's still really small.
To be precise, the first new, permanent overland content we've had since Southsun a year and a half ago is around one-eighth the size of a regular map. At this rate it's going to take four months to fill out an area the size Brisban Wildlands. Always assuming we get new, explorable land in every episode of LS2.
But let's not obsess about the size. Size isn't everything, after all. Even though the pre-publicity really ramped up expectations, going on about expanding the world and opening new territory. The map might be small but we can be big about it. Okay, it's tiny. We get that, move on. Is it any good?
Well, yes it is. That's partly why it's so annoying that it's also so small. Okay! Okay! Enough. Maybe some bullet points might help to keep this thing on track...
- Visuals - Dry Top looks fantastic. It reminds me of my favorite zone in Rift, Scarlet Gorge. The desert color palette is austere yet rich and the way everything changes when the sandstorms roll in is very impressive, if completely confusing. Many screenshots were taken, especially when you consider what a small area it is.
- Music - Haunting and rather lovely but is it new? You'd think so from this puff piece but it's playing in the background as I write this and it sounds remarkably familiar. Then again, so do a lot of MMO backing tracks, which tend to be orchestral mood-by-the-yard.
- Voice Acting - Good. Some of the voice acting in the original release of GW2 verged on the embarrassing but the standard has improved consistently. It's not The Secret World but then, sadly, nothing is, still. Must be both satisfying and disappointing for Funcom to set a benchmark for the genre and then sit back and watch as absolutely no-one rises to the challenge. Nevertheless, getting back to GW2, all the characters, major and minor, both in Dry Top and the associated instances, express themselves clearly and convincingly. Could do with the ambient dialog looping about 90% less often but that's just a quirk of the game we're all used to by now.
- Open World Gameplay - More of the same suit you? Why, yes it does. Pile it on! It's about time we had this, isn't it just? Dynamic events that aren't in the slightest bit dynamic. Points of interest and waypoints to be found and opened. Vistas, skill points (okay, skill point), a jumping puzzle...all your favorites crammed up close in one tiny little map. (/em slaps himself). Bonus points for creative use of previously underused content - looking at you, Skritt Burglar.
- Open World Permanency - As we understand it, all this content will be permanent. Or is it just the map? I confess I'm a bit vague on this. I get that the area is here for good but I'm not sure about the specific content. The Zephyrites (boo! hiss!) are moping about all over amidst the wreckage of their airships, the walking wounded sitting on rocks trying to come to terms with things, the severely injured lying around in a makeshift Seraph field hospital. Are they going to stay there doing that forever? Shouldn't they fix the ships, move on, get better, die - something? Leaving behind what, exactly? Similarly, will the Sandstorm meta-event that spawns special vendors and buried treasure chests be there for ever or just for this segment of the Living Story? I really don't see how this is all going to work. I guess we'll find out in a couple of weeks...
- Plot - Now we come to the nub of it and a pretty good nub it is, too. I enjoyed it a lot although there wasn't really a lot of it to enjoy. It's really short. (Sensing a theme here...). I completed the entire thing in a couple of hours. Not to give any plot spoilers but there's a look at Scarlet's back-story, something I found myself becoming invested in during the Fall of Lion's Arch sequence, along, it would seem, with a significant proportion of the previously skeptical audience. The plotting now seems to sit somewhere around journeyman comic-book level (that's a good thing) with the dramatics hitting a solid soap-opera groove (so's that). No pretensions to be anything more than hokum but at least now it's competent, professional hokum.
- Characterization - Coming along nicely. A number of commenters on the forums claimed Braham had developed an actual personality at last. I wouldn't go that far but I might have noticed just the first, dim signs as one begins to coalesce. Taimi, on the other hand, has enough personality for an entire Asuran Krewe. Kasmeer continues to become more likeable, Marjory increasingly less so, although given she had to grow up with that sister it's amazing she's not more sociopathic than she is. Rox just gets weirder.
- Story Journal - The much-touted means to make LS content relevant and accessible to future players is certainly a technical success. The interface is elegantly integrated and intuitive. It should deal efficiently enough with all those content delivery issues that dogged Season One, making it plain where to go and what to do at all times. It takes hand-holding almost to the level of self-parody but that's what MMOs in general and GW2 in particular have become. I'm just happy it works.
- Instance Gameplay - Tough and messy. Mrs Bhagpuss and I were grouped for all the combat segments and it often felt like two people were needed. The fights seemed to require a lot of running about and burning down scores of mobs, quite a few of which were Veterans. The entire motley crew turns out for the duration which makes some of the scenes feel a tad crowded. There's lot of dialog and banter throughout, Kasmeer does a good deal of business with portals and at one point Marjory summons a bone bridge, a spell she can teach my necro any time she feels like it. There's a Big Fight with a New Villain that I thought went on for a few minutes too long. The final instance, which is combat-free, really is worth the wait though. That's one I'll be replaying a few times.
- Replayability - Hmmm. Bit of a puzzler, this one. There are the "challenging" achievements, of course, which I have yet to try, but however challenging they turn out to be they're still all one-and-done. If the individual story segments give their completion rewards every time then I guess there's a reason to keep grinding them for Geodes, the Dry Top currency du jour, at least for as long as it takes to buy the items you want - there are some new recipes I wouldn't mind getting. Don't think I understand enough about how this works even to have much of a meaningful opinion yet.
- Miscellaneous Good Stuff - There's rather a lot in this short update that bodes well for the future. The dynamic use of lighting in the mines was drawing a lot of positive feedback in map chat. It was surprising and effective to see a familiar character from the Personal Story making a cameo appearance. The enhanced combat mechanics of various Champions changed things up nicely. The underlying ambiance of Dry Top itself hinted at interesting future side-plots. Lots of new recipes including some for Chefs, who also get a new gathering node - Cactus. All in all there seems to be plenty going on under the surface both thematically and mechanically.
- Overall - A good start but where's the rest of it? Come to that, where are all the players? It's a small map (did I mention that?) so maybe there's a correspondingly reduced population cap, but even allowing for that possibility there don't seem to be many people there. Mrs Bhagpuss observed that all last night, the first session after a new drop following six weeks of content drought, it was impossible to get more than five or six people for any of the Champion events. At no point did I see even a mini-zerg. Maybe a dozen people running crystals for an event was the peak. This morning it's much quieter even than that, yet the Maw and Jormag events I did right beforehand were extremely well-attended so it's not a shortage of people in the game as a whole. Maybe everyone's just waiting for Dulfy to put the walkthroughs up. Oh, wait, she already did...