No rose without a thorn.
Given that Guild Wars 2 released nearly two and a half years ago, it's not surprising that the announcement of Heart of Thorns, the first expansion pack for the game, received a thunderous ovation at PAX South. Sure, it doesn't have a release date yet and 30+ months of development time is certainly long for full add-on content, but Heart of Thorns does far more than just raising the level cap and throwing another tier of equipment at its hardcore base; in fact, it does neither of those things. Heart of Thorns drops those cliché ideas of what an expansion pack should be like, adding a wealth of new content for PvE, PvP, and WvW as well as a progression system that enriches the development for max-level characters and lays the groundwork for the future of the series.
Devoted fans of Guild Wars 2 will likely be excited for the hands-on demo for Heart of Thorns at the upcoming PAX East (March 6-8) and EGZ Rezzed gaming festival (March 12-14). Luckily, I was among the select few who had the chance to play the demo about a week ago at ArenaNet's new base of operations in Bellevue, Washington. (If you couldn't tell I was gone, then I did my job as a ninja.) Though they didn't show anything new about Guild Halls, specializations, new adventures, or the new Borderland in World vs. World content, they gave us plenty of time with the Revenant, whic his the new heavy armor class in Heart of Thorns, for both the new PvE area called The Heart of Maguuma and the new PvP mode Stronghold.
Revenants, the good kind.
The 45-minute demo starts off with character creation, this time restricted to a human male or female, with ArenaNet highly encouraging us to choose the Revenant class. (Why would be pick anything else, really?) With the blindfold around the Revenant's eyes—which can be fashioned to be a mist scrim, veil piercer, or resplendent curtain—this class might remind you of Kenshi from Mortal Kombat, or with more relevance, the ritualist class from the original Guild Wars. The key feature for the Revenant, who draws power from the souls of past heroes as well as the mists (not too far from what channels the Fractals of the Mists, by the way), is its ability to switch between various stances and fill specific roles.
In the build I played, the Revenant could channel two different legendary heroes in the form of two stances: the Legendary Dwarf Stance for better tanking abilities and the Legendary Demon Stance for manipulating conditions. The hammer was pre-assigned for the Dwarf Stance and can be used as a weapon that can be thrown or used for knockdown abilities, whereas the Mace and Axe were pre-assigned for the Demon Stance for condition damage and directional attacks. If we're making some judgments based on the lore, the Dwarf Stance very likely refers to King Jalis Ironhammer and the Demon Stance is drawn from the dark powers of Mallyx the Unyielding. Some of the Revenant's condition-based abilities cost energy to cast, which is shown by a gauge that runs from 0 to 100% and that builds as the Revenant continues to deal damage in combat.
With that brief primer on the Revenant, I was thrown straight into the Heart of Maguuma, a highly dense jungle controlled by Mordremoth. If you've been following the Living World episodes of Guild Wars 2, you know that this sixth Elder Dragon has awoken from its slumber and, with incredible ease, has decimated almost all of the airships belonging to the resistance fleet by sending out a tangled nightmare of vine-like tendrils from the jungle's roots. Almost all of the remaining survivors are now scattered about the jungle floor and much of the debris from the destroyed airships is either burning or caught in the jungle canopies. It's your job to gather and rescue the soldiers now strewn throughout the Heart of Maguuma and defeat Mordremoth once and for all.
It's important to note that this new area not only has an incredible sense of verticality, where you can fall quite a ways down if you're not careful, but it's split into three separate but connected areas called biomes. While the demo only showed us the core which is just the jungle floor itself, you can expect to fight in the canopies as well as the roots of the jungle as you progress through the expansion. Traversal is as much of a threat as the mobs of Level 80-85 wolves and overseers littering the landscape. Staying with a group and dodging enemy attacks become less of an option and more of a necessity, as the difficulty has been ramped up to make this endgame sequence worthy of max-leveled characters.
To cross these precarious environments, you'll need to pour points into one particular branch of the new Mastery system meant for jungle traversal: Master Exploration. While this won't mean much outside of the Heart of Maguuma, this branch unlocks handgliding, which is necessary for reaching more areas in the jungle and shows off the sheer density of the jungle. As you learn to maneuver through the air, bounce on mushrooms, and catch updrafts to reach higher platforms, you can access other areas of the map that you wouldn't be able to otherwise. The levels feel inspired by Zelda titles and how they block off certain portions of a map until you earn specific abilities or items.
The other four Mastery branches—Lore, Legends, Combat, and Fractals—will improve your character's abilities beyond the realm of the new region. Though these new Masteries weren't available for point distribution in the demo build, they will all make battles just a less more manageable: Lore and Combat grants extra techniques against specific enemies, Legends makes legendary crafting much easier, and Fractals makes the dungeon-crawling through the Fractals of the Mist more rewarding. Better yet, putting points into these Masteries counts for all of your characters, and although Mastery Points can only be applied at Level 80, you can earn points just by completing zones, story chapters, and various achievements.
As you would suspect, PvP is an entirely different beast and the introduction of Stronghold, a MOBA-inspired 5v5 arena-based mode, will provide a quicker 15-minute option compared to the existing Activities, Conquest, and World versus World spread. Pitting knights against pirates, the battlefield takes place in a coastal town on a mirrored two-lane map. It may be difficult to figure out where you are at first, but as long as you note where the mountains and beachfront are, you'll keep your wits about you.
The objective for Stronghold is to defeat the lord in the enemy's castle, which can only be reached by defeating guards and summoning doorbreakers who have the only power to, well, break doors and give you and your team a pathway to the enemy castle. The only way to create doorbreakers (and archers) is to gather supplies at the middle of the battlefield, which naturally creates a fight for resources, and then trade them in near your base. Every now and then, heroes will spawn in your lane as well, granting bonus damage and protection for assaults. To prevent enemy creeps from reaching your lord, you can man a trebuchet or just head into the fray of battle yourself.
Over time, your team of five will delegate various roles on the battlefield, from the assaulter, defender, and the supply smuggler. Since the point is to place more pressure on the enemy team than they do on yours, communication between your team members is key. With doorbreakers being the only method of destroying gates, success depends on adaptive tactics and flexible role-changes. That said, rangers seem to be a tad overpowered at the moment, given their range and ability to stay our of harm's reach.
After My Own Heart
If anything, Heart of Thorns shows why Guild Wars 2 is among the best free-to-play MMORPGs today; in fact, the very fact that it is free-to-play has allowed them the freedom to concentrate on an expansion pack that doesn't revolve around DLC and is far more creative in gameplay depth and character progression. That said, ArenaNet could have easily gone the safe route and delivered a shrug-your-shoulders content pack under the protective guise that it's free (so why complain?). Instead, it shows that there can be originality in a genre that can feel all too familiar.