8 Aug 2017

Path of Fire – the Hopeful Skeptic

Guild Wars 2: Path of Fire

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.

As a result, I’ve been trying to get my feet back into Tyria and get ready for the Crystal Desert to open. It’s not been easy though, particularly with a year-long absence from the game:

  • I’m still stuck with Fine or Masterwork armour. Exotic armour is available from vendors in the Ruins of Orr, but only if they’ve been unlocked by completing a dynamic group event. Crafted exotic armour is available but expensive, and the daily login bonus rewards one piece of exotic armour a month. I could either grind gold, grind a crafting discipline, or haunt Orr like a ghost.
  • It’s not easy or clear to find viable builds that don’t rely on the elite specialisations. Getting enough Hero Points to completely open an Elite Specialisation can be done quickly by completing Heart of Thorns hero challenges that award 10 points each, but are almost impossible in the current gear. The alternative is grinding the vanilla open world for hero points.
  • There’s an analysis paralysis that sets in when trying to dig through this, researching what gear to get, with what stats, and what builds to use. As someone who just wants to log in and explore Tyria, that’s a significant burden. I must’ve spent hours reading, getting help on the subreddit Discord, and scribbling notes, but only 3 minutes actually playing the game. That’s not right.

Looking back to my time in Vanilla, I was recently reminded about the original Guild Wars 2 Design Manifesto, published way back in 2010. That document was easy on promises and ethos, but also made it clear what type of experience players should expect. 

GW2 doesn’t fall into the traps of traditional MMORPGs. It doesn’t suck your life away and force you onto a grinding treadmill; it doesn’t make you spend hours preparing to have fun rather than just having fun; and of course, it doesn’t have a monthly fee.

Clearly, there’s a disconnect between that original manifesto commitment and my experience as a returning player, and this is why I remain skeptical about Path of Fire. If the average returning player is going to have to read up on systems, builds, equipment guides, and more just to survive in the expansion, there’s a mismatch between expectation and reality.

Which is why, this weekend, I’ll be splitting my time between birthday celebrations and the free open-world preview that ArenaNet are running. During that time, I’m hoping to find out if there’s a significant difference between Heart of Thorns and Path of Fire, or if there’s the same barrier to entry or re-entry. Depending on how that turns out, I’ll either be parting with cash or saving some Sterling.

Importantly, though, I’m not trying to suggest that the open world of Guild Wars 2 should be easy. Veteran players relished the challenge that Heart of Thorns provided, even though others struggled and eventually left.

What I am hoping for is a clear message from ArenaNet for new and returning players: tell us what we need in order to experience the new content, and how we go about getting it. Should we unlock our Elite Specialisations fully first? Will we need full exotic gear, and where will we get it from? Some might call it spoon-feeding, but this is the basic information that will help returning players tremendously, ensuring that they get the best out of the new expansion and avoid frustrating pitfalls.

Perhaps, just perhaps, Path of Fire will make me fall in love with Guild Wars 2 all over again. I certainly hope so, and I’m certainly prepared to give ArenaNet’s latest expansion every chance to win me over. Although, if that design manifesto is outdated, maybe it’s time to retire it. Or, perhaps, write a new one?

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