Guild Wars 2: Heart Of Thorns

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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.

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