Guild Wars 2: Heart Of Thorns
What if questing in an MMOG was more than a checklist of chores to be ticked off as you lap each area? With Guild Wars 2, ArenaNet has always sought to challenge accepted MMOG design, and the game’s first major expansion, Heart Of Thorns, presents an alternative vision for how massively multiplayer environments should work. The result is exciting and fresh, even when it falters.
The expansion focuses on the conflict between Mordremoth, a villainous dragon with an affinity for the forest, and the inhabitants of Tyria. In the new jungle realm of Maguuma, each of the four level-80 zones are huge dynamic quests, the environments, objectives and enemies constantly shifting as players collectively push the zone event through its phases. In Verdant Brink, the day-night cycle dictates the momentum in a back-andforth battle between the Tyrian Pact and the dark forces of the forest. Depending on when you drop in, you might be charging into a gruelling nighttime defence, or leading the vanguard of a counterattack. In Auric Basin, the state of the scattered magic pylons dictates the strength of the indigenous Exalted. If their power is fed, the areas near their temples become safer.
Where the traditional MMOG questing to-do list encourages individualistic play, Heart Of Thorns gently shepherds you towards casual collaboration. You’re co-opted into a quest as soon as you wander near it, and dropped from it if you walk away. It’s refreshingly informal, and when it works, players are seamlessly drawn into huge co-operative mobs that roam all over the map, triggering bosses and pillaging from regular chest drops. These map-wide quests climax with massive boss fights, providing a cathartic moment for players who hopped onto the first objective an hour before, and a shock for anyone who logs in mid-battle.
The zones show great imagination, too. You arrive shortly after the Tyrian airforce has been plucked out of the sky by the living jungle. Above, airships still burn in the grasp of reaching vines. You can climb up to crowbar open their cargo, and then leap off to sail gently back to earth using a hang glider. This is earned through the new Mastery system, which replaces the typical level-cap bump with a series of environmental abilities that you start earning once you hit level 80. The glider is the first, but a few levels later you’ll be able to use mushrooms to leap to higher levels and catch updrafts to quickly soar between branches. Deeper into the jungle, language Masteries enable you to use Exalted panels to open new paths through the trees, summon allies, or unlock trade with locals.
You have to unlock a certain number of Masteries before each zone comes into its own. The first time you stumble into Maguuma, it’s a tricky, slightly annoying place to navigate. With a few movement Masteries unlocked, travelling soon becomes a pleasure, but as you push into the expansion they become arduously difficult to unlock. At key points in the story, you’re forced to stop to unlock a new Mastery, and here the flaws in Heart Of Thorns’ ambitious zones start to emerge. If there aren’t enough players in an area, the machine stops. A bunch of small dexterity challenges provide a way to earn experience by collecting flies, flaming weeds and flying skilfully, but if there are no events underway, a zone can fall silent, stalling progress.
These lulls are infrequent, and servers sometimes try to shuffle you to a more populated instance, but the problem is exacerbated by a lack of soloable challenges. Heart Of Thorns is a tough expansion full of strange beetle-riding frog warriors that hit hard, prohibitively so in the root underworld of the Tangled Basin. The dodge key is essential for evading dinosaur charges and mushroom-bombs, and death can hamper exploration in the advanced zones. Events scale in difficulty to take into account the number of players, but many of the expansion’s activities are locked off without support. That even applies to combat upgrades. Heart Of Thorns gives every class a new specialisation track that grants access to a new weapon and abilities, diversifying each class’s set of potential roles. Necromancers can now wield huge greatswords and train as hardy closecombat fighters. The tank class, the Guardian, can equip a bow and lay traps. Engineers can now take a healing role with new support abilities. The specialisations successfully take veteran level-capped characters and renew them, but they must be unlocked using hero points, which are earned through special challenges scattered throughout the jungle. Some can be completed alone, but many summon bosses that demand the sustained attention of a group. Guild Wars 2 brilliantly rewards impromptu co-op activity, but unless you roll with a regular team or can call upon guild mates, you may find yourself stuck. Heart Of Thorns too often relies on the kindness of strangers to function.
When it does work, which is often, it’s outstanding. Story missions pick up from the Living World updates of the past two years, continuing a dark tale that sees Mordremoth take control of one of Tyria’s playable races. Missions are largely combat gauntlets, but many let you choose your path. They are showcases for some excellent world design, and Maguuma is varied in spite of its leafy green setting. For those invested in the ongoing adventures of Destiny’s Edge, the story is a serious draw, and the plot culminates in a staggering finale to which the entire fourth zone is dedicated. Like the rest of the expansion, it challenges the MMOG template. Why hide god-sized bosses away in raids when you can unleash them on an entire zone? Guild Wars 2 continues to walk its own path, and in spite of the odd stumble, it’s a wonderful journey.