Wednesday, 14 January 2015

By Their Deeds Shall Ye Know Them : GW2


*** BEWARE SPOILERS ***


Living Story Episode 8 "The Point of No Return" dropped yesterday. In keeping with tradition I will begin by observing that, once again, it's short. It took me maybe a couple of hours and that was speaking to everyone, poking my nose into everything and making quite unnecessarily heavy weather of the final fight..

Short does not mean bad though. It may not have taken long to play through but I thought this was one of the best LS episodes so far. It had well-balanced and engaging gameplay throughout, there were some good exchanges of dialog here and there and the voice acting was solid. The atmosphere was palpable and also varied, from the spooky beginning through the urgency of the Silverwaste battles to the elegiac despair of the final sequences.


The format is very familiar. We begin with another visit to Durmand Priory and a further consultation with Ogden. There's another book hunt among the stacks and another ritual to complete during which some fighting ensues. Then it's back to the pact camp in The Silverwastes to consult with Logan and the rest of Destiny's Edge.

A number of forum posters and Redditers read a lot into the exchange between Eir and Braham before everything goes to code red as the mordrem attack. My irony meter is very finely calibrated, to the point where it tends to give false positives for Ironic Foreshadowing better than 50% of the time, and yet I took Eir's promise to go hunting with her son in the Shiverpeaks when it was all over at face value. I feel a bit of a mug now.


Once the camp has been secured a scurry through the skritt tunnels to the Far Shiverwastes sees us back at that sealed door in the cliff. Only this time we have the key in the form of a king-sized matchstick.

Behind the door lies a very dark tunnel leading to a very light cave. This sequence I found particularly impressive. The moving pool of light cast by the torch is convincing and atmospheric and the vista-like reveal of the glowing cave works very effectively to create the intended sense of awe.


Once the scenery has been duly admired it's time to find a spot to plant the last of Caithe's memory seeds. As we play the hot/cold game to find the right location we pass an interactive bush. Naturally I interacted and the information learned from doing so plays directly into the upcoming cut scene with Caithe, Wynne and Faolain. I found that a very effective use of the narrative tools available and it certainly helped me understand Wynn's urgent desire to have Caithe kill her before Faolain can get to work.

The cut scene confirms the suspicions many, myself included, have been nursing since even before the game began: the Sylvari are tainted. Now we know how and by whom. I'm more glad than ever that I didn't create my new elementalist as a walking plant. I played an Iksar in Everquest when Kunark launched. I know what it feels like to play a character that every NPC in the world would like to kill. It's a hard road.


The episode concludes with a boss fight: Mordremoth's lieutenant again from the fight that nearly killed The Pale Tree. Compared to just about all the previous LS boss fights this one is very straightforward although I managed to make it ten times harder by missing one simple mechanic. It was only after I'd died about six times that a quick visit to the forums told me what I should have noticed for myself - the nasty, invulnerable shadow critters that kept putting out the fires can be killed with a simple application of Divine Light.

With that figured out the rest of the fight passed without difficulty. Dead dragonnette. High fives all round. The end. Only it's not.


At this point we are treated, and I mean that quite literally, to not one but two cinematics. Both are absorbing, thrilling and disturbing. Also spectacular. There's a great deal going on but the main themes appear to be the failure of The Pact's aerial assault on Mordremoth and the complete destruction of the airship armada, the turning of the Sylvari to dragon minions and the death of all the members of Destiny's Edge except Rytlock. Oh, and we're getting an expansion and it's called Heart of Thorns.


It's a lot to take in. Luckily Vigil Warmaster Wylliam at Camp Resolve replays the video. Which is unsettling because he also gives the welcome new recruits speech all about preparing for the days ahead. In fact the whole of Camp Resolve seems to be locked in a timewarp, still hard at work building the airships we just watched crashing in flames. I'm no fan of phasing but this really is a hefty jolt for the old suspension of disbelief to soften.


Still, that's a minor cavil. Overall this was an excellent conclusion to Living Story 2. In addition to the advancement of the plot and the visual feast I felt the combat was much better balanced for the expected audience. For the most part we get to fight as our own characters, using our regular abilities on regular mobs, which is exactly how it should be. There are very few new mechanics to learn and those there are are very straightforward. The final boss fight is blessedly short with just two phases rather than the usual three to six.


There are still enough loose threads to darn a dozen socks of course. Caithe skips off with Glint's egg yet again. Mr E doesn't get a mention. Taimi doesn't even make an appearance. The two cinematics seem to contradict each other over what happens to Destiny's Edge (and if they are really all dead I will believe it only when we find their corpses while exploring the Maguuma jungle - and probably not even then).


Where we go from here will be very interesting to see. There seems to be some confusion over whether or not this is the final episode of Living Story 2. I would anticipate some kind of coda or epilogue in two weeks time, right after the Big Announcement on the 24th. Whether there's a third season of the Living Story is uncertain. I'd bet against it.

One thing at least does seem beyond question: ArenaNet have succeeded in getting our attention once again.

4 comments:

  1. Well, my sylvari is ready for embrace the Dark Thorny Side...

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  2. I suppose it is up to me to be negative again. Sorry. I feel vaguely bad about it.

    So, tell me, from a story standpoint, what did you think about what you saw in the memory seed? Specifically, we have Wynne who is being confronted by Faolain deciding to torture her to get the information she wants. Faolain wanders over to the nearby bush, leaving Wynne guarded by Caithe. Wynne, having seen Caithe and Faolain being thick as thieves together, knows she can't persuade Caithe to let her go, or protect her from Faolain, or keep her from being tortured, and she thinks that she must keep the secret from Faolain. So what does she do? She first *tells Faolain's toady the secret that she doesn't want Faolain to get* and then *asks the toady to kill her*.

    Really? Seriously? That's the plan? Not even "you are too weak to help me, kill me to keep it from her" but "here is is, pretty please don't tell her but kill me in secret so nobody even knows I asked you not to but didn't even make you promise not to tell you dearest friend"?

    *facedesk*

    While I have my gripe on let me also express discontent with the "big fight at the base while being overrun" instance. This one is set up as "fight for a while, lose the south side, fight for a while, lose the north side, fight for a while, lose the middle, find a torch and light a beacon". The big thing I noticed is that it doesn't matter if you do well or poorly. Do badly at one side? The gun explodes and you have to go to the next step. Do well at the other side, even to the point of pushing the Mordrim back to their spawn point? The gun explodes and you have to go to the next step. Look, if my performance doesn't matter even the slightest, just give me a cut scene.

    We had plenty of these "you are losing, things are bad" fights in GW1, too. But there was what was to me a *huge* difference. Take as an example Minister Cho's Estate, the first mission in Factions. You can't save the minister, he becomes a monster. You can't save the people, they are going insane before you arrive. It's a loss, you were too late when you ran to the door. But the player's experience is very different. What you do is save the gate guard's frightened little son, and kill the transformed Minister Cho. For your side it is a loss, but you managed to save what you could and feel both frightened for the future but good about making the best of it that you could. We had lots of these in the previous game.

    I would have been happier if the camp had been overrun off screen, we had to rescue the guys holding out in the middle, and then light the flame.

    Sorry to be a wet blanket. I'm not really happy with the storytelling right now. This makes me double-sad, I feel like post-Prophecies GW1 was some of the best storytelling I'd ever seen in any MMO.

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    Replies
    1. Hehe! Don't feel bad! Great comment - very interesting analysis.

      I think your expectations are just one heck of a lot higher than mine. I've made this comparison before but to my mind MMO storytelling rarely reaches the middling levels of a run-of-the-mill comic book, something Roy Thomas or Marv Wolfman (yes I know that dates me) might have turned out on an average day at the office. My benchmark for literary ability and storytelling chops in the MMO field is TSW and even there I think you're looking at the equivalent of a fair-to-middling indie movie or a solid genre novel, not anything ground-breaking or exceptional.

      By those standards GW2 isn't doing too badly. There are some nice turns of phrase, the characters are better-than-flat and the plot is there or thereabouts as intriguing as an average episode of Scooby-Doo. Yes, very little of it stands up to even a cursory close reading but the kind of shortcomings you point out are present in just about every extended quest/set-piece in every MMO.

      I only played Prophecies and about 75% of Heart of the North in GW1 but I don't recall the writing in general being all *that* superior. The plotting, yes, that was tighter and better thought-through, but some of the dialog was pretty poor and characterization was nothing special that I remember.

      On the specifics of the Caithe/Wynne/Faolain triangle, did any of that ever make any kind of sense? It certainly didn't to me. Faolain seems to be some kind of pantomime version of a sociopath, Caithe makes decisions and choices that bear no rational explanation and frankly I have no clue who Wynn is, even now. I guess the proof of whether Wynn's decision here makes any kind of sense is in the outcome: she did trust Caithe and Caithe did prove worthy of that trust. I think we just have to accept, without the writers having done any work to deserve our trust, that Caithe knows Wynne and Faolain better than we do.

      As for the fight at the Pact camp - honestly I had no clue what was going on in it from start to finish. I was dodging and rolling and trying to stay alive and I barely managed to find a second to read the instructions. All the subtleties people have reported were completely lost on me. As I've said before we really need a "Skip Fight" button for Living Story like we have the "Skip Scene" one. You are completely right that all we need is a cut scene but apparently some people actually enjoy the fighting.

      All in all I think it was an above-average episode *by the standards these writers have set so far*. I wouldn't put it more strongly than that though.

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  3. Heh. I was more into Paul Levitz and Chris Claremont, myself, but I hear where you are coming from.

    I guess my disappointment is marked by hitting a higher level in the previous title. I thought "Nightfall" and "Hearts of the North" were outstanding, and that "Factions", "Eye of the North" and "Winds of Change" clocked in a pretty darned good. I have to throw in some Jeff Grubb fan appreciation here as well -- my dog-eared copy of TSR's "Marvel Super Heroes" RPG from the mid-eighties influenced my GMing style for... uh... gulp. A long time.

    My, how time flies when you are having fun.

    Anyway, yes, I do have some sour grapes brought on by overly high expectations. But, dangit, I know they can do better. I've seen it. I wonder how much "every line must be voice acted and animated" hinders the writing team?

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