Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Path of Fire: First Impressions Part 2 - The Story

 

There will be spoilers. Major spoilers. 



UltrViolet has been writing about his experiences as he plows through GW2's Living World Season 3 storyline, the one that leads directly into the main narrative of the second expansion, Path of Fire. I've found his posts most helpful in codifying how the style and execution differs between the content we're used to seeing drip-fed into the live game and the great dollop that's been served up to us in the expansion.

The Guild Wars franchise has always been unusually narrative-driven for an MMORPG. Of course, there was never any real consensus over whether the original GW was an MMO. Arguably, it was more of a series of single-player/co-op RPG campaigns strung together around a limited multiplayer hub and as such, it relied very heavily for its PvE content on linear storylines.

That was something ArenaNet attempted to expand and adapt for GW2, first with the Personal Story and later with the Living Story/World "seasons". It hasn't always worked nor always been well received. The way narrative is handled in Path of Fire could be seen as a reversion to what worked in the older game.

As UltrViolet's account emphasizes over and over again, the live game's storyline is frequently muddled, confusing and unclear. There are a lot of characters. They come and go with huge hiatuses between appearances. It's an approach that requires and expects both a good memory and an extraordinary amount of background knowledge from the player.

Never mind the plot, look at the scenery!
Even if you have both the thread can still be difficult to follow. The plot frequently involves endless digressions and discursions, some of which can only be explained away as filler, serving no narrative function whatsoever. It can feel exhausting and many players wonder if the effort can be worth it.

The Path of Fire's story isn't like that. The central storyline of the second expansion is possibly the most straightforward presentation of a narrative we've seen in the lifetime of the game.

It begins with The Commander (that's you) hot on the trail of the rogue god Balthazar and it ends when Balthazar dies. Along the way just about all you do is chase the god, fight the god's minions, catch the god, lose the god, chase him some more, finally catch him and then kill him. Then you have a party, there are fireworks, a dragon roars, the earth shakes and you get to wonder whether it was worth it after all.

The cast of characters is heavily reduced from the usual entourage to a small posse: Rytlock, Canach, Kasmeer, Taimi. There are a handful of cameos - Ellen Kiel, Marjory - and a smattering of walk-ons, whose names I forget, none of whom make much of an impression or seem likely to return.


Cannach distances himself from Rytlock's views on religion. Literally.
It's easy to see how the cast was chosen. Kasmeer is there to provide a Greek chorus on the retreat of the human gods. Taimi (who mostly appears as a disembodied voice until the end) is too popular to leave out - plus she's the only one who understands what's going on.

Rytlock and Cannach are both major crowd-pleasers. They spit out sarcastic one-liners like they're auditioning for Larry David and there's a great dynamic between the two of them. The actors who voice them are excellent.

I laughed out loud several times, especially at Rytlock's take on religion, but perhaps the most memorable moment wasn't funny at all. The scene where Rytlock comes across Snaff's ruined golem is beautifully handled and genuinely moving. Or, at least, it is for those of us who read the Guild Wars novelization in which Snaff died. And there's the problem.

It seems much of GW2 is now being written and designed with longtimers like Aywren in mind. The whole expansion relies on call-backs to people, places and events, not from the five-year lifespan of GW2 itself but from the much older heritage of the franchise. Without that emotional anchor you might well feel detached, adrift.

Along with a smaller cast and a linear plot comes significantly simpler gameplay. There's a deal of fighting but it's mostly of the same difficulty you'd encounter solo in the open  world. Actually, I found it easier than that. As for the infamous boss and sub-boss fights, they're widely spaced, fewer in number and uniformly less awful than usual.

Is that an Archbishop fighting a lobster?
Playing my high-survival druid, I did not die once in the PoF storyline, at least not until the final climactic stand-off with Balthazar, and even then I died mostly because I was struggling to figure out the precise mechanics of the fight rather than through any innate difficulty thereof. In the whole of the rest of the story I think I was downed twice but rallied or revived myself before anything finished me off.

I heartily approve of the reduced level of difficulty although I'd prefer it to be easier still and if not easier then certainly faster. The fights may not be as arduous as before but some of them are still mightily tedious. Still, it's a major improvement over the Living World, which itself has been getting easier. Perhaps by next expansion we'll be back to where we started in 2012 although I fear there will be a counter-insurgency at ANet before then and we'll lurch back towards "challenge" once again.

When I say I didn't die I'm leaving out one very major event: the Death of The Commander. It makes absolutely no difference if you're the best raider in the game or the most inexperienced of casuals - you will die in this story at least once. You have to or you can't proceed. It's a huge (and hugely ill-judged) plot point.

The evident drawback to chasing a mad god across a desert is that you might catch him. That happens and along with it the inevitable. He's a god. You're a midget in a romper suit waving a stick. You die.

Oh go on. Just a little one. He likes it really.
Except in Tyria no-one dies, do they? Everyone comes back. Doomsday weapons can destroy your entire nation (Ascalon, Orr) but the next day the entire population returns as Ghosts or Risen. In Elona, you can work all your life for a tyrant-king then the day after you die you find yourself back in the same job, Awakened, only now you don't need to sleep so you get to work nights too.

In the storyline, when Balthazar incinerates you (he's the god of fire as well as war) you wake up in a green-hued purgatory with amnesia. This does not appear to be intended ironically.

You do a bit of business with the locals, fight The Eater of Souls, the worst-designed sub-boss in the entire story (I cheesed him with a strat I read on Dulfy but he's now been nerfed and nerfed hard after numerous entirely justified complaints so you should be able to beat him legit) and then it's back to business as usual.

The reactions of your friends and companions when you literally return from the dead might seem understated - or underwritten - at first. Mostly along the lines of "Oh, you're not dead? Great, well here's what we need to do next". Taimi suggests someone pokes you to see if you're real in what is probably not intended as an hommage to John 20:25.

Then I thought about it. Really, why should anyone be surprised? Or care? The whole of Tyria is designed on the model of The Cat Came Back. And that's a problem. It's not that I'm advocating permadeath or even a harsh death penalty but there has to be some sense of jeopardy, doesn't there? If annihilation by a god is something you can just shrug off then what does any of it matter?

Add to that the the illusion of choice or rather the lack of any such thing. I'm not big on the concept as it applies in video games but a lot of gamers, particularly BioWare fans, find it compelling. Well you can forget it here.

Take the example from Chapter Two, where you spend some time talking to the Amnoon Council about a supposedly crucial decision. I was highly critical of what that implied about ANet's agenda concerning democratic responsibility but I needn't have worried: I was not in possession of all the facts.

Unaccustomed as I am to public speaking, let me say this: we're all doomed!

The choice the council appears to dump eagerly in your less than capable hands turns out be nothing more than a pat on the head for the funny foreigner. Yes, they wanted to hear what you thought, but they knew you had no clue what you were talking about and they never had any intention of doing what you suggested. The fact they went along with your idea was a complete co-incidence.

I was so taken aback by that little sidebar, which occurs in small-talk at the afterparty, that I forgot to screenshot the conversation. I highly recommend talking to all NPCs at every opportunity, both before and after every event and even during them if you get the chance. Some of the most interesting stuff is hidden away in that incidental dialog.

Lack of agency is a serious problem throughout. Choices that don't matter, deaths that don't mean anything and a final fight in which the Commander seems to play a supporting role to both a magic sword and a baby dragon risk leaving the player on the sidelines, doing all the grunt work but barely sharing the glory.

Just me, then?

Enough detail: how good or bad is the Plane of Fire story, when you put it all together?  Hmm. Hard to say.

That's why these are still first impressions even though I've completed the whole thing. I'd want to do it on a couple more characters before I committed myself as to whether it's an improvement on the Heart of Thorns central story. It's certainly shorter. And easier, although I think the fact that I chose to open all the maps and get all the mounts ahead of time sped things up.

There were some parts I really enjoyed. The visuals, obviously, but the gameplay too. A variety of mechanics, most of which were easy to grasp and straightforward to implement, kept me engaged. I enjoyed controlling an army of Awakened at one point; catching the scouts before they reported my presence was satisfying. There were enough moments like that to keep things entertaining, mostly.

Everyone else comes back, Scarlet. Why not you?
It was interesting to return to Glint's lair and Kormir's library is spectacular. I was very happy to find you get to revisit it towards the end of the Griffon quest collection. A tip: when you get to that part, don't forget to go back to the hidden room. You'll find something there you won't expect. Or someone. I was also very surprised how happy I was to see and hear Scarlet again. I really miss her.

On balance I enjoyed the story for what it was even if, in hindsight, it didn't come to all that much. I could go into a lot of nitpicking detail about what doesn't make sense but the tale's a thin weave that won't stand up to much poking. It has holes enough already.

Best accept it for what it is and keep moving. If there's not all that much to the story itself, at least I did think the way it was told was noticeably superior to previous attempts and that's very welcome.

What I miss most, though, is the mystery. Yes, the narrative through-line since GW2 launched has been chaotic, disordered, incoherent and sometimes insane but I've never found it boring. This wasn't dull but neither did it set me puzzling, the way the Seasons, for all their many, many flaws, tend to do.

When facts are hard to come by speculation thrives and speculation is the lifeblood of never-ending soap-opera stories like this. Unsurprisingly then, it was the enigmatic ending I enjoyed most of all. Where did Aurene fly off to in such a hurry and why was she looking so very pleased with herself? What is Kralkatorrik planning next? Have we saved the world or merely set the stage for some new drama of destruction?

And talking of trailing plot threads, trust me: taunting Palawa Joko through the bars of his cage before returning to the land of the living, leaving him supposedly imprisoned there "for eternity" was not the Commander's smartest move. In Tyria "eternity" lasts about five minutes and Joko is not a forgiving kind of psychopath.

He'll be back and he's going to be mad. Madder. Something to look forward to for next time.

2 comments:

  1. Oh, wait. So if you choose to side with Joko during the council meeting in the beginning, it won't really effect anything? I went with the Sunspears because I knew the history, but was super curious, and planned on choosing Joko for another character later to see what happened if I did. If it doesn't really change anything, I'm disappointed.

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    1. Well, who's to say what might happen down the line? But, no, as far as I can see it makes no difference at this stage other than, presumably, to affect what NPC background conversations you hear.

      I also chose Sunspears but I'm going to choose Neutral on my next character so I'll keep an eye out for any differences.

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