Around teatime on Sunday afternoon Mrs Bhagpuss asked me if I fancied taking a run at the final chapter of the Heart of Thorns Personal Story, "Hearts and Minds". Well, actually what she did was type "Hearts and Minds?" in party chat out of the blue while I was off doing something important, namely fiddling about in my bank vault as usual.
At first I had no clue what she was talking about. The Personal Story kind of fell off my radar around the end of the first week after launch, by which time I had run one character to the penultimate chapter and half a dozen more through the Prologue and Chapter One. It's hardly surprising I'd let it slip my attention after that, at least not when you consider that, after three years and over a dozen Level 80s, I have yet to complete the original Personal Story on any of them.
I was highly skeptical of the need for GW2 to have a "Personal Story" in the first place but we are where we are, which appears to be in some kind of bizarro world where "personal stories" have become mandatory for MMOs and not even just for the pure theme parks either. Indeed, the supposed failure of SW:ToR's "Fourth Pillar" is beginning to seem more than a touch ironic, not least since BioWare re-tooled their ailing franchise into something that looks more like One Pillar and Three Stumps.
I'm by no means as down on the whole concept of story arcs within MMORPGs as J3w3l, for example, but neither do I worship them with quasi-religious fervor. Story is just another of the rides in the park. If an MMO offers me a take on narrative that turns out to be both entertaining and easy then I'll generally give it a run; those that fail on either count join the large pile of "things I might get round to some day if I have nothing better to do".
GW2 has a checkered history with story. Actually it's more like a Jackson Pollock painting than a chess-board. We started with an ambitious, hand-crafted version, where the responses you made to a series of gnomic questions in character creation decided your forking path. I always thought it was daft. It must have been hell for completionists.
Those paths came together somewhere in the middle and from there on we all followed the same plot to Arah and the Downing of Zhaitan. I did see the final chapter, tagging along in Mrs Bhagpuss's team back when you needed a full group, but the furthest any of my own characters has made it is, I think, the first step into Orr.
Anet changed mode once the game went live. They began to heap their all dragon eggs into one basket they called The Living Story. The first telling was a sprawling, chaotic, largely ill-received mash-up of open world zerg action, scavenger hunts, lore tidbits and instanced set pieces. I liked it at the time and in retrospect I feel we didn't know how lucky we were. I'd have that format back in a heartbeat now.
Operating on what appears to be their default mode of passive-aggressive reaction ANet gave us a very different iteration in Living Story 2. They chopped the whole thing up into tidy, re-saleable packages, front-ended in the existing maps but with the meat of the gameplay and story sealed neatly in instances.
They also upped the difficulty or, perhaps more accurately, the frustration, to one FFS! short of a ragequit. Although I struggled through it on one account I didn't much enjoy LS2 and I definitely wasn't looking forward to another, even "more challenging" version in Heart of Thorns. Luckily, for me at least, I didn't get one.
In what I guess we could call Personal Story 2 (unless it's Living Story 3?) ANet finally seem to have found a sweet spot. Bugs and gates aside the general response has been positive. I haven't seen many complaints about it being either too easy or too hard, too long or too short. I found most of it engaging and sprightly as far as the gameplay went, to the point where the prospect of repeating it on all my characters feels like a possibility not a penance.
I'm aware I'm being a little vague here. Jeromai asked recently how long we need to wait before we can discuss plot points without risking spoiling the experience for those who haven't yet gotten around to experiencing it first-hand. The answer to that is there's never going to be a point short of the game closing down or the content being removed when discussing it in open conversation won't risk revealing something someone would rather not have known. So I won't do that. Yet.
Suffice it to say that, now I've finally seen it through to the end, there's a lot I'd like to discuss where the lore and story is concerned but instead, I'll stick to a quick critique of the style and the gameplay. I'd rate the latter a big improvement but the former quite a disappointment.
In short, the fights were a lot better throughout. They were generally well-balanced, requiring attention but not expecting perfection. Crucially for me they were almost entirely gimmick-free. All my characters were able to play as themselves, using their own gear and abilities, making their own choices about how to approach and defeat each challenge. There were few coercive set pieces and those there were permitted a number of solutions. Compared to LS2 it was freedom city.
The final, big boss fight, which Mrs Bhagpuss and I duoed successfully yesterday evening without any major problems, is lengthy as you'd expect but not so much so as to outstay its welcome. It has been, infamously, some have found unplayably, buggy, to the point where I had until now deferred even attempting it, following the appalling reports of those who had.
Supposedly the worst of those bugs have been fixed but we still had to restart the final fight because one of the rifts spawned outside of the playable area. On the positive side, we had a bug in our favor where one of Mordremoth's AEs only stretched half as far as it should have, meaning as two rangers we could stand outside it and pepper him with arrows while our newly AE-immune pets hammered away in melee range, oblivious to all damage.
If the fights were, on the whole, an improvement the dialogs were at best lacklustre and the lack of player/NPC interaction was verging on the dismal. One of the strengths of the whole Living Story and, to a lesser extent, the original Personal Story, has been the considerable freedom player characters have to talk to both significant and incidental characters outside of the main narrative.
I spent a lot of time in both LS1 and LS2 chatting to NPCs, enjoying and appreciating a good deal of banter, witty repartee, moody background detail and lore snippets. I never left an instance or an area until I'd spoken to everyone. In the HoT Personal Story that just doesn't happen.
Most of the NPCs don't show any indication they have anything to say or indeed that they are aware of their surroundings at all. If they don't have a line of dialog they stand there, cycling their racial idle animations but otherwise inert. More disappointing still, even those who show the speech bubble icon when targeted, something that in almost all other circumstances indicates the presence of at least a line or two of incidental dialog, prove mute when approached.
I found that the most disappointing part of the expansion so far. It feels at best rushed and unfinished, at worst thoughtless and cheap. The scripted dialog itself isn't great, either. Without entering spoiler territory, much of it feels flat, some of it awkward. The storyline itself offers huge emotional potential but the presentation bleeds it dry.
Like a Hollywood movie, all the best bits are in the trailer. The moment where Rytlock appears for the first time, which we first saw back in the Spring, is unmatched anywhere else in the story. The hairs on the back of my neck were still, literally, standing up as late as the fourth play-through when the big Charr comes over the hill, returning like Han Solo just when he's needed most.
As for what happens next...well, that's the big question. I doubt it will spoil anything to reveal the whole thing ends with yet another cliffhanger, albeit an enigmatic one. Where we go from here I imagine we won't discover until well into the New Year, once Wintersday and perhaps another Raid are out of the way.
Whatever the future holds it's Rytlock as usual who cuts to the chase and sums everything up in a few words right at the end:
That's all we need to know right now. Bring it on!