Monday, July 31, 2017

Meanwhile, Back In The Jungle... : GW2

Tomorrow sees the official reveal of GW2's second expansion. We'll find out how much of the information leaked in May was real (hint: all of it). Looking back through a few of the posts I wrote about the first expansion, it surprises even me just how very enthusiastic I was about Heart of Thorns right from the start.

I did remember that I liked it a lot more than I expected to and I know that I've had a huge amount of entertainment and enjoyment in the jungle maps ever since, but I'd forgotten that I'd said such positive things about the expansion, across the board. Here's just one of many such, from my Day One Report :

"It all feels better. The UI changes, the Guild changes, the minion changes, the spell effect changes... The whole game feels like someone took it into the yard, ran the hose over it, washed off the dust then buffed it up until it just shines".

At one point I even went so far as to offer the suggestion that perhaps ANet knew better what was good for their game than the players did: "It's almost as though someone at Anet knows what they're doing." Cold comfort for Colin Johanson now.

I did understand that things were going to have to get easier but the position I took back then looks even further from the canon view that HoT was a failure from the get-go. I'd forgotten that just one specific complaint thread on the forums reached 57 pages and 3000 comments in the first couple of days.

The issue that was burning hottest back then was Hero Points; specifically, their acquisition. One of the pillars of the expansion was the addition of an Elite Spec for each class. This came with both a new weapon (weapons being class-locked in GW2) and a set of new abilities which, though we only suspected it at the time, would turn out to be the default build choice for most classes for the next two years.

What Anet hadn't made clear enough in advance of launch (although it had been explained for those who cared to pay attention) was that these Elite Specs had to be earned. The initial requirement was completion of all class training and specializations from the core game plus another round of training in the expansion itself.

In addition to 398 points from the base game, 400 Hero Points were required specifically from Heart of Thorns challenges. Each HoT challenge is worth ten points so that meant finding and completing forty, which happens to be exactly all of them.

When the expansion first dropped most of those challenges were clearly not intended to be soloed. Some of them required specific Masteries which themselves required points that had to be earned, some of which also were not easy to solo. And all of this had to be done not once for the account but repeated separately for every character on it.

At the time I observed that GW2 had turned almost overnight into a Gated Community. What surprises me, looking back at what I wrote, is how sanguine I was with that change. Again, I was more than willing to give ANet the benefit of the doubt:

"I do believe these design decisions, which must be difficult to make at the best of times, have been taken with the best interests of the players in mind. Often players really don't have the clearest view of what's good for the long-term health of the game."

All the same, it was very clear that something would have to change and soon. And it did. The 400 point requirement was reduced to 250 points and many of the challenges themselves were altered either so as to become directly soloable or to scale much better for small groups.

As the weeks and months passed there were numerous nerfs to the overall difficulty of all Heart of Thorns maps and content. Colin left the company, new promises were made, the direction of the game altered. Just about everything got easier. Just about everything got grindier.

Six months after launch the 2016 Spring Update added a Level 80 Boost to all HoT accounts, new and old. It kitted out the character that used it in full exotics and filled in all the Core Tyria requisites needed for your Elite spec.

With that, the final barrier to entry was, nominally, removed. People still complained HoT was too hard, of course, but at least they could complain about it while playing through it rather than staring at it from outside as they trudged through Tyria trying to find 398 one-point "challenges".

I used the boost on my main account so long ago I no longer even remember which character got the benefit. As I've mentioned often, however, I have three accounts for GW2 (four if you count the F2P one). One of those still doesn't have HoT but another one does and until this weekend I'd never used the boost.

More than that, I still had one of the original five character slots empty. That account is linked to the Ehmry Bay server for World Vs World and Mrs Bhagpuss recently moved one of her accounts there as well so I found myself in The Mists as an Engineer. I only had two 80s there and the other is a ranger

I have no idea how to play an Engineer in PvE, much less WvW, so I had the bright idea of using both the free character slot and the boost to add an Elementalist to the roster, Elementalist being the class I have vague pretensions towards knowing how to play. I'd forgotten about the Hero Points.

The prospect of exploring Verdant Brink, Auric Basin, Tangled Depths and Dragon's Stand all over again did not fill me with dread. Far from it. I was looking forward to it. I'd missed it. I took one of every class through most of the content during the first year or so as I worked on each of the class Ascended Weapon collections (a couple of which I have still to finish, come to think of it).

I certainly wasn't concerned about soloing the whole thing. When Heart of Thorns was just a week or two old I wrote at length about what a great addition it made to the solo content of the game. I described it as "solo heaven...a classic interpretation of the MMORPG solo experience", a description I stand by 100%. And that was before it got nerfed into the bedrock.

Back then I had other concerns about the future of those maps. It wasn't that future players would struggle to solo through them - it was that they'd have no choice. I imagined the jungle two years on, empty, forgotten, ignored in favor of the newer end-game content that would surely have arrived by then.

Well, newer end-game content certainly has arrived, in the form of raids, the Living Story and a clutch of new maps with very desirable rewards. So, are the HoT maps dead?

Like hell they are! Last night I had one of my most amazing MMO experiences of recent years and when I say "MMO" I mean exactly that.

I'd done a few of the easier to get to Hero Points in Verdant Brink last week and I'd followed the main storyline as far as Auric Basin. I did the Meta Event in the center of the map a couple of times on Sunday morning then logged out to do some WvW on my main account.

When I returned to the jungle at about 7pm on Sunday evening literally the first thing I saw in map chat was someone inviting all-comers to join her for a "Hero Point Train" through Auric basin and Tangled Depths. A Hero Point Train is when some masochistic cat-herder tries to lead an unruly pack of ill-equipped newbies through dangerous and inaccessible terrain so they can complete difficult and deadly challenges that will most likely be too much for many of them.

Fun, in  other words. I've done a few here and there. The best I've managed is maybe four or five challenges before either I fell off the train or the train crashed and burned.

Last night was different. In one of the most impressive displays of both charisma and patience I've seen in any MMO, a pink charr in what appeared to be a guild of one, filled a squad with fifty random players and then took them through the entirety of two maps, the second of which is generally reckoned to be the most awkward to navigate in the entire game.

She hit every Hero Challenge in both maps along with all the waypoints, many of the Mastery points, some of the Strongboxes and a few of the vistas. She ported everyone who didn't have the gliding skills required, she went back and collected everyone who got lost or fell off. She waited for anyone who'd missed a checkpoint and re-did every challenge for anyone who didn't get credit.

She did the whole thing in her second language over a less-than reliable internet connection with unfailing good humor and immense competence. The whole thing took almost three hours and was one of the best examples of why, for me, there is simply no comparison between MMO gameplay and any other kind of video game. I tipped her after the first map but by the end of the second I was so impressed I doubled my donation.

When we were done I had exactly the number of points required to fill out the Trait wheel and become a fully-fledged Tempest. I just hope the Pink Charr is around when I decide to take the next character into the jungle.

What both this exemplary experience and my return to Heart of Thorns reveals about the state of the game is more than encouraging. My pessimistic prediction that "I wouldn't be surprised to find much of the new land opened by Heart of Thorns underused, even neglected in a few months' time." has, thankfully, turned out to be very wide of the mark indeed.

With the next expansion about to arrive, there are still a lot of people working their way through the last one. We had a full squad of fifty people throughout and there were more outside the squad running with us. People dropped out along the way and were immediately replaced.

The maps themselves remain busy and populated. As we passed by in our train there were plenty of others working on the Metas, asking questions about the story in chat, and just generally pootling about doing stuff. I'm sure ANet would always like to have more players but there certainly doesn't seem to be any sign they don't have plenty already.

All of this has left me more excited than ever for what's coming next. I very much hope that I'm able to say in a few weeks or months, about the as-yet unnamed expansion, as I did about Heart of Thorns, that "I'm a satisfied customer right now. For once I'm getting what I want."

Yes, I really did like HoT that much. I'd forgotten. This is why I blog. So I can remember how I felt then without feeling it through the filter of how I feel now.

New expansion! Bring it on!

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