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.
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.
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.
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”.