Sunday, October 22, 2017

Is Path of Fire A Better Expansion Than Heart Of Thorns? : GW2

No. It's not.

Oh, you want more than that? Okay, then. Here goes...

Looking back at the posts I wrote about Heart of Thorns when it was new, what comes across more than anything is how surprised and delighted I was by just how much I liked it. My first-day impression was overwhelmingly positive: "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."

A few days later I observed "By far the most frustrating thing about Heart of Thorns is having to choose between playing it and blogging about it." (Not a problem I've encountered with Path of Fire, by the way). I took a day off work to make a long weekend for the HoT launch and the only downside I could find was "I wish I'd taken a week. It's been very irksome, having to go to work every day only to spend most of the time daydreaming about playing." (Ditto)

My upbeat reaction to Heart of Thorns, which continued and indeed strengthened the further into the expansion I progressed, wasn't shared by everyone. Over the course of the next six months there were course corrections aplenty as ArenaNet attempted to right the wallowing ship until finally the Captain was cast adrift and the crew turned back for safer waters.

This time has been very different. The general response to the second expansion has been far more enthusiastic than the critical mauling the first received. The forums are, by forum standards, warm and fuzzy and I couldn't begin to count the number of in-game conversations I've seen comparing PoF favorably to HoT.

I regret to say that I'm not really feeling it. My loss, I'm sure.

It's not that Path of Fire is in any way a poor expansion. It's not. It's perfectly fine. Fair value for money. Spectacular to look at. Entertaining. All of that. No, the problem is that, as I suspected almost from the outset, it doesn't have a hook.

What's clear from my posts about Heart of Thorns is that for all its supposed problems GW2's first expansion dug its claws into me from the start and never let go. I found the change in emphasis exhilarating.

Back then, when the furor was at its hottest, I wrote "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." That seems bitterly ironic in hindsight.

Path of Fire represents a major retrenchment from the position taken by Heart of Thorns. It's easier and more accommodating. It's populist and crowd-pleasing. Mounts are the exemplar: far more so than gliders, they represent a marketable move towards the mainstream, as the enormously successful introduction of mount skins to the gem store at the first opportunity amply demonstrates.

You could interpret all of this as a welcome move towards a less paternalistic, more egalitarian approach. You might say it's just giving the people what they want. You might recognize it as a business belatedly acknowledging commercial reality. Or you might see it as a climb-down of massive proportions, a battered and bruised team throwing in the towel in the face of unrelentingly hostile criticism.

It's all of that and plenty more but what it undoubtedly is, more than anything, is a decision predicated on necessity. Heart of Thorns under-performed commercially as we know, unequivocally, from the subsequent NCSoft quarterly reports. Making the game more challenging resulted in less money coming in. The hope is that making it easier will reverse that trend.

The problem for me is that I never found Heart of Thorns to be in the least part "difficult" to begin with. I found it to be pitched almost perfectly to match my limited skills. I described HoT as "solo heaven... a classic interpretation of the MMORPG solo experience" but I also loved the signature GW2 open raid play, which reached its apogee in the mesmerizing Dragon's Stand meta event.

Filling out the then-new Masteries, opening the Elite specs on all eight classes and completing the lengthy and enjoyable collections for the associated Ascended weapons kept me busy and engaged for months and I was still eagerly running Dragon's Stand on new characters well into the following year.

Indeed, once Heart of Thorns dropped, I didn't spend much time anywhere else in Tyria (other than World vs World) for a good, long while. That has very much not been the case with Path of Fire.

It took a few sessions to finish the story, which was, at best, alright. A bit thin. Unengaging. Having seen it through, I have no desire to do it over on any other character. Certainly not now and quite possibly not ever.

Acquiring the four advertised mounts turned out to be exceptionally simple. Completing the masteries for them has been quick and easy too, which is probably just as well because there don't seem to be many worth making the effort to acquire. Thin, once again, is how I'd describe that offer.

If it wasn't for the hidden mount, the Griffin, the whole mount thing would have been a bit of a bust for me. The Griffin quest remains the highlight of my expansion experience so far. Shame it only lasted a handful of sessions. I wish it had been longer. Or per character not per account.

Path of Fire does include a new, Elite specification for every Class, along with a Collection for a new Ascended weapon to go with it. Exactly the same set-up as Heart of Thorns, in other words, about which I was so enthusiastic last time.

The difference is that back then I barely had any Ascended weapons. The opportunity to "quest" for genuine upgrades was exciting. Chances for meaningful, vertical progression in GW2 don't come along every day - or every year.

This time around, I already have Ascended weapons for every character I play regularly and multiples for most.  What's more, the new Elite specs for the classes I play most regularly don't appeal. I will not be changing from Tempest to Weaver or from Druid to Soulbeast so the new Ascended weapons would languish in the bank, unused.

I'll probably get them in the end, just for the skins and to have something new to do, but therein lies the real problem. Path of Fire is fun enough but little or nothing in it seems necessary. I have the mounts but I don't use them if I can avoid it  because they're awkward and clunky. I'd rather run. Or glide. I'm not excited by the new Elites. The new armor collections are, it goes without saying, hideous and unwearable.

Exploring the maps is enjoyable, or rather it was, for a while, but once the visual novelty wore off I confess I began to find them a bit...samey. As I've said, I'm not much of a one for map completion, but I'll probably get it done eventually. It's hardly what I'd call a hook, though.

It's not quite a month since Path of Fire launched and I missed the first few days, yet I already have the feeling I'm close to being done with it. Not with GW2, which I'm playing every day just like always, just with the expansion itself. I'm spending most of my time either in WvW or pootling about in Core Tyria ot the Heart of Maguuma. I even did map completion in Bloodstone Fen the other day.

I've gone back to doing The Maw and Jormag several times a week for no reason other than I like doing them. It'll be Teq next and Auric Basin. I miss the camaraderie of those huge events. Bounties, are no substitute for real World Bosses or map metas, that's for sure.

And of course there's the Halloween event, Shadow of the Mad King, which is in full flow right now. There must be scores, maybe hundreds of instances of the Labyrinth running 24/7. I've been there more than anywhere this week, not because I need anything from the event but because it's good-natured, communal fun.

Maybe there's some of that, somewhere, in the Crystal Desert. I'm not seeing much of it but that could just be me. Thing is, I've spent so little time in any of the Path of Fire zones lately that I can't even estimate how popular they remain. Megaserver technology will ensure there are at least a few fullish ones for the foreseeable future, I'm sure, but unless and until some future update adds a compelling reason to travel I may not be there to notice.

All of which isn't to denigrate Path of Fire as an expansion. It is, as I said, perfectly fine, as far as it goes. It's safe, unambitious and a little bit obvious but those aren't necessarily bad things. Not at first.

In the good old days, when EverQuest knocked out a full expansion every six months, if you didn't particularly like one it didn't much matter. There'd be another along soon enough. Even nowadays EQ and EQ2 players only have to wait a year (not to mention the increasing feeling that we're fortunate to be getting expansions at all, given the age of the games).

For GW2 it matters a bit more than that. Expansions are a Really Big Deal both in absolute terms for the immediate effect on the bottom line and as an increasingly rare opportunity to expand the audience via reviews, press coverage and word of mouth. I'll be very surprised (and absolutely delighted) if we see GW2's third expansion before 2019 so, with a minimum two-year wait between them, expansions need to have staying power.

I'm not convinced Path of Fire does.


  1. I have to vocally and spectacularly disagree, for fear of never getting another map built like the Path of Fire zones. They are an explorer's heaven, and I'm fully intending on going over most of them at my leisure with many of the new specs, but slowly and with no rush.

    A lot of vocal people seem to be having issues with insufficient repetitive activities and a drip feed of rewards when used to the automated faucet of HoT metas. I'm choosing not to fight this too much because I believe their style is a valid playstyle also (I'm currently testing Warframe and like Destiny 2, it is pretty much nothing except an automatic faucet of rewards gained from repeating map levels).

    But the explorer playstyle needs stuff built like Path of Fire also. The less people who are doing something equates to more valuable secrets for the discovering and taking. e.g. I farm jacarandas quite happily and sell the proceeds to those who somehow hate jacarandas with a passion, but want the food from those ingredients. If jacaranda farming becomes popular or the materials drop constantly in an automated faucet, we all lose out.

    There's probably a touch more balancing or tweaks to be done with rewards so that the seesaw isn't too violently tilted in the direction of no one bothering touch it ever (including those that want to, but can't muster enough people for it) but I fear Anet swinging too far in response back to automated meta events on a timer and endless zone currency grind once more.

    Anyway, it's really hard to predict what's going to happen next because Halloween is a great temporary farm that everyone's in on. After that there will be Wintersday, and Living Story 4, and we'll probably only be able to observe the results of how the populace responds/what Anet adjusts PoF-wise some time in January or so.

    1. I thought about the Halloween effect. There seems to be an incredible amount of interest this year. There must have been 30 squads recruiting in LFG yesterday and it was hard going to find a map that wasn't full. HoT launched at the same time of year, though, and looking back at my blog there's no sign I even noticed Halloween was happening, there's just post after post about HoT all through October and November. I only stop when the EQ2 expansion arrives!

      With PoF I ran out of things to say about it in a matter of days. Most of my posts have been quasi-reviews. It's so bland it's very hard to think of anything beyond "it's pretty" and "I don't like mounts". There are no new systems to pick apart the way there were in HoT with the new Masteries, the new Elites and gliding. Just refinements of things we already know inside out.

      As a core explorer myself I cannot see what's so "explorer" about PoF. A huge part of the "Explorer" archetype is about exploring and understanding new systems, which, as I just said, are lacking. The sightseeing is not bad, but as I said in the post it's very samey. Seen one sand dune, you've seen them all. Ditto mosaic-walled palace. Almost everywhere also looks like somewhere else, somewhere we've already seen. I am pretty sure they are even re-using assets.

      The Zephyrite home town that I posted about has been the only exception so far. If there are other revelations I haven't discovered them. The problem is that I don't feel motivated - or even interested - enough to go look. Mob density is crazy high - far, far worse than HoT. You can't move five feet without being attacked and everything pulls, roots, stuns so it's incredibly annoying. I found HoT relaxing and easy to explore from day one, as evidenced by the posts I made at the time. PoF, apart from the very early part right around Amnoon, is a bloody nuisance to travel.

      The real problem is this, though: even when the environment is pitch-perfect for exploring (almost all of Ascalon for example) and even when you're a true explorer, you can only explorer until you have explored and then you're done. It's not the real world. It doesn't change. Once you've seen it all you've seen it all. And in the case of the PoF maps I fear that, although I've seen far from all of it, I may already have seen as much as can hold my interest.

      Activities like jacaranda farming (which I didn't know was a thing) are great, but farming has nothing to do with exploring. Finding farming spots, now that is an explorer activity; staying there and farming them is pure Achiever. I'm not sure how you can realistically build an expansion that has to last as core content for two years around Exploring, especially in a game with no vertical progression. Indeed, the clever trick of spreading essential requirements for Horizontal progression across the entire landmass of the game is going to hit problems as that landmass expands. Without map metas to concentrate the population into specific instances I can't see even the megaserver tech and LFG coping long-term - especially if we get another map with every LS4 installment.

      All of which will effectively fit ANet's current design methodology, which is clearly to move GW2 as lose to the MMO status quo as it was before GW2 came along to break the mold. It's a shame they painted themselves into a corner over no more levels or gear tiers because those are the final two missing pieces needed to bring the game smoothly back into line.


Wider Two Column Modification courtesy of The Blogger Guide