Please be aware that this review contains spoilers of Episodes 5
The greatest difficulty ArenaNet face with its Living World model is trying to convince players who have no interest in lore that the episodic content is something that they should not only play but absorb and revel in. It’s a big risk ArenaNet are taking placing so much of their Living World emphasis on story and lore because for those who simply want to play Guild Wars 2, it could be argued that for those individuals Episode 5 is thin on content. I think however that that would be doing a huge disservice to what ArenaNet have delivered and I’d have to say, Episode 5 is without question a triumph of storytelling and content. On a personal level it’s my gaming highlight of the year.
Part of the reason why I love Episode 5 so much isn’t just in its beauty or expansion of Tyria’s continent. Nor is it because of the brilliance of The Silverwastes but instead and for the first time, it feels like ArenaNet have room to breathe and flex their creative muscles. It might be short, clocking in at around an hours worth of playtime if you flow through the story from start to finish, but it makes no difference to the depth of what’s on offer.
From a lore and story telling perspective, this is the best that ArenaNet have ever delivered and fortunately the impact of it starts early. What really stands out for me is the guards room just inside Vandal’s Claim. Not only are ArenaNet making great use of existing locations that have been sealed off from players, but the guards room in particular says a great deal about the fear that Tyria’s inhabitants are experiencing. Diary entries nailed to the wall scrawled with words of anguish and desperation as Mordremoth’s vines creep into the fortification personalise the experience and lift it above linear storytelling. It’s the first time during any of the Living World content that I’ve felt genuine sympathy and sadness for what the world is facing: who’d have thought a scrap of paper clinging to a wall could do that?
Once inside The Silverwastes what ArenaNet have crafted here, though appealing to those who simply like to play Guild Wars 2 (the loot, event chains and Karma is exceptional), is incredibly important to the feel and delivery of the story. There’s a war effort, the forces of Mordremoth are being kept at bay and its the responsibility of you and the rest of Tyria to fight them back. Providing only one Waypoint and bringing siege elements into play is a stroke of genius. It adds scale and an emphasis on survival. If there were multiple Waypoints it would have trivialised encounters, made the defeat of the creatures you’re facing too easy while also reinforcing that you, as the people of Tyria, are overstretching and do not yet have full control of the zone.
As far as the encounters are concerned outside of the Living World instancing and story segments, I’d have to say they exceed anything ArenaNet have delivered before. There’s still an element of players moving from Event to Event but the “blob” has been massively reduced due to refined mechanics. The lack of Waypoints helps here because you can’t be in all places at once while the sheer quantity of Events further separates players. If the encounters with Mordremoth's creatures weren’t hard enough (they hit like a truck), the fights take another turn as you head underground and into The Breach. Leaping into these subterranean levels took me completely by surprise and as you’d expect from ArenaNet, not only do these lairs look stunning but the bosses down in the depths are incredibly tough. Best of all, if you neglect the surface creatures while fighting underground, Mordremoth’s corruption will creep in and transform the area. It’s a stunning sight with some of the creature and scenery designs (especially the Mordrem Troll and Teragriff Basher) being the finest in the game.
Going back to the story itself, I think what surprised me the most was the creativity behind its pacing, delivery and setting. From viewing the trailer, there was an obvious expectation that we’d visit Glint’s lair while also seeing Ogden. What I didn’t quite expect was that it would come in this form. First and foremost, Glint’s lair is amazing. I freely admit I’d forgotten a great deal about her lore but the pitch here for those new to Guild Wars 2 and whom have never played Guild Wars 1 was perfect. Having Kasmeer and Marjory diverged away from you as they chat to one another about Glint’s history is a really clever way of storytelling. In some ways it reminded me of methods used in games such as Half Life where the story is often progressed by characters on the edge of a scene rather than face to face.
The mechanics within the lair when weaving your way through the crystals, though linear, are well paced. When combined with the enemy encounters that require thought instead of being purely tank and spank encounters, the whole segment becomes incredibly enticing. By the point in which we discover The Master of Peace was gifted one of Glint’s last remaining eggs and the cause of the golden glow in his backpack finally revealed, we’re left with questions of where he is taking it and what he’s going to do once it hatches. Back in reality and once you’ve completed the instance, there’s a clever exchange between you and Ogden that reinforces what you’ve seen. It’s entirely necessary because it’s also for the benefit of individuals who may have missed some of the subtler storytelling and I suspect is ArenaNet’s attempt at further engaging with players who may have had little care for the lore. Ogden leads you by the hand brilliantly with his questioning and I have to say not only looks fantastic but his voice acting and the dialogue is exceptional.
On the subject of lore, the library in the Durmand Priory is gold dust to those of us who love Guild Wars and its universe. The nuggets of information amongst the swathe of books littering the shelves is so enjoyable to read over that I probably spent longer here than in The Silverwastes. What makes the experience so refreshing is the fact that ArenaNet have found a middle ground with its story delivery. Most of the books little more than several short but snappy paragraphs instead of the usual and exhaustingly long tomes that you might find in The Elder Scrolls Online. That isn’t to say I wouldn’t like to read lengthier entries as I absolutely would, but these tantalize just enough to set a scene. My personal favourite has to be Destiny Set in Stone: The Last Days of the Dwarves because it’s such a simple delivery of their story. I love the fact ArenaNet were willing to add this entire area and in all honesty, I’m hoping they begin to scatter a greater quantity of lore books around the world for players to discover as the Living World progresses.
Besides all that, there’s still so much I’ve not discussed: from the brilliant exchange between Durmand Priory’s two chefs as one discusses the possibility of using Bloodstone Dust as a culinary delight to the fact there’s so a great deal of symbology in The Silverwastes for fans to theorise over. ArenaNet have also finally removed a lot of the burden of RNG through allowing the exchange of Bandit Tokens for useful items, while also implementing new armor that isn’t bound to the Trading Post. Best of all, the new content is pure fun. Is it perfect? not quite and my main issue is still the voice acting of Kasmeer and Marjory. When compared to the exceptional Canach, Ogden or Taimi, they aren’t great. I’m still hoping that Mordremoth will devour both of them but in the mean time I’m willing to look past it.
I’ve often been vocal in my criticism of the Living World and its story but I’m honestly struggling to find fault here. I’d still like the ability to exit my Living World instance without having to relog, I’d still like to be able to skip cutscenes when achievement chasing and I’d still like to see more of the cinematics. Without question, though, this Episode is the best ArenaNet have delivered so far. If you’re the type of player who has never taken an interest in the story or lore of a game you’re playing, you’re missing out on a great deal if you turn a blind eye to what is being handed to you in Guild Wars 2. Considering it’s free if you login during the Season and only 200 Gems if you don’t, it’s a steal.
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