Release Date: October 23, 2015Platform: PCDeveloper: ArenaNetPublisher: NCSOFTGenre: MMORPG (Expansion)
For years, players doubted they’d ever see the arrival of a Guild Wars 2 expansion. The developers even seemed opposed to the idea for a while in interviews. But, just as every major single player game is now guaranteed to have DLC attached to it, every MMORPG seems destined to have expansions. Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns (HoT) is GW2’s first.
As one of the many players who dived excitedly into Guild Wars 2 the day early access started back in 2012, I had extremely high hopes. The game brought zone exploration to the forefront like no MMORPG before quite managed. It was also one of the first MMOs to truly embrace an automated level sync system and a 100% open tag system. GW2 helped create the expectations of jumping puzzles, hidden treasure chests, and dynamic content that most MMORPGs currently at least partially embrace. New MMOs are still taking notes from Guild Wars 2. The game’s “run around and kill/interact with things” renown heart system? Hi, Apexis Crystals in Warlords of Draenor.
GW2 undeniably did a lot of things right, but one area where it arguably lacked content and direction was endgame. I found myself quickly distancing myself from the game a couple months after its release. As I tell my friends, GW2 is the perfect game for random, directionless romps, but not so perfect if progression’s your thing. Now, here’s the big question: Did Heart of Thorns fix that?
Mastery: The Illusion of Levels
Heart of Thorns is a fully-fledged expansion at its core. We were given one new class/profession, 8 new elite specializations for the pre-existing classes, four new zones, new personal story, new PvP content/maps, Guild Halls, new equipment, an upcoming 10-man raid, a new camera mode, and the new Mastery system. Now, there’s a reason I saved the Mastery system for the end. It’s a pretty big change from most MMORPG expansions due to the fact that it essentially replaces the addition of new levels.
The level cap is still 80 in Heart of Thorns, but once you hit the new content, your character starts gaining a new type of EXP that goes towards these things called Mastery Points. You gain Mastery EXP as you normally would—by killing things, completing story, running events, crafting/harvesting, exploring, and completing map objectives like vista points, etc. You can also gain complete Mastery Points by completing story branches and meta achievements.
Both the new content and the older content have separate lines of Mastery Points that grant players with some interesting rewards. You can gain the ability to hang glide your way through the new jungle maps, for example, by completing the gliding Mastery Points. This, by the way, is required to progress your story. It also makes traveling through the new maps much easier. You can earn new ways to travel (mushroom jumping, anyone?), unlock new, faction-based rewards/challenges, obtain legendary weapon precursors, and gain more rewards and challenges within the Fractals of the Mists dungeon system that was introduced in a later GW2 patch.
In short, the Mastery system is sort of a mix between a leveling system and a gated system that gives you additional endgame progression to work on. The gliding and traveling points essentially replace leveling since they’re necessary to explore the entirety of the new areas. The other stuff is just icing on the cake, and designed to let achievers, crafters, and dungeon-goers better explore the type of content they enjoy.
The whole system is an illusion of levels, sure, but it’s a solid system since it isn’t tied to combat stats/abilities whatsoever. This makes more it optional, mirroring vertical progression essentially. In this respect, it’s a better system than RIFT’s Planar Attunement system, for instance. It’s also a little more interesting than your standard “gain 1 level, gain 2 STR and 3 DEX” leveling system. The EXP requirements ramp up significantly as you gain more Mastery Points, naturally, which also gives long term players more goals to complete.
The largest issue with the Mastery Point system is the fact that, yes, it is gated. While exploring the first map in Heart of Thorns, I found myself hitting stopping blocks more than once while trying to work on my story since I wasn’t yet able to glide to quest areas or hop on mushrooms to get to where I needed to be. More points are also required in a later zone to access all map areas. You’re essentially forced to sink some time into running dynamic events or exploring more than you need to progress. This isn’t a huge problem, especially since running events with other players is, by far, the best source of EXP in the expansion, but it did strike me as odd when no similar type of gating was part of the launch version of GW2 at all.
In fact, I’d argue that the lack of any type of level/mechanic gating system was one of the best features about Guild Wars 2. You could go to any map and do anything to gain EXP. You could get to level cap by crafting. You could save all your story quests for level 80 and do them in one, huge chain. It all felt entirely free-floating, as though sandbox-type exploration was the intended way to play the game. This was fantastic for just hopping on for half an hour and doing whatever you felt like to progress.
On the new maps, this free-floating type of leveling system feels nonexistent. You can still explore some areas without gliding or mushroom jumping, but to move on story-wise (and stop randomly dying from dodge rolling off cliffs), you need to buckle down and gain a few Mastery points. I appreciate ArenaNet’s desire to introduce players to the system by essentially forcing them to place points in X and Y to move further, but that type of introduction both seems unnecessary and a little cumbersome.
It’s painful seeing these shiny, clickable mushrooms you know you can’t use. It’s cumbersome seeing an event just below you and knowing you can’t glide down there with everyone else. It also seems somewhat unnecessary for the very first map in a new expansion. An introduction to an expansion should revolve around story and exploration, not stopgaps and gated travel mechanisms. Is gaining those first couple points particularly difficult? Of course not, especially if you play in a group of friends or know how to follow event chains. But the fact that a player might have to stop and ask themselves, “Okay, now what?” a mere hour into the expansion seems unnecessary.
On the plus side, Mastery Points are account-wide. This makes the system entirely alt-friendly, which is a step more MMORPGs need to consider.
Difficulty, Depth, and Becoming “Elite”
Aside from my points of contention regarding the Mastery system, the actual content in the new zones is thoroughly engaging. The new events are fun and just creative enough to be interesting. The difficulty level is perfect in my opinion—more difficult than most world content in classic Guild Wars 2, but not overwhelmingly difficult. World content requires more groups and communication than before, but this change makes sense since the expansion seems to be targeting group challenges. Some of the new story content even forced me to rethink my Guardian’s default build and weapon choices. This type of rethinking is more than welcome for a new expansion.
With a larger emphasis placed on raid content and guilds, the developers seem to be encouraging solo players to broaden their communication channels a bit more. There’s nothing wrong with this, but I do worry that the new zones will look slightly barren in a few months because of some of the more challenging events and Hero Point challenges. MMORPG gamers, unfortunately, often seek the path of least resistance when it comes to alternative progression paths like the Mastery system. ArenaNet may have to do more in the future to entice players to stick around in the jungle longer.
Exploring the new zones can both be fun and annoying—depending on who you ask. The new zones are more vertically-focused since players can now glide in between levels, hop through large gaps of space, and use underground tunnels and whatnot to transverse across hurdles. This makes them fun to explore once you know where you’re going, but also initially frustrating until you get the layout down. The world map isn’t terribly designed for vertical spaces, but it could be better. The actual zones themselves are lush and gorgeous to look at. ArenaNet’s environment design team, as always, did an excellent job with creating jungle zones that look like you could get totally lost within them.
Speaking of getting lost, the new story in HoT is decent, and just engaging enough to give us a reason to feel as though the jungle surrounding us is dangerous. The fact that our characters now speak within the game’s UI and not in cutscenes anymore is pretty cool. As much as I don’t mind the story of Heart of Thorns, storytelling has never been one of Guild Wars 2’s strongest points. It’s not bad, but it’s also not fantastic. There are some funny moments and lines of dialogue shared between story-based NPCs and whatnot, but overall, the storytelling just doesn’t compare to some other MMORPGs.
The new Revenant class/profession seems well-designed and is enjoyable, as are many of the new elite specializations. The elite specializations unlock a weapon type which was previously unused and a whole new set of skills for every profession. They’re called “elite” since while they’re available at level 80, Hero Points must be placed into the specialization before it can be unlocked. Previous to a very recent change, the elite specialization required 400 Hero Points. Now the unlock only costs 250. This change is far better, allowing players who may not have maxed out every single Hero Point to comfortably try out their elite specialization and start placing points into the new abilities immediately. And no, these unlocks aren’t account-wide, unfortunately.
The choice to require an unlock for the new specializations is one other area ArenaNet chose to use a gating mechanic for in Heart of Thorns, but I feel the Hero Point change makes it a decent type of gating mechanic. Most of the Hero Points throughout Tyria are simple to unlock. The new ones in HoT zones may require a buddy or two, but they also unlock more points. Between HoT zones and older areas, there is no lack of ways to grab additional points. Many of the elite specializations are also powerful enough to do rather well with even without a fully-unlocked arsenal. This makes the specializations feel appropriately “epic” and gives players something to look forward to as they unlock new abilities bit by bit.
All in all, the specializations pack quite a punch and tend to help each profession feel a little less weak in their previous “weak” areas. For Guardian, for example, the Dragonhunter specialization gives us a ranged/trap option that feels non-clunky and more powerful than our previous ranged options. All the new specializations were also a way to let players experience one of best things about a new MMORPG expansion—getting new abilities—without tying them to levels.
Piecing Together a Verdict
Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns is a fairly good expansion with a lot of positives. The options the Mastery system allows when paired with the new elite specializations and the group-centric difficulty of the new areas are all positive things the base game needed. If it weren’t for some of the expansion’s gating mechanics and my worry regarding the new, shiny maps ending up fairly empty after a while, I would be tempted to call Heart of Thorns a better version of the original. If you enjoyed the base game or did but felt it lacked a bit of difficulty and endgame progression, there’s a very good chance you’ll enjoy Heart of Thorns.
Laura Hardgrave is a staff writer.