Saturday, February 1, 2020

Tunnel Visions: GW2

Reviewing each episode of Guild Wars 2's Living Story as it appears has always been something of a tradition here at Inventory Full but I was thinking it might be time to bring that tradition to an end. Who even plays GW2 any more, anyway? I barely play it. These days even posts about EverQuest II seem to draw more interest.

I was certainly feeling that way after I'd played through the first few sections of the new story drop a few days ago. The overwhelming feeling of sameness was stultifying. The latest chapter of The Icebrood Saga, Shadow In The Ice, takes place in the same map as the previous one. A hitherto unrevealed part of that map, sure, but it soon transpires that one end of Bjora Marshes looks much the same as the other.

In some ways that's a good thing; I said some very complimentary things about ArenaNet's art department in my original assessment of the marshes and standards haven't slipped. Even so, as impressively as the team evoke the overpowering desolation of eternal winter, some of the impact inevitably dissipates with familiarity.

Seen one set of fallen arches, seen 'em all.
As I plodded through the narrative (and yes, there will be spoilers) that sense of déjà vu grew until I was seized by an overwhelming ennui. We've not only been here before, we've been here many times. So many times...

A subset of the regular cast bicker and kvetch about personal issues while trudging across a wilderness in pursuit of a distant quarry. A disembodied voice, laden with distortion, maintains a fractured and fractious dialog with the player character, while in the background looms an existential threat in the form of yet another a dragon.

In principle I don't have a problem with repetition. I certainly don't have any issues with thematic focus. If the core of the game's story is dragons and their metaphysical relationship to the continued existence of the world and everything in it then I'm down with that. Or I could be.

Only does it have to be so pedestrian? So lacking in urgency? So quotidian?

Now that's what I call an interstitial!
We have reached the stage in the narrative where slaying elder dragons is just what our characters do. Dragons and gods. Even characters we meet for the first time now take it as a given. "Oh, I know who you are. You're that guy who kills dragons".

Any story that makes dragon-killing into a day job is in trouble, even if we do kill the odd god on the side, when the dragon-killing goes slack. Still, it is what it is. And I can't complain, or I shouldn't. I was one of those who advocated getting back to the main plot all through that long and tedious digression with Palawa Joko, after all. If dragons it must be then let's get to it.

Except, of course, we don't. We don't get to killing dragons because in Tyria dragonslaying is always and inevitably preceded by a plethora of busy-work. Busy-work and talking. Which we call "preparation".

For the new Saga-shaped iteration of the Living Story, ANet have done away with Hearts once again. We had them in the base game, then they went away for years, then they came back. Some people liked that, some didn't. The current version seems like an attempt to please, or at least not annoy, both factions.

Yeah, yeah, I heard it all before.
There are no Hearts as such in Bjora Marshes, old part or new, but the storyline uses beats that are functionally indistinguishable. Before we can pursue the renegade Charr leader, Bangar, or mount an attack on elder dragon Jormag's champion, Drakkar, first we have to go do this and that, here and there, all around the new map.

Instead of completing tasks to fill a Heart we have to participate in Dynamic Events. Or, as some would far more accurately be called, Static Events, given they take place in a fixed location and have a visible on-screen timer telling you when to expect them. Participating fills a green bar in the top corner of the screen. Green bar, yellow Heart. Same difference.

I won't go over the details of what the events are or how they work save to say that they're simple to complete and only mildly irritating. I was consumed with a palpable sensation of box-ticking as I knocked them off, one after another. High adventure it was not.

Once again, I feel it would be churlish to complain. After all, I made it quite clear I'd had more than enough of the more "challenging" requirements of previous Living Story seasons. This approach is unarguably much closer to what I said I wanted. Maybe I've just seen it too many times, now. It's been more than seven years. Familiarity takes its toll on enthusiasm.

Pretty much what you'll be looking at for the next thirty minutes.

With the outdoor prep done it's off to the instances we go; a series of tunnels and caverns that conspire to be unremarkable and visually appealing at one and the same time. ANet's artists are very good at ice but ice can only hold your attention for so long.

Progress through the ice tunnels goes as you might expect. The Commander (as the player character is known, by dint of a military appointment that can surely only be honorific at this stage, since the last thing we ever do is command anyone to do anything - or, if we do, to have them actually do it), accompanied by Rytlock, Ceria and Braham, push on past various icebrood minions towards this episode's Big Bad.

Pacing here is decent. Waves of low-quality grunts attempt to swarm the team and are summarily dispatched. Stronger cannon-fodder follows and meets a similar fate. Finally a Champion appears for a fight that lasts a minute or two.

Real story spoilers next - look away if you might play.

I did wonder for a second if that was it but no. This is an episode with multiple endings. It's also almost an homage to endings we have loved (or loathed) from episodes in the past.

When you can switch the UI off and stand in melee range to screenshot the sub-boss's big attack...
There's a dragon whispering in the ears of the weak - and indeed of the strong - threatening to turn friend into foe. And succeeding. There's a dragon's champion visible only as a disembodied head poking through a wall. There's a segment where The Commander has to fight and defeat a vision of themselves.

Seriously, it's like a Greatest Hits compilation, although it's a lot better than that sounds. It's like a cover album of the greatest hits of a band you never much liked but done by a bunch of bands you like a lot more. And best of all they all only do one verse and a chorus then it's on to the next number.

It motors right on through, in other words. None of the dismal rule-of-three that made previous seasons such a misery. Best of all, even though the baddies still paint the floor with every kind of circle and splodge, even though they spew balls of light and columns of ice and bolts of lightning and blue fire, none of it really does much.

The dark blue one that looks like a slug is Jormag's Whisper. The skeletal head sticking out of the wall is Drakkar. Dead Drakkar. We just killed him. We just killed him. Bangar did not kill Drakkar. Let's get that straight right now!
You can dodge it if you find dodging exciting. I did for a while. Then I stopped and just stood there and it made precious little difference. I barely ever went under three-quarters health.

Some people will surely complain that this is insulting to their great gameplaying skills but I find it entirely appropriate for solo storyline instances in a casual MMORPG. It took them a long time but ANet finally seem to have realized who their core audience is, for the narrative at least.

If that was all there was to Shadow In The Ice I might not have bothered writing it up at all. I might have let this be the breakpoint that ended the tradition. But then something happened, right at the end, and it surprised me. The story took a turn I didn't expect.

Why, you devious little...
In the last few minutes, most of which comprises in-game conversation between NPCs and some rather well handled uses of the game engine, two or three things happened that caught my attention and re-engaged me with the narrative.

After a sequence of fights and a plethora of false endings and minor set pieces, Jormag's champion Drakkar is down, Jormag's Whisper (don't ask) is at death's door and everything looks set to resolve itself satisfactorily. And then, out of nowhere, Bangar and Rytlock's son, Ryland Steelcatcher, appear. The very two renegades we were chasing across the marshes. And between them they kill the Whisper, nearly kill The Commander and leg it out of the caves to take full credit for everything the good guys (that's us) have done!

I definitely did not see that coming. Neither did I foresee the coda, where my character wakes up in a refurbished Hall of Monuments, now re-purposed as Aurene's Lair. At least, I think that's where it was. It certainly looked like it. Didn't see my stuff there but still...

I like what you've done with the place, Aurene.
To cap it all off, Aurene then posits the idea that Jormag, whose insidious draconic blandishments The Commander has been exhorting his colleagues to be firm of spirit and resist throughout, may actually have a point of view worth listening to. Can you ever trust a dragon? Even Aurene?

According to celebrated data miner that_shaman, as reported by MassivelyOP, we may be in for "six more episodes with a two-month gap between each, leading to a year’s worth of content" . If it's all of a kind with this latest chapter I guess things could be worse. Eight weeks between drops would be just close enough to maintain momentum; the gameplay, while scarcely riveting, is demonstrably more to my taste than in previous seasons and I am at least mildly curious to find out what happens next.

I'll give ANet a pass on this one. And I guess I'll keep on doing the episode reviews. For a while longer, anyway.


  1. Whisper may not deal that much damage to Druid, but my glass cannon mesmer got killed twice during the last fight due to lack of proper self-healing.

    Also, you might stay around for a bit longer, they should release Visions of the Past soon. It's about Ryland's adventures in Bjora Marches and probably starts from Scrying Pool in Hall of Monuments (at least if you jump into it in the end of the episode, there's bonus line from Aurene about being interested in it).

    1. Yes, I play my Druid in Living Story instances specifically because he's very hard to kill, being 100% specced for healing. The downside is every fight taking forever but I prefer that to having to restart repeatedly.

      I'm not going anywhere - I'll still be playing every day, it's just that "playing" these days means doing dailies on two accounts and then logging out. But if anything new gets added I'll be there to give it a try.

      I missed the jump in the pool thing, though. I stood there looking around and thought "I bet there's nothing to see here" and left. In the old days I'd have poked and prodded everything in the room but I don't have the motivation I did back then...

  2. Wow, your writing is fantastic in this one. Really enjoyed it! I haven't played GW2 in years and years, but you keep tempting me to try again…

    1. Thanks! Don't let my grumpinesss about the game put you off. It has a lot going for it still. I just sometimes (often) wish they'd made some different choices along the way.


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