Wednesday, April 20, 2022

Yeah, Thomas Wolfe! What Do You Know, Anyway?

Guild Wars 2's Living World, Season One is back, kinda-sorta, and I'm not sure how I feel about it. There's no doubt whatsoever in my mind that the first season was far and away the best but there are so many contributing factors to that assessment it's very hard to be sure whether I'm basing it on the objective quality of the material or the subjective manner in which I experienced it.

For a start, Season One unfurled in something approximating real time. It was the era of GW2 when ArenaNet believed they could roll out new content, consistently, on a two week turnaround. 

It seems like hubris now but at the time it was meant to be the future of the genre. GW2 would blaze a trail of continuous development that would provide the players with all the entertainment they'd need. No biannual Expansions or quarterly Updates, just a never-ending, steady flow of quality stories, events and activities that lasted for a couple of weeks before disappearing forever, to be replaced immediately by the next episode.

There's a long and analytical post to be written about just how well those expectations were served over the course of the first season. This is not that post, for the very good reason that it would take hours of research, checking dates, reading patch notes, going over all the posts I wrote about each episode at the time. Hours and hours of preparation, followed by more hours working it up into readable form.

I'm not even sure this portal was from the new Season One. I just know it was bugged.
I don't have hours. I have about fifty minutes before I have to stop for the night. Consequently, I'm not going to discuss how very slowly Season One began, how impatient we were, how cynical and dismissive, or how over time many of us became invested and immersed in the admittedly confusing storyline.  

I'm going to leave any conversations over whether Scarlet Briar was the best villain GW2's ever seen or an excruciatingly embarassing Mary Sue for another day. The various highs and lows of the year-long epic (Or was it longer than that?) will have to wait.

Even if I did have time enough to dwell on all the subtle implications, to unpick the threads of intent and execution, to pass judgment on the success or failure of the original project before comparing and contrasting it with the current reiteration, topped, tailed and tidied as it is, this is only Episode One. It's too early for all that.

Take this as a First Impressions piece about the echoes of something that happened a decade ago, if you will. Because that's all we're getting: echoes.

It was good to see the naive, uncynical Rox again.
As anyone who's listened to their voice bouncing off distant mountains or reverberating from a deep well can attest, however, echoes can be very affecting. Also evocative, eerie and impressive. I found playing through the first few sections of the new Season One all of those, on occasion.

There's a huge nostalgia card being played here and it's all the more effective for the lack of hype it's received. It's not been a hard sell, big deal like WoW Classic, more "here's a cool thing you might enjoy". I fell into playing it this afternoon more out of a sense of duty than excitement but I was surprised how many buttons it pressed.

For a start, I wasn't expecting to see any of the original open-world content again. I always preferred the parts of the Living World that actually took place in the living world of Tyria, the bit where everything else happened.

It was always going to be relatively simple for ANet to revive the instanced content. I imagine the problem has always been how to string the relatively small number of instances together without the much more numerous open map events.

On the evidence of what I saw today, it seems to have been easier than you'd imagine. When you think about it, the things that happened in open maps tended to fall into two simple categories: extremely questlike content that doesn't impinge in any significant way on the events already running or massive zerg battles that dominate and disrupt everything else.

Those big zergs come later. In the early stages it's all fixing signposts and finding refugees' belongings in the snow. I did both of those things today and the memories came flooding back. I found myself thinking I'd like to get a few of my other characters out and run through the simple, satisfying steps just for the fun of it. Maybe even my free account, since Anet have very generously made the content available to absolutely everyone.

The two instances, Nolan Hatchery and Cragstead, those I was somewhat less enamored by. It's not that they're bad. They aren't. At the time, though, they felt considerably more challenging and they were released some distance apart. That's probably why I didn't notice at the time how incredibly similar they are.

They're not far off being the same instance, reskinned, to be honest. It's almost painfully obvious when you play through both one after the other. In each of them you follow an NPC (Rox, Braham) along a linear path, fighting wave after wave of regular and veteran mobs so as to retake territory and protect citizens (Or warpets in training in the case of the Hatchery). 

I like the colors of these achievements.
In both you have to hold a ring against mobs that spawn from portals and in both the whole thing ends with a Champion coming through a final portal placed at the extreme end of the map. It's not so much that it's a formula, more that it's formulaic.

I'm not complaining, even if it sounds as though I am. I know what came later. I'd take a hundred simple, formulaic instances like these over any of the supposed innovations that made the later Living World seasons such a royal pain.

In that sense the whole thing did feel very nostalgic indeed. Nostalgic for a simpler, less pretentious GW2. One where a bunch of veterans piling out of a portal felt like challenging content. And it did, too, back then. I can prove it.

Here's what I said about Nolan Hatchery, first time through, back in March 2013:

"The nursery instance was exactly the right degree of hard. I completed it without dying but I was downed a few times and it looked touch and go for a while."

This time around, playing my junior Elementalist, I was never in any serious danger. She wasn't downed even once, nor came close. I did have to swap in and out of Water to lay down healing fields and I used the Earth Elemental several times to tank but the whole thing felt calm and measured, never frenetic or threatening. 

When I was on the final Champion at the end of Cragstead, Mrs Bhagpuss came in with the puppy to ask me if I wanted scrambled egg on toast. I was perfectly comfortable having a conversation with her about it, looking back over my shoulder, while I carried on fighting. That is not Challenge Mode.

I even had time to take a screenshot of the final boss. Not that you can see him.

Which suits me. I can only hope the same applies when I get to the next stage of the episode, the Molten Weapons Facility. I have a clear memory of taking a very long time to beat it first time around, including a lot of deaths and an absolutely epic PUG, which I recorded in detail here on the blog at the time.

Re-reading that post confirms my memory of the exhausting, attritional afternoon I spent trying to finish the fight. What I had completely forgotten was that I'd not only already beaten it, but done so on the first attempt in another PUG on the very night it launched, when "no-one knew what to expect and we had no strats to follow". What's more, "Mrs Bhagpuss did the run on both of her accounts in PUGs during the first couple of days and had no more trouble than I did."

As I so often say, this is why I have a blog. So I can correct myself every time I remember things wrong. I have thought of that instance for years as nightmarishly difficult whereas in fact it seems I just had one nightmarishly difficult experience there. 

I'm very curious to see how it turns out this time. If it's unchanged from nine years ago it's going to be an absolute cakewalk. If it's been brought up to current group instance standards it will be a lot tougher than I'm used to any more. Been a long time since I did a serious PUG.

Something to look forward to!

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