Saturday, October 31, 2015

Soloing In Heart Of Thorns : GW2

It's been a week now. We're past First Impressions. The dust is beginning to settle on the New Game Shine. Things are falling into a shape they'll hold for a while. It's still too early to stand back and take the cool view but one thing seems clear: Heart of Thorns may well be the best solo experience I've had in an MMORPG since Vanguard.

This first week has, arguably, been a better solo experience than the base game at launch three years ago, strong contender though that was. That's mostly because GW2 was wildly popular when it first arrived and "soloing" meant trying to get a hit in alongside the other fifty new players in your new starting map of choice. Here the world seems much less crowded and not just because of the Megaserver bug that left some maps almost empty for the first few days.

There's still plenty of rolling bubble play, if that's what you want, as Endgame Viable accurately describes. I've done some and loved it. It's GW2's signature gameplay after all. In a week where I've played almost all the hours available to me, though, zerging and massive-scale events have been merely the amuse-bouche to a banquet of top quality solo play.

This, I recognize, is not an opinion universally acknowledged. As I mentioned once before, MassivelyOP's GW2 columnist Tina Lauro adjudged soloing in the expansion "exceptionally difficult", an assessment some commenters on this forum thread would consider wildly optimistic.

Adventure this way!

So, why the extreme difference of opinion? Well, as usual. it all comes down to a definition of terms. To me, "soloing" in MMORPGs means having complete freedom to do whatever I choose, while having that choice meaningfully progress my character. It means walking out of the city gate into adventure, alone, and returning, who knows how much later, still alone but stronger, wiser, battle-scarred and proud.

To others, it seems, "soloing" means being able to do all the things without anyone's help. That's not a definition I'm willing to embrace but I'll accept right now that, for those who do, Heart of Thorns is not ideal. Alone you won't complete many events and certainly not any full event chains. You can start all the Hero Challenges you want but you won't often finish one on your own. Everywhere as you go there will be many times you'll have to run rather than stand and fight.

Then there's the question of class. It can't be denied that some GW2 professions (and builds) are better at going it alone than others. My Berserker Staff Ele is out there trying to prove otherwise but she's not making a great case so far.

Don't laugh. Spiky doesn't like it when you laugh.

I knew that from beta though and as the drop date drew near I looked at my extensive team and made a specific choice of who would take point. A while ago, for my own amusement, I created and leveled an Asuran Ranger who, at 80, I specced and equipped for maximum healing and survival. He can barely shoot his way out of a paper bag but he can take a licking like Timex. Until last week his main role has been comedy relief but cometh the hour, cometh the cat hat. He's been a superlative choice and he's not even a druid yet.

After preparation add experience to the mix. I've been soloing a long time. I cut my solo teeth in EverQuest back at the turn of the century. Maybe it's first love syndrome but for me EQ, these days usually cited as the archetype of Group Required Gaming, has always represented the apogee of solo play in a massively multiple setting. Vanguard perhaps surpassed it but only by being EQ in fancier pants.

The transferable skills you learn, soloing in EQ, are manifold. Patience, foremost. Pacing. Observation. Attention to your surroundings. Forward planning. Concentration. How to kite. Most importantly of all you learn to fear death.

Dying in EverQuest, back then, hurt. A single death could wipe out all the progress you'd made in a full session. More. At worst it could cost you not just your level but your corpse and everything on it.

All those hours quad-kiting Ulthorks had to pay off sometime.

There are those who claim they want those days back but I'm not one of them. Compared to the "good" old days Heart of Thorns is cake but still, compared instead to much we've come to expect of late, it feels unforgiving. It's unbending, uncaring and harsh and at the same time refreshing, exhillarating, even thrilling. It's a precarious balance but I believe ANet nailed it.

That said, the decision to open with perhaps the most awkward and un-navigable of the maps to travel without the new movement skills could be called perverse. Verdant Brink is an entirely different proposition with several ranks of gliding, jumping mushrooms and Nuhoch Wallows (they provide instant cross-map teleports) unlocked but players come to it blind, with none of that.

As an introduction to the new paradigms it's intense, overwhelming, and it's not surprising many balked. The intent seems to have been that we'd work our way diligently through the Personal Storyline as though it was some kind of hyper-extended tutorial. That way we'd open all the relevant skills as and when we needed them but, well, best intentions and all.

The decision to lock story chapters behind Masteries was widely perceived as coercive, restrictive and downright frustrating, second only in unpopularity to locking the new Elite Specializations behind 400 Hero Points. We're all Commanders of the Pact, for Dwayna's sake! We don't need our hands held. Just let us have it all and have it now and we'll have at it.

Up or Down? Flip a coin.

Both of those mechanics have since been mildly nerfed but perhaps, as Pact Commanders, we should just have buttoned up and buckled down. There is a war on after all. In any event it was mostly moot for me. I haven't touched the Elite Specs yet. My trusty Exotics and familiar skills seem more than up to the new challenges and by the time my Personal Story reached the second map, Auric Basin, I'd opened waypoints all the way to Mordremoth's doorstep in Dragon's Stand.

Exploring is bittersweet sometimes. The storyline kept giving me reveals I'd already discovered. I knew the fate of Rata Novus days before it was explained to me in cut scenes and dialog. I could have told Taimi what we were walking into and saved us the trip. Still and all, I feel more connected to the narrative, not less, because I found my own path.

As well as the feasibility of travel and the viability of combat solo there's the matter of grind. Those who aren't enjoying HoT and even some who are put the need to grind xp for Masteries high among the negatives. It's a position for which I don't feel a great deal of empathy.

There is no agreed definition of "grind" in MMORPGs and there never will be. One person's content gate is another's content. What's hair-pulling frustration for him is a warm, relaxing bath for her.

That's per kill. And I don't even have everything running.

Familiarity is part of it. To many GW2 players these mechanics and processes are either something they've never encountered before or, worse, that they have and which they came to GW2 to escape. To me it's like meeting an old friend in an unexpected place.

In three years I've acquired a lot of "Boosters". Those little icons that pop out of chests and fill my banks, stacking up unused because until now I've had no call for them. Why would I need to boost my experience gain when xp already flows faster than I can find a use for it?

So I saved them for a rainy day and now it's monsoon season. Once again it's all so reminiscent of EQ or EQ2. Piling up the buffs, Birthday, Celebration, XP, food, utility, fireworks (yes, fireworks buff xp) then going hell-for-leather after anything that moves.

Just watch that xp fly. It's so satisfying. Exhausting after a couple of hours, sure, but in the way a really good workout is exhausting (not that I can remember what that feels like...). Grind? More like glow.

The expression "overgrown housecat" comes to mind.

Did I say going after anything that moves? That's not right. We're back to knowledge and observation again. Satisfying soloing rests on knowing your enemy, setting achievable goals and picking your targets. In a new environment that means experimenting and that's a big factor in the fun I've been having.

A lot of my time has been spent not just exploring for the sheer spectacle but for potential future profit. Each new creature needs to be tested to destruction - its or mine. That's how you learn that some Veterans are very much not like the others. Why Veteran jungle Spiders and Tigers are so pathetically weak I can't explain but they are. Take them three or four at a time. The xp tastes good.

Chakk, while deadly if you stand still and let them cover you with icky blue goo, are the kobold grunts of Tyria, rounded up and AE'd down. Motile mushrooms, on the other hand, are to be avoided at all times. There's no percentage in AEing an AEer, especially when they come in gangs with bombs.

Hop it, hat boy. It's necro time.

And so it goes. You pull, you fight, you assess. At need you retreat. The glider here is a lifesaver, literally. Every drop is a zone line. Fall, unfurl, escape, start over. And the upside of gliding down is often landing somewhere no-one's been for a while. Untouched mobs in GW2 accrue a bonus that builds and builds. With boosts, killing mobs no-one had disturbed for a good while, you can rake in more xp in one ten-second kill than you get for Gold contribution at the end of a ten minute event.

So, yes, this is solo heaven. For me, anyway. It can be for you. Pick the right class and build. Take your time preparing. Explore until you feel you know how the land lies. Learn your escape routes. Practice your tactics. When you feel ready go to your selected kill zone, pop those boosters and kill, kill, kill. It's a classic interpretation of the MMORPG solo experience and classics never go out of style.


  1. You're a poet in prose. That's exactly how I solo in Heart of Thorns, testing things to destruction, sometimes theirs, sometimes mine.

    And given GW2's design, often you aren't alone after some time.

    1. Thanks! And yes, "solo" is a fluid term in GW2. The hardest thing about going it completely alone in GW2 would probably be avoiding having someone turn up and help.

  2. "Chakk, while deadly if you stand still and let them cover you with icky blue goo, are the kobold grunts of Tyria, rounded up and AE'd down."

    Unless you get one of those big veteran Lobbers, then it all goes to shit. The ones that shield other chakk are interesting too, mechanics-wise.

    1. Yes, they are a pain. I can solo them handily enough but it takes too long so if I get one I tend to run it off and start over. I'm still figuring out what the Chakk are up to. They seem to have a bit of a Hive Mind.

  3. Well this post alone is enough for me to purchase the expansion. All the PR on raids and such completely missed me, but open world adventures against mobs that have a bit of teeth sounds perfect.

    1. I do worry a little that my unexpected positivism might encourage a few people to make a purchase they'll regret but if you enjoy it half as much as I do it'll be worth it.

      Mrs Bhagpuss said last night that anyone who'd enjoyed playing EQ or EQ2 would have no problems with the supposed "grind" in HoT and I think that's true. It's a cosy, comfortable grind that's very familiar to anyone used to filling out AAs or levels in a new expansion. I think it's been a bit of a culture shock to some of the GW2 "casual hardcore" but the beauty of the maps and the excellent new massive-scale meta events seems to be carrying them through.

    2. I don't even really think of it as a 'grind' – to me, that word implies doing something boring, easy and repetitive in order to reach a goal, and so far nothing in HoT could really be described with those words.

    3. Don't worry about the recommendation, it's a good one. I forgot just how good Anet was about just leaving you alone and creating a very immersive world that you can do your own thing in.

      The way they designed so vertically is just blowing me away. I've never seen anything like it even in single player games. Getting to things is a puzzle and the way masteries work really looks like design taken from something like Metroid rather than typical MMO fare. Overall very innovative.

    4. Last night I managed to climb all the way into the Canopy in Verdant Brink without using a chopper and from there I used updrafts to get so high it felt like I was in danger of drifting off into space. It was one of the most immersive experiences I've had in an MMO for a good while. I hate to imagine what it must be like for anyone with a fear of heights though...

  4. I still don't understand their reasoning for those SKill, and story restrictions. I get maybe locking dungeons and raids by these because some of them require it but locking a class role seems rather silly. I also don't like locking the content people enjoy behind something else. If people like the story let them play it - why make them grind in a boring zerg environment they possibly don't like which is likely to push some people away.

    1. True. On the other hand the entire story, including the extra work to open the gates, took a weekend. It hardly required much in the way of deferred gratification.

      I have a post in mind about the Personal Story - just waiting for enough time to pass that it won't be too spoilery. From my perspective, though, the most impressive part was how very, very much easier it was in gameplay terms than the awful Living Story 2, which, by and large, I did not enjoy. Last chapter excepted - not doing that until they nerf it.


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