Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Working With Fire And Steel

In the post I wrote a couple of weeks ago, about Guild Wars 2's then-upcoming Visions of the Past, I noted 
"I reserve the right to be grudgingly impressed, should the occasion arise." It arose. I am.

Late night I ran the first of two parts, Forging Steel, in which you get to play a raw recruit in the Steel Warband, as Rytlock's son Ryland Steelcatcher, newly-promoted to Centurion, leads them on what seems very much like a random treasure hunt. If there was some great, political plan behind what they're doing I confess I missed it.

This morning I followed up with part two, Darkrime Delve, where you play Ryland himself as he attempts to smarm his way to would-be charr emperor Bangar Ruinbringer's favor but ends up learning a hard lesson about climbing the greasy pole. Okay, that's not how Ryland sees it but I tend to side with his sire on this one.

As promised, this is one of those "play as someone other than yourself" deals so beloved of bored games developers. The surprise is you actually get to play as yourself playing someone else, by which I mean that, although you look and talk like some random charr in the first mission and a specific storyline NPC in the second, you retain all of your normal class abilities and the whole thing feels like playing your regular character.

In the first mission that's perfectly understandable. You're some no-rep charr looking to join a famous warband and they're trying you out. You could quite rationally be any class. In the second, where you're playing a well-established character, it's rather harder to reconcile the sudden career-swerve.

In practice, though, you'll probably end up playing "in character" for that one anyway because a very early mechanic requires you to use Ryland's fiery chainsword and once you get your paws on it you most likely won't want to give it up. The Flamesaw hacks through Icebrood like... well, like a flaming chainsaw through flesh, melting breakbars in a single hit and making the whole thing go a lot faster than if you'd used your own abilities.

Crucially, though, if you prefer to use them regardless, you can. It seems like a good solution to a problem that has tripped up many a dev over the years, not least in previous chapters of the Living Story.

As far as story here goes, we're talking background and character stuff. Both missions are retrospectives, showing you a little more about how certain things happened and quite a lot about why. Characters that seemed to have appeared out of nowhere when the Icebrood Saga began get the chance to develop a little substance. It's nothing essential but it's done quite well.

Even so, there are a few plot points I won't reveal because spoilers. There's one odd development I will mention, if only because it confused the merry heck out of me. As far as I understand it, a major element of the GW2 timeline includes the departure of all dwarves, either dead or gone underground to wage a desperate, unending batle to hold back one of the elder dragons. We've even had extended conversations with the supposed last of them.

It was a surprise, then, to find as the main opponents in the first mission a seemingly endless supply of Stone Summit dwarves. The charr warband comment on it but toffer no explanation. I note the wiki has recently been updated and now reads "It remains unclear how many dwarves survive in the present day." On this evidence, quite a few, although a lot less since I got my claws into them.

So much for the story and lore. What about the gameplay? Ah, now that's a bit of a puzzler, that is.

There's a thread on the forums, quite lively and occasionally quite heated, discussing ArenaNet's decision to make the first mission available only for group play, with no solo option. That would be a problem if it was true. Only, as I commented on the thread, "I did part one solo last night and part two solo this morning. Until I came here and read this thread I had no idea either was intended to be group content. I thought there was a problem with the in-game description."

When I got to the Scrying Pool I saw two options, one marked "Public" and the other "Squad". A footnote to both reads "Recommended Players 5-10". That certainly does suggest no solo option.

I went into the Public version first, where I spent ten minutes running around doing a couple of gathering events in the starting area while listening to confused people talking in map chat. No-one knew what to do or where to go and nothing seemed to be happening so I zoned out and tried the other option instead, hoping to be put into  squad automatically.

That didn't happen. Instead, I found myself alone in an instance which appeared to function exactly like any other Living World/Icebrood Saga solo instance. I followed the prompts, did the things, killed the mobs, helped the NPCs and everything went very smoothly and pleasantly.

All the way to the final boss. That was a bit of a nightmare but only in the same way many Living World instanced bosses have always been. It took me nearly an hour to down the boss, of which perhaps half was figuring out the mechanics and half executing them. It was tedious but I've seen worse. It did occur to me that it would probably be easier with a few more players but it was by no means out of the run of typical ANet "solo" content from previous chapters.

That was last night. This morning I did the second part, again solo. It was even easier than 90% of part one had been. Very straightforward, very well tuned for solo play. The final boss was a lot easier. Basically tank and spank. There was an awful lot of floor spam but I've learned that in the current iteration of the storyline most of that is purely for effect. I stood in the red throughout and nothing bad happened.

On exiting to the new lobby map, the refurbished Eye of the North, I found myself in a discussion in map chat over whether the chapter was or was not available solo. Since I'd just finished soloing it I was pretty certain it was but then someone said something that gave me pause.

They said, quite categorically, that they could see no private squad option. Another player said they could but they had a "pin", which is GW2 slang for the Commander tag that costs 300 gold and allows you to start your own squad.

The account on which I'd just done the missions has a pin. Maybe that's why I got the option. I would test it with another account that doesn't have one but the Catch 22 is that neither of my non-pin accounts has Path of Fire, which definitely is required to do the new missions.

Accordingly, as of now, I'm not sure if the chapter is or is not intended to be soloed. But I soloed it. So there's that.

There's a good bit more to the update, including the four replayable missions brought back from Season One. There's a quest or a collect or some such to do before those open up. I'll probably post about that when I've done it.

The old version of Eye of the North, the one that doubled as The Hall of Monuments, is now a separate instance, presumably the upgradeable one we were told was coming. Again, I have yet to look into that so maybe more later.

For now, though, I am predisposed to give Visions of the Past the thumbs up. I'd like to do the first mission as a public group to see how it goes. It looks like it could be fun. I'd certainly be a lot more willing to run other characters through these two missions than anything from the previous two seasons.

All in all I am, indeed, grudgingly impressed. The new ArenaNet seem to have a better handle on difficulty and engagement than most of the previous iterations. Or, perhaps I should say, this team has a vision that's a little closer to mine than I've been used to seeing for a while.

I am very cautiously optimistic for the third expansion but a lot could change before then. Always assuming we're here to see it and they're here to sell it to us. Probably best not to look too far ahead right now.


  1. I wish the solo option was better balanced, then I'd have no complaints about it.

    Like you, my first experience of first part was as a "solo" squad, mostly because the Public option broke. I zoned into an instance where random players were running around like headless chickens and no events were popping up. Seeing as this was a super familiar state of affairs, I too just dove back through the exit portal to try it out on my own.

    Soloing it let me feel out all the mechanics at leisure, which is exceptionally good for future grouping, but there were points (usually when the sniper spots came up and the end boss) which were obviously made for multiple people cooperation, so trying to split oneself to do many things meant a great deal of frenetic action and triage prioritization. The end boss took forever because trying to harpoon it solo as intended = 5/6 of the defiance bar gone but not broken. That was exasperating, I had to nickel and dime it down sans breaking it. That's not exactly a break bar tutorial for anybody.

    The challenge options are, I feel, definitely skewed toward static groups, or at least squad organized LFGs who are actually talking to each other and attempting some communication. While this is great for giving such groups something to do in the next few weeks, I worry about when such groups grow bored of the content. It's quite a time consuming run, even when done well, I think, mostly because the NPC escort crawls along.

    1. I haven't bothered with achievements for many years to the point that I no longer even open the panel and lok at them, so anyhting other than the main thrust of the event/instance is completely lost on me. I actually did most of the sniper stuff because I ignored the first one and nothing bad happened so I thought I'd do the opposite on the second and it turned out sniping was fun.

      It was all very easy until the final boss, where I didn't have the problem you describe. I was able to kill the break bar easily every time but then I couldn't do any damage because I was almost always out of ammo. I spent most of the time trying to burn portals down to get more.

      It became apparent eventually that none of the friendly NPCs were ever going to die and the tank was never going to go below 10% health and even that the mobs were barely scratching me. At that point I just concentrated on portals/ammo and following prompts on the when to attack the boss and it went faster. I think on another solo run I could the final fight to maybe 20 minutes (it took me an hour this time).

      It would be really useful to be able to see how much ammo you've collected. If there's a total recorded anywhere I couldn't see it. If it keeps building up indefinitely I'd grab every scrap on the journey in to be ready. I think it will be at it's best when/if Commanders start running specific squads for it but whether anyone will care enough to do that is another matter.

    2. The ammo count is in the tiny status bar just above your skills, where the buffs and conditions go. Yep, just one more itty bitty light blue square amidst lots of other shapes, where only folks who obsess about buffs will ever see it.

  2. Strange, in the past I never thought of China Crisis as a prophetic name. How times have changed.


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