Flameseeker Chronicles: Recapping the entire Guild Wars 2 The Icebrood Saga

    
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When looking back on Guild Wars 2’s The Icebrood Saga, I think the most noticeable feature was its many ups and downs. If I’m really honest with myself, those ups and downs have been largely about adjusting expectations. I hesitate to use the word “lowering” because in a lot (but not all) of these instances, the content we got was not necessarily worse but certainly in a different form than what we expected. Now that it’s over, let’s look back at the ups and downs of the Icebrood Saga.

Before digging too far into critique, while I’ll get to in a second piece later this week, I thought it would be most helpful to refresh our minds on what exactly was in the whole saga – and how it all started and how it was received as it was rolled out to players. Obviously, spoilers abound, so if you haven’t played these episodes, turn back now.

Minnesota is hard done by here.

Ah, the halcyon days of 2019, before everyone had the phrase “social distancing” branded into their consciousness. In August of that year, ArenaNet rented out a theater (remember those?) near PAX West to reveal what was next for Guild Wars 2. Living World Season 4’s excellent finale — and the not-so-excellent skyscale grind — were still fresh in our minds. It had tied off a lot of loose ends from Path of Fire, leaving no end of possibilities for what could come next. Excitement was riding high, and while ArenaNet itself had been denying it, many fans were expecting an expansion announcement from this event, while others were more realistically anticipating Living World Season 5. It turned out that neither one was quite correct, as the presenters unveiled a “different kind of dragon story,” The Icebrood Saga. “It’s bigger than a season,” they said, “it’s a saga!” They went on to outline episodic, Living World-type content, with “expansion-level” features, with a prologue chapter just a few short weeks later.

In ArenaNet’s defense, I think the fans set themselves up for disappointment in a lot of ways before the prologue chapter was even released. Some fans were disappointed because they were expecting an expansion announcement when they were never promised that. In fact, they were promised the opposite. Still others were interpreting the “expansion-level features” line to mean that we would see new elite specs and legendaries and world-altering masteries. Again, none of this was really promised; in fact, even the phrase “expansion-tier” or “expansion-level” is nowhere to be found in ArenaNet’s marketing. Instead, it comes from a number of interviews and forum posts by game director Mike Z around the time of the Icebrood Saga announcement, but ArenaNet was just vague enough about it that peoples’ imaginations ran away with them. That’s partly on players for expecting more than what was promised, but it’s also on ArenaNet for allowing it to happen. This, for many, was the first time that our expectations for The Icebrood Saga had to be adjusted.

The prologue chapter, Bound By Blood, set us loose on Grothmar Valley, a nostalgic locale from the original Guild Wars with some, shall we say, redecorating performed by the Charr in the intervening years. Overall, there was a lot to do on this map, with lots of little events and a different approach to a meta event. And of course, the Metal Legion Charr rock concert is probably one of the most memorable parts of the entire saga.

I thought the storytellers did a masterful job of starting the story off with “Ok, this is a fun celebration of Charr cultural identity!” and letting it slowly dawn on that player that, “Oh, these are Charr Nazis aren’t they?” If there was any doubt left at the end of the episode, Bangar Ruinbringer, the Blood Legion imperator, announced his intention to bring the elder dragon Jormag under his control using the bow that cracked Jormag’s tooth, stolen from Braham during the festivities, and use it to subjugate Tyria from anyone who would oppose Charr rule.

Bound by Blood also introduces Tribune Crecia Stoneglow, Rytlock’s former(?) lady love, and Ryland Steelcatcher, their son and Bangar’s protege. While Charr traditionally don’t have attachments to their children, Rytlock clearly isn’t a traditional Charr anymore after having spent so much of the last several years among other cultures. He clearly wants a parental relationship with his son, but Ryland is uninterested.

Bound By Blood also introduced us to the very first Strike Mission, a more bite-sized, introductory, 10-person raid experience. Strikes have received a mixed response from what I’ve seen: Some players love them, some players have no interest in them whatsoever, and still others question whether or not “introductory raids” was really something that Guild Wars 2 needed. It would certainly seem that the idea behind Strikes was to convince more players to do raids, which seems fundamentally against what Guild Wars 2 is supposed to be about, but that’s a discussion that is beyond the scope of this overview.

After the cliffhanger ending of Bound by Blood, next came our first taste of the Far Shiverpeaks and Jormag’s nefariousness in Episode 1: Whisper in the Dark. This episode begins with a call from General Almora Soulkeeper to meet her in the Bjora Marches. When we arrive, we find multitudes of dead Vigil, but no Soulkeeper. Everyone present begins to hear insidious whispers, tempting them to despair or fight amongst themselves.

We assist Jhavi Jorasdottir, great granddaughter of Jora, of Guild Wars 1 fame, in contacting Raven, the Spirit of the Wild, to lead us to Soulkeeper… who had already been murdered (though it was not immediately obvious by whom). After working through Raven’s Sanctum, The Commander and friends must face The Fraenir of Jormag, the leader of the Sons of Svanir. As if this whole episode wasn’t creepy enough yet, after we defeat the Fraenir, he is reanimated and Jormag speaks to us through him. Jormag claims that they simply want to help us bring about peace, and gives us a vague warning of impending danger.

At the time, I was extremely disappointed with the length of this release. I thought the story in the prologue chapter was extremely short, much shorter than previous living world stories, but I gave it a pass because it was a prologue, and at least there were a lot of fun events to do. Then episode 1 came out and it was even shorter with a half-sized map, with only a handful of events, many of which felt copy-pasted, and an atmosphere that, while perfect for the story ArenaNet was trying to tell, didn’t make me want to stick around. While I feel like it was still the shortest story content (I could be wrong; I haven’t timed all my playthroughs), I also feel that this was another instance of adjusting our expectations. In hindsight, I think we ended up getting about as much content as a standard living world season, but in much smaller, more frequent drips. In other words, each episode was half as much content, but released twice as often. You may prefer this cadence or the old cadence, but it’s hard to argue that one way or the other is really good or bad. They are just different.

In Episode 2: Shadow in the Ice, Jhavi and the Commander ally with the local Kodan to assault Drakkar, the source of the whispers, first seen frozen beneath the lake that bears his name in Guild Wars: Eye of the North. Now that Jormag is active, Drakkar has been reanimated and is revealed to be the source of the creepy whispering. With some help from the lost Spirits of the Wild, Braham and the Commander defeat Drakkar, but before we can defeat the manifestation of the whispers, Bangar arrives and kills it with Eir’s bow. He tries to do the same to the Commander, but Braham intervenes, transforming into Wolf form for the very first time.

The centerpiece of episode 2 was the world boss version of Drakkar. While it is a lot of fun, with some interesting mechanics, unfortunately it is vastly overtuned, and in my experience, almost always ends in failure. Not that there is a lot of incentive for players to complete the boss, as the rewards were mediocre at best. An attempt was made to rebalance the fight, to little effect. I have to believe that, if these episodes hadn’t been released at such a breakneck pace, this fight would have been better balanced to begin with, and if not, would have at least gotten better updates.

The next release, Steel and Fire, was something a little different. Rather than being a new map with a new story and a new strike mission, it kind of rolled all three together and gave us the game’s one and only Visions of the Past instance, called Forging Steel. ArenaNet told us at the beginning of the Icebrood Saga that one of the distinctives of the Saga would be experimenting with new content types, and this is certainly an instance of that. Forging Steel is an instance that scales for five to 10 players. With the 10-player cap, you might expect it to be another strike mission, but it goes on significantly longer than any of the strikes and is much more story focused, making it more along the lines of a vanilla dungeon.

Story-wise, Forging Steel is a vision granted by Aurene, which puts us in the shoes of the Steel Warband, Bangar’s elite squad under the command of Ryland Steelcatcher, and has us assist them as they escort their experimental new tank over the Shiverpeaks. Let’s be blunt here: The narrative goal in this one was to introduce us to Ryland’s warband so we will feel bad when they all die. And it worked. I liked all of the characters in this story, and while some of them do question whether what they’re doing is right, it’s sad that they all end up falling into line behind Ryland and end up dying at Drizzlewood Coast. After seeing Ryland kill Soulkeeper, I think this episode is where it really hit me that they weren’t going to do a redemption arc for him, as I originally expected at the story’s outset.

Personally, I really liked the Forging Steel instance, but I know not everyone did, and I understand why. It ended up getting clumsily rolled into the strike mission rotation, but it doesn’t really belong there. I think it was designed as its own, unique mission type. I have to wonder if the original plan was to create a whole series of Visions of the Past instances about a variety of characters, but maybe that plan was dropped due to financial constraints or bad player reception. Maybe we’ll see it return one day, or maybe it will remain a one-off thing.

Steel and Fire feels like a nice midpoint in the Saga, so I will end there for today. Was this half of the saga good? By the time Steel and Fire came around, I had readjusted my expectations and was much happier for it. You can take that as lowering my standards if you want to, but I don’t really think that’s what happened. Besides, “good” is highly subjective. It gave players something to do, and it told a fairly compelling story about a new elder dragon threat.

Did it deliver the “expansion-level content” we were promised? I guess that depends on how you define that incredibly vague promise. Yes, it told a story that was large in scope, told in a series of new zones, which, added together, would equal roughly as much content as an expansion. It gave us new masteries to grind, though the ones that we got in this half of the saga were limited to The Icebrood Saga areas, which feels much more like Living World-level than expansion-level (though that would soon change with the advent of the waystation mastery). There were no new elite specs, and while we got a decent number of new armor and weapon skins over the course of the saga, there were no new legendaries and no new stat combinations. There were no new raids, but strike missions are certainly meant to be the next best thing. I’m not saying any or all of these things are or are not required to qualify “bigger than a season,” but they are things we associated with this game’s two expansions.

Stay tuned for the next Flameseeker Chronicles where I will break down the second half of The Icebrood Saga, including that finale, which I’ve been dying to give my thoughts on.

Flameseeker Chronicles is one of Massively OP’s longest-running columns, covering the Guild Wars franchise since before there was a Guild Wars 2. Now penned by Tina Lauro and Colin Henry, it arrives on Tuesdays to report everything from GW2 guides and news to opinion pieces and dev diary breakdowns. If there’s a GW2 topic you’d love to see explored, drop ’em a comment!
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Fenrir Wolf

First of all? This isn’t what the writers intended.

There’s been some… acid regarding the expansion, that’s for sure. The reason they were going to do Sagas—presentation mismanaged but still the right choice—was because they were understaffed! NCSoft had put ArenaNet through a series of THREE heavy layoffs, the entire company was understaffed. The Icebrood Saga was all they could manage, Mike Z knew that.

There was some consternation on this point because a little ways into The Icebrood Saga, Mike Z was fired silently and very unceremoniously. They made him disappear. The problem is though is that in previous firings NCSoft had beheaded ArenaNet’s leadership, at this point no one knows who’s actually leading ArenaNet. If the rumours are to be believed, they’re not experienced at the role.

So, ArenaNet is hugely understaffed, being held together by the last of their leadership (Mike Z) and… NCSoft start getting greedy, they pull for an expansion. Mike Z refuses and, like I said, they made him disappear. An expansion—End of Dragons—was now forced ArenaNet. There were some pretty nasty executive edicts. I’ve been able to piece together that they were told to wrap up The Icebrood Saga quickly and bury it, the new expansion was supposed to be welcoming to new players and Chinese players especially.

Guild Wars 2 is doing very, very badly in China and Cantha is NCSoft’s bid to try to get some footing there. The way The Icebrood Saga ended wasn’t how the writers wanted to end it, they were forced to rewrite the story to fit NCSoft’s edicts. This is very typical of NCSoft as their mismanagmeent of studios lead to the sunsetting of WildStar and City of Heroes.

I personally wouldn’t hold up too much hope for End of Dragons. I had more hope when Mike Z was still around and they were managing what they could do more realistically. With how understaffed they are, an expansion wasn’t tenable, it just wasn’t a realistic idea. So now this profoundly understaffed studio has to throw together an expansion in short order. With no management. That’s not going to be an unmitigated disaster.

I was very disappointed by The Icebrood Saga, but I felt quite a bit better knowing that this isn’t what the writers wanted. This was what NCSoft wanted. I wouldn’t be surprised if a big walkout happened at ArenaNet soon just as a protest against NCSoft’s gross mismanagement. This’d be a great time for ManaWorks to poach some soon-to-be-ex-ArenaNet staff, frankly.

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Greaterdivinity

NCSoft had put ArenaNet through a series of THREE heavy layoffs, the entire company was understaffed.

Sad and I’m not saying layoffs are good, but this was a result of Anet burning money and not being able to generate enough revenue with GW2 on a longterm basis. It’s a cold business decision, but one that is understandable. Anet went into the saga knowing about most of these layoffs (and other layoffs largely hit folks working on non-GW2 projects), so it shouldn’t have come as a huge surprise/gut-punch. If they hadn’t pulled folks off midway through the Saga to work on EoD, the second half would have had a warmer reception.

Guild Wars 2 Game Director Mike Zadorojny and VP of Marketing Mike Silbowitz left ArenaNet

Mike Z seems to have simply left for Wargaming. If you’re suddenly fired, it’s tough to get a head of marketing gig at another company that same month.

There were some pretty nasty executive edicts.

Citation needed*

Guild Wars 2 is doing very, very badly in China

Has been the case since it launched in 2014. This isn’t new or sudden.

they were forced to rewrite the story to fit NCSoft’s edicts

Citation needed*

I never knew too much about Mike Z but as the head of marketing for Anet…that doesn’t exactly instill me with confidence in him? Anets marketing has been bad since forever, and if he’s running marketing he’s not running the game?

This was what NCSoft wanted.

NCsoft really seems to be your convenient, and baseless, scapegoat for problems that have long existed within ArenaNet.

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styopa

Braham Cracker’s Big Day Out was …not great.

But it would hardly be GW2 without a sappy whinging lead character. Sigh. I guess it’s good enough to still keep me playing (vs WoW, ESO, or FF14) but man…we NEED a new AAA MMO please.

I don’t remember GW1’s story being so full of hand-wringing and emotionalism.

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Axetwin .

I’d like to point out that the thread where Mike talked about wanting expansion level stories and content doesn’t exist anymore. So yes, at one point those words WERE used to describe the Icebrood Saga. Which means that no, players WEREN’T reading too much into what was said, and they weren’t going in with unrealistic expectations because those expectations were set very early on and managed by Anet. Just because the thread has since been deleted doesn’t magically negate the things that were said at the time. I’m sorry Colin, but in this instance players were well within their right to feel mislead by the final product.

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Greaterdivinity

I’m on board with some players setting themselves up for disappointment with the IBS announcement and all but…let’s not quibble, it was a terrible, awful, no good announcement that didn’t need a freakin stage where they spent most of their time hawking merch. Anet screwed up from top to bottom with this rollout, including the Mike Z “expansion-level” nonsense and failing to check player expectations (a long, long, long existing problem with GW2 and one that was a problem from well before the game even launched). I put very little “blame” on the playerbase for this and the overwhelming majority on Anet.

You rent out a stage traditionally used to announce expansions, people will expect an expansion. You show nothing about this “saga”, you leave players imaginations to run wild. You drop cryptic and unclear hints and comments, players are gonna go nuts over them.

For all its problems, Anets marketing team has consistently been the weakest link for this game, dating all the way back to the silly Felicia Day taxi and god-awful live action launch video.

I’ve been watching some WP for the first time (he’s salty, but his memory/knowledge of lore and updates is far better than mine) and he’s got a similar but far more informed opinion than I on this “saga”.

The first half was, for the most part, pretty solid. Narratively we started going down some interesting routes between the char story arc and what was going on with Jhavi and the Koda (man, wouldn’t it have been cool if they were like…you know…still a party of the story? OR THE TENGU?), and while not all the zones were amazing they were solid. Drizzlewood (which I FINALLY finished the second event for the first time) is one of my bloody favorite zones of all time.

I won’t go into detail on the highs/lows (man I’m stick of Braham and ho boy do most of the IBS masteries feel like a totally pointless grind), but it really feels like they were pushing for this “saga” with the first half of the updates covered here and then pulled most of the team/resources to work on the expansion. We can quibble over whether the first half is even “Expansion worthy” (IMO it’s not by any stretch of the imagination), but at the very least they’re solid updates with at least a bit of story added with each one and some pretty solid zones to match.

The second half feels like a skeleton crew with a fraction of the resources trying desperately to see a plan through and doing their best, but failing miserably simply because they didn’t have the time, people, and/or budget. I don’t blame the actual development staff for how underwhelming the second half of the story was or how they don’t seem to be using their own internal wiki and forgot half the characters involved by the end, I put that blame (if we need to blame someone) on management for the piss-poor planning overall. Yeah, there were layoffs and senior departures, but that’s not the root cause of this IMO. It remains that the team seems to struggle to find a “groove” for the game and a direction to go in, kinda haphazardly trying things a decade into development when they should have the fundamentals nailed down.

I think WP is on the money with this – we’ve seen games like ESO, FFXIV, BDO etc. find their “groove” over the years. Yeah, all had launch issues and have run into post-launch problems, but for the most party they’ve found what work and found a steady cadence for updates etc.

If I didn’t know better based on the second half of the “saga”, especially the final episode, I’d guess that they wanted to be done with this as much as players did, even if that meant a pretty but narratively empty conclusion.

Oddly enough, my salt at the latest update has turned into some renewed interest though. I’m back to slowly plugging away at some achieves and grinding out some of the pointless, stupid, awful IBS masteries while watching streaming stuff, remembering how much I love Drizzlewood and Grothmar Valley (seriously, LESS STUPID DRAGON STUFF AND MORE TYRIAN RACE STUFF THAT IS ALMOST ALWAYS MORE INTERSTING!).

I want to say I’m HOPEFUL about End of Dragons, especially since they appear to have pulled a functional “all hands on deck” for it a while back and they still aren’t announcing squat until roughly a year after they announced the expansion…but given how uneven Anets releases continue to be a decade into launch I can’t say that I’m optimistic. My expectations are kinda low, sadly, but I’ll probably still pick it up either way.

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SmiteDoctor

Wow you wrote more content for your comment than ANet did for this episode!

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Fenrir Wolf

It’s not that dragons are boring, really. It’s the lack of imagination. Temeraire shows how brilliantly dragons can be written in the hands of even one author with imagination. That’s the thing. It’s incredibly easy to write some human drama—TV soaps do that all the time—but when you add something with the potential of dragons, the necessary amount of imagination to draw out said potential is increased a thousandfold.

The problem isn’t dragons themselves but the requirement of talented, creative, and imaginative writers. Unfortunately, NCSoft has kind of forced ArenaNet to be creatively bankrupt. They’ve also made it clear that anyone there who disagrees with their mandates—Mike Z et al—will be fired without mercy, rapidly. Guild Wars 2 could’ve done justice to a plot revolving around deity-like dragons, but not under the avarice-coloured eyes of NCSoft.

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Greaterdivinity

Unfortunately, NCSoft has kind of forced ArenaNet to be creatively bankrupt.

I don’t remotely buy this. Unless something big changed, NCsoft has historically been very hands-off with their western studios, giving them the support they may need but largely leaving creative decisions entirely up to them.

Source: I used to work on some NCsoft MMO’s long ago, both their internal ones and ones released and in development from western studios.

The departures, at least the senior folks, seemed more voluntary than forced, with the layoffs being a consequence of the studio struggling to really regain their footing after the big revenue hit they still haven’t fully recovered from after HoT.