Sunday, February 12, 2017

If You Like This Sort Of Thing, This Is The Sort Of Thing You'll Like: GW2

What is there to say about the fourth installment of GW2's third Living Story season? I've been pondering that question for a few days and I'm not sure I have much in the way of an answer but the phrase "More of the Same" keeps pushing itself to the front of my thoughts.

I share a considerable frustration and discontent with Jeromai, who's posted several times on the update already, over the general direction and approach the game is taking. There was a brief period following the sudden departure of Colin Johanson, when it seemed GW2 might be returning to the inclusive, casual-friendly, supposedly mold-breaking tenets of the now-infamous Manifesto, but those days proved to be short-lived.

GW2 in 2017 is primarily a game of instances. The original concept of a sprawling open-world game in which "you can just naturally play with all the people around you" is long dead. Or, rather, part of it is entirely dead, fenced off in Raid instances accessed only by the typical self-appointed "elite" that clusters in  the velvet-roped curated spaces of every theme-park MMO, while much of the rest is on life-support, sustained by the artificial stimulus of map-specific currencies and daily rewards.

Jennah's first dome: created without explanation and later expanded without explanation to cover the entire city. I want to play that Mesmer.
Indeed, each of the new supposedly "open-world" maps added with the four chapters of the current Living Story might as well be instances. An ANet developer was reported recently as saying that open-world maps in GW2 represent historical periods rather than the current timeline, something that is self-evident yet rarely acknowledged. With these maps, tied as they are to a fixed narrative, all of which plays out in personal instances, that has never been more obvious.

The thrilling promo video for "Head of the Snake" led many to hope, some to fear and a few to assume that Divinity's Reach might be due for the treatment previously meted out to Lion's Arch. A re-run of Scarlet's assault on the pirate city seemed altogether too much to hope for and indeed so it proved.

At risk of spoilers, although it's apparent from the screenshot at the top of the post, which is the view of the Human capital as seen from Lake Doric, the walls of Divinity's Reach do not fall. In fact, contrary to the evidence of that video and the in-game cut scenes, they don't appear to suffer any significant damage whatsoever.

Better stay away from those
That carry around a fire hose
When Scarlet was rampaging across Tyria, pulling godlike ex-machina plot devices from her seemingly bottomless bag of tricks, she was roundly condemned as a Mary Sue of the worst possible stripe. That assessment was, I always felt, tempered somewhat by the later discovery that she was the catspaw of an actual, quasi-godlike entity, the elder dragon Mordremoth.

Who, then, perhaps we should be asking ourselves, stands behind Queen Jennah's newly-acquired, miraculous powers? How is it that this former poster-girl for hapless, helpless love interest, the Penelope Pitstop of Kryta whose plaintive calls for help caused Logan Thackeray to abandon Snaff to his death, collapse all hope of defeating the crystal dragon Kralkatorrik and bring to a chaotic and acrimonious end the dragon-slaying guild Destiny's Edge, can suddenly cause instant death with a flick of her wrist and raise and maintain an impenetrable dome across an entire city at a moment's notice?

It may be that, as with Scarlet, there is at least a semi-coherent explanation but if so it remains, like the influence of Mordremoth, at best dimly sensed and obscure. Or it could just be bloody awful plotting. Either way, we are not getting a two or three month long version of The Battle for Lion's Arch. We're getting a permanent map that forever records the short few hours of Minister Caudecus's futile revolution.

Let me talk to him, Your Majesty. I'm fluent in the universal language of quest-markers.

Kind of a living tableau rather than a Living World. Disappointing. Unambitious. Tame. Also practical and apparently very popular if both the current buzz in map chat and the outpourings of praise on the forums are any guide.

The sad and inevitable conclusion seems to be that not enough people wanted the vision of that manifesto. As we have discussed many times, the distance between what people claim they want and what they actually want is like interstellar space.

I have a worrying feeling that had ANet chosen to make their sequel to GW2 something that followed rather than broke with the existing MMO conventions of it's time then it might have become the closest thing to the fabled "WoW-killer" the genre has seen. It could have been FFXIV: A Realm Revisited a year earlier in other words.

Backwards into the future? Here's hoping.

They did not choose that path and they have paid the penalty. They made a game that wasn't quite what their market segment wanted and when they shifted to accommodate those expectations the market itself changed away from them. If someone in ANet towers is drafting a design doc for GW3 right now I imagine the words "survival" and "sandbox" are somewhere prominent.

We are, as they say, where we are. Not only is there no hint of a GW3 (and since the official position is that GW2 will run as the company's primary product indefinitely that's not a hint we're likely to be given for a long time yet) there's still no official news or even announcement of the second expansion.

What we have are these increasingly formulaic assertions of "content" that arrive under the flag of the Living Story. It's not nothing. It is, arguably, an improvement on Living Story 2, although I struggle to recall, without going to look it up, what actually happened in that season.

If only all of Kryta looked like this.

The new map is a fair size and quite interesting. The events are, perhaps, less rigidly organized than Bitterfrost or Ember Bay. There is, to some slight extent, a more organic, unpredictable pace.

The art department, ANet's one indisputable star asset, has done its usual, expected best but this is Kryta they've been given to work with and there's only so much you can do with scrub grass and dirt. Not to mention there's a war going on.

The promised challenging, group-oriented "leather farm" (oh, the mental pictures that conjures...) turns out to be a big hill with hundreds of fast-spawning centaurs. As Jeromai reports it benefits from a full zerg rather than a mere "group" but since what's farmed turns out to be almost entirely the wrong kind of leather, whether zergs will be easy to come by seems less than certain.

Anybody fancy the Leather Farm? Guys? Please don't report me!

As for the story, the usual fear of spoilers prevents me from going into too much detail. Suffice it to say that if Queen Jennah is not being mind-controlled and if Countess Anise is not revealed to be a major villain at some point then we as players are effectively being asked not just to condone but to endorse fascism. It's a queasy scenario. I hope the writers know what they are doing.

The story arc of the chapter, something most players take to be intended as solo content, ends with one of ANet's trademark annoying, pointless, attritional boss fights. These are always inappropriate to the context but we are all by now inured to them. This one, however, was so execrably tuned that forum outrage erupted (again) and a very swift and quite severe nerf to difficulty followed.

I completed it on the first attempt under the original difficulty. This is not any indication of my skill as a player. I happened to be doing it on my heal-specced Druid and I simply bored the Boss to death. Even so I died about half a dozen times. Mrs Bhagpuss, on hearing about it, declined even to attempt it and now hasn't logged in to the game for three days.

This made me laugh.

There were plenty of things I enjoyed. Some of the dialog and cut scenes were above par. Countess Anise infuriates me so much that I literally shout at the screen when she's on. That has to count as successful writing or voice acting or both. Canach has become one of my favorite NPCs. I laughed out loud several times at his snide, drawling sarcasms.

There were also plot developments that surprised and intrigued. I do think that trying to tell a coherent narrative in this extenuated, disparate fashion would challenge even the best of writers and video games do not generally attract the best of writers or, probably, the second or third best. Still, they are making a fist of it and I remain involved.

But then I'm a sucker for meta-textuality.

Mechanically there was one worthwhile innovation. At various points there are interactive objects or even creatures that respond only to one class. I spotted a turret only engineers could use and my druid was able to tame an attacking mob mid-fight and turn it on its trainer. That was oddly satisfying.

Also of note is the addition of vendor-purchasable paintings and furniture that can be placed in Guild Halls. Our tiny guild has no guild hall (although the large WvW guild I'm also in does) so the reason for the excitement this awoke in me when I happened upon it isn't perhaps obvious.

You really want that thing in your personal instance?
I'm calling it here: this is laying the foundation for some kind of personal housing in the expansion. As is the otherwise incomprehensible obsession with cats. There are a couple of new ones in the update - a ghostly one in Lake Doric and a very odd, bloodstone-tainted example in Caudecus's Manor. If these aren't future housing systems undergoing live testing then Anet are even more inscrutable than I imagine.

In summary, then, "Head of the Snake" is not by any means a bad update. It's adequate; satisfactory, even. Had it been the first chapter of this season I imagine I would be almost fulsome in my praise. The problem is one of diminishing returns. Having found a format that the playerbase appears to deem more acceptable than either the open-world sprawl and bi-monthly cadence of LS1 or the shut-down, buttoned-up isolation of LS2, ANet unsurprisingly seem keen to play it for all it's worth.

I'm just not sure how much that is or how long the goodwill can be sustained before the inevitable ennui takes over once again.


  1. I don't think Queen Jennah is anywhere as bad as Scarlet, as far as Mary Sues go. Scarlet was a horribly written character, even with the "Mordremoth" excuse behind her. Nothing about her made any sense. Especially not how she could possibly build the gigantic machinery she did with the help of a few paid bandits only. Even if she had the know-how, where did the time and resources come from? The Pact would struggle to come up with such devices, yet it's a world-wide elite organisation in Tyria. Let's not mention her personality, which was also pure boring cliché.

    Queen Jennah is a kind of Dumbledore at this point. She's the "wise old mage with great powers" type, except she's not as old. Granted, the force shield feat was still way over the top and it debunks Logan's reason for abandoning Destiny's Edge.

    There's still plenty of open-world content in GW2. Some people argue that nobody does SW, Dry Top, and Hot maps anymore, but that's not true at all. Those maps, plus world bosses, are constantly being run 24/7, heck it's all I ever do in this game. I've even seen Cursed Shore champion trains running again. I've never done a raid before and I don't feel like I'm missing out on anything.

    Regarding the design of Lake Doric, I suppose the beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Where you see Kryta as only grass and dirt, I still find Queensdale to be one of the best looking maps in game, my other favorites being Timberline Falls and Mount Maelstrom.

    See, I do agree with almost everything you're saying here. I'll gladly bash on Anet's storytelling any day of the week myself. They're good at world building, but terrible at developping characters, and indeed Canach is the only good apple in this basket of rotten fruit. But I don't think this chapter is subpar. It's just their standard content, nothing better nothing worse.

    1. The real problem with just about all of GW2's narrative is that precious little of it ever stands up to even the gentlest critical examination. The same could probably be said of most MMOs but I really feel GW2 is one of the least consistent - or even coherent - in terms of plot, characterization or even direction that I've ever played. The structure and pacing seem about on the level of one of those old 40s movie serials, if even that.

      That said, it's often enjoyable. Most of the voice acting is decent and some is good. Also there are usually some good one-liners. Characterization, while frequently inconsistent, is at least energetic and defined. I can at least remember who most of the characters are, which is more than I can say for some MMOs, and quite often I can actually tell which character is speaking by the dialog alone.

      I never disliked Scarlet in the way many did and by the end I had become really fond of her. My character wouldn't have killed her, given the choice, but of course we weren't given that choice to make. I would welcome her back and of course, as a lifelong comics fan, I can see absolutely no impediment to that happening. I do wish video games were more like comics in that respect. No-one in a comic is ever dead, no matter what happened to the body.

      Jennah, on the other hand, I have always disliked. As a player I object to being expected to condone and clean up after her serial poor decision-making and my Charr and Asura characters are positively outraged by it. To have her now transition from a damsel-in-distress to some kind of uber-mesmer (seriously, what are those powers? Since when did Mesmers get a ranged Death Touch?) is both galling and completely unbelievable...unless she *isn't* Jennah at all, of course.

      Kryta might look half-way decent if they ever get rid of the centaurs but even then I doubt it. How Divinity's Reach can look so pristine while the entire country it represents looks so scrappy baffles me. That's autocracy for you, though.

      As for the health of the open world,. yep I totally agree. I made that point in my reply to Jeromai. It's self-evident that, where ANet provide options for players to gather in large groups and brute-force content in order to get rewards they see as worthwhile, players can be found willing in great numbers. If only the developers could see that as a positive and work with it rather than against it we might have a genuinely popular and growing MMO on our hands instead of the gently declining one the annual report tells us we have.

      Really, though , I feel we're all just treading water until the second expansion. That will be the crucial test. If they fluff that like they fluffed Heart of Thorns then I think they'll have to revisit their plans for not having a GW3.

    2. If they fluff that, I am done with MMOs. Twice now, once in City of Heroes and now in Guild Wars 2, an egalitarian enjoyable game bent over to cater to the strident demands of the "we need raids and like the exclusivity it brings because then I can feel better than others" subset and ripped apart the community in the process.

      Wildstar should have been an object lesson in catering to only one small subgroup and expecting the bills to be paid.

      WoW should have been an object lesson in seeing how the developers started with only one raid difficulty, then scrambled to create different difficulties in order to reach more players, while still keeping the exclusivity factor (they can do exclusive, because their game started out with that schtick from the beginning.)

      You do NOT do exclusive after you market your game as inclusive, because all those who flocked to the game because they support that philosophy now feel hideously hideously betrayed, regardless of how far they can get with the actual raid content.

      I have refused to spend a single real life penny in Guild Wars 2 for a very long time now because I am that emotionally betrayed. Every time one of these divisive topics boil up, I walk around for days after feeling resentful and angry, this does NOT build any goodwill towards the game at all.

  2. Tried the nerfed Caudecus fight today, died a couple of avoidable times because I was gungho enough to do the vigil way on the twin jade constructs, downed/died 4-5 times in Caudecus' final form room while running in circles, first being utterly confused as to what was the intended mechanic for the fight, got wrecked by adds in the meantime, went "OMG how does Anet expect a casual player to avoid all these circles and all this knockback chaos AND pick up bloodstone shards and throw it at him" and eventually trial and errored, brute forced him down.

    Just as Canach and Anise were discussing his freedom, the game disconnected me and I logged back in at the entrance of an uncleared story instance.

    Gave up for the night. I suppose it'll give me time to decide if I want that monster cat-dog-thing in my home instance...I'm leaning towards... no.

    Also seriously considering giving up most of GW2 besides social obligations and playing the Dark Souls franchises instead. At least the punishing difficulty there is intentional and telegraphed fairly. The more I play the recent updates, the more I seriously question if the current devs at Anet have any clue what they are doing. Hearts and Minds -still- broken, I believe.

    1. Oh, that is so infuriating! One of the reasons I gave up on The Secret World was because of that sort of thing happening on a disconnect.

      I have been following the discussion of the Caudecus fight on the forums with interest. While there's a sprinkling of the usual "I did it first time on a zerker ele - l2p noobs" kind of sneering, I would guesstimate over 80% of all comments are complaints that it's either horribly tuned, horribly designed, or just plain too difficult. That includes comments post-nerf.

      Cast your mind back to Teq, Breachmaker, Marionette et al and you'll recall they all went through a series of nerfs before they were weakened sufficiently for the core playerbase to accept them. Arguably Triple Wurm was never nerfed far enough and has never been fully accepted as a result.

      Those were all open world zerg-based events but the principle remains: if just about *every* "challenging" encounter has to be nerfed multiple times before most players enjoy it, why do the devs repeatedly make them that " challenging" in the first place?

      There were several comments on the forums along the lines of "when I saw this fight I thought "Welcome Back Colin!". it really is as though the hard-learned lessons of the first few months of HoT have not just been forgotten but actively denied. I completely agree that they don't seem to have a clue what they are doing but then I'd say there has rarely been even the smallest sign in four years that they ever did. If ever I played an MMO that operated on the "it seemed like a good idea at the time" principle then GW2 is it.

      I'm going to take another character through the story to do the Caudecus fight jsut to see if I was lucky the first time or whether I found it not *that* bad because of the class I was on or what. Haven't decided who to do it with yet. Might try my berserker staff ele - that should really make the point one way or the other...

    2. Berserker staff ele? Ha. Bring repair canisters, methinks. ;)

    3. Second run at it was much smoother with zero deaths, mostly because I knew about the mechanics by now and could preselect skills to match / use the appropriate strategy. Mostly it was wall of reflection. The projectile damage on most of the mobs is tuned so high, they killed themselves the instant their attacks were turned back on them. Caudecus was just immediately start running in a circle and don't stop - not exactly the most intuitive thing for a player who thought they were watching the story/characters to do.


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