Saturday, 28 November 2015

Sisters Under The Skin : EQ2, GW2

Playing through two such different expansions as Heart of Thorns and Terrors of Thalumbra at the same time is a curiously instructive experience. It highlights not only the great differences between the two games and their design strategies and ethics but also some unexpected similarities.

Heart of Thorns is the first expansion for Guild Wars 2, arriving at the very late entry-point of three years after launch. Terrors of Thalumbra is EverQuest 2's twelfth full expansion; by the time EQ2 had been running for as long as GW2 has now it had enjoyed four full expansions and three smaller "Adventure Packs", one of which, The Fallen Dynasty, was probably as large as HoT just on its own.

Indeed, the sheer scale of some of EQ2's expansions looks breathtaking in retrospect. Echoes of Faydwer, for example, could perfectly feasibly have been released as a standalone MMORPG. For almost a decade these expansions were produced, at the rate of better than one per calendar year, under a subscription payment model, for a game that even its most ardent supporters would not claim was among the market leaders in its genre.

Don't start with the waterworks.

GW2, on the other hand, has a fair claim to be one of the largest, certainly the most celebrated, MMOs of the last few years. Despite operating primarily on a Buy-to-Play business model that, one might imagine, would encourage the creation and release of new product, the ArenaNet team has produced just this single example and that with considerable reluctance.

Heart of Thorns has turned out to be a controversial first step onto what we are assuming (but cannot be sure) is the expansion ladder. Although I, personally, have been very pleasantly surprised by the value I've been able to extract from what looked like a meager offering I think it would be fair to categorize the response from the paying and playing audience as "mixed".

Metacritic has settled to a "Generally Favorable" rating for Heart of Thorns but only after a prolonged battle between wildly polarized factions voting 0-1 or 9-10. As for what either the average player or video-game critic thinks about Terrors of Thalumbra, well that's anyone's guess. No-one has reviewed it. Almost no-one has even mentioned it.

Have you tried switching it of then switching it on again?

So far, I like the two about the same, although I have seen far less of ToT than HoT. Both of them are much smaller in terms of explorable imaginary real estate than we've been spoiled to expect in the past but both have made a good fist of providing depth of content through density and verticality where it might have been lacking in raw mileage.

ANet, with what must be one of the very best art departments in the field, working with a relatively new graphics engine, provide breathtaking visuals but DBG, with a tiny team and an eleven-year old infrastructure, manage to work some small miracles of their own. As for audioscapes HoT just has the edge for ambient sound but ToT has by far the superior score.

Anet certainly packed a lot into the four new maps and when it comes to exploring and sightseeing Terrors of Thalumbra is also larger than I was expecting. Twice as large, in fact. It was trailed as coming with just a single open-world zone, Thalumbra the Ever Deep, but it also contains a full-size, new city, Maldura, which barely got a mention in the pre-publicity.

Maldura is a dwarven settlement on the model of Thurgadin, the Coldain city added in the Destiny of Velious expansion. I never really took to EQ2's version of Thurgadin, perhaps because I spent so much time in and had so many fond memories of the original back in EverQuest. Maldura, though, is a knockout.

A rat can look at a queen.

It has all the feel of a Dwarven capital. It reminds me of both Kaladim and Thurgadin from the original game and yet it also feels original and fresh. It's both easy to navigate and to get lost in as a dwarven city should be. The stone glows in a wonderfully homely fashion and yet there is the inevitable and necessary existential threat that all Dwarven cities have to face, necessitating barred doors and armed guards at every turn.

Every Dwarven city needs a pub, of course, and in The Mushroom Bar and Grill, Maldura has one of the best. I've already spent a considerable while there just listening to the live music, most of which is provided by gnomes.

We Play For Tips.

The gnomes, know locally as Gnemlin, have their own quarter that reminded me a little of the gnomish enclave in Azeroth's Ironforge. I'm unclear whether the gnemlins lost a city of their own to end up sharing a billet with dwarves but if so it would be par for the gnomish course. Losing cities seems to be a cultural pre-requisite with them.

Perhaps the story will emerge in time from the Signature questline. Both HoT and ToT offer a lengthy narrative sequence as a spine, something that seems almost mandatory in modern MMORPGs. EQ2 doubles down with a full-length questline for crafters as well as one for adventurers. I've completed, and thoroughly enjoyed, the tradeskill story but the adventure equivalent is proving...tricky.

Whose move is it?

Here's where ANet and DBG appear to have swapped hats. Where I was expecting to find the new Personal Story an arduous, tedious, neck-aching, shoulder-spasming grind similar to the largely unpleasant and annoying Living Story 2, it turned out to be a reasonably sprightly, quick-footed, gambol, at least in terms of the gameplay. Over in EQ2, however, where I've had little to complain about when it comes to difficulty while soloing the signature lines of the last several expansions, I found myself running into a brick wall in the very first Advanced Solo instance.

The experience illuminates how another strand of the supposedly divergent philosophies of the two games surprisingly intertwines as they seek to expand. GW2, famously or infamously according to taste, eschews both gear and level ladders. The theory is that HoT adds neither. EQ2 trades heavily on both but this particular expansion has no level increase and ostensibly offers horizontal not vertical progression.

In fact each of them deals directly in serious increases to the power and capability of your characters. HoT may not give us weapons with bigger numbers but it adds Elite Specializations for every class, at least a few of which have immediately become Best In Slot and Required For Raids.

A stepladder. How d'you think we hang them? A really big stepladder, okay?

As the player of two HoT-enabled Rangers I can also attest that owning the expansion allows you to tame several new pets that are very significantly more powerful than any you have access to through the base game. Once tamed, they will be the ones you choose to use from then on, unless (like me) you have an irrational, sentimental attachment to some of your old, loyal favorites.

Even though there's no level cap rise to justify it, ToT goes the familiar route of providing quest rewards for the opening, menial, introductory tasks that render the best items from the previous expansion utterly redundant. Merely for killing a few sky-rats and gathering a few mushrooms my Berserker received items that increased his hit points by a third and that's very clearly just the start. Where he'll be by the end of the questline I dread to think.

Except that, of course, at best he's running to stay still. Just as, in Heart of Thorns, the Mastery system largely exists to allow you to grind xp for weeks to earn the right to see all the content you paid for, so in Terrors of Thalumbra you need to quest to get the gear to be able to survive the quests you get sent on to get the gear. My unfortunate and repeatedly fatal experience in the very first instance just indicates that I haven't yet done enough side-quests, much as suddenly pegging out in an apparently innocuous location in Magus Falls reminds me I haven't ground out enough masteries for poison resistance.

There goes the neighborhood.

For all the supposed differences in approach, attitude and intent that separate the two current expansions for these two apparently unrelated MMORPGs I have to say the experience of playing each isn't as far removed from the other as you might expect. There may be a lot of new paint on the wagon but the wheels are rolling down the same old track.

Which is fine by me. I'm enjoying the ride. Now I just need to quest for some better gear and grind out those masteries. Oh, and I should get on with the collection that gets me my class Ascended weapons and I need to look into these Infusions that go in the new slot on that quest-reward sword because that's a big upgrade and what about this new Deity/Tithe thing and...




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