Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Opening The Gates of Maguuma - First Impressions : GW2

It's really small.

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...
Snap judgment.
  •  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.
Considered opinion.
  •  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.
Emotional outburst.
  •  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...
That's the problem with First Impressions pieces. You see enough to express an opinion but by definition that opinion's ill-informed. On the other hand, by the time you really know how everything works to the point that you can take a stab at a clinically accurate critique you're probably already too fed up with the whole thing to bother. And the Living Story format just fuels the use 'em up and leave 'em behind ethos. I wait to see how all this plays out in terms of persistency with considerable interest.


  1. I did see a couple of champs being mobbed later in the evening (NA east coast time), but this is the absolute first day of the content drop. The achievement hunters are focused on that instead of grinding gold. I expect to see an event train set up by Monday.

    As for the size of the map, I'd love to see some heat maps of activity in each of the open world zones. I'd bet the populated portions of those zones cluster into areas much smaller than this new zone.

    I was pleasantly surprised by the series of short story instances. They flowed well as a narrative, our NPC buddies were competent in combat and drove things along with nothing too far out of character (other than letting the NPC we seek to protect waltz off into the wilderness on their own, we're heroes and meddlers...).

    Anet's definitely learned to keep the story accessible, had no issues going solo through them on my gimped thief not-a-meta-build (no stability, lackluster condition removal, no stealth). These are story instances, not dungeons or challenge mini-games.

    1. I've just finished the storyline on my second account, solo as a mesmer, and by and large it was easier solo than it was in a duo. The only part where I had any trouble was the bit with the two veteran golems that you end up doing without any of the NPCS due to the device that blocks Kasmeer from porting. That was close.

      Other than that there was one point when I went down and Marjory revived me and I did die and had to respawn at a checkpoint with Aerin at 5% health, which happened because that fight, while easy, took so long I lost concentration. The checkpoint was in the same room though and his health didn't reset so that was barely a hiccup.

      Given that this is the first pass and we've had no tweaks and fixes the whole thing seems remarkably well-tuned and bug-free, certainly compared to the very buggy later releases in Season One.

  2. Thanks for the spoiler-less summary! I downloaded and installed the patch, but didn't have a chance to play it through yet. From your picture, I'm also surprised at the small size of the map. Hope to get into this by this weekend and make my own opinions. Hoping for Season 2 to bring back my interest for GW2. :)

    1. Not a spoiler, just a hint: when you get to the finale (the non-combat instance) don't leave to quickly at the end. Stay and have a poke around.

  3. Is it small? Me and my buddies spent a good chunk of last night just exploring haphazardly and went through 2 story instances and found a jumping puzzle/diving goggles. Lots of stuff left to experience though. It certainly feels much larger than it looks.


    1. I was thinking about this. In essence, all GW2 maps are "small" in that map completion usually runs to a leisurely 3-4 hours. When you stop and think about it, that's really not much. The geological structure of Dry Top means it takes longer than it normally would to get from A to B and there are a fair number of events going on which make it seem busy. And, of course, novelty makes everything seem larger and more impressive than it will become with familiarity.

      Looked at objectively, it's about 12-15% the physical size of most other Maps (assuming the scale on the master map is consistent). All maps are three-dimensional, with content using the z-axis above and below the horizontal plane so Dry Top gets no special pleading in that respect just because it has gimmicky movement mechanics. In terms of traditional explorable content, it has two vistas, two waypoints, one skill point, a jumping puzzle, nine POIs and no Hearts.

      The story instances are a separate thing from the Map entirely, of course. It's the Map I'm calling as small rather than the LS episode, which I would say is about the same size most have been.

      Cut it any way you like, as a map it's small. Good, but small. Of course it's probably only part of what will eventually become known as the fist Maguuma Map, which no doubt will end up being the same size as all the other maps. It's a bit of a map but it was given to us as a piece and I'm assessing it on the terms on which it arrived. It can be re-assessed when we see the rest of it.

  4. Dry top was quite a small area in GW1.
    Although, Anet could have chosen to go for a bigger area. Guess they are afraid we drown in too much content...

  5. You can repeat the first chapter with all your toons, gaining reward chest for all them. And when you complete it, you can repeat the story for the special achievements. Sot, revery repeatable content.

    At end of story there is a hint that there is a path to other zone.

    My guess is that the Dry Top will stay as a instance for who want to repeat the first chapter or for who buy the game later and want to try it (20 gems?). When second chapter is launched IMHO they will change Dry Top to the more permanent content.

    1. Ah I was wondering about the rewards. I knew you could replay it (infinitely I presume, not just once per character) but I didn't know what rewards you'd get. Personally, having done it twice, once on each account, I can't say I'm keen on ever doing any of it again, even once. I found the story fascinating but the fighting is just a complete pain in the neck - not really any fun at all. There are bits of the story I want to check out some more though so I might end up doing it at least one more time.

    2. I just tested the repeat story feature. You don`t gain a chest completing the instance, you need complete a specific achievement for gain a chest. For example, no npc builder be killed when building the defenses at the first instance.

      I too completed the story with all my toons. Now I will make my main stay there for farm the place for buy the cook recipes.

  6. As a GW1 player, I enjoyed seeing Dry Top, and loved being able to get to the "cities" abandoned in the edges of the cliffs there. The size of the zone is about right, and the layout is good... good nostalgia.

    I pretty much agree with all of your comments about the zone. Good experience overall... with one caveat. If you really, really hate jumping, and skipped all of the Zephyr Sanctum activities because replacing your bar with movement skills to allow *new and different* jumping puzzles is less fun than rebuilding a broken toilet, there will be a significant amount of this bit that really won't appeal. By "significant amount" I pretty much mean all of it...

    But other than yet again hitting the development teams insistence that jumping is *the bestest thing ever* I have to give it thumbs up.

    1. Mrs Bhagpuss, not a fan of jumping puzzles or platforming, would very definitely agree with you. As someone who enjoys both in moderation I actually do find the crystals very different from regular jumping - they're a lot more fun. Even so, I hope this is the last we see of jumping or crystal-related content for a good long while.


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