The magical portcullis – or in this case, wall of creepy vines – has opened on Season 2 in Guild Wars 2 with the first episode, Gates of Maguuma. Our team has spent a good chunk of time exploring the new content in the update, including a 3 hour “director’s cut” guided tour with Living World game director Steven Waller.
We’ll be drilling down into the particulars of combat, achievements, and more in Gates of Maguuma over on GuildWars2Hub.com, but for now I wanted to share some spoiler-free impressions on the update.
High and Dry
Most often I tend to abhor arid maps as they tend to be very bleak and lifeless. I’m definitely more of a dark, creepy forest kind of guy in that regard. I do have to give props to ArenaNet on the environment design of Dry Top not just for the abundance of interesting vertical gameplay, but for making it a visually enjoyable experience as well.
It might be a case of how compact the map ultimately feels since larger open areas are few and far between, but it gives me an overwhelming sense of walking onto an intricately crafted Hollywood sound stage rather than being in a video game. Everything has that “set piece” thing going on for it, and it’s only during the regularly scheduled sandstorms that Dry Top begins to remind me that I’m not an actor walking out onto a virtual stage, but playing a character in video game about loot, insane plants, and dragons that eat magic for breakfast every few thousand years.
One thing I've always appreciated about ArenaNet's approach to development, is that it regularly finds interesting new uses for existing game mechanics. In the case of Dry Top, you'll be making liberal use of the movement aspects from Festival of the Four Winds content. This can apply to dynamic events, or simply traversing or reaching certain chunks of the map.
Oddly enough, my one of my favorite parts of Gates of Maguuma from both a visual and storytelling standpoint is also the most frustrating for me when it comes to the new Living World journal. Before I drill down into what that means, I do think that the storytelling and character development in Episode One is some of the best that's been added to the game since launch. I won't go into any major details (I'm a big fan of avoiding spoilers), but would absolutely suggest playing through on an asura or sylvari character at least once to experience some of the subtle changes to key dialog moments.
Commercial Free Achievement Farming
While it’s true that the new Journal allows you to reset and play back through main storyline instances for the episode, the entire thing is geared towards achievements. Since we were doing the whole guided tour thing for my first run through the episode, I missed out on the bulk of NPC conversations, assuming I’d be able to simply run back through any important parts later on.
I’m going to avoid any spoilers here, but towards the end there is an instance that is purely about storytelling.
Sadly, it’s inaccessible in replay mode since there is no combat to pin achievements on. So my only option was to run the entire episode through to the end on a second character if I wanted to access that particular map again. The lack of access to key story moments on replay is a pretty major letdown for a turbonerd like me who thrives on drilling down into that aspect of RPGs.
[UPDATED: For the sake of clarification, I've since discovered that the story instances are indeed still accessible during replay. The trick is that you simply won't have the same immediate access like you would for achievement maps, so you'll need to play through the storyline up to that point again. So you will still have access. Apologies for any confusion my original statements may have caused!]
The other nitpick is that the instances have very little replay value apart from the achievements. Each achievement you do unlock comes bundled with a chest reward as a nice incentive, but you won’t be earning anything else beyond a handful of points and the one-time chests. Mobs dropped no loot for me, and you’ll only get the story reward once per character.
Chances are, this is to help alleviate the massive potential for repeatable solo instances from having a negative impact on the social aspects of the game. I definitely get that part of it.
The part that gets me is that story is downplayed so much in replay mode. There was a lot of talk about DVRs and watching back through favorite episodes or seasons of television shows when the system was first announced. The thing is, I watch back through those shows for the story and characters. So far, that doesn’t seem to be an option for those of us who want to dial back into maps like the one in Prosperity’s Mysterious Room to absorb the pure story-driven gameplay of the episode.
For the sake of transparency, it's worth noting that I'm not particularly interested in achievement systems as a more general gaming thing. If you do enjoy achievements and combat challenges, I found this part of replay to be particularly well done. The achievement points and chests do offer plenty of incentive if that's your thing, and the actual combat situations can be a lot of fun. I would strongly suggest playing through some of it with a group if you get the chance. The content is perfectly soloable, but I simply found it to be much more enjoyable during our group run.
Operation Desert Storm
The overland gameplay added with the Dry Top map has been a particularly enjoyable experience so far. Events have subtle ways of chaining and there always seems to be a few running no matter which pocket of the map you find yourself in. Each individual event breaks down into what feels like more of a mini-game, so you have plenty of time to complete multiple events during the 40 minutes between sandstorms.
And you’ll want to participate for a number of reasons. If a lack of incentives beyond achievements is my main nitpick with solo instance replays, the needle swings in the completely opposite direction out in Dry Top.
For starters, it’s a nice touch that overall participation in events is how higher tiers become available on the local vendors. I’ve only seen the Favor meter tick up to tier 3 once so far, however, so it’s going to take a heck of a lot of player participation if anyone wants to purchase any of the rewards at higher tiers.
During and between sandstorms there are also ample reasons to continue playing through the content of the map. If nothing else, you’ll be amassing plenty of geodes that can in turn be used to buy the keys used to open randomly placed chests when the sandstorm is active. These chests have proven to be a very welcome addition for someone like me who got absolutely burnt out with all the champion zerg content you have to play through to obtain crafting materials for ascended gear.
So the Dry Top buried chests have given a viable alternative, and allow you to gather those ascended materials at your own pace and on your own terms. A very, very welcome addition in my books.
Overall, Living World Season 2 is off to an excellent start. You can tell that ArenaNet learned a lot during the process of developing content for Season 1, and I get the sense that Gates of Maguuma represents the beginning of something truly epic. The bar has definitely been raised on Living World updates with Episode One.