Thursday, May 16, 2019

Never Satisfied: GW2

When I decided to throw a quick post together about Guild Wars 2's latest Living World update (Season Four, Chapter Six for those keeping score), I was going to do the usual thing of avoiding spoilers but when even the name of the new map gives most of the game away it hardly seems worthwhile worrying.

The map's called Dragonfall and Jeromai has some great widescreen shots of it. He's also very enthusiastic about what he's seeing. I'm... less so.

Yes, the art department has done its usual superb job. This is top notch scenery. It's also the same scenery.

It's a bit cavalier to complain about consistency, isn't it?. After all, I'd be just as likely to complain if the pieces didn't fit together, wouldn't I? And isn't one of GW2's strongest suits the way the worldmaking manages to avoid the pitfalls of so many MMORPGs by maintaining coherent and geologically believable transitions? 

That's not really what I mean, anyway. "Consistent" and "same" aren't synonyms. And the new map is beautiful. Stunning, even. I particularly love the verticality that brings back such good memories of Heart of Thorns.

I don't mind the kitchen sink approach that grandfathers in every previous movement system - bouncing mushrooms, lava tubes, whirlwinds, ley lines, updrafts, even those vines that turn you into Spiderman. Although, as I worked my way around the strikingly different subdivisions last night, I did get the distinct impression someone wanted to show off every tool in the box.

And I did enjoy myself. It was fun. It's good work and I appreciate it. I just didn't hear myself go "Wow!" I'm not sure I will, again, not until we go to somewhere truly new. And even then I suspect it will feel surprisingly familiar.

Wherever it is that we end up in Season Five or Expansion Three (if there is one) there'll be places that look as though they were designed by the world's most talented six-year old: sparkles and stars and twinkling lights as far as the eye can see. There will be the areas that look like the covers of prog rock albums from the 1970s, specifically the ones designed by Roger Dean and Rodney Matthews. 

There will be an immense reliance on deep hues that make every screenshot look like something from the Color Field playbook. The rest will be a mix of stuff that's on fire or dragged up out of the sea or frozen solid or baked dry, just like every other MMORPG only with seriously better production values and far more attention to detail than most. I'm finding it something of a challenge to get excited by any of that any more.

For all the technical skill on display, have any maps been added to GW2 over the last seven years that can stand comparison with the greatest cities of the core game, Divinity's Reach, The Black Citadel or Rata Sum? Does anywhere feel as timeless and true as the eternal autumn of fallen Ascalon?

I do love all the maps that came with Heart of Thorns but even I wouldn't claim they're as complex or complete as those that preceded them. A jungle is a jungle in the end, even if most of it does feel more like a forest.

There's no obvious solution to this problem, if it's even a "problem"that exists outside my head. Most MMORPGs end up being more of the same. We've seen the trouble it can cause when they try not to. Having one of the best art teams in the industry with a portfolio of immediately recognizeable signature styles is as likely to emphasize the issue as conceal it.

Oh well. There are plenty of worse problems to have.

Just ask the writers.


  1. It's heavy asset re-use, but hot damn, if it isn't the classiest and most gorgeous way to re-use assets I've ever seen.

  2. I feel you. When the launched Jahai and included the otherworldly scenery in the ??? i though: 'Finally something new'. I still hope this is some foreshadowing that we will sometimes in the future leave Tyria behind for something really strange. If only for a little time. That would be awesome. I wonder what the art department could do with some sort of carde blanche....

    On the other hand i always wondered how Kaineng would look in GW2. Perhaps we will get another city that can rival Divinitys Reach if we ever go there.

    I have a little hope from the outlok, that they will not release a new map with every episode of season 5. I hope refining a map over a few episodes could give us a more alive map, not just a snapshot in time like everything since HoT.

    1. I do think the "snapshot in time" approach ANet have gone with is more problematic in GW2 than in many other MMORPGs. It's true that when I play EQ or EQ2 I'm traveling through zones that haven't changed much (or at all) in years but because the overarching storylines tend to be a) less foregrounded and b) more contained it's far less noticeable.

      In GW2 we have a single, very linear plot that stretched from launch until now. As we move through it certain major events happen that can't be ignored or even forgotten: namely the deaths of three Elder Dragons, each of which has imposed huge changes on the landscape across multiple maps. That none of those changes is or can be reversed by their deaths makes the whole process of defeating them redundant: we win, often at huge cost, and then nothing changes.

      The further along this narrative we travel, the more enervating and dispiriting the journey becomes.


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