Saturday, August 19, 2017

Playing It By Ear: GW2

Last weekend ANet threw open the gates to the Crystal Desert. Metaphorical gates only. Not, sadly, the actual, huge gates that stand so imposingly and implacably outside the city of  Ebonhawke.

Those massive gates were constructed on the orders of Queen Jennah to bar the route southwards through the desert to Elona, after Destiny's Edge's attempt to kill the Elder Dragon, Kralkatorrik, failed. A more egregious example of bolting the stable doors after the dragon has bolted is hard to imagine.

It takes some beating in the desperate face-saving stakes, too. Having wrecked a perfectly good plan that would have worked if she'd held her nerve, having gotten Snaff killed and half of Ascalon Branded, Jennah apparently thought a big public works project was all it would take to restore confidence in her judgment and authority.

Even as I write this, I find it quite astonishing how annoyed - almost angry - I get just thinking about it all, particularly Logan's desperately poor decision-making and Jennah's imperious arrogance.

Herein lies one of GW2's huge problems: the much-maligned story has huge emotional heft if - and only if - it has been experienced in media outside of the game. By the standards of genre literature (far less those of literature per se) the novel in which all this happens, Edge of Destiny, is little more than a classic potboiler. The prose style is professional in the way of competent work made for hire and it zips along like the shooting script for a movie. No claims could be made on its behalf beyond efficiency and purity of function but those are claims that far outstrip anything ever seen in the story within the game itself.

Nevertheless, I have a strong and lasting affinity to certain characters in the milieu, purely because I read that unexceptional novel. It's why I share Rytlock's deep distrust and suspicion of Logan. It's why I do not trust Jennah in any way, shape or form. It's why I feel Zojja's entirely justified bitterness and anger and it's why I have more faith and affection for Caith than anything she's ever been seen to have done in the Living Story could possibly support.

It goes on. Others, who played through Guild Wars Campaigns over the years (and no doubt read and absorbed a deal of out-of-game lore and story, too), have had little patience or sympathy with the raft of new characters introduced to supersede the familiar faces from that era. The emotional attachments they developed to the characters and lore that ANet, apparently intentionally, chose either to ignore or, worse, to trash in favor of an entirely new cast and direction remain far stronger than any bonds the new, in-game material has been able to forge .

It's taken years for even a grudging affection for one or two of those new actors to build. Possibly only Taimi has a real following, even now. Canach, maybe. The best the rest achieve is tolerance. Maybe some curiosity. Jory and Kas, for example, have one of those soap-opera relationships that make you feel guilty for wanting to know how it's going to turns out (badly, of course). You want to look away but you can't.

All of that keys in to why it is that I've wanted to go through those Ebonhawke gates ever since I first saw them, barred to me, five years ago. When we learned the Path of Fire lay in the same direction I thought we might start our journey there but it seems that's not to be. Instead, we're set to take yet another cut-scene trip on yet another unfeasibly buoyant airship.

All of this went through my mind as I sorted the screenshots from this week's Path of Fire beta. Yes, there's another one. You may have missed it. I nearly did, albeit intentionally. For this one no airships are involved, let alone any opening gates.

It all takes place in either PvP or WvW zones, where you can trial the new Elite weapon skills and specifications for each class. I wasn't going to bother with it at all until I read Jeromai's post, in which he tells us he's not "super keen" either, then goes on to write over two thousand detailed, insightful words about his experience. My interest very mildly piqued I thought I might as well at least take a quick glance...

The first surprise was the loading screen, shown at the top of this post. I'd completely forgotten that ANet recently revamped the entire PvP lobby. Instead of a long-familiar scrubby afterthought it's now as visually sumptuous as any other GW2 location, It has waypoints and POIs and everything. Make GW2 another one to add to Massively OP's list of MMOs obsessed with floating islands.

Distracted, I wandered about exploring for a while looking at the old new stuff before getting around to looking at the new new stuff. I am not going to say much about the PoF elites in any detail - Jeromai covered that already - but I am going to echo his tone, when he says

... the prospect of having to learn too many new tricks is a little scary and intimidating, and not a little depressing...

Yes, it's all a bit much, isn't it? I mean, I love the chaotic rush of a new MMO expansion, when all the old certainties get thrown into the air and come down in tatters and for a brief, breathless while no-one knows any better than anyone else, but there's always a hangover after that party..

That iconoclasm is the good part (the best of which I will miss this time round because the pot will be four days off the boil by the time I get a taste). The less-good comes with the construction of the New Certainties that have to last us for the next two years, or at least until some nervous dev pulls the nerf alarm.

At some point, probably a lot sooner than I'd like, there will be a new Meta for every class. In GW2, that's not merely a metaphor: there will actually be an official New Meta. It will be posted at MetaBattle and you will be asked by any number of authority figures (Guild Leaders, Raid Organizers, WvW Commanders) to go read it and apply it to your character.

Therafter, if you choose to ignore such advice, you will be "off meta" and can expect to be treated accordingly. If you want to get old-style groups - although probably the only place that happens nowadays is for Fractals, I guess - or if you want to raid or do ranked PvP or run with a "serious" WvW guild, there will be homework. And practice.

Fortunately, GW2 remains an extremely open, forgiving environment for mavericks, self-starters, bullheads and slackers. If you solo, you can forget the Meta - any Meta - entirely; it means absolutely nothing to you; carry on as you were, no-one cares. Also, if you play GW2 as originally intended, hot-joining Dynamic Events, being a good ant, very little will change there, either. In the Zerg no-one knows your name - or your build.

The anonymity of crowds doesn't just apply to PvE. In five years of increasingly obsessive WvW play I have never, ever, not one single time, been called out for having the wrong build, class, gear or playstyle. People say it happens but I've never seen it happen to anyone, let alone experienced it myself.

It's not that there's no drive for efficiency. Commanders frequently ask for people to swap to, say, Guardians or Eles because they don't have as many as they'd like. And people do swap, willingly. I've just never heard any Commander ask a specific individual to change when they didn't want to anyway.

Certainly no-one has ever whispered me to suggest I stop running around as an Engineer, firing my Flamethrower randomly in all directions (as I do on my third account sometimes) and swap instead to a class or build that might actually be useful. Or even, failing that, swap to a class I have at least the shadow of an inkling how to play.

Consequently, I'm not going to go as far as Jeromai and say I feel intimidated or depressed by the new elites but I did find myself feeling a little ennui as I tried to read through the new Elementalist line, The Weaver. There's such a lot there to take in. Really, such a lot. I'm not sure I remember signing up for extra tuition.

Recent discussion on GW2 in this part of the Blogosphere has circled around how much more complex an MMO it is than it first appears. You don't by any means have to know or understand anything more than the absolute basics; you can play the game enjoyably without knowing much at all about builds or synergies, but it's becoming ever more apparent that if you do know those things, the game gets quite a lot easier.

There's a nuance to this that we all seem to miss. Jeromai alerted me to it when he described playing an Elementalist or an Engineer in GW2 as being "like playing the piano".

When we argue about what "playing" MMOs means, as we often do, the discussion tends to focus on the balance or imbalance between the dual concepts of play as "fun" and as "game"; no-one ever seems to notice that "play" has that third meaning.

Playing almost any video game is directly analogous to playing a musical instrument. It only takes a few minutes to pick up the basics but countless hours to become a virtuoso. Just to achieve basic competence requires dedication and practice and if you want to play in a group - well, you'll need to rehearse together.

Raids in MMOs add the possibility of playing in an orchestra and require the same degree of discipline. GW2's huge, sprawling open map events are more forgiving. Like the Rockin' 1000, the zerg can carry a few passengers and if one or two are off the beat, well, who's ever going to know?.

At a glance, though, getting to grips with a new PoF Elite spec doesn't look so much like learning a new tune as picking up a new instrument entirely. I don't know that I'm up for that. I can knock out a few tunes on the old elementalist joanna but I'm not entirely sure I'm ready to take up the harpsichord just yet!

Which isn't to say it doesn't all look rather intriguing. In the detail of The Weaver I see a lot of Stability uptime as well as some 50% super-speed and a lot of auto-condi cleanse. As someone who specializes in being slippery and not getting caught, that has real potential I'm keen to explore.

Just not yet. I'm going to skip this beta. I'm interested, yes, but I'm in no hurry. I think I'll wait until the music starts - for real.


  1. It wasn't true for the old elite specs, but for the PoF ones I feel like you don't necessarily *have* to learn them. If we take ANet's word for it, they're very much sidegrades rather than outright upgrades. Do a different job, not the same job but better.

    On top of that, they seem to have made some of the core specs actually good now! At least, there's a phantasm mesmer (no Chrono!) build that does competitive DPS with a very simple rotation.

    1. ANet are about the last authority I'd look to on how these specs will either be received by player or impact the game. In five years they've never shown any more ability to parse their own product than any other MMO developer and considerably less than some.

      Also, as I've heard said a number of times in game (and said myself) it's a commercial necessity that at least some of the new specs are perceived and reported as superior to anything previously available because that's a significant sales driver. Expect some OP specs for at least a few weeks with the necessary nerfs not arriving until the requisite number of units have been sold.


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