Saturday, November 26, 2016

In The Bleak Midwinter : GW2

It's round about twelve months since Heart of Thorns, the first and so far only expansion for Guild Wars 2. That landed with a dull thud last October. It seems much longer - so much longer indeed that I had to go check the wiki to make sure I wasn't missing a year.

Since then GW2 has undergone something of a revolution - or perhaps it's a reversion. The less-than-stellar performance of the franchise under Colin Johanson's direction led to his departure in March, after which came a period of retrenchment under Mike O'Brien.

Now, Mike O'Brien is, of course, no new broom brought in to sweep the stables clean. He's the President and Co-Founder of ArenaNet. He was there in the background the whole time Colin was skippering the ship as it yawed and pitched across the increasingly stormy post-launch seas.

His return to full, direct control was supposedly a temporary thing. When he stepped out of the shadows to take back the wheel Massively OP quoted him as saying he would "eventually be hiring someone else to fill the role" because "it takes a lot of work to run a company and [I'm] unable to do both jobs forever"

Forever is a long time but as we near the end of 2016 Mike O'Brien is still at the helm and no further mention has been made of anyone taking over. What this is doing for his personal circumstances only he can say but for the players his tenure in full charge appears to have been broadly welcomed and I'd guess the majority would be happy for him to continue as he has so far.

World vs World specialists may disagree. While the game mode has certainly enjoyed more attention in the last six months than the entire life of the game before that, it has arguably been more quantity than quality. We've had an avalanche of polls on what to do next, some involving serious, structural change, others offering utterly trivial options up for entirely unnecessary votes.

Despite the endless cavalcade of misery, doom and denial on the forums, there is some evidence that things are stabilizing. It's true fewer people visit The Mists than did so so before Heart of Thorns nearly drove a stake through WvW's heart and it's undeniable that Anet's current penchant for making direct amendments to the scores in order to get particular servers into the "correct" tiers has all but destroyed any vestige of "competition" from the Leagues. Nevertheless, you can find a good battle at almost any time of day on any server now and spirits in-game seem to be a lot heartier than you'd imagine from a  "dead game".

Since I neither play nor pay attention to GW2's would-be eSport offering, ranked and tournament sPvP, I'll refrain from commenting on how that leg of the tripod has fared under Mike O'Brien. When it comes to PvE, however, I think it would be fair to say a corner has been turned.

The basic tenets of the new (refurbished) leadership, at least when it came to PvE, seemed to revolve around returning the game to something closer to the original proposition, which was to be a more open, more inclusive kind of MMORPG. One which very much prioritized "play" over "work". Added to that there was to be more openness of communication, fewer promises and more delivery.

All of this has, by and large, been achieved. When unpopular decisions have been taken, like the postponement of development on Legendary Armor, explanations have been given rather than excuses. When targets have been given for new content, like the quarterly delivery schedule for Living Story 3, they have been met or exceeded. Perceived "grind", if it hasn't been removed, has at least been acknowledged and addressed.

Heart of Thorns was promised and got a difficulty pass. It may still seem like a step up for new players familiar only with Core Tyria but, as those of us with the scars from last October can attest, it's considerably more manageable than it was. I liked it from the start but I like it even more now it's been tuned for enjoyment.

What I do find intriguing is the extent to which the much vaunted difficulty ramp that HoT introduced and which Mike O'Brien all but apologized for, has been maintained in much of the new content introduced under his rule. While the storyline instances of LS3 so far have been distinctly more solo-friendly and less arduous than those of LS2, all of the new open world maps could give any original Heart of Thorns areas a run for their money.

From the snipers in Bloodstone Fen, able to pick players out of the air at extreme range, to the return of the infamous Pocket Raptors in Ember Bay, the difficulty setting has raised the bar from anything seen in central Tyria before. The latest addition, Bitterfrost Frontier, turns the difficulty dial another notch. In some ways it has to be the most unforgiving environment we've experienced yet.

It's not merely the extreme density of highly aggressive mobs although that would be difficulty enough. The ice flows swarm with Svanir and their corrupted beasts. It's literally impossible to travel just a few meters without being shot at by cultists or savaged by wolves. Even a supposedly peaceful activity like foraging berries turns into a fight to the death with almost every bush the home of spiders or yet more wolves. And as for the psychotic mushrooms...

Still, the things you can kill are the least of your worries when you come to Bitterfrost. The real enemy is the environment. In the way of all the maps ANet have designed since Dry Top, there's a permanent meta-event cycle that runs inexorably in the background. It's studded with Dynamic Events, many of which turn the immediate area around them into virtual war zones but the dominant feature is weather.

The small, mobile, unkillable ice storms, long familiar from the Frozen Maw event in the Norn starting map, Wayfarer Foothills, may encase you in ice but that's a minor inconvenience. The real challenge are the blackouts and whiteouts that reduce visibility to a glimmer. There seem to be few areas immune to a sudden "lights out!" but the worst of all has to be the supposedly balmy quaggan swimming hole, Dragon's Teeth Hot Springs.

When the Svanir attack and the quaggans moo and chunter in despair, as seems to happen about every ten or fifteen minutes on a schedule that would make Disney World proud, the entire canyon turns to night. Since the jumping puzzle is directly above that can be somewhat inconvenient. It took me forty minutes to get a vista there the other night and most of that was because my charr ranger couldn't see his  paw in front of his muzzle.

That's not the worst of it, though. Not nearly. There's one part of the map that is literally unexplorable without protective equipment. Aptly named The Bitter Cold, entering this isolated canyon means swift and inevitable death for anyone without the requisite cold resistance buff.

That buff can only be obtained by means of a Thaw Elixir. You can't buy it. You have to make it. You can't buy all the ingredients. You have to hunt for some of them. You can't even get the recipe without doing the storyline to a certain stage. Once you do manage to make the elixir it's immediately applied to that character and that character alone so all your characters have to do it individually. And it only lasts until reset so next day you have to do it all over again.

If that's not hardcore I don't know what is. So much for casual convenience!

In practice it's not really that much of an issue, although you might not think so to hear people complaining about it. There's not much of interest in The Bitter Cold if you aren't doing the storyline. There's one Point of Interest needed for map completion but you can get to it for the necessary update in the brief few seconds you have before the cold kills you. There's a Mastery Point that does need the buff but mastery points that require some kind of pre-req are hardly anything new.

Last night I did map completion in Bitterfrost on my semi-glass Berserker Tempest, probably the least robust of all my characters and certainly the one who had the most difficulty in the early days of Heart of Thorns. She only died once and that was on the aforementioned PoI of certain death. It was a lot of fun.

For my tastes the difficulty is fine although I do think the annoyance factor could be tuned somewhat. There might be too many mobs and the storms might be a little too frequent. What's interesting to observe is the extent to which the developers are innovating on "challenge. There seem to be new twists and tricks in each release. Mobs behave more aggressively or in unexpected ways. Most especially, approaches from previous areas are nested in new ones.

What this portends for the second expansion is uncertain. At one point I expected a definite row back from HoT's failed "up hill in the snow both ways" approach but now I'm not so sure. It looks as though a general upping of the challenge level for routine, open world PvE play is still part of the agenda even if it's not the headline feature it once was. And it does seem that lessons have been learned in how to make such an incline feel approachable rather than precipitous.

So, on balance I'm enjoying Chapter Three. The story, which I haven't discussed and probably won't examine in any detail, is the weakest episode of this volume so far. Nevertheless it has its moments. The new map is, for my tastes, the best of the three we've seen.

Here's looking forward to the next one sometime around the beginning of February. Steady as she goes, Captain O'Brien.

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