Hands-On: Guild Wars 2: Heart Of Thorns Is Shaping Up To Be A Worthy Expansion
This past weekend, I (and every other Guild Wars 2 player that’s prepurchased the expansion) got a chance to play a small but significant chunk of Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns, the game’s first expansion. The beta test ran on live servers, and featured mostly the same bit of new content Arenanet have showed off at PAX, Gamescom, and in their recent closed beta stress tests.
I have to concede that a lot of what I’ll be talking about here won’t make much sense to those who’ve never played Guild Wars 2; MMOs are a complex genre and I’ve put over 1200 hours into this particular one. While the base game does come free for those who prepurchase Heart of Thorns, the expansion is almost entirely aimed at experienced players, so I’ll be focusing on those elements in this hands-on.
The main thing that set this beta weekend event apart from the stress tests is that all of the Elite Specialisations announced so far (as well as the new Revenant legend) were on offer. Elite Specialisations, if you haven’t followed any Heart of Thorns news up until this point, will change all of the game’s existing professions in a significant way. For example, Guardians will have the option of becoming a Dragonhunter, giving them access to the longbow as a weapon and traps as utility skills. The other 3 Elite Specialisations available this time around were the Chronomancer, Reaper and Tempest. More on them later.
After creating my brand new Revenant (a Norn, of course) I was immediately thrown into The Silverwastes, a map added during the course of last year’s Living Story Season 2. A quick introduction and fort defense event later and I could make my way into the new map: Verdant Brink.
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Verdant Brink is a place filled with beauty and destruction; the gorgeous rivers and jungle are juxtaposed by the crashed airships of the Pact Fleet and the Elder Dragon Mordremoth’s vines infecting everything they touch. It’s a startling introduction to the dangers we’ll be facing in the heart of the Maguuma Jungle.
I’m not exaggerating there: the very first enemies I ran into Verdant Brink killed me almost immediately. These were not the mindless foes we’ve come to expect from Guild Wars 2’s open world: Mordrem Guard enemies come in multiple varieties (snipers, stalkers, tormentors and cavaliers off the top of my head) and will use some pretty smart tactics, like tormentors knocking you to the ground so snipers can take you out.
Other enemies include Smokescales (reptiles that cover the ground in mist in which you’re unable to hit them, then use a teleporting omnislash-like attack that takes you down to low health in no time), multiple types of mushroom enemies (all of which explode on death, and have abilities like charging to knock you down and shooting poisonous spores at you) and two types of beetles (one that sprays gunk that makes you take more damage, and another that we’ve seen in Dry Top and The Silverwastes before and can only be damaged from the front). All of these are more than manageable once you start noticing their patterns and telltale animations but man, was it a surprise to be facing challenging enemies outside of dungeons.
There’s a lot to do in Verdant Brink: the Pale Reaver and Itzel event chains are some of the best work Arenanet have ever done and when night falls, all hell breaks loose and players have to defend rally points from Mordrem. The night events are not all that exciting as is, but Arenanet have confirmed that not all the events were switched on for the weekend – we only had access to around 25% of Verdant Brink, and many of the events likely involved moving to other parts of the map.
Other than the events, there were also Adventures to complete: scored, timed challenges with leaderboards so you can compete to be the best. There were two that I managed to find: one involved burning vines with a flamethrower while avoiding explosive mines, and the other was a basically a jumping puzzle where you had to also collect bugs.
These adventures (and getting around the map) are made much easier once you unlock some masteries, another new addition in Heart of Thorns. Instead of simply upping the level cap, Arenanet have chosen to go with a horizontal progression system called Mastery where you can unlock new abilities across all characters. Click here for more info on that.
The expansion will release with 39 masteries in total, with plans to add more post-release. I managed to obtain two masteries over the course of the weekend:
- Gliding is simply fantastic, allowing you to take in the beautiful vistas while getting around far more easily. I really can’t put into words how great it feels to fly across Verdant Brink, and it’s a pity that gliding will only be available in the new Heart of Thorns maps.
- Bouncing mushrooms are useful in that they can get you up cliffs and across gaps in an instant, helping you avoid having to run around/up to get where you need. They can also help you achieve leaderboard times on adventures more easily.
This was my first time playing the Revenant profession, and I really enjoyed it. The class’ unique mechanic is the ability to invoke Legends to change their utility bar skills, effectively giving them access to 2 heal skills, 6 utility skills, and 2 elite skills – double the amount of every other profession. To balance this, all skills except their auto attack cost a unique resource called energy to activate, which you gain over time while in combat and resets to 50% when you leave combat or switch legends.
These mechanics lead to the Revenant being nearly as complex as the Elementalist to play, having to juggle multiple bars of skills to suit the situation at hand. It also means Revenants can’t mix and match utility skills: each of the four Legends has its own heal, utility and elite skills that players are unable to change. I found myself primarily using the Jalis and Shiro legends, giving me a healthy mix of tanking and DPS skills. As for weapons, I fell in love with the staff almost immediately, and switched between almost all the other available weapons in my second weapon set: hammer, sword/sword, mace/axe and sword/axe. All offer something different from the game’s other professions, especially since Revenants use the hammer as a ranged weapon and staff in melee.
Aside from the Revenant, I tried out all of the available Elite Specialisations for at least a few minutes each:
- Dragonhunter and its longbow finally brings a decent ranged weapon to the Guardian, but they may be better off sticking to melee. The trap utility skills, however, are awesome.
- Chronomancer gives the Mesmer some powerful new time bending skills. With smart play, they’ll be able to use their most powerful skills twice, and reduce the cooldown of their and allies’ abilities. The new off-hand shield and well utility skills look like they’ll see a lot of use.
- Tempest brings some interesting additions to the Elementalist, but may not be worth taking over current specialisations if you’re looking to maximise DPS. The warhorn and attunement overload skills are a ton of fun, though, and some of their new shout utilities will probably see use.
- Reaper may finally make the Necromancer a worthy contender over other professions. Reaper Shroud skills are incredibly powerful, and look good to boot. The greatsword and new shout abilities could do with a few buffs, though.
Unlike Destiny and most other games that have run “beta tests” in recent years, this was a real beta weekend, for better or worse. On one hand it was extremely buggy: most events bugged out and couldn’t progress, some features weren’t functioning as intended, and I fell through terrain on at least one occasion. On the other, Arenanet are really taking a lot of the feedback to heart: already, they buffed most of the Revenant’s skills since the last beta test to a state where it’s on-par with other professions.
Despite all the bugs and limited area we could play in, I already miss the Revenant and Verdant Brink. Many were worried that Heart of Thorns wouldn’t provide enough new to Guild Wars 2 but after this weekend, I’m more than pleased with the work Arenanet have been doing. With Verdant Brink and at least 3 other new maps, the new WvW borderlands, new PvP game mode and ladder system, guild halls, “challenging group content”, elite specialisations and the mastery system, I already know I have a lot to look forward to when the expansion releases later this year.
All I need now is a solid release date – Arenanet’s official stance is “No release date yet, but we are committing to this year.”