Choose My Adventure: Map-based antics in Guild Wars 2

Some day, I will be good about screenshots. That day is not today.
One of the points of the polls and discussions for Guild Wars 2 the other week was that while I could focus on either map antics or storyline progression, I wouldn’t be doing just one or the other. Some of this is just practicality – if a story mission is bringing me close to a waypoint anyway, it would be silly for me to just shrug and not pick it up, and it’s kind of important that I use whatever means available to me to pick up more Hero points. But some of it was the fact that the game has, in many ways, an organic flow.

The game’s story doesn’t always bring you to the important places, but it usually at least strives to push players into spaces where they’re going to brush up against points of interest. (By which I mean “all the various map icons” rather than the game-specific definition of “point of interest.”) The intent, then, is not that you spend all of your time doing one thing or the other; you spend your time doing both, running through story instances and then hopping back out as it becomes relevant.

Let's get out of here, because I sort of broke someone's robot.In part, this is one of the things that’s always made GW2 stand apart from MMOs, because in terms of map design and overall structure the game more closely resembles an open sandbox like Saints Row 4 or any Assassin’s Creed game. (I’m stopping at two examples mostly because I could keep going for ages.) Rather than having various quests dotted through the map and a few other bits to scout out for gathering, you’ve got a big map and various icons to interact with across that map, and each icon is kind of a self-contained whatever.

Yes, you’ve also got a story to bring you through all of that. It’s still an MMO at its heart. But the difference in structure is pretty significant if you’re used to more traditional structures. It’s even notably different from the original Guild Wars, which was a more “standard” quest-and-zone affair, even if most of those zones were exclusive to the party that zoned in.

Let me be perfectly clear, on the off chance that this sounds like a criticism: it is not. I absolutely love this. I bought and fully cleared Mad Max, a sandbox game with one real distinguishing feature that gets obsoleted fairly quickly, and it was for a bit of work that almost immediately evaporated. And I kept playing it anyway. Give me a map full of icons to check off, and my brain starts formulating a plan of attack.

The connected element, however, is that it means the game defines “good at PvE” in a very different way than most other MMOs. Rather than necessarily having a great build, it’s instead about a collection of different skills to navigate obstacle courses, survive high damage, deal with jumping puzzles, learn how to explore things, and master simple puzzles.

To use another game comparison, it’s like three of WildStar’s paths (Explorer, Scientist, and Soldier) all rolled into the same path. And that’s just for core progression, not as an optional side project along a different progression path.

How I feel about this changes based on the time of day and how irritating this particular challenge for hero points feels at any given moment. If I find a jumping puzzle easy, it’s a remarkable deviation that rewards something other than constant stat-maxing. If I find it difficult, this is a stupid plan and I hate it.

When I’m being a bit more abstract, I find myself thinking that if the game is going to offer so many options for gameplay that aren’t combat-based, it’s a good thing that the game does feature one form of post-cap advancement that is also only brushing up against combat obliquely. Mounts and gliders both do a good job of giving you new tools to explore the world around you rather than just upping your movement speed and giving you an opener attack, so bully for that.

I'm also told that some people get reflexive fear over things that look like gliders.And since we’re in Path of Fire, it would be wrong to not note how that sandbox-style map design interacts with the new maps. Considering how the game’s mount system opens up new methods of travel, it would be very easy to turn the whole thing into a much more structured experience. You can’t get to point of interest X without mount Y, you can’t reach this cool thing without doing these other things first.

That’s present, to an extent, but not ubiquitous. In one respect, this is a bad thing, because part of what long made GW2’s map style work was the feeling that you could go wherever and find things that were at the right level to be relevant and could still be cleared. I’m told that this sort of gating was what made Heart of Thorns more unpleasant, that the wide-open nature of things was gated behind aggressive limitations you couldn’t work around except by jumping through the dictated hoops.

I am happy to say, however, that while Path of Fire does bear the hallmarks of those approaches, it never reached the point where the map as a whole was locked via Metroid-esque power-up gating. Some things seem pretty much unreachable without the right masteries, yes, but little made me feel like I was just plain stuck without any hopes of advancement. Heck, I’d believe that some of the things that seem gated are, in fact, possible to work around. That Saints Row 4 comparison wasn’t entirely out of nowhere; there are things locked but lots you can still get to.

Don’t get me wrong, if you expect to be able to finish clearing a map as soon as you walk into a given zone, you will be frustrated and I shan’t blame you. But if you’re going to be happy with being able to clear lots but not all until you unlock the right tools, you’ll be happy.

I’d be remiss in not mentioning the actual visuals in the zone. I know that there are a lot of people who absolutely hate desert zones, and when “desert” is analogous to “long stretch of sand dunes,” I can totally understand. But there’s so much more that can be done with deserts, and to my endless satisfaction, Path of Fire gets that. Far from being featureless stretches of sand, the desert here covers a huge amount of different space even within a single zone.

You’ve got your oasis landscapes, plant life springing up around sources of water. You have your gentle dunes, your jutting stones, narrow and winding canyons where water found purchase long ago. There are mesas, there are scrublands, there are tent villages and open structures and all of the things I would have asked for.

It’s telling that the alien crystalline “branded” landscapes, one of the elements I usually find to be among the more interesting parts of GW2’s world design, actually seemed boring to me here. That’s not a mark against the crystal-filled landscapes, that’s a testament to the strength of everything else.

Thank you for blue nights.

Criticisms? Well, hearts and events still don’t feel like they quite fill the “quest” slot like they’re meant to, never giving as strong a sense of place or what tasks need to be accomplished in the region. The effort is there, but I find myself thinking that some questgivers to fill things out would enhance the experience on a whole, give you a more direct picture on top of what you’re doing for pure completion purposes.

And while I joke about my enjoyment of jumping puzzle hero points being directly proportional to how easy I find the puzzle in question, there are some legit issues that arise as a result. If nothing else, it’s a case of being better in combat by doing something not really related to combat, a bit of thematic disconnect. Moving mastery points to that and having the more puzzle-based challenges unlock hero points would seem to be a more reasonable compromise.

Still, at the end of the day, I can’t deny that map clearing is a fun part of the overall experience, and I appreciate that it rewards such a variety of different gameplay types. It gives the game a feel that’s still very distinct, to its credit.

We’re moving into the last series of columns for next week, and the path forward seems to be pretty obviously to just keep following the story while going through the map along the way. So that’s what I’m going to be doing. But I don’t like to have two weeks back-to-back without a poll, so let’s open up a relevant question for everyone reading.

Obviously, my experience in Path of Fire is with using the level 80 boost, because… well, polls are polls and that’s what people voted for. But I’m curious about the experience of those coming in without the boost. So for those of you who have been playing the game for a while, what’s motivating you to clear through the maps or hit up specific map points?

CMA: What gets you clearing maps in Guild Wars 2?

  • I freaking need Hero Points for Elite Specs, dude. (27%, 37 Votes)
  • Master Points are the best thing ever. (12%, 17 Votes)
  • Screenshotting vistas. (7%, 10 Votes)
  • Traveling around the map to clear things out later. (24%, 33 Votes)
  • Momentum, mostly. (17%, 23 Votes)
  • I have no response and want to see the answers. (12%, 17 Votes)

Total Voters: 96

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Yes, you can select multiple answers. You can even select all but one of them! An examination of the poll choices will make the reasoning clear.

Regardless of whether you vote for everything, nothing at all, or just some stuff, I’ll be back here next week to wrap up this series of columns. You can feel free to mail feedback along to until then, or you can just leave it in the comments, as one does.

Welcome to Choose My Adventure, the column in which you join Eliot each week as he journeys through mystical lands on fantastic adventures — and you get to decide his fate. He specifically avoided discussing at least one series here because, well, it’s on everyone’s minds due to lockboxes being horrible. Let’s let that one lie for a bit.
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