Betas or Previews of the Expansion


This week I was lucky enough to take part in the first Closed Beta for Heart of Thorns, the upcoming Guild Wars 2 expansion. Today, I’m here to share my impressions with you, talk a bit about the time I spent in game with the game’s director Colin Johanson himself and ask the question on whether or not these sessions deserve to be part of the development process.

I’ve been reading these days all the posts that came out by various community and press outlets regarding this Closed Beta and decided that my own shouldn’t focus that much on a lengthy description of what this test build had to offer. I mean that’s already out there, done in the best of the ways by these folks that I’ll try to refer to their thoughts when needed. Instead, I’ll focus on providing feedback, briefly going through what I liked and of course summarize what could become better. Isn’t that what a Beta should be about anyway?

So, I participated in the first two sessions of testing. That’s about four hours of gameplay. I spent the first session with a bunch of other Dragon Season writers. We all stood in awe upon hitting Verdant Brink, a new addition to the world map and the first map you will land on upon kicking off the Heart of Thorns experience. I feel like I’m repeating myself every time I say that Guild Wars 2 is a gorgeous game. Aesthetics are a huge selling point these days and ArenaNet’s team never fails to amaze on this aspect. Verdant Brink is beautiful. It’s lush jungle in all its majesty.

The part of Verdant Brink we had access to in the Beta.

What adds to all this is the way the map is designed. Verticality is the main pivot around which the entire map structure of the expansion will be built. One of the events had us follow a team of NPCs to investigate some ruins across the southern borders of Verdant Brink. We kept going up and up traversing some slopes and upon reaching the entrance of the ruins a staircase had us go even further upwards to an almost never ending ascension. Believe me, it was glorious.

The way these new maps are designed opens up new scenarios of gameplay and progression like the Mastery system. The glider was so much fun to use that I found myself holding on to it whenever I had the slight chance. During the second play session I spent some time asking Colin questions about the expansion and instead of standing idle, I was running around sporting my glider with such pride. Pure fun, I tell you.

But let’s go a bit back to Verdant Brink. When I first heard that Heart of Thorns will feature the Hylek as well as some new variations of them I was so happy. They are my favourite secondary race. These tadpoles remind me of some classic fairytales I used to read as a kid. There’s no possible way for you to imagine how ecstatic I was when I stumbled across a village of the Itzel, the tree Hylek, in the new map. It was so beautiful that I get the goosebumps every time I reminisce my time spent there.

Think of wooden huts lying deep in the foliage of the trees with platforms and bridges connecting each one of them. When night falls lanterns are lit around the branches of the trees and the whole place starts to glow a very eerie vibe. I don’t know how to describe this picture any better. All I wish for is for me to be able to stay there forever.

Deep night by the waypoint in the Itzel village.

This gives me the opportunity to talk about what I believe was the other great aspect of my experience with this Beta. Apart from the scenery, what really gave me the impression of being in the jungle was the sounds. I couldn’t just see that I was getting closer to the Heart of Thorns, I could hear it. Frogs croaking, birds chirping. The wooden bridges were squeaking when someone was walking on them. The wind, the sound of the water falling from high above. The audio department is worthy of this praise, and even more. They’ve done a spectacular job breathing in the jungle the life it deserves.

I told Colin how much I enjoyed the whole setting and he guided me around the concept of Outposts. These are basically meta events that provide a part of the map with some basic back-story as well as some unique services if you manage to successfully drive the chain forward. To understand this concept a bit better you can read Ravious’ impressions from the Beta over at Kill Ten Rats. He does a very good job describing the events that take place around the Itzel Outpost and gives you an insight of what to expect from this system.

Now, what this Beta lacked for the most part was direction. I bring this up here cause Outposts were a nice a example of that. Specifically, there wasn’t any way in game to understand what was going on around you. What’s the purpose of Outposts? Why should you even bother completing events around them? I suggested to Colin that a system similar to the scouts in the previous areas would make a good introduction to this new way of bundling up events together. A progress bar as part of the meta event box would be cool as well so that people could have a goal to aim for. Think of how the Silverwastes and Dry Top play out. Last but not least, it would be nice if by hovering over the icon of an Outpost you could get a rough idea of the area they affect.

A huge pit lied in the center of the mysterious ruins of Verdant Brink.

In terms of challenge what the Beta had to offer was rather disappointing, and I’ll explain immediately why I’m saying that. Heart of Thorns is an expansion oriented towards end game. It has even been promoted as such. With new A.I. systems in place you would expect the enemies to be more intelligent and have their own ways of splitting the zerg of players that stampedes over them. This was sadly not the case during our time spent in Verdant Brink. I let Colin know of this concern of mine. He said that there are things yet left to be announced in that department. I want to believe in that. It wouldn’t make much sense anyway to tackle the testers of the initial Beta too hard.

Heart of Thorns has a long way to go if you ask me. Or perhaps that’s the case with what they had in store for us this time around. As I’ve mentioned in the past ArenaNet should better take their time and prepare a well fleshed-out expansion instead of rushing things. What this preview has taught me is that they shouldn’t treat testing as a way of keeping the community of their game engaged. I have high hopes that with proper feedback and no sensational movements, they will be one step closer to getting it out there for everyone.

At this point I’d like to thank GuildMag‘s Ollanach for taking me with him for a ride with Colin Johanson, as well as Colin himself for dedicating a little bit of his precious time to us. It really means a lot. I had some great fun talking with him and I hope we’ll get the chance to repeat it again in the future. As he said, “It’s nice to be involved with gamers”.

6 thoughts on “Betas or Previews of the Expansion

  1. Thank you for your take on the beta experience Chris! It was different and fresh and insightful 🙂

    I will only comment on two things: challenging content and artistic value. First, what Fate above labelled “quote-worthy post of the year” is where I stand too. It has to be challenging enough to make it fun and make one steel their nerves and not break them. I did notice improvements to the mobs’ AI -some Mordrem dodged out of my attack’s way!- on top of the new CC mechanic. As far as the artistic department goes, I will only say one thing: this map made me turn on the ambient sounds again! The new area is both visually and audibly spectacular!

  2. Thank you for sharing your experience with Colin Johanson himself and providing a peek for those who missed this closed beta event.

    I do have a bit of fear on the large-scale events that Heart of Thorns will have. Make it too hard and you alienate the more casual players, those who arguably care about new PvE content the most. In addition, “hard” events/bosses released by Anet so far has involved instant-death AoE/PBAoEs, repetitive, tedious, or frustrating mechanics (such as collection events within boss fights), and introducing new, irritating conditions and effects that only serve to slow down the pace of a grand event and make it not so fun.

    I would like to see the developers at Anet finding ways to address the “zerging” in new, large-scale events in HoT by rewarding players for playing tactically with their individual parties, i.e. by implementing strategically challenging events that makes the act of partaking in the event fun in itself. If working together with many other teams trying to take down the legendary boss can feel rewarding on its own, then this would be a revolutionary change worthy of an epic expansion pack.

    1. I agree with you.

      Things shouldn’t be tedious. They should be more, let’s say… interesting? Following a zerg of 30 other people simply spamming your auto attack is really boring and in the end I’d say a bit sad. When you play games you don’t aim to turn off your mind, you want to broaden it, you want to earn something out of it.

      There are times that you fail against some challenging content but you realize that you had lots of fun while at it and that this excitement pushes you to give it another try. When that happens, you can say that things are probably done right and the whole experience was rewarding for you as a person.

      So, yeah. Challenging does not necessarily mean hard. Like you said some simple tasks could shake things up making the whole process more engaging.

    2. “There are times that you fail against some challenging content but you realize that you had lots of fun while at it and that this excitement pushes you to give it another try.” – Tilion

      Quote-worthy post of the year. 🙂

  3. One of the best article I’ve ever read for Guild Wars 2. Makes me wanna live inside the Heart of Thorns. But as you and Colin Johanson said there are things yet to be done, in order these new areas to feel essential. Let’s hope that at the next beta we’ll see some of those things done.

    1. Thank you for your comment. It really means a lot.

      I really hope that they manage to tackle all the issues I bring up to get on par with the rest of the overall amazing experience.

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