Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Path Of Fire : First Impressions - Part One

It's been a week now. I must have logged well over 30 hours. I've finished the storyline and explored a good deal of all five overland maps. You'd think it was past time for first impressions but it still feels like very early days indeed.

There will inevitably be spoilers ahead. Although I don't plan on getting too far into specifics it's not possible to give any kind of coherent overview without letting some detail slip. Beware.

Graphics

The first thing to say is that Path of Fire is a stunningly impressive visual feast. In five years the brightest star in ArenaNet's firmament has been its Art Department but this is spectacular even by the standards they've set. As I've observed before, if there's anything to be said against the visuals here it's that they risk becoming too much of a good thing. The sheer magnitude of splendor filling the screen in every direction, all the time, can overwhelm the ability to appreciate it as fully as it deserves.

That said, we have seen a lot of this before. Kormir's astonishing library, for example, is unmistakably reminiscent of the library in the Durmand Priory. The detail and design throughout are mesmerizing but it did occur to me, as I was taking screenshots by the score, that I wasn't seeing much, if anything, to outdo the sights of Divinity's Reach or The Black Citadel. It's stunning but by and large it's nothing new.

Still, such consistency and coherency sustained at such a high level over the life of the game can hardly be considered a criticism. If GW2's artists peaked early at least it left them stranded on the highest of plateaus.



Sound

The sound in GW2 gets a lot less attention than the graphics but the standard once again is high. The ambient background hum of the world going about its business adds a good deal to a sense of immersion. There are some subtle indications of changes in the weather here and there, the sounds of wind and shifting sand and there are animal sounds somewhere in the mix. It's atmospheric enough. It sounds like you're somewhere.

The non-storyline NPC dialog is uniformly strong. What they say is interesting, revealing, thought-provoking or amusing. I'm including this under "Sound" because of the the voice acting, which is of high quality, offering some excellent line readings.

I thought it showed a very distinct improvement over both Heart of Thorns and LS3, where it was often sub-par. It's true that the repetition of certain speeches and routines can be irritating but there's a setting in options to hear audio only once, should you wish to use it. Personally, I like to hear the voices loop.

The music I was less impressed by. Nothing particularly stood out. When I did notice an arrangement it was mostly because it sounded either Arabian Nights cliched or I thought I'd heard it before, elsewhere in the game.



Maps

Huge. Really, really big. Also complex and varied.

There are only five overland maps, which is one more than we got in HoT, but they probably represent more than double or more explorable land than the same number of maps would provide in the base game.

As discussed previously, the terrain and environments offer far more than the endless sand and rocks a desert theme might suggest. I was delighted to find a substantial portion of the Deldrimor Front, a snowclad mountain range included, along with a rich river valley. There are pockets of all kinds of different environment hidden in corners and caves and crags. Something for all seasons.

In terms of explorability I was surprised and satisfied to find that the terrain has not been over-tuned for mounts. Yes, there are specific locations required by the storyline, for particular collections or just for map completion, requiring one or other of the mounts, but 90% or more of the landscape seems to be accessible to nothing more than a glider and an inquiring mind.

There's one way in which I feel the new expansion has been badly misrepresented: verticality. Much was made of the "verticality" of Heart of Thorns and there has been a deal of praise for PoF's supposed flatness. Twaddle!

In HoT, the z-axis was almost always a question of glider mastery: Path of Fire is one giant jumping puzzle from end to end. Flat is the very last word I'd use to describe it. Expect to hop, scramble, climb and glide a lot more than you ever needed to do in the jungle. Especially if you want that Griffon mount.



Gameplay

This is the sticking point, isn't it? There's an axiom in the hobby that gameplay trumps graphics every time. Doesn't matter how pretty it is, if there's no hook people won't stick around just for the view.

You can see the doubts emerging in this comparison between the two expansions as well as in the official feedback thread. The problem is replayability: its possible lack is a function of the perceived return to core values that's been so praised elsewhere.

It is true that Path of Fire feels a lot closer to the original base game than Heart of Thorns ever did. Perhaps the main reason is the way the large, sprawling maps once again feel stuffed to bursting with GW2's signature "Dynamic Events". They pop all the time, everywhere. These are mostly small, local stories told in standalone events and short chains. They're fun but they lack function.

To many players they are quite likely also unfamiliar as a concept. The gameplay model to which they hark back ceased to be the norm in GW2 so long ago that players who must consider themselves veterans by now may never have experienced it at all - especially if they used a boost to hit 80.

With the piecemeal introduction of Dry Top back in July 2014 open world gameplay moved consistently to a mapwide meta-event structure. Players have become habituated to every map having a timed, repeatable, predictable event chain that builds to a climax, provides substantial rewards and then resets. Map metas even have their own real estate in the UI, providing a visible prompt that ensures everyone knows what stage is active and what the objectives are.


Path of Fire maps don't do any of that. There are some large chains that players are calling "metas" but they don't run on an obvious timer and don't flag in the UI unless you happen to be where they are when they start. We're back to calls in map chat like it was 2013.

I quite like the retro approach but it very clearly lacks the organizing principle not just of of HoT but of every map introduced in the last three years. Map metas can be dry but when they work they're compelling content.

Countless players, myself among them, repeated the Verdant Brink, Auric Basin, Tangled Depths and, especially Dragon's Stand meta chains over and over for a full year and more. Not just for profit but because they were a lot of fun. Reliable fun you could find on demand. It's hard to see the equivalent in Path of Fire.

Then there are World Bosses. There was some talk of that feature making a return in PoF but it hasn't really happened. Core Tyria maps almost all serve up a genuine World Boss, who spawns at set times and always draws a crowd. Instead, PoF maps have Bounties, which are player-triggered and unscheduled. Already, at this very early stage, even when a Map Bounty features as a daily, it can be annoyingly hard to find anyone doing them.

Genuine explorers will continue to get entertainment from the new maps indefinitely, I'm sure, but less than half a month into the lifespan of this expansion population seems oddly sparse. It's not because of a lack of players - there's just no particular focus to draw them together and the maps, as observed, are massive. Everyone's busy about their own business.

How long most people will hang around once they have their story done , their achievements ticked, their Griffon collected, their Hero Points earned and their maps completed remains to be seen. If steps aren't taken to prevent it, though, I could easily see these being some of the least-visited maps in the game a few months from now.



Difficulty

I pulled this out of Gameplay to discuss it specifically because I feel it's another aspect of the expansion that's been badly misreported. I've read numerous comments that suggest Path of Fire is a lot easier than Heart of Thorns. This runs directly counter to my experience so far.

I have not found the maps any easier to navigate than HoT's. I would say they are roughly on a par. As I posted I am not a fan of mounts while I'm a huge fan of gliders. That becomes more true the more I use the mounts and the more mount masteries I acquire. If I can avoid using a mount I do so. They are clumsy and awkward where the glider is subtle and elegant.

Movement modes aside, I do not believe that PoF mobs provide any less of a roadblock than the Mordrem. They seem to me to have much the same repertoire of irritating crowd control tricks, which they employ liberally at every opportunity.

Mob density, contrary to comments I have seen, seems to me to be, if anything, worse than HoT. There are mobs everywhere.  Traveling the Path of Fire is like running an endless gauntlet, assaulted at every turn.


I've found it nigh on impossible to do anything at all without two or three unnecessary and unwanted fights. Last night, as just one entirely typical example, it took me literally five solid minutes of fighting to clear dust mites just so I could mine a single node. The aggro range on many of the mobs is huge, they are almost all highly aggressive, they are social and the respawn times are very fast.

As for the idea that they are mostly "normal" mobs - pfah! I can't begin to count the number of Veteran mobs I've had to kill just because they were in the way. Every encounter seems to have at least one veteran - often several. Some areas even have multiple Elites.

It's entirely possible that the difference in perceived difficulty comes from class or build, as we eventually established was the case in HoT. This may be intended as the melee-friendly expansion - certainly a lot of mobs seem to be tuned against ranged attacks.

Mostly, though, I think the reports of reduced difficulty come from people's early experience of the first areas of the first map, Crystal Oasis, which rather lives up to its name. Yes, it's quite relaxing and unstressful around Amnoon. Wait 'til you cross Devestation and push into Palawa Joko's territories before you make any sweeping assumptions about overall difficulty levels, that's all I'm saying.

Aaaaaand... I think that's enough for one post. Going to split this in two and do the story and the class stuff another time. There's a griffon out there somewhere with my name on it and I need to find it!

4 comments:

  1. Path of Fire is one giant jumping puzzle from end to end

    Ouch, I fear you just killed the chances I'd buy the expansion..... I'll probably get it anyway, but seriously if they want to design platformers, then they should sell them as platformers and not as MMOs. HoT had some parts which were downright aggravating.
    As much as I consider the initial GW2 maps to be very good and nice to navigate, I despise the uselessness of "m" in HoT since it was impossible to determine which path to take by looking at the map..... which is somewhat problematic, because that's the whole point of having a map..

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    1. My view may be slightly colored from being in the middle of the Griffon collection, which involves getting eggs from a series of very high, very inaccessible places. That not withstanding, there really is a lot of jumping and clambering and the map is not always much help. I still haven't found the waypoint at the Gardens even though it's plainly marked.

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  2. And how is class balance nowdays? I plan to return to GW2, is Technomancer any good? Guardians still steamroll over everything else?

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    1. I'm the worst person to ask about class balance. I'm still running the same builds on most of my characters that they set when they hit 80 and that was years ago.

      I haven't tried any of the PoF elites yet but I hear Holomancer is OP and a lot of people were moaning about Scourge being unkillable in WvW. I mostly play a Staff Ele using HoT's Tempest elite and I'm sticking with that. I haven't heard a lot of good things about Weaver and it looks fiddly anyway.

      Guardians haven't been the powerhouse they were for a while although they are solid as far as I know. The HoT Dragonslayer spec for Guardians was pretty powerful, especially in WvW, where Guardian remains the favorite class for Commanders. I don't even know what the Guardian Elite in PoF is called though.

      Really, every class and every elite is probably totally fine in open world PvE. For Raiding, sPVP and WvW you should check Metabattle to see what people currently favor.

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