I’ve spent a chunk of the last week moving through the first part of Guild Wars 2’s Path of Fire, finishing up the Crystal Oasis zone into which a character is deposited right off the airship. Obviously, it’s far too early to give a formal stamp of approval until I’m fully through it, but so far, I’m pleased with my purchase. Very pleased. I’m already pretty sure the expansion is update-of-the-year material for the genre. But it’ll take a few months to see how it fully meshes with the existing game, and while the same was true with Heart of Thorns, my urge to stop writing and go back into Elona for the next zone as I type this already tells me that PoF has delivered on at least its basic promises.
So while we let the community savor the game until a fully informed consensus is reached, I wanted to dash off some quick thoughts based on this first week of midcore casual play. Consider it a top 5, bottom 5 list as we dig into the very best additions to the game – and the things that still annoy me.
#1: She’s a stunner. It’s possible that ArenaNet stuffed all the prettiest bits into the first zone to trick reviewers, but the screenshots I’ve seen of the later game say otherwise. Crystal Oasis is, as I wrote in our last Overthinking, an artistic masterpiece, easily elevating the game to the most gorgeous MMORPG in the genre. It’s in the temples, the water gardens, the skies, the cliffs, the rock dwellings, the mounts, even the foreign quarter in the city. There is never a shortage of loveliness to gawk at; my screenshot folder runneth over. I once worried that when ArenaNet lost Daniel Dociu, the master artist long responsible for large swaths of the franchise’s art direction, its future direction would be aimless. Worries assuaged.
#2: Open mapping. We more than once teased Heart of Thorns for being nothing but Claustrophobia Vine Zones: The construction of those zones made the storyline and gameplay ambiance feel excessively linear and closed-off, in opposition to the base game, ticking off more than one person who fell to his death in what seemed to some folks a giant, aggravating, gotcha-style jumping puzzle. Path of Fire, on the other hand, opens up not just the zones but the cities inside those zones, making the world feel significantly more like the open-world MMORPG that it is. The first map isn’t as big as I expected (probably because of the city), but I think anybody who thought the living story season 3 maps were a tad too pat and paltry will be satisfied here.
#3: Regulators! Nobody’s been able to stop talking about those mounts. I got my first MMORPG mount 20 years ago, and there’s little I haven’t seen along the way, but so far, the raptor impresses the hell out of me. This gif came from Reddit – just look at the personality here. They move and slide and skid and swagger. No mount in any other MMO I own behaves as these do. They exceed expectations.
#4: Horizontal stretch. Guild Wars 2 has always been known as a game with relatively little vertical progression. Once you reach level 80 – a feat that can be achieved in just a few hours, if you know what you’re doing, even if you’re out of boosters – the whole world is your oyster, and it stays your oyster, meaning that every scrap of content that’s added to the game is still of value to your character. We could quibble about gear and specs, and indeed I will later on, but generally anybody can buy Path of Fire and just start playing thanks to the free level 80 booster. There are no functional prerequisites, no need to start a gear grind all over again, none of the “reboot” annoyances that other MMO expansions insist upon as retention and balance tactics. The expansion maintains that horizontal gameplay, which in turn feeds into a pro-social, if not entirely interactional, game experience that is simultaneously casual- and hardcore-friendly.
#5: Nostalgia is a helluva drug. ArenaNet could have overdone it with the nostalgia hooks, given that this expansion is literally a locational retread of parts of the Prophecies and Nightfall campaigns from Guild Wars 1. And yet I am not feeling bombarded by callbacks. The original Amnoon Oasis from Prophecies? If I’m reading my map right, it’s underwater. The main point of crossover reference is Kormir, a human NPC from Nightfall whose ultimate sacrifice at the end of that campaign earns her a place among the pantheon as the Goddess of Truth, and her disciples are a core NPC group now. It’s not subtle, but it is tasteful, and it works whether or not you ever set foot in Nightfall.
#5: Have fun storming the castle! Is it possible to find a story endearing but still think it’s kinda bad? I have always felt this way about the Guild Wars franchise. Prince Rurik was an idiot, but he’s our idiot, you know? This is largely how I feel about the irritating feud between Rytlock and Canach. This is why my duo-mate and I roll our eyes at the idea that we have to take out key NPCs because the dozens of others are incapable of sounding alarms, or that the Herald can port in and out at will but our characters insist they are “giving chase,” or that going in through the front door of an evil fortress is the “quiet” way. The story is a GW2 story, an MMO story. It’s silly and melodramatic. I’m OK with it, but the world is still far more compelling than the plot.
#4: Lightsabers… later. My colleague Eliot has already ranted about this, so I’ll just do the short version, which is that acquisition of elite specs is tied to mapping and story completion in Path of Fire just as it was in Heart of Thorns. My beef isn’t with the specs themselves but with the fact that it takes a relatively long time to get them and then trait them out, meaning you don’t fully experience your shiny spec – something so powerful some players argue they’re like whole new classes – until the core experience is almost over. I continue to see this as poorly thought-out, a decision that turns off a lot of people led to believe they could just leap right in and be an effective Holosmith or Weaver or whatever. Maybe more time in the expansion will change my mind, but so far, no.
#3: Difficulty deadlock. If you thought Heart of Thorns was too hard, you’re probably not going to have a much better time in Path of Fire. My read based on my duoing experience on the first map is that Path of Fire’s mobs are just as tough and difficult for a lot of players and specs; the high veteran mob density, even on the first map, is a bit silly. That’s not just based on the number of fellow players my husband and I rez in our travels but on how often we’re downed ourselves on content presumably base-scaled for half our number. It still seems overtuned, both in the overland areas and especially inside personal story maps, at least for specific classes and specs that just aren’t the FOTM. Bring your most OP toon and pinkies and oranges, and you’ll probably be fine, but I think that it could use a tone-down lest it nudge over into WildStar territory. We get it, you’re hardcore, don’t want no scrubs, etc.
#2: Cleanup on inventory everywhere. I had hoped the new loot drop stacking would help this problem, but it really hasn’t. Here’s the thing: It doesn’t actually apply to drops outside of Path of Fire, and the game is dropping so much additional new crap into our inventories, from pointless clickable karma boosts to keys and mats, that it barely seems to matter that I have massive stacks of blue, green, and yellow gear. Yes, there are more options for managing all the drops, like “consume all” and “salvage all” buttons that are most welcome, but I’m still finding myself spending an inordinate amount of time roomba-ing my bags. The only upside is that I’m not doing it frantically after a fight just to loot something new.
#1: Buttcapes. I can’t end a Guild Wars 2 listicle without complaining about buttcapes, can I? In truth, buttcapes aren’t my chief gripe here but gear in general, specifically the fact that the loadout of new weapons and armor in the expansion maps is unimpressive, which again won’t surprise Heart of Thorns veterans already accustomed to the fact that the vast majority of new pretties arrive through the cash shop and lockboxes. Frustrating, particularly given how gorgeous Nightfall’s original cosmetics and armors were. Add to that something more expansiony: mount homogeneity. I adore the mount system as I noted above, but the specific animals chosen for the five mounts do absolutely nothing for me, and some of them dye particularly poorly. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of seeing every noob in the old world on a brownish raptor, I have to say, and it’ll be even worse when everyone’s flying around on a you-know-what (a rant for another day). Here’s hoping variety is on the way.
Obviously, I’m not the final arbiter of whether the expansion is good, just on whether I think it is. And I reserve the right to change my mind – I did on Heart of Thorns! But so far, I think the top five far outweigh the bottom five, and indeed most the bottom five issues existed before Path of Fire as well; they are native to the game and need more than an expansion to paper them over. But in the meantime, if the highlights grab you and the grievances are things you can overlook? Elona is calling.