Friday, December 1, 2017

Guild Wars 2: Path of Fire Review

If you want to get an MMORPG player passionately riled up, all you have to do is ask their opinion of one of three subjects (or all three—and be prepared to sit there for a bit): microtransactions, automated group finder tools, and mounts. Anyone who’s played any modern MMORPG for a length of time will have strong feelings about all three subjects.

It’s easy to understand why. All three are major game changers and can either dismantle or upgrade the worlds we’re comfortably immersed in. Let’s break it down:

Microtransactions: Let’s see. Do I want to click a couple buttons in a UI window and instantly pay real money to get a super cool item, appearance, or boost that could have been added to the game through other means (thus potentially taking away from the base game’s obtainable items and/or assets)?

Automated group finder tools: How about clicking a couple buttons to not have to communicate with players and instead be instantly and automatically paired with them to do this group activity that was initially created to encourage communication?

Mounts: Mounts look badass and make us feel badass as we’re romping through piles of bad guys on our way to Named Quest Mob #45, but they also act as a highway, letting us pass over and consequently ignore 75% of the world we’re invested in. Flying mounts are an even worse offender.

All three issues are big things. A large portion of MMORPG veterans were there for WoW’s introduction of LFG and flying mounts and inevitably have strong opinions about those introductions. Microtransactions, well… Let’s just say that there’s a reason most of us stay away from 75% of the F2P MMOs that launch these days.

But back to mounts—and how they relate to one MMORPG in particular: Guild Wars 2. Guild Wars 2 launched as a game that was immensely proud of its landscapes—its cityscapes, rural streets, pretty, green parks, and architecture. We got to know every gorgeous detail of the game. We teleported around at will and learned to use the traits that gave us speed boosts.

We’d been living in a world that didn’t contain highways for so long, the announced addition of mounts to Guild Wars 2’s latest expansion—Path of Fire—came as a surprise to many of us. Some fans were adamantly against the idea of mounts in the games. From my commentary above on “the big three”, I bet you’re thinking I was against them as well, right?

I was, sort of. I was on the fence for sure. I’m one of those gamers that enjoys taking their time and wandering around on foot to explore the nooks and crannies of an MMORPG world (you may have guessed that given how late this review is…), but I also enjoy zipping from place to place occasionally. Time is money, y’know? Especially after you’ve initially explored an area. There are only so many times you long to gaze wistfully at those trees in the distance while auto running to your favorite map event or farming area.

I fired up Guild Wars 2: Path of Fire as a fence-straddler. The rest of the expansion seemed pretty cool to me—which, by the way, boasts new story, cool desert maps, some of the best music I’ve heard in Guild Wars 2, new Mastery paths, new elite specializations/weapon choices for every profession (class), bounties, and more—but the mount addition left a big question mark in my head. I wasn’t sure how the game would feel with the addition of mounts since it was very much designed to not have mounts initially.   

The good news? Guild Wars 2 feels lovely with mounts. The game’s development team approached the addition with the exact right philosophy, in my opinion. Instead of handing players the standard MMORPG-fare of horses and wolf mounts that have one function and one function only—to let players travel fast, the team approached mounts with an eye on the immersive world of GW2 as it already stands.

They seemed to have asked the question, “How can we present mounts as a part of the living world, and not just a transportation mechanism?” Mounts are a huge part of the story Path of Fire tells. Major towns you come across in your travels “specialize” in a certain style of mount, but unlike most MMORPGs that feature different amounts that do the same exact thing, GW2’s mounts do completely different things.

A Set of Wheels (or Paws) for Every Occasion

Your first mount, the raptor, can jump far distances when you use it to jump. The expansion’s first exploration areas all feature plenty of jumps so you can get the hang of how to make it across long distances. Raptors also have an ability to leap you into combat, group up enemies, do damage, then dismount you. This makes it feel like the raptor is more than just a highway vehicle, and is also a battle-ready companion.

As you progress through Path of Fire’s story, you’ll eventually need to surmount steep cliff sides to continue. Your poor raptor can’t quiiite do that, however, so this prompts you forward—to the next area of the map where you can befriend townsfolk who can get you a springer mount. Guess what springers do as special abilities? Yep—jump high distances vertically.

Now, there’s a slight gating mechanism here because to get to the hub that has the springers, you’ll need a raptor that can jump across a fairly wide chasm. To get your raptor that experienced, you’ll need to invest some mastery points into the raptor skill. This is the type of stopgaps Heart of Thorns frequently made use of which I felt were a bit unwieldly.

In Heart of Thorns, the gating felt almost immediate and jarring, but in Path of Fire, it feels more natural. By the time you get to the area that requires the far-jumping raptor, you’ll likely have the mastery points you’ll need to put the points into the skill that lets your raptor jump that far. The story drives you forward by suggesting you put points into the raptor’s abilities, but it seems more natural because you’re able to explore a fair bit even without those points in place.

This type of pacing continues throughout the expansion, and eventually you can end up with 5 different mounts—the raptor, springer, skimmer (it hovers, much as you’d expect—which is perfect for getting across areas of quicksand), a gliding griffon, and teleporting/sand portal-traversing jackal.

Each mount has a unique purpose in the expansion’s new areas, and frankly, that’s cool. Some are more difficult to obtain and more optional, but act as a dangling carrot for completionists. In this manner, the mount system feels less of a “It’s time to go AFK midair” reward and more of a reward that lets you ask yourself, “What are some new ways I can explore the world?”

This is the smartest way ArenaNet could have added mounts to Guild Wars 2 in my opinion, and it works surprisingly well and makes the entire game even more exploration-friendly.

Am I Really Still Jabbering About Mounts?

One of the other interesting points about mounts in GW2 is the fact that there are various “skins” that change the mount’s appearance. In most F2P MMOs, you’ll have ways upon ways to obtain new mounts from in-game activities, cash shop promotions, holiday events, etc. Now, 80% of these mounts will be reskins with new names, of course. Instead of opting for this route, ArenaNet has given us ways to customize our base mounts with the skins we’ve obtained.

This system comes with pros and cons. On the pro side, ArenaNet can release cool bundles that pack together sets of themed skins. The Halloween mount skin bundle, for example, was perfect. It let us customize all of our mounts, or just our favorites. On the con side, ArenaNet seems to have realized that monotonizing skins is a brilliant idea—and is going about doing so in a somewhat controversial manner.   

The Mount Adoption License is a new loot box of sorts that was added to the Black Lion Trading Company (in-game cash shop) for Path of Fire. It gives you a chance to learn a new mount skin you don’t currently know already for any of the mounts available in the expansion. Some skins are gorgeous and 100% unique, as you may imagine, and others are well, not. Simple recolors and the like.

This sort of loot box would be acceptable, I feel, if it weren’t for one fact. By popping one open, you can get a skin for any of the 5 mounts in-game—even if you don’t have all of them unlocked. The skins are also untradeable/unsellable. In total, there are 30 new skins obtainable with the license.  

A lot of GW2 players are upset about ArenaNet packing the skins together in this manner without making different packs for each of the mounts. When it comes to mounts (and mount appearances as is the case in GW2), you see, MMORPG players tend to have favorites they love chasing. The license works against that—unless, of course, you have major bucks to put out. It would cost $120 to unlock all of the appearances currently.

All ArenaNet had to do was give players a few options with the skins. Get one you don’t really like? Sell it. Don’t have all the mounts yet? Buy that separate pack that just contains the skins you actually want. Guild Wars 2 has touted some of the best cash shop items seen in today’s free-to-play MMO world, but with moves like this, many are questioning that status—and understandably so.

On to Better Things!

Cash shop debacles aside, Path of Fire is an enjoyable expansion that balances the entire game better than Heart of Thorns did, I feel. It adds to the overall immersion and world experience while telling a solid story and giving us some great new locales to explore. The new elite specializations are some of the most unique we’ve seen in GW2, and that’s also great.

The new zones are also balanced well. Exploring any area solo often requires a little forethought, safe pulling, and smart dodging. This makes exploring fun, but also not completely faceroll if you happen to be out adventuring with friends. ArenaNet seems to be sticking to its guns regarding solo difficulty/group challenges out in the world, and frankly—it’s a breath of fresh air.

Exploring new content should be a challenge at times. We should want to take a minute to rethink our approach before diving into a new area. The new enemies in Path of Fire sometimes need to be approached in a different, more defensive way. This approach goes right in hand with the new specializations, which is also appropriate.

In Heart of Thorns, I almost felt stifled at times, due to the constricted nature of its zones and how vertical they were at times. Path of Fire is almost the opposite and features zones that are vast, expansive, and ready to fully explore. Huge desert worms and sharks (yes, sand sharks!) lay ready to strike unsuspecting victims, and even the town and city hubs have a tint of danger to them since many events focus on helping villagers and townsfolk survive assaults.

Over the years, Guild Wars 2 has formed a solid niche for itself in the MMORPG world. Its exploration-focused world, gorgeous animations and locations, fun, challenging combat, nonlinear forms of progression, and unique approaches to standard game features make it an MMO staple that many of us return to time and time again even if it isn’t our “main” game so to speak.

As I always tell my friends, GW2 is a fun, fair game that knows its playerbase well. Path of Fire continues that trend with a few cash shop hiccups, but overall makes some great improvements from Heart of Thorns. And y’know, now we have bunnies to run around on. And that makes it all worthwhile.

Rating: 4/5

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