From the initial briefing about the new expansion, it was evident that ArenaNet has learned lessons from Heart of Thorns. The biggest difference lies in a change of focus from introducing new systems to pumping out new content. Unlike in Heart of Thorns, no new playable class is added. Instead of introducing new systems like masteries and elite specialisations, the studio is expanding on existing systems. Therefore we get more story, more quests and larger maps. According to ArenaNet, Path of Fire will offer as much content as the entirety of Heart of Thorns and the Living Story Season 3 combined.
The Crystal Desert
The bulk of the new content will take place in The Crystal Desert, an area familiar to players of Guild Wars Prophecies. It is also an important area in the book Edge of Destiny, in which the members of Destiny's Edge fought Kralkatorrik. In the 250 years since Guild Wars 1 the undead king Palawa Joko ruled the desert with an iron fist, and the people of Tyria kept their distance.
"Joko the Tyrant has closed his borders. The nations in game weren't willing to risk making contact with this tyrant for fear of what might happen as a result of that contact. Is this going to lead to a conflict? Is this going to lead to a long term grudge between the two of us?" Path of Fire narrative lead Scott McGough asks rhetorically.
In Joko's kingdom lives mostly humans from Elona, so much of the architecture and culture in the area will be recognisable from the Elona we knew in Guild Wars Nightfall. The Crystal Desert has imposed new challenges on the people living there, though.
"While the Crystal Desert region has been in isolation from the rest of the world, because Joko cut it off from the rest of the world, they have been exploring 'how do we get around this vast kingdom of ours?' As you move through the different maps you'll discover lots of different landscapes, lots of different environments with lots of different environmental challenges. Each region has developed its own characteristic mount that reflects 'we needed to get around in this kind of terrain so we learned to ride this kind of creature'," McGough explained.
Players will, therefore, get to learn how to ride mounts. Hard core Guild Wars veterans might be shocked by this revelation, and as someone who considers themselves part of that group we must say that our initial reaction to this news was to be sceptical. The core game and five years worth of content were designed without mounts in mind, so why introduce them now?
"It came from looking at HoT and what it did really well. We looked at masteries, the ones that really stuck with the players. Mainly gliding, but also jump mushrooms. You're getting these new cool powers for your character that you can unlock that can help you traverse and explore the world. And we use mounts as the vessel to deliver that," says Roy Cronacher, game designer and team lead for mounts and creatures.
Our initial scepticism vanished the moment we jumped in the saddle and took the first mount, the raptor, out for a spin. The riding feels amazing! There is weight in every single step, getting up to speed takes some effort, and the raptor leans into turns. It is obvious that ArenaNet has put considerable effort into the mount system so that it doesn't function as purely a glorified speed boost.
"We created custom physics for every single mount so they all move differently, which matches their anatomy. We spent a lot of time on their animations to really add personality to every single mount. Added like a new camera system to help make the experience smoother. So it's a lot of little things that really just add up to the whole," explains Cronacher.
There will be four mount types in total. The first you unlock is the raptor, which, true to the name, is a bipedal dinosaur that jumps horizontally. The springer is a sort of mouse-kangaroo combo, which specialises in jumping vertically. To traverse water and quicksand you ride a skimmer, a manta ray-like creature which hovers above the ground. Lastly, the jackal is a creature of rock and sand which can blink short distances.
Each mount is unlocked through the masteries system introduced in Heart of Thorns. In addition to unique physics, each mount has an ability which helps them travel around the crystal desert. The raptor, for instance, can perform a powerful horizontal jump. Moreover, each mount will have an ability to initiate in combat. Lastly, each mount can be customised through the same dye system as you use on armour.
In Heart of Thorns, ArenaNet introduced elite specialisations for each class. Path of Fire expands on this system with an additional elite specialisation per class. This entails a new weapon is unlocked, with accompanying weapon skills, and a healing skill, an elite skill and three utility skills. Most importantly, each specialisation also alters the class's unique ability.
Unfortunately, we only got a very limited impression of the new specialisations. They were not unlocked in the PvE portion of the demo, so we only got to test them out against training dummies in the PvP lobby. This said, some of them were particularly interesting to us. The elementalist now can wield two elements simultaneously, giving you two weapon skills of each element and one skill combining the two. As a thief, you can now use long range rifles as a marksman, but to be the most efficient you must remained locked in place. Most in line with the desert theme is the mesmer's mirage specialisation.
As the expansion places such a heavy emphasis on content, it is difficult to properly evaluate the quality based on the brief demo we got to play. Much is dependent on that content, because while the other new features appear to be solidly implemented, they are much fewer relative to Heart of Thorns. That said, we think ArenaNet is taking the right approach here. While things like new playable classes are fun, they don't outweigh the lack of content many experienced with Heart of Thorns. Even if mounts is a big addition to the game, and really well implemented too, the success of Path of Fire will depend on both the quality and quantity of the new content. We will find out either way when Path of Fire launches 22 September this year.