Since release Guild Wars 2 has periodically received minor updates that have added features and developed the story. Yet ArenaNet, after a relatively long time, has decided to bring out a larger expansion pack. We asked Isiah Cartwright, senior designer at ArenaNet, how the situation has changed.
"We looked at progression and how we have added progression to our updates, and we saw some fundamental problems. When we talked about solutions to these problems, we realised that it required something slightly larger than the small incremental content updates we've had so far. The solution was then to begin to move towards expansion packs," explains Cartwright.
The new progression system added to Heart of Thorns is called "Masteries". Masteries gives players several different ways to develop their character past the level cap. Unfortunately, we didn't find out much more about this system than has been already made known, but we got to play with one strand within the progression system: we could glide through the air between treetops in Maguuma jungle via the hang glider we unlocked through Master Exploration.
Beforehand we were afraid that this would be an easily marketable gimmick, but the features felt very natural and well implemented, and we reckon the increased mobility is a positive addition to the basic game.
"Masteries is probably my favorite part of the new expansion pack," says Crystin Cox, senior designer for trade in Guild Wars 2.
"I really like how we now have an opportunity to introduce a progression system that is contextual and feels well integrated into the experience of playing the game. It's not just numbers that are greater. I'm in an area and I see a lot of challenges, and by spending time there I learn to master these challenges," explains Cox.
In addition to masteries we get more opportunities to specialise further in Heart of Thorns. Again, this was something we unfortunately didn't seen during our trip to see the game, but Cartwright commented that specialisation is his favorite aspect of the expansion.
"It gives me a new set of things to play with, different layouts for my characters. In addition, this is something that affects all aspects of the game, it gives you new opportunities whether you are a PvP player, PvE player or WVW Player - whatever you like to do."
Also, when it comes to further PvE content, there was little new and concrete to tell us about. Cartwright would not go into to much detail regarding the content being added to the Heart of Thorns.
"There will definitely be more challenging content, and it's going to be spread out over all aspects of the game. We have boss fights in the open world and difficult history content, but we have nothing to announce specifically about dungeons and such content," we were told.
However there were two aspects of the demo that are both new and exciting, and we got to test them thoroughly. One is the new class, Revenant. The second is the new PvP mode, Stronghold.
It is not uncommon for MMORPGs to add new classes in expansion packs, and Guild Wars 2 is no exception. As a Revenant you draw power from The Mists, a place that exists between all worlds, linking them together, to defeat your enemies.
After playing with a Revenant clocked at the highest level for a few hours, we're very happy with the way ArenaNet has given the class its own distinct expression, both through mechanics and the lore.
As a Revenant you can, instead of switching weapons in battle, conjure up abilities from one of five legendary characters from days past. By switching from one figure to another you replace the right hand half of your attributes, something no other class can do. Like the weapons of other classes, you can only switch between two different characters during battle. This gives you unique opportunities, such as using two different healing properties consecutively, or even two elite properties!
Much of Revenant's personality comes from this feature. The two we got to play with were King Jalis Iron Hammer and demon Malyxx, the former an important ally and the latter a formidable foe from the original Guild Wars. This historical detail gives the abilities included with each character distinctive traits that fit the personalities you conjure. With Jalis Iron Hammer you can take more damage, while Mallyx makes you incredibly powerful, but you do damage to yourself simultaneously. The system means you can quickly jump between roles in the same way that other classes switch weapons.
But why can we only now pull powers from The Mists? The answer is related to the events that have led up to Heart of Thorns: "After Rytlock threw himself through the portal to The Mists he goes through a journey that allows him to be a Revenant, while also opening this opportunity for everyone," explains writer Leah Hoyer.
"We're going to go more into how conjuring abilities from The Mists works through the story in Heart of Thorns, and this explanation is related to Rytlocks history," Hoyer teases.
The Revenant class seems very inspired by the original Guild Wars. In addition to conjuring legends from that game, we are blindfolded to better access The Mists, not unlike Spiritualist in Guild Wars Factions. Also, when it comes to mechanics, those used in the original act as inspiration here; once again we have properties that have a continuous effect and draw from a resource as long as they're activated. This has not previously existed in Guild Wars 2, but is a well-known feature for Guild Wars veterans.
"You will see several parts of the game that we try to create links to the history of Tyria, as we return to an old Guild Wars region and have a class which builds on the established history," said Cartwright.
Heart of Thorns will also introduce a new PvP mode, Stronghold. Initially it will only be a solitary map where this mode can be played, but Jessica Boettiger, head of quality assurance of PvP, does not exclude the possibility of there being more.
"Battle of Champion's Dusk is the first map that we include with Heart of Thorns, and we are very focused on making this highly polished and a great experience. We have nothing to talk about right now in terms of future plans for these maps. It depends on feedback from players where we take things in the future," explains Boettiger.
The mode itself seems somewhat inspired by the MOBA genre. Each team has an NPC - a guild master - which they should protect from the opposing team, while to win they must kill the opposing guild master. Fellowships Messrs are protected behind two gates, but the gates can't be damaged by the players directly - they must gather supplies to recruit forces that move from one side of the map to the other. In addition, from time to time, they can call in an additional, powerful NPC. Only recruited units and these NPCs can break through the gates.
The Stronghold mode is a far more complex, and therefore, in our opinion at least, much more entertaining than the existing mode, Conquest. There are several different strategies and roles, and there is plenty of room for experimentation. One can balance attack and defence differently. You might bet it all on controlling supply routes, or wait patiently before grabbing the hero right under the nose of the opposing team. You can force your opponents on the defensive by sending over your forces, or you can attempt to draw attention away from your troops. Meanwhile objectives are easily understandable. The result is a far more appealing PvP mode than the game has had before now.
The problem, however, is that this one map is being added to the existing rotation, so you can't simply play Stronghold and only that. This may well be problematic as the two modes are so different that one might prefer to have different character setup for each of them.
"You can play Stronghold custom venues, and just include Stronghold map," defends estate Tiger. "In addition, our system to select the next map is a tool for players to influence the map being played."
We're not sure that this is enough. It costs quite a lot of money in the game to set up a custom arena, so many players will not want to do this. While it's all well and good that you can vote for the next map, it's still only a half-decent solution.
What we've seen so far Heart of Thorns feels like the appetiser, and while it tastes good, we're now hungry for more. We didn't get to see enough to evaluate whether the masteries system will offer the progression we've been missing, or if specialisations make the existing classes more interesting, or if endgame content is good enough.
However, what we got to look at more closely is very promising. The Revenant class is an attractive new option with personality and character, and although the implementation of Stronghold mode doesn't feel optimal, we think Heart of Thorns will be well received by PvP enthusiasts too.