ArenaNet has a certain affinity towards having their players face insurmountable odds followed by impossible challenges. Since the game released in 2012, the main adversary has been the Elder Dragons, unstoppable forces of nature with no personality and no apparent motive other than consuming. Spectacle creep is certainly not a phenomenon unique to Guild Wars 2, but it says it all when facing "only" a god in Path of Fire is a step down on the power scale. We can't help but think that finally, ArenaNet has realised what the player base did years ago: The Elder Dragons just aren't that appealing as antagonists.
Perhaps because of this, the story of Path of Fire became the highlight of the expansion for us. For the first time since Guild Wars 1, we actually cared about the story. It's amazing how much having an adversary with personality, motives and beliefs about the world does to the perception of the threat you face. Add to this a genuinely surprising plot twist, epic boss battles and some all-around decent dialogue, and we thoroughly enjoyed the narrative. This, as opposed to going through the motions to get the shiny reward at the end. Interestingly, all this was achieved without making any noticeable changes in the structure of the storytelling, which still entails alternating between story instances and open-world linking quests. Sure, the story has limited longevity, which is the bread and butter of the genre, but nevertheless, it was the most refreshing thing about the expansion.
It certainly doesn't hurt that the story has taken us back to one of the most beloved regions of Guild Wars: Prophecies. The Crystal Desert has been beautifully reimagined, with both familiar landmarks from the first game and new, fantastical environments. While the environmental art of Guild Wars 2 has always been top notch, they really outdid themselves with Path of Fire. Between arid, scorching dunes, lush oases and twisted branded structures, we were in awe wherever we went.
The act of travelling through these new maps has also been a great pleasure, due to the inclusion of mounts. They feel fantastic to ride. There's a total of five to choose from, each with unique physics and animations. The slight delay in gaining momentum and the inertia experienced during turns make the mounts feel like they are actually physical beings interacting with the world. Each one specialises in tackling different environmental challenges, which makes them more than just a simple speed boost. The raptor excels at traversing large gaps in the terrain with a massive horizontal leap. To gain altitude, however, the springer should be your mount of choice. Water, quicksand and other environmental hazards can be floated gingerly across using the skimmer. The jackal can teleport some distance, including through sand portals in the terrain. Finally, the not-so-secret griffon mount can glide through the air, essentially functioning as a more powerful glider.
There are aspects of the mounts system that could use some quality of life improvements. While you can bind each mount to separate keys, swapping between them quickly becomes fiddly. In particular, we wish it was possible to directly transition from one mount to another without having to get off first. We've also been frustrated numerous times by how unpredictable small adjustments in position can be when mounted, making us fall off a cliff more than once trying to position ourselves just right for a jump. Another minor complaint is that while the other mounts all deal with environmental challenges that naturally emerge from the game world, the sand portals (the main reason to use the jackal) are an entirely artificial environmental challenge. It feels like they were added simply to give players a reason to use the jackal.
The other big feature of the expansion is a new set of elite specialisations, one for each of the nine classes. Many of these are themed to the desert setting of the expansion, most notably the mirage specialisation for mesmers. We've never been the type of player who painstakingly tests out new builds, but our impression is that ArenaNet has avoided the power creep that somewhat affected the first set of specialisations. There are some really neat new mechanics which we're sure will freshen up the combat. In particular, the weaver specialisation for the elementalist has you wielding two elements simultaneously, allowing for some really flexible and unique gameplay. The holosmith specialisation for the engineer impressed with its striking visual effects. We're sure a subsection of the player base will have a lot of fun playing around with these new elite specialisations.
Our main concern about this expansion has to do with longevity. Prior to release, ArenaNet promised that Path of Fire would include content equivalent to Heart of Thorns and season 3 combined. Now, we haven't compared the number of hours we spent on each, but this claim can only be close to true if we discount repeatable content. In Path of Fire, there really is none. Once you have played through the story and explored all of the maps, which really doesn't take long in light of this being an MMO, you have played through the vast majority of the new content. No new fractals, no new raid wings, and no new PvP or WvW content. To be fair, the griffon mount is a long-term goal to work towards after finishing the story, but the biggest investment towards this mount is the money you can earn more effectively elsewhere. There is also a new event type, called bounties, which involves seeking out infamous creatures and outlaws in the desert and bringing them to a swift end. These often involve some interesting mechanics, usually reserved for fractal bosses and the like, but we don't foresee these being enough to keep people in the Crystal Desert for long.
This leaves us somewhat conflicted about the expansion. The content that is there is excellent and has truly reinvigorated our enjoyment of the game. The Crystal Desert has been beautifully reimagined, with a really great story to guide you through it. The mounts system has truly raised the bar for player transportation in the genre. However, we have pretty much exhausted all there is to do in Path of Fire. We now find ourselves going back to what we were doing before launch. Now, to be fair ArenaNet did promise a short gap between the expansion and the next season of the living story, but the point remains. Some repeatable content like additional fractals or raid wings would have bridged the gap better. Nevertheless, we are really excited by the direction ArenaNet has taken the game with Path of Fire, and we're very much looking forward to the next season. Path of Fire stands as a really high-quality expansion, even if the new content is relatively short-lived.