Monday, September 28, 2015

Are We Nearly There Yet? : GW2, EQ2

The final Heart of Thorns beta arrives this coming weekend. I'll be skipping it for several  reasons. Firstly I'm working all day Saturday and flying to Bilbao on Sunday morning so I don't have time. Secondly, "due to large back-end changes to core systems that have corrupted some of the beta data" we will have to make new characters.

Well, they can forget that. Making a character in this beta test is a pain. Not only do you have to go through the entire regular character creation process, you have to unpack reams of equipment that fill your bags and then sort it all out along with your traits and skills and so on. I did it once but once was enough, which is why so far the only elite class specialization I've seen is the Elementalist.

Even if you were able to summon up the willpower to push through that barrier there's another right behind it: "Beta characters will begin by playing through a brief shared battle in the Silverwastes that leads into the expansion jungle region, followed by the intro story step of the expansion." That puts a very final cap on any passing fancy I might have had about trying, say, the new Druid elite spec.

I've done it once already, during the first beta weekend, and although it was not actively unpleasant I wouldn't call it fun. It was an obstacle placed in my way before I could get on with what I wanted to do. Leave aside the sheer futility of doing the thing a second time for a two-day beta that I could, at most, log into for no more than a few hours, I'm not looking forward, at all, to doing that first personal story step for a second time even when the expansion finally rolls around.  Again, once was more than enough.

It isn't that I'm unwilling to follow the storyline or that I'm not interested in what's happening to Destiny's Edge and the rest of The Pact as they make a Bay of Pigs Ear of dealing with Mordremoth. I just want control of my characters, freedom of action and the ability to make my own choices about how to spend my time when I log into the game. Don't make me jump through hoops just to get started.

Contrary to my usual position, which is that everything is better when it's character-based, I really hope the "personal story" turns out to be account-based this time around. It's bad enough when an MMORPG like FFXIV locks every progression step behind compulsory story arcs and cut scenes but at least there you can play every class on the same character so most people will only need to do it all once.

GW2 is a game of alts, much more so than most MMOs I've played. My guess is that most people have several characters that they play regularly. Just sticking to the account that's HoT-enabled and adding in the Revenant to come, I have nine characters on the go. Imagine having to play through the whole Personal Story nine times just to get through the four new maps! Not saying that's for sure what will happen but it's my worst-case, nightmare scenario.

I'll gladly forego seeing any minor narrative deviations based on class or race just to get the thing out of the way in a single run. Really, at the very least there should be a "skip this stage" button. I'd happily accept no rewards for eight of my team in return for the option to opt out of doing the whole thing nine times.

The presence of the new Personal Story is interesting in itself. People in map chat yesterday were confidently discussing what might happen in Living Story 3 but as far as I can tell no-one at ArenaNet has confirmed there is even going to be a third season. Other than the aforementioned intent to fix WvW, the developers' attention post-HoT appears to be focused firmly on producing Raids.

Ravious, in his overview of the weekend's Twitch streams, reports that it was suggested ANet "could get up to 6 raid wings a year", and there is certainly some suggestion that Raids are where the ongoing storyline will progress. With that and the set storyline taking place in the new Personal Story is there even room (or resource) for another narrative arc on a biweekly cadence?

My enthusiasm for Heart of thorns waxes and wanes. I like the look of some of the class elites. I enjoyed what little I tried of gliding. The Mastery system looks familiar and the mechanics fall well within my comfort zone. New maps to explore are always better than no new maps to explore even if there aren't as many as I'd like, they're not my choice of biome and they're awkward to navigate. The changes to WvW look ok on paper although I would like to have had the chance to experience them in person.

All in all I feel confident there's more than enough to justify buying the thing and giving it a few weeks of my time. On the other hand, there looks to be a lot of slog or grind or busy-work; choose your label. The process for crafting Precursors for Legendary Weapons, for example, follows the now-familiar "it goes to 11" approach to questing (and yes, call them what you will, these are quests). I've been opting out of Epic Weapon quests almost as long as I've been playing MMOs and I see nothing here that's likely to make me re-assess that policy now.

Then there's the "housing". The personal version would need another buttock to make it to half-arsed but Guild Halls look to have a bit more to them. We still haven't heard much in the way of hard detail on how they'll work though. I'm particularly interested, not to say concerned, over how small guilds fit into the picture. As the co-leader of a guild with three active members, one of whom plays regularly but only for two or three hours a week, I find it hard to imagine the format can be stretched sufficiently widely to include us. It would be nice to be proved wrong but I'm not counting on it.

Add in raids and that's three quite significant paths through the Heart of Thorns journey that I'm unlikely to find myself traveling. Still, that's not far from par for the course when it comes to MMO expansions. It's been a long while since I used more than half of the content in any of them - if indeed I ever have.

I didn't actually sit down this afternoon to write about HoT. I was going to explore a little of the pre-expansion content for EQ2, which I've been very much enjoying these last few days. The full reveal for that as-yet unnamed addition to the game comes on Thursday. It won't be until then that I'll be able to judge just how much of it will be useful to me but I have already decided to pre-order it, sight unseen.

One thing SOE/DBG have done with the last few expansions is open out all content to everyone. Rather than lock the storyline behind full-group dungeons or raids they've created a full range of options, using the same zones and story in solo, duo, group and raid settings. It's an excellent solution for an aging game with a smaller, more fractured population but really, why wait until then? A little bit more accessibility wouldn't hurt sales even in a flourishing MMO, I'd have thought.

As it stands right now I'm considerably more excited about the EQ2 expansion than Heart of Thorns, for reasons I might get around to discussing tomorrow. That might all change, when we learn more about what's in it, just as learning a lot more detail of what's coming with HoT slowly warmed me up to that one.

In the end, though, as Syp was saying a while back, I'm just glad expansions are back in fashion. Good, bad or indifferent, I'd always rather have one than not.

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