Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Guild Wars 2: The First Year

I posted my original review of Guild Wars 2 in December, three-and-a-bit months after GW2's launch at the end of August. It's now been one year since the game's launch, so I figured it was time to revisit my review.

I was planning to update the original review to account for the changes made in the past year. But after thinking about just how much has changed since that review, well... I think it's better to make a standalone post and link to it from the review, because a lot has changed. Read on to see how Guild Wars 2 has been developing!

My elementalist, early on.
First and biggest on the list of changes: there's been a major shift in design philosophy for Guild Wars 2's content updates. When I posted my review, ArenaNet's plan was to release a major content update every month, including some temporary content and some permanent content. After a lot of (very loud) player feedback, ArenaNet's philosophy has shifted: much content is still time limited, but there are no one-time-only events. More importantly, content updates are now shipping every two weeks.

Every two weeks! That's crazy.

These updates are called the Living Story, and the goal is to evolve the world over time. One of the most recent updates - Cutthroat Politics - actually let the players decide the outcome of an election for a council seat in pirate city Lion's Arch, deciding between for-the-people Ellen Kiel of the Lionguard or the savvy businesscharr Evon Gnashblade. The result of that election (a victory for Kiel) will have effects on future storylines as the winner influences the council of Lion's Arch.

The Living Story has settled into a bit of a pattern. Typically what happens is that a new event is introduced which will last for a month, and the first part of a story is laid down. Two weeks later, the event continues, and the story is added to or concluded. Two weeks after that the event comes to an end, and a new one begins. A recent example: Dragon Bash, a festival devoted to laughing in the face of the elder dragons. The festival began with fun times for everyone, with new minigames and activities. During the festivities, a council member was murdered, leading to an investigation that exposed the Aetherblade pirates. In the second part, Sky Pirates, the Dragon Bash continued, and new story content was added on: work with Ellen Kiel to defeat the Aetherblades (in a new dungeon).

One of the few event screenshots I remembered to take.
This story stuff is all tying together gradually. Kiel was introduced way back in November in the Lost Shores update, and players worked with her in another more recent Southsun event before the Dragon Bash, helping exploited refugees from the Flame & Frost update. After the Dragon Bash, Kiel was asked to secure a trade agreement with the Zephyrites in competition with Evon Gnashblade, and the two were then candidates for election in Lion's Arch. Having won the election, it remains to be seen how she'll influence the council in future updates. This was a really quick and dirty summary that excluded a lot - for a more complete overview, check this page on the GW2 official wiki - the ongoing stuff that's been building up started with Flame & Frost, though Kiel was introduced back in The Lost Shores.

In response to player feedback, more of these updates are adding permanent content. A lot of players felt that the very temporary content of previous updates was a waste - if you stop playing for six months and come back, only to find out that all the additions to the game were then removed, well, you probably wouldn't be thrilled.

Living Story aside, there have also been gradual changes to core content to improve user experience and balance the game. For example, an account wallet was added recently, which allows you to access all your currencies from any character - gold, karma, dungeon tokens, badges of honor, fractal relics, and a few other things (event items not included). This freed up a lot of bank space for a lot of people, since all those tokens and badges used to be physical items that you had to store. I was super excited for the wallet - I suddenly found myself with 30 more bank slots!

On a related note, one thing players have been clamouring for since the achievement points reward system is a better storage area for event unlocks. In each update, there's a meta-achievement for completing a certain number of event-related achievements. This meta-achievment (and some individual achievements) reward players with an exclusive item only available during the event. The issue is that after so many story updates, these items are really beginning to pile up, especially considering that a lot of them are back slot items and each character can only wear one back slot item at a time. Players are asking for a storage area similar to the one for achievement item skin unlocks - you can withdraw a skin an infinite amount of times from any character. It would be great if we could do the same for all the event achievement items that aren't tradeable anyway.

My elementalist for much of 2013.
In terms of game balance and bug fixing, the core gameplay has come a long way. A while back there was a fairly substantial trait overhaul focused on making certain trait lines more viable, and scaling back a tiny handful of too-strong traits. I'm a big fan of ArenaNet's balance policy: they tend to take a careful approach, usually making a lot of small changes to prevent things from being blown out of proportion. They also don't like to nerf the strong classes - they usually focus on the builds, trait lines, or skills that are being ignored (usually because they're too weak) and bring them up slowly. Ranger spirits, for example, have been buffed at least two or three times, a little bit each time.

There have been a couple of strange changes here and there - for example, a weird one is the major change to the ranger's longbow. Previously, Hunter's Shot applied ten stacks of vulnerability (a condition that makes an enemy take more damage), and Rapid Fire fired ten arrows in quick succession. Now, Rapid Fire applies one vulnerability per arrow, and Hunter's Shot grants three seconds of stealth. The ranger had no access to stealth at all before this change, so that's cool! It's also great for WvW players, giving roaming rangers a great edge with the new stealth. On the other hand, the longbow's taken a hit to its burst damage. Previously, Hunter's Shot was used at the beginning of a battle to make an enemy vulnerable to a high-damage follow-up with Rapid Fire; now Rapid Fire applies the vulnerability gradually over time, lowering burst potential, and Hunter's Shot is better used for escape and repositioning than for damage.

Another big area of focus has been rewards. Many areas of the game had been abandoned by players because the rewards didn't provide enough incentive to revisit content. Over the past year, ArenaNet has been examining those problematic areas, reworking and improving rewards in various ways. One of these was laurels, a special currency earned by completing daily and monthly achievements, redeemable for, among other things, ascended gear (a new tier above exotic). And speaking of dailies and monthlies, you now get a choice of which achievements to complete to earn your reward.

New achievement UI with unlocked rewars
Achievement point rewards were added: after earning 100 achievement points, and at every multiple of 500 points, you earn an achievement chest. The chest rewards are tied to the point total you've achieved. These rewards include boosters, currency, unique item skins, WvW items, and at particularly big milestones (5000 and 10000) huge sums of gold and even gems (the cash store currency). For reference, at the time the achievement rewards were added, 90% of the player base had under 3,300 achievement points. After 1,000 hours of play I had 7,500, and the very highest total of all players sat around 11,000.

Champion and legendary loot received a big boost in the Queen's Jubilee update, now dropping better rewards and a chance at unique skins only available from certain champions. Dungeon rewards have also been reworked a little: you now gain a gold reward of 1 to 3 gold once per day per dungeon path, depending on length and difficulty of the path. Though there's still some balancing to be done regarding the gold values, this change has already spread interest in running a wider variety of dungeons, rather than just repeating the very popular Citadel of Flame path 1 over and over and over.

A new gear tier - ascended - is being slowly rolled out. First you could get ascended rings and backpieces, then amulets, then trinkets, and just yesterday ascended weapons were added. Ascended gear is intended to sort of bridge the gap between exotics, which are easy to get, and legendaries, which take months of work - ascended is a middle ground, better than exotics and harder to get, but not as difficult as legendary. A lot of people were worried when ascended gear was first announced, because they thought it would be the beginning of a gear treadmill that would continuously make their old gear obsolete. Fortunately this isn't the case.

Yesterday's update also made a big change to magic find. Some gear had a magic find stat in place of combat bonuses. The intention was that players could take a handicap to their combat strength in order to increase their rewards. The problem was that in a group setting, one player was contributing less while earning more. With the September 3rd update, magic find has been moved to an account stat instead of a gear stat, and you can salvage and find booster items that will increase your account's magic find. Maxing it out is a very long-term goal - hitting 300% will take a lot of work.

WvW free of culling - you can see everyone!
World vs World has also received some pretty big updates, primarily in the form of of world experience. This is a new progression track on a per-character basis. You earn world experience as you complete various WvW objectives, and as you rank up, you earn points to spend on a variety of different WvW skill lines. These typically start small but the higher ranks can award some pretty significant buffs, abilities, and even new siege weapon skills. They're not too powerful, so veterans don't have a huge advantage over new players - most abilities only alter offense or defense by a few percentage points.

The character-based world XP progression has been a little contentious. ArenaNet stated that they wanted progression to be per-character to encourage people to build a name for a character across the server - a prominent commander, for example, might focus on siege or roaming or some other area, and become known for that particular focus. Many players disagree, though, feeling that they're penalized for having many alts: a player who frequently switches classes as the situation demands will earn a lot of world XP, but it'll be spread across many characters.

An overhead view of the Crown Pavillion
Culling has also received some major attention. This was a problem plaguing mostly WvW, but also big PvE events, where you couldn't see some (or most) of the creature models, enemies and allies alike, as a compromise for performance purposes. Culling has been removed from WvW entirely - you can always see nameplates, though models might still load slowly on slow computers. The devs are also working on addressing the PvE side, forcing nameplate display for all enemies (if you hold Ctrl or activate always-on nameplates). Most recently an option has been added to cut down particle effects of skills in busy areas.

Unfortunately I really can't speak on PvP changes because I have played exactly zero PvP matches since my review. I know that some additions have been custom arenas, spectator mode, a few new maps and a new leaderboard for solo play, but I can't comment on any of them since I haven't used them.

For the future, in a recent blog post, Colin Johanson provided a long list of upcoming features, some of which I've already listed above: new skills and traits, crafting materials, account-based magic find, salvage upgrades, more crafting tiers, new ways to get precursor weapons (for building legendaries) and quality-of-life improvements to legendary weapons, a new WvW mechanic to replace the long-cut orbs, improving PvP rewards, an in-game LFG tool, and an upcoming release in China featuring new optional tutorials for all players. The team also plans to rework some of the dungeons and world bosses, the first of which will be a revamped Tequatl (dragon) fight on the 17th of September.

That's a lot of stuff!
My elementalist now.

Anyway, I think I've rambled on long enough. To wrap things up, I'll say this: I like the direction that Guild Wars 2 is taking. ArenaNet has done a pretty good job of listening to player feedback and improving the game in all kinds of ways: rewards, frequency and type of content, new features, and quality of life upgrades. There are of course still some things that need work, but the future of the game looks very promising!

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