Sunday, October 1, 2017

Punishment of Luxury: GW2

There are five new overland maps in GW2's second expansion, Plane of Fire. All of them are visually stunning but the most breathtaking of them all is both furthest in and farthest out - Domain of Vabbi.

Vabbi is part of the empire of Palawa Joko, an undead lich (is there any other kind?) of immense power. Joko has a long and convoluted history, none of which means much to me, but his grandiose and absurd posturings, coupled with a predilection for grim and grisly sadism, are all too familiar from any number of real-world analogues.

It would be hard not to notice just how deeply the whole expansion draws from recent real-world history but Vabbi hammers the point home with a determined lack of subtlety, just in case you were missing it. I'm enjoying that aspect of PoF a lot although I'm not sure how well the liberal-leaning politics will sit with everyone.

I particularly liked the lengthy briefing on the current political situation in Vabbi given immediately on entering the map by Agent Hamma of the Order of Shadows. She hails you and then lectures you at some length on the complexities of handling an indigenous population under the indoctrinating influence of a dictator. She places great emphasis on the damage you could do if you just charge in and attempt to "fix" things by force of arms, reminding you that reconstruction is every bit as important as regime change.

As you stand there, taking it on the chin, you may hear the echoing, unnatural voice of the Awakened Affirmation System. This Orwellian device regularly booms out across the landscape to exhort and encourage both the living and the dead, adding considerable weight to Agent Hamma's words. It's chilling and amusing all at once, typical of the black humor that runs through all of Vabbi and much of Path of Fire itself.

The wiki entry for Vabbi tells us that "the province boasted ornate and lavish architecture, fashion and decor in its settled areas before Palawa Joko's return". It still does - and then some. ArenaNet's superlative art department evidently pay no heed to the maxim "less is more". For them it seems more can never be enough.

There is a small problem with this approach, or there is for me, at least. My sense of wonder can only respond so many times to this kind of over-stimulation before the safety switches begin to trip. After a while one glorious sight begins to run into another in the kind of art-gallery burnout often seen in crowds hurrying past each masterpiece to get to the next.

As it happens, Vabbi does have an actual art gallery. I stumbled across it entirely by accident while I was wandering through the confusing halls of the Vehtendi Academy. The Academy is where cadets train for service in Joko's living administration (as opposed to his undead one, The Awakened, where no doubt they will go on to serve in due course, for a very great deal longer and without any further need for pay or benefits).

The dialog between cadets is extensive and often amusing, as it is throughout the new expansion. This aspect of the original game - lengthy and well-written exchanges between background NPCs that add depth and texture to the world rather than further a particular storyline - was sadly lacking in Heart of Thorns but here it's back in full force.

There's an opportunity to talk to some of the cadets about the history they're being taught. Unsurprisingly it bears little relation to reality but good luck trying to convince the heavily indoctrinated faithful otherwise.

In a way you can hardly blame them for laughing at you when you try to explain that Palawa Joko did not defeat Zhaitan or Mordremoth in single combat. Coming from a midget in a playsuit, the claim that you and your friends did both of those things is more likely to inspire a pat on the head and a discreet call for nursie than any change of world-view.

There are other travelers around who might back you up but they have troubles of their own. I was standing staring up at a massive painting in the gallery when I was unexpectedly joined by Explorer Mora.  She began to explain the context of the painting we were looking at, to my considerable interest, but she made the mistake of using her lecture-hall voice.

Apparently, loudly and openly questioning the authenticity of Palawa Joko's many achievements, even if merely displayed in oils, attracts the attention of the Awakened. Very unfavorably so. When Mora deciphered the meaning of the painting we were admiring to be Joko Giving The Gift Of Magic To The World it was definitely unwise of her to be so openly skeptical.

Hard though I tried, I was unable to keep her alive through the relentless assault by the guardians of the gallery that followed. I mopped the remainder of their forces up afterwards but it was too late for the rest of the tour to continue. Mora was gone.

As a dynamic event it was perhaps a tad overtuned, shall we say, but conceptually it shone. I would very much like to hear Mora's interpretations of the rest of the paintings and I fully intend to try again. I fear, though, that it may take a fully-armed tour group to keep her upright long enough to get round them all. Maybe I could recruit a cadre of sufficiently militant art-lovers via LFG.

If not, then onward: Vabbi is stuffed with wonders. There's the Garden of Sebhorin, where effete nobles engage in louche and lubricious repartee even as Kralkatorrik's Branded stalk the upper terraces. I spent a long time wandering the halls, admiring the fountains and killing the intruders. Mostly I was looking for the waypoint. Never found it.

I only passed by the great Kodash Bazaar at a distance but I strolled around the huge Necropolis for some time. The Awakened there seem happy in their work. I watched a mummy sorting organs for the canopic jars and listened to him cheerfully muttering to himself.

You don't often hear the undead being so cheerily, pragmatically positive about, well, anything. Certainly neither the Risen of Orr nor Ascalon's Ghosts ever sound like they're having much fun. Watching the mummies, happy in their work, you can see why the living might aspire to an eternal afterlife as part of Palawa Joko's undead civil service.

There's still a great chunk in the middle of the map I haven't opened yet. More wonders await. The question is, how many more can I take?

Oh go on, then. Just a little one.

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