The state of Guild Wars 2: a game on the edge
For good or ill, the MMORPG genre soldiers on, despite falling subscribers on mainstays like World Of Warcraft and many titles going free-to-play to entice new players. The genre isn't slowing down in the future either, with many new games slated to arrive in the coming months (just take a look at our list of most anticipated MMOs set to arrive this year).
Guild Wars 2 has always been an anomaly in the MMO universe. It was more highly PvE focused than usual but added in huge community aspects, as well as diverse WvW and PvP aspects when you hit top level. The overall design took the best elements of all the biggest MMOs and refined them so a casual, solo player could drop in, have a ton of fun, and drop out. Meanwhile, dedicated players could earn tons of different achievements, complete huge maps, and master various skills.
Returning To An Old Friend
I played this game like crazy back when it was a still a fresh new face on the MMORPG scene, reveling in the beautiful vistas to be discovered across Tyria, from the ghost-shrouded ruins of Ascalon to the bustling metropolis Lion's Arch. Before dropping off to play other games, I took my Char Ash Legion thief to level 80, mastered all 400 levels of cooking, and managed to pick up all the cultural equipment.
It's been about a year and a half since I played regularly, and now that the Heart Of Thorns expansion is out and the base game is available free-to-play (as opposed to simply subscription-free as it was before), it seemed like a good time to dive back in and see what Tyria is looking like today.
As it turns out, quite a bit has changed, and not all for the better.
When I pulled out my old level 80 character, I was immediately greeted by a totally redesigned skill tree and hero tab. I was lost right off the bat due to the massive changes, so it seemed like a good idea to just start a new character and see what's changed from the ground up.
A Shrinking Guild Wars 2 Player Base?
Having explored every corner of Tyria again for a solid week starting over at the beginning, I've found the game to be in a serious state of flux, balancing on an edge that could really tip either way. While there are all sorts of numbers online showing the player base has supposedly skyrocketed, most of the times I logged on, I found the maps to be much more sparsely populated than they were two years ago.
It's hard to say if this is actually a smaller player base or just a quirk of the new megaserver system that automatically puts you on a map with the highest number of your guild mates and people you've grouped with before. It's nice that there's no longer any overflow maps that will go away after a set amount of time, but it seems like something needs to be tweaked as I rarely came across more than five or six other people in most areas in the late evenings.
Thankfully that's not the case during major events. You can still reliably find 50 or even 100 people hanging out waiting to take down the the pirate queen Taidha Covington on Bloodtide Coast or engage the Frozen Maw in the Wayfarer Foothills when the timers are refreshing.
New Content After The Expansion
Returning to the forums and Reddit posts for the first time in more than a year, I discovered one thing that was abundantly clear: fans are pissed. I missed all the internet rage about what went on leading up to the release of the Heart Of Thorns expansion, so all I have to go on is what is available now after the all the fallout.
While there were some quest and scenery changes at various times, this is the first actual expansion Guild Wars 2 has ever had (compare that to WoW about to release its sixth major expansion!) so expectations were high. It's clear that people feel misled (or even actively lied to) about what was going to be included with this expansion and what sort of price point it would feature.
Granted, there are some restrictions if you go the free-to-play route rather than actually buying the base game (which is now actually the base game + Heart Of Thorns), and yes, the expansion is pretty pricey at $49.99 - $99.99, depending on what extras you want.
There's no getting around the fact that the price is high, but when you consider the game has never had a subscription fee, it really does make it a good trade-off. If you've been paying $15 a month for WoW for years and still pay to buy expansions, there's no comparison – Guild Wars 2 is the better value. That increases when you take into account the “Living Story” updates that were made available to everyone for free over the years. These were basically free mini-expansions, and more of those are coming that utilize the expansion's features.
On that note, there are actually not as many additions in this expansion as you might expect, and that's part of the complaint from long-time fans. There's one new class, one new region, and some new mechanics with the mastery and specialization systems. The new Revenant class is worth checking out, both aesthetically and mechanically, as a versatile class that's steeped in older Guild Wars lore and has a lot of impressive combat abilities.
There's no level cap raise, which is deal breaker for some but personally isn't a big deal for me. Tyria is a huge place, and since it uses level scaling, the focus is more on exploration than becoming the most powerful character around. You can have fun as a level 80 character in a level 4 area you've never been to before, and that definitely wouldn't be the case in many other MMORPGs.
While you are still capped at level 80, the mastery system essentially unlocks an alternate level progression system, giving access to new movement modes like gliding. There's a much bigger focus overall in Maguuma on vertical movement, so if you weren't into the jumping puzzles before you won't be happy as they are now basically built into the new areas.
Portions of the new areas are locked until you reach a specific mastery level, and that might not be a bad thing immediately. In fact it could be a good thing, so you have a reason to keep going back to previous areas you covered and not feel like you are doing the same thing.
Unfortunately the choice to have absolutely massive XP requirements for going up the mastery track really kills this whole system. The new Maguuma areas feel incredibly grind-y in a way the base game never did. You will be doing the same things over and over and over to inch your way up and unlock those areas you couldn't reach before – just to do it again when you get there.
There's an interesting correlation between the dates of reviews that have gone online for Heart Of Thorns and the scores in said reviews. Anything written right at the end of October when it first came out is generally glowing, while most reviews in the intervening months have dropped down not just into negative, but outright hostile territory.
Checking out the new content, I can see why. There's some serious imbalance with the new elite specializations available for each class. They are leagues ahead of the base versions of the classes in a way the non-expansion players can't hope to match. If you want to stay competitive, you've basically got to buy the expansion and grind your way through as PvP is all nerfed now.
Going from player versus player to world versus world, I was absolutely stunned to see the sad state of affairs. I had thought the regular maps felt sparsely populated, but completely changed that assessment when discovering that the WvW maps are straight up empty. In one instance, I didn't come across a single other player on the entire map. According to developer info available on Reddit, major changes to WvW are on the horizon, so we'll have to wait and see if changes can come to draw people back into that aspect of the game.
If you liked how you can have fun in any area without having to be part of a huge group, that aspect has seriously diminished in the new expansion region. In most other areas of the game you can stroll through solo and do just fine, but here you are going to get ganked, badly, unless you've got some serious backup. That really compounds the frustration of the grinding necessary to work your way up the mastery ranking.
The Bottom Line
Coming back to Guild Wars 2 after a long time away, there are a lot of things that have changed for the worse with the expansion and free-to-play switch, but that being said, the base game is still amazing. It's still not pay-to-win and you can absolutely get through the game from level 1 to 80 without spending a penny (unless you are planning on doing PvP, in which case the expansion is mandatory).
As always, the game world is absolutely beautiful and filled not just with eye candy but ear candy as well. Guild Wars 2 continues to stun with top-notch sound effects and, more importantly, mood music for each separate map.
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The base game is still a great PvE experience, although it seems like there are less users than before with anything besides major world events. WvW on the other hand is dead – there's no pulse there at all – and in need of some serious defibrillator action from ArenaNet.
Getting back into the game I'm reminded of why I was obsessed with this world and sunk a full year of my life into it, so I'm sincerely hoping the developer can address some of these issues and keep this game going for years to come.