Sunday, June 3, 2018

Ain't No Mountain High Enough : GW2

As I may have mentioned a few times in passing, I am not a fan of the mounts that were added to GW2 as a major feature of last year's Path of Fire expansion. My issues with them, which are manifold, include the way they were introduced, what they look like, how they work and how they have been merchandised. There isn't much I do like about them.

Despite the company line for many a year holding that mounts neither fit the game nor were necessary, I wasn't one of those who felt aggrieved when I heard that ArenaNet had chosen to add them. I like mounts in MMORPGs. As well as their obvious utility, I think they add color and flavor for the individual characters that ride them as well as providing a visual spectacle for everyone else. They also represent an additional form of content for players who enjoy collecting things.

There are drawbacks. Although most MMOs begin with relatively straightforward mounts that fit the milieu and the lore of the world - horses, camels, perhaps wolves or large lizards - it's never long before surrealism and hyperbole set in. The sight of a dozen players clustered around the banker, mounted on everything from smoke-belching motorcycles to thirty-meter long fire-breathing dragons can be somewhat immersion-breaking, not to say antisocial.

Even entirely lore-appropriate mounts can be intensely irritating. One of the reasons I moved from a Live server to Test in EQ2 was the introduction of flying carpets with the Kingdom of Sky expansion. They were so annoying - not only visually but in the way everyone insited on talking about them all the time in general chat - that I felt it was worth moving to a far less-populated environment just to get away from them.

Then there's the way mounts affect gameplay. Those carpets didn't actually fly - they just drifted along a foot above the ground - but eventually all MMOs face the decision on whether to introduce genuine flying mounts. The argument against them is that they trivialize content. The argument in favor is that they make content easier to access.

I lean very much towards the latter. I love flying mounts. My experience in every MMORPG I've played that has them is that they open up the world, make my time there more enjoyable and encourage me to play more than I otherwise would have done.

Developers, even though they are the people who added the ability to fly in the first place, often have much more ambivalent feelings about it. Sometimes they try to hedge their bets by gating the right to a flying mount behind lengthy questlines or a high monetary cost but inevitably the time comes when almost everyone can fly.

At that point the choice is either to design content around the fact or risk a player revolt by taking the option away. Blizzard tried that and things were ugly for a while before the current, grudging compromise was established.

The GW2 devs have tried to avoid the flying problem by offering mounts that almost-but-not-quite fly. The Griffin can stay aloft for a good while - if you find a high place to start from and work the keyboard effectively. Most of the time it doesn't do that. It bunny-hops in way that's both jarring and embarrassing.

Even though they have, so far, avoided the issues that arise from giving players the unfettered power of flight, the combination of powered gliding on a Griffin, vertical ascent on a Springer and the ability to treat water as though it were solid on a Skimmer has rendered much of the original content of the game, if not obsolete, then at least avoidable. With the right mount you can go over, around or through just about anything in Tyria these days.

I don't use my mounts very often. I enjoyed getting the Griffin but it's fiddly and unsatisfying as a regualr ride. I pop it out if I need to keep up with a zerg when running dynamic events in PvE, but that in itself is something I very rarely do these days. Indeed, the reason I don't is because to do so now you pretty much have to be mounted or you get left behind. Rather than mount up I've opted to bow out of that content altogether.

One of the few things I do occasionally enjoy doing with my mounts is scrambling up mountains to see how high I can get. I took my Springer and Griffin out in Timberline Falls a week or two ago, when I happened to be down there hunting Krait, and I was amazed just how high I was able to get.

The sad thing is, there isn't all that much to see in Core Tyria when you get that high. Unlike Heart of Thorns or Path of Fire, which were designed as three-dimensional spaces from the get-go, the original maps were built with the expectation that they'd be seen on foot. All you get when you climb a mountain there is a lot of flat, featureless rock and a view that looks like a schematic.

GW2's implementation of mounts seems to me to have benchmarked against just about all the worst aspects of the feature. With particular irony the designers have contrived at "realism" while simultaneously embracing the wildest fantasies of fashion.

The base offer is exceptionally small at just five animals. They are all somewhat bland, supposedly consistent with the game's look and lore, but "skins" are available (at a cost), which provide a seemingly never-ending stream of carnival costumes. The result is an eye-gouging display, seemingly unrestricted not just by lore or realism but by any sense of taste or aesthetic judgment.

The fatuous adherence to an imagined authenticity reaches its nadir with the momentum added to the mounts' movement. Unlike the slick, smooth, satisfying travel possible in just about every other MMO I've ever played, GW2 mounts insist on lurching and skewing like drunken teenagers in a stolen car. Leaving aside the propensity this has to cause motion sickness, it baffles me that anyone could find the experience in any way enjoyable, let alone convincing.

People do, though. My dislike of GW2's mounts is very much a minority view. It has, nevertheless, contributed in no small part to the reduced amount of time I spend playing GW2 these days and to my diminished interest in the game over the last six months or so.

When I do play, I mainly restrict myself to those areas of the game where mounts are either less relevant (Core Tyria, Heart of Thorns) or banned altogether (WvW). I barely ever visit the Path of Fire of maps. As I anticipated, my interest in that expansion, which was never strong, ended the moment I completed the main storyline and finished the Griffin quest.

If I never go back to those maps it will suit me very well. The Heart of Thorns maps, by comparison, I still thoroughly enjoy and frequently visit, to explore or hang out there just for the fun of it.

Had Path of Fire been designed without mounts in mind, with maps intended to be seen on foot and from the air while gliding, I most likely would be exploring them happily even now. Unfortunately, not only are those maps dead to me but they have likely killed off most of my interest in whatever comes after them. Once introduced, mounted travel is in an MMO for ever.

All I can really hope is that, when the next expansion is announced, it will have a new sales driver that ANet want to prioritize. If so, mounts will take a back seat as the designers attempt to direct cash flow into whatever new idea they've come up with and perhaps that might be something more to my taste.


  1. While WoW gates flying now they definitely build their zones with the mindset that "someone may explore here at some time". There's enough to find in faraway and high places that it is worth looking for. I love stumbling over things by accident that way while flying.

    1. They did that from the very start. I always think of the gnomish airfield. I spent three days, on and off, trying to find a way up to that. It was immensely satisfying when I finally managed it. Eventually they opened it up and incorporated it in a quest line but it was there for years before anyone was meant to see it.


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