Earlier this week, I promised that I’d be taking a look at Path of Fire, the upcoming expansion for Guild Wars 2, during the open demo weekend. I wanted to discover for myself if the sense of wonder had been rekindled, teasing me to explore mysterious new lands. I wanted to feel like I could survive instead of being a corpse to be tossed around. And I wanted to see if the joy returned from the original game, given form in small details that lend weight to the world.
I’m pleased to say that, on all three counts, Path of Fire exceeded my expectations. Yes, the demo was restricted to half of the first map, with limited exposure to the new storyline. And yes, the demo provides you with a fresh character fully kitted in exotics, which is more powerful than my current Guardian. However, even with those caveats in mind, I had a fantastic time playing the preview. On all three counts – exploration, survivability, and easy-going entertainment – the new experience delivered.
I am not good at Guild Wars 2. My experience began during the original beta, where I died so many times in the Ascalonian Catacombs instance that I polished the floor with my corpse. From such a promising start, I progressed to mediocre, gradually nurturing an Engineer and a Guardian to level cap. I avoided dungeons and feared Fractals, but I explored the world of Tyria and was happy. The dynamic events and personal story were more than enough for me.
Then came Heart of Thorns, and with it, the return of my failure cascade. The new zones, with their new enemies, were relentlessly punishing. In my mixture of looted and crafted armour, I struggled to survive. For a while I persisted while everyone else moved on, but eventually I conceded defeat. The difficulty bar had been raised, and I had been found wanting.
It’s a source of sadness, as I desperately wanted to love the game. The art style is still breathtaking several years on, but it’s the story behind Guild Wars 2 that really grabbed me. Through the Living World seasons, it’s clear that the writers behind the lore are passionate about delivering an evolving experience. Plus, the Asura are awesome – I still have a small golem on my desk.
Which is why, with the announcement of a new expansion, I’m both hopeful and skeptical in equal measure. Path of Fire promises a return to exploration and content, two topics that are high on my wishlist. It also aims to support returning players by keeping new systems to a minimum, reusing the capabilities established in Heart of Thorns. But, beyond those well-publicised bullet-points, there’s little meaningful meat to describe what that returning experience will feel like.
I’ll start with a disclaimer: although we’ve never met in person, I’ve known Leithart since 2012 when we were both fans of the then-upcoming MMO WildStar. Since those early days, he went into game development (coincidentally for the studio behind that same game), and I moved into game journalism. We still ping each other tweets from time to time, but that’s about it.
Getting on to the meat of the article, I wanted to respond to Leithart’s question above. As a small indie studio, with limited resources for marketing and PR, it’s only logical for the development team to want to do some of the heavy lifting themselves. It drums up interest in the game, provides direct feedback from potential players, and removes any reliance on the fickle foibles of the gaming press. Sounds like a win-win for spending a few minutes on Twitter, right?
Only, not really. While I’m a big fan of developers interacting with fans on social media, producing blog posts about their work and sharing unique insight, there’s also a risk that it gets in the way of actually developing the game. Tangentially, there’s also a risk that the game’s marketing voice – how it wants to be perceived by the gaming public – can get fragmented and/or diluted. And what happens if one of the developers goes off-brand? Can the incident be isolated without contaminating the game’s brand as a whole?
So, with both of these in mind, answering Leithart’s question is going to be tricky, particularly as I’m eager to make sure that both gamers and developers get something from being on social media. Luckily, there’s a bit of a cheat-sheet.
With a few notable exceptions, levelling in MMOs is a temporary experience. We get a few weeks of meaty questing and cinematics, followed by months of waiting for content updates. It’s the Achilles Heel of the theme-park experience – rich and deep while it lasts, but bland and repetitive once the cap is reached.
I’ve made no secret about how much I was put off Mists of Pandaria, seeing a small forest of exclamation marks to mark the daily quest hub, as if to signify where I’d be spending the rest of the expansion. Warlords of Draenor tried to mix it up with the Garrison experiment, but it left me feeling less like a hero and more like a middle manager.
Which is why I’m surprised with how I feel about Legion. Sure, there’s an element of nostalgia here, as familiar NPCs play out a story that feels more like a main event than a timeline-based distraction. But it’s also been – and continues to be – hugely enjoyable to play, and that includes the time I’ve spent dancing around at cap.
How has Legion pulled off this magic trick? Looking deeper, I think there’s a clever blend of design choices at work, all acting together to make that endgame experience as frictionless and immersive as possible.
‘Thank you for fetching my tools, Wilkins. But, before I can teach you the secrets of Mid-Legion Tailoring, you must carry out one more task’
‘Yes, Master?’ The scruffy young apprentice looked up, hope welling in his big eyes.
‘Indeed. You see, we have run out of Milk. I’ve heard tales of the Naga breeding incredible cows, and I long to sample their produce within my precious Sin’dorei tea. You must travel into the Eye of Azshara, defeat the Naga, milk one of these cows and bring a pitcher back to me. Only then, will I feel refreshed enough to share such intricate work with you.’
The elderly figure, a stick draped in expensive robes, shared a wide, almost predatory smile.
‘But… but that’s Hero work!’
‘No buts, Wilkins. Now go, and don’t return without my Milk!’
By now, most of us have been chewing through Warcraft: Legion for a few weeks. On the whole, it represents a fantastic return to form for the ageing MMO, with a renewed focus on telling an immersive story and shrouding characters in a rich fantasy. It’s a formula that seems to have worked, with over 3.3 million copies sold and more players returning than ever before.
But, while most design updates have been enthusiastically received, one particular facet has come under increased scrutiny – the abundance of dungeon quests to gate content. If you want to complete your Order Hall missions, or even max out your Professions, expect to spend some intense combat time with four other people.