GW2: Entanglement – First Impressions

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Going to write this post without spoilers, and I suspect I will end up echoing Bhagpuss, dancing around in generalities and going “Blimey, Charlie!

Except my phrase veers more towards “Damn, that was satisfying.”

Not because I liked what happened in this episode, mind you – some bits veered towards the dangerously melodramatic – but because from a structural and design perspective, I think Arenanet has hit upon something promisingly good here.

We go back to Guild Wars 1 yet again, where each story mission one played through meant a development of the plotline. There were ups and downs and change happened.

You remembered them because you got to play through each and every episode, at your own pacing, rather than end up with gaps in the story because you couldn’t log on for that particular week or two.

Much of GW2′s first season reminded me of a family roadtrip where the players kept stridently asking “Are we there yet?”

A tiny bit of plot happened, a small part almost lost in a larger picture of frantic open world achievement and taking on whatever new mechanical developments there were (often in a zerg fashion), leaving players confused and perplexed by the one-liner plot, often summarized as “Something happened, and we still don’t know what’s going on,” then later, “Scarlet did it.”

Like an amateurish novel writer who thinks all the mystery would be lost if the readers actually knew what was going on, the writers played everything with cards close to their chest – hinting at something happening, but not saying much more than that. That led to plenty of unfounded speculation, some of which was much better than the simplistic linear plot actually taking place but not shown to anybody.

Some players might have wanted to know more but having to wait 2-4 weeks later (an understandable and reasonable length of time for the actual game experience and rewards earning part of temporary, seasonal content) for the -next- story snippet, generally made everybody stir-crazy in the process and having promptly forgotten what happened before by the time the next update rolled around.

For instance, some players are still trying to figure out why we’re suddenly such pals with the B-Iconics, or Destiny’s Edge 2.0 and how they’ve ended up calling our characters ‘boss.’

I drew a blank when first thinking about it too, but cudgeling the brain reminded me that I first met Marjory and Kasmeer to solve a Lion’s Arch mystery that involved an Aetherblade attack, meeting them at the Dead End Bar in Divinity’s Reach.

From there, we went on to fighting together in the Tower of Nightmares, taking on the Marionette, defending the city of Lion’s Arch from Scarlet and so on. One almost doesn’t remember it because one mostly only saw the NPCs in passing, in the open world, usually when the brain is busy focused on not-story but achieving something.

We go even further back with Rox and Braham, when they were refugees from Flame & Frost. We fought with them through the Molten Facility (some of us through several dozens of Molten Facilities, dat monocle drop! Beet soup was the best I ever got.)

I vaguely recall helping Rox with Tequatl, oddly trying to track down the beastie  with a footprint, though he usually came by on the hour every hour and has subsequently been taken apart repeatedly to the extent that everyone mostly remembers the Tequatl’s Hoard drop (or lack of it) as the most memorable incident of that update, and not the actual plot step.

We were there with the whole group through the Crown Pavilion and Queen’s Gauntlet events, preventing Queen’s Jennah’s assassination and fending off endless waves of invading Twisted Clockwork, we investigated the Fractals and the Edge of the Mists with some of them, and there were probably more things that I don’t remember offhand.

Each story step was so piecemeal and staggered, disconnected in theme and linked only tenuously by a mad sylvari, that it’s hard to absorb that it all really did happen.

In Season 2 of Guild Wars 2, I can confidently answer, “We may not be there yet, but we’re certainly -moving.-”

The sense of movement is evident in the storyline now.

Things happen. The plot is better structured and developed. There are going to be more obvious ups-and-downs akin to GW1. More “your character is important and the center of your universe” focused stuff, and not just “your character is one of a big faceless crowd in the open world.”

There’s a sense of movement with the opening up of a new part of Dry Top. Exploration is going forward.

Really digging the look of the new parts. Very canyon-like and rocky. If only I didn't explore most of it in a sandstorm.

Really digging the look of the new parts. Very canyon-like and rocky. If only I didn’t explore most of it in a sandstorm. Time to go back later.

NPCs are moving along with that – the very talkative and almost-annoying Priory NPCs have changed position and are now saying different story-and-lore related stuff.

NPCs in the town of Prosperity are reacting to the preponderance of massive vines that have suddenly grown up all around them. (That’s not a spoiler, I hope, that seems to be the most obvious part of what was going to happen in an episode titled “Entanglement.”)

Dry Top is now twice as big, with new things to do in the part we haven’t seen yet.

Presumably, we might be opening up more zones in the Maguuma jungle this way, over time, and I’m good with this.

Players will still be focused into a relatively small region at any one point in time. Folks that come later might miss some of that launch feel, but still have the option of working their way through the area by themselves at a more sedate, casual, solo pace. (Just don’t expect to unlock all of the zone’s Favor mechanic tiers by yourself. Higher tiers are definitely group content.)

The only negative I can think of is that we’re still missing a good transitional cutscene between episodes.

Between the Labyrinthine Cliffs and Episode 1: Gates of Maguuma, we know the Zephyrite ships exploded and crashed. We don’t actually see that happen in-game, but only as a teaser trailer outside the game. Our transition on entering the zone is just seeing the wreckage of the Zephyrite ships, but not what actually happened.

Between Episode 1: Gates of Maguuma and Episode 2: Entanglement, vines have suddenly grown up in a lot of places. If you follow developments on Reddit, or just paid attention to what was gradually changing around you, you might have caught sight of vines starting to tap on waypoints like they’re Mordremoth’s new snack to nom. But it still feels a tide abrupt to suddenly walk into Prosperity and go “WTF, when did this happen?”

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An introductory cutscene on a clickable button in the Story Journal, or that plays on zone load just like in the Tower of Nightmares update, might mitigate some of that weird feeling of instantaneous change.

In general, the layered content feels just right.

For the casual, what they want is -story-. That’s best conveyed in a small instance, solo or grouping at one’s choice, with plenty of conversation.

For those interested in achievements, re-use the same content and get them to do more complicated things. Players who like meta stuff like achievements generally won’t mind a repeated grind of the same content (as long as they can skip the long-talky stuff) just to get their shiny gold star for doing whatever teacher wants.

The open world opens up further, creating a feeling of progress – and folks can choose at will to casually wander through, with GW2′s organic grouping design naturally creating allies out of the players near you, or take on the zone’s content at a higher, more organized level for faster shiny but non-essential rewards.

(If only we didn’t have to taxi in people one at a time – but perhaps that is part of the intent, to force -some- player interaction and self-organization . Though it mostly feels like a workaround.)

And boy, are the rewards shinier in this episode.

The skins are here. Tons of weapon skins.

Tier 4 and Tier 5 are where they unlock, and I’m hoping this gives more impetus for more players to work on the zone’s Favor mechanic.

I’m personally digging the look of the Ambrite weapons, something that hasn’t happened in a while since the Dreamthistle lot, and I suspect it’s going to take quite a long time to work one’s way through all the geodes.

I hope this means that Dry Top is going to be a well-traversed area, something like the next Frostgorge Sound champion train, regularly frequented by a group of level 80s who enjoy a slightly more sophisticated champion bag farm.

Time will tell, I guess. I’ll see how many I can unlock before the place loses critical mass. I’ll be happy with one or two, which I’m sure is doable within these two weeks, but collecting them all eventually would be cool!

The Gem Shop Ley Line weapons are also rather appealing visually. I like the idea of carrying a symbolic reminder of a very beautiful locale that got opened up this episode. They’ve got that blue fire guardian look to them. I might end up branching out some time for Black Lion Key farming, hoping to get lucky.

Of course, beyond actually obtaining one, another problem I face is an unwillingness to change weapon or theme on my main characters. My charr guardian is red and fire. My charr warrior is yellow and metal. My asura guardian is green/blue and holograms. My sylvari necro is green/black/white/gold and gothic. My norn thief is brown and natural leather.

I have no idea who I can put it on, even if I do get one. Will figure that out later, I suppose.

In the meantime, lots of stuff to do in this episode.

Of Spectator Sports and Trinities

My television watching habits are supremely irregular.

That is, I don’t watch much TV at all.

All those crucial 45 minute blocks of time are spent gaming, rather than passively experiencing a story that goes absolutely nowhere except into yet-another-episodic-arc-designed-to-keep-you-glued-to-the-screen.

Nor am I a big sports fan.

Competition and me are not pals, having been bitten once too many times by an obsessive personality that would fixate too much on winning at all costs, if I gave it free reign. I’m mellower when I tell myself winning is not the goal, but having moment-to-moment fun is.

Still, there was a time when I was enraptured by the NFL and American football. It just seemed so much more complex and intricate than the football the rest of the world plays – lots more clear cut roles, different strategies every pass designed to get the ball the next 10 yards and beyond.

Until I took note of how many hours a night I was spending watching one game (3-4 easily) and how much gaming time I was losing out on as a result. Fell out of the habit shortly after.

It’s funny then that even I can get caught up in the zeitgeist of the moment. I just spent the last couple of midnights staying up till 3am to watch the semi-finals and finals of the FIFA World Cup.

Not as a rabid soccer or football fan, staunchly loyal to one team, but out of a pigheaded determination to discover an appreciation of a game that I mostly always viewed as “kicking a ball around a grass patch for 90 minutes and falling down with an agonized look on one’s face the moment the faintest contact is made, hoping for a favorable referee call.”

The internet helped.

Googled up “soccer strategies” and “why do people like football so much” and devoted some time to reading other people’s thoughts.

Apparently, it’s the continuous flow of action rather than the typical start and stop of American football that some find compelling, a constant adrenaline high for one and a half hours punctuated with more extreme buzzes whenever the ball gets close to the goal posts.

I’m somehow not wired that way. I don’t get adrenaline deliveries on cue, which may suggest a reason why competition isn’t that exciting for me. Instead, I enjoy watching the interlocked intricacies of each team member in American football performing their specialized role well, with the result that the football either gets passed or gets stopped, depending on which team outsmarted or outplayed the other.

Still…

…Surely, soccer has -some- strategies of this ilk? Just less obvious, perhaps?

More reading. More eye-glazing over various “formations” with hypenated player numbers. More beginner tips on how to appreciate soccer via watching how one player may outsmart another by looking in one direction while kicking in another, or using their body to block an opponent’s view of the ball, or players that criss-cross and cut in at various locations to become open for the ball and so on.

I guess there were -some- things that I could find vaguely interesting, after all.

So I watched the World Cup and admired Germany’s efficient teamwork and appreciated on a distant theoretical level why defensive football is so important by observing Brazil’s total defensive meltdown.

Still didn’t like the extreme boring nature of a super-defensive football game with zero goals scored in two hours (with extra time) – effective, I’ll grant you, but boring as heck to watch – and repeatedly rolled one’s eyes at the more unspoken sides of football – ie. sneakily damage your opponent as much as you can get away with, dramatically telegraph all contact in the hopes of a free kick or yellow/red cards, and apparently biased referees.

Seriously, if things are going to get that physical, then put on some padding and go to town like the Americans do.

It’s with some irony though that I find a parallel with MMOs and that I’m on the opposite side when it comes to computer gaming.

American football reminds me of the holy trinity.

Everyone has a specialized role, everyone works in unison and it’s beautiful when everything synchronizes.

Rest-of-the-world football is a non-holy trinity game. Perhaps, dare I say it,  even like GW2.

There’s one primary role everyone performs, do damage or get the ball as close you can to the goal/stop ball getting close to yours, while still paying attention to the team and working in sync with them and supporting them as needed. There may be different “classes” or “soccer positions” with some variants in playstyle. There’s probably more going on under the hood than is obvious to the casual observer.

Soccer is said to be one of the most unpredictable sports. A weaker team has a good chance of upsetting a stronger team because the scores are so low. If opportunities fall their way, and are capitalized on, that may be it for the more unlucky team.

Some find this a reason why soccer is so exciting to watch.

Me, I personally find it about as thrilling as trying to predict heads or tails on a coin toss, and just as pointless. I guess I prefer to watch a good team demonstrate -why- they’re a good team.

Strangely enough, I find unpredictability a bonus if you’re the one actually participating in the moment.

Because it’s suddenly you that can become the hero with a well-placed rez, or good dodging or even indulge in a star solo moment, by catching the right opportunities.

To me, soccer or GW2 is a tide more individualistic, whereas American football or a holy trinity game seems a bit more skewed towards subsuming the self to make a team work like clockwork.

Not really sure where I’m going with this, but I guess the moral of the story is that people like different things, which may differ again if they’re spectating or doing.

And that we can all learn to appreciate (if only at a theoretical distance) stuff we thought we didn’t like before, if we try to look for its redeeming features.

After the World Cup, I’ll be going on one more spectator sports binge.

The International is slated from July 18-21.

DOTA 2 and I have a curious relationship.

I was super-thrilled to win a beta key in one of Steam’s sales contests when it was in development. I installed it gleefully, remembering my very amateur DOTA games-with-real-life-friends, and tinkered around with a few bot games.

Then never quite got back to it again.

Every now and then, I log in, admiring its whole elaborate free-to-play structure of level unlocks, vanity costume skins that cost money, numerous beginner tutorials/build guidance/encyclopedias that are linked to community knowledgebases, on and on through an intricate ladder of intermediate to expert commitment.

Then I back out without having gained a single experience point.

Sorta like LOL, except LOL did seem a little simpler and I did get to around level 4 or so.

I want desperately to play them and learn how deep both rabbit holes go, but the truth is, I just can’t envision investing all that time into MOBAs.

A single match takes like 30-45 minutes or more. You have to play a lot of them to get familiar with the game. You have to play a number of heroes to get familiar with the heroes and gain some flexibility in what you can play. Getting skillful takes even longer.

It’s easier to just watch a couple hours’ worth of professional teams go at it, for a couple of days, and get the entertainment experience without having to personally grind your way up.

Maybe some day, I’ll give them another go, but not today.

GW2: The Gates of Maguuma – First Impressions

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At long last, it seems like ArenaNet has worked their way towards something good here, through the iterative design of the first season.

The Story Journal brings back some of the epic, episodic story feeling of Guild Wars 1, where each story mission was a new chapter and a new development in a narrative that eventually went somewhere.

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We see the personal story that has gone before in more logical fashion, broken up into three arcs. One, your true personal story, the best bit that gets customized by your choices at character creation.. The next, The Orders of Tyria as determined by the order you chose. And finally, what’s more unofficially known as Trahearne’s story, the story of the invasion of Orr to defeat Elder Dragon Zhaitan.

Living Story Season 1 has yet to be re-worked to fit into this, but it looks like a very promising new beginning.

Episode 1 has three story instances involving combat and what appears on one solo play-through to be fairly decent boss fights with interesting mechanics. I assume these can be done in a group as well, though I chose to take my first run at them solo, which is the best of all possible worlds.

They can be replayed to strive for more ‘hardmode’ optional achievements, but the frantic urgency to complete them is gone, since one knows they can now be attempted at leisure. I suspect I’ll get around to doing most of them by fortnight’s end, but I no longer feel compelled to drop every other thing I’ve been doing in GW2 -just- to get it done before the seasonal content vanishes for good (or for another year.)

It has two more ‘plot points’ – one involving a small conversation and object interaction investigative story instance akin to some Living Story 1 scenes in the Dead End Bar, where one pokes around items left behind by Scarlet and draws some conclusions from them. These bits feel like candy bars for lore fans, especially those of an exploratory nature. I count myself as one of them and it’s been an absolute treat.

It feels like Anet is listening to some of the criticisms that decry the use of out-of-game channels like short stories on the website or social media to convey valuable information about an NPC.

The writers and level designers, once initially stumped about how a psychotic sylvari would stop her relentless depredations to tell her opponents about her origins, have finally figured out that clues and hints can be conveyed indirectly by letting us examine her ‘rooms’ – what objects a character owns, in his or her pockets, or rooms, or living spaces can say a lot about them.

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As an explorer, I was very thrilled to find that there were additional clues intentionally left unmarked, beyond the main highlighted ones that Destiny’s Edge 2.0 points out.

Long after Braham and Rox, Marjory and Kasmeer walk out and the instance exit button was hovering on the right of my screen, I was keeping Taimi company as we poked around at -everything-. Playing a little object hunting game by moving my mouse all over to see what else highlighted and could be clicked on to interact with.

The last ‘plot point’ is a conversation with an NPC in the open world, which rather neatly brings you back out (story-wise) into the open world to continue your narrative how you choose, perhaps even following up an intriguing hint re: Scarlet. I haven’t had time to poke around Dry Top much, let alone find any secrets or hidden stuff, so I don’t know if there’s anything more to this yet, but it’s certainly something to do.

Which brings us to our new permanent zone, or maybe I should say, permanent “region” of Dry Top.

I truly wonder how Anet intends to handle these zones – are we really going to have a crashed Zephyrite ship here until the end of time?

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I don’t think so. It doesn’t make sense.

I suspect these will follow the way of the open world content of Season 1. They’ll probably exist in this state for 2-4 weeks, giving us time to earn the token rewards off the merchants, and then convert to a more ‘aftermath’ sort of map like Kessex Hills.

Some have criticized Anet for such a ‘small’ permanent zone. They want VAST, HUGE, expansive zones!

I wonder if they realize just how -dense- the content is layered within this small space.

I personally would rather prefer a small, well-done region per episode than vast, barren areas containing naught but one main quest chain to be consumed a la WoW or Wildstar and then abandoned.

There seem to be quite a number of dynamic events in the area. It’s the nature of the beast to not be able to experience them all in one go.

As I approached Dry Top for the first time in the Brisban Wildlands, I saw the last bit of an event to clear regrown vines blocking the way to Dry Top, but didn’t even managed to get a hit in for any reward before the event vanished. That’s something else to catch next time.

I ran across the Inquest stealing crystal shards event, but it was so crowded and laggy (but that one’s my fault since I cranked settings back up to enjoy my story instances in non-ugly mode, my framerate tends to collapse to single digits once I run into a zerg with those settings on), that one was still figuring out what to do with the boulders that one didn’t even see the crystal spawn location until way too late to run them. And of course, there were barely any Inquest NPCs even managing to get their hands on a crystal since everyone and their mother was trying to knock them down for the achievement, which I didn’t manage to get either. Something else to get around to, later.

I -did- manage to enjoy a fight against the Colocal Queen, possibly because it was so fatal to anyone trying to solo it for the first time. I get the feeling that many of the boss mechanics of this episode are doing their best to declare all out war against melee zerkers, which imo, is as it should be. The dungeon meta shouldn’t be allowed to work -all- the time.

As a zerker who passed on that last few 5-10% incremental dps for the ability to rapidly flip between range and melee, I found my flexibility a lot more handy for exploring new fights and accept the punishing downs and deaths for not yet having figured out a tell or a counter yet.

The Colocal Queen took 3-4 waypoint runs back, even as its dropping hp bar attracted a total of 5-7 other people, up from the 1-3 people we started with (mostly taking turns to fall over in one good hit of her charge.) Still, she seems doable once everyone figures out her mechanics. The art of dodging sideways can protect you from her charge in a line, though I couldn’t make out her tell very well and it was very touch and go to dodge only as the rectangle comes out. (The perils of latency and bad framerate, I suppose, I’ll be wandering around with zerg settings later and seeing if that makes any difference.)

I did fall over in a heap when she pounced though, and couldn’t quite get my dodge timings right to avoid that yet. Perhaps this is where Anet expects some people to use the new Toughness, Healing, Vitality armor to stand up and be de facto tanks. That’s not to say that there’s any kind of ‘forcing’ involved, as it’s still quite possible to zerker zerg rush it down, as long as you don’t mind sacrificing 1-3 members of your group at any one time and rezzing them up. But maybe life would be easier if there was one person in the open world who did that. Maybe. We’ll see how things develop.

I saw a region-wide alert for a Devourer Queen that had spawned, but never quite managed to get to it in time.

On the front page of Reddit is praise for Three-Toed Tootsie, which I haven’t seen at ALL just yet.

I did get to catch the Skritt Burglar as a whole horde of people chased after him, and managed to get turned into a llama, so yay.

Who knows what other events are there just yet?

All these dynamic events apparently feed into the big zone-wide ‘help the Zephyrites’ mega-event, which upgrades merchant tiers, making new items available and making them cheaper and cheaper. So far, the random maps I’ve gotten in on have only hit Tier 2. Presumably, it will take a focused organized effort to hit Tier 4 within 40 minutes, which is content for big groups!

The last 20 minutes of each hour is a Sandstorm event, where the whole place effectively turns into a giant dust cloud. The zone turns into a giant treasure hunt for buried chests, and I see the opportunity for commander tags marking chest locations and a zone-wide cooperative effort to lead everyone to lots of chests at some future point.

Well, that teaches me to go vista hunting in a sandstorm.

Well, that teaches me to go vista hunting in a sandstorm.

There’s an amusing giant dark room in the mines to the northeast, where one can apparently search for the Legendary Llama. Seen no hide nor hair of him just yet either.

It's times like this I love my Fiery Dragon Sword. Hall of Monuments, whoo!

It’s times like this I love my Fiery Dragon Sword. No dull torches for me. Hall of Monuments heroes unite!

All the praise for sky crystal hunting in Labyrinthine Cliffs have carried over to Dry Top. Now the search is for lucky coins, and the zephyrite movement crystals have a time limit on them, which adds a certain haste and challenge.

10 seconds is a tide on the short side though, I wish they were a little more generous and went for 15 or 20, to account for first time exploration and folks with higher latencies. It’s not impossible at 10 seconds, but it does require more precision jump-from-here-to-there don’t-deviate actions and more frustration to keep going back for crystals when the time limit runs out. That’s a recipe less for casual relaxed exploration, and more of a push towards “perhaps I should read a dulfy guide that tells me where to jump and stop wasting my time.”

There’s apparently a jumping puzzle, as well as a diving goggles location, neither of which I’ve gotten around to.

All in all, it feels good.

There’s stuff to do, but I was able to log out after an hour and attend to other things like casually reading a book in RL, and not feel like I have to consume it all now.

There will be time enough in this week to play around in Dry Top as folks figure more and more things out.

P.S. I clean forgot to mention the fabulous music of the zone. The effort to get orchestral music in was well spent. Sent thrills up my spine every time a track played. And you can hear it all on Soundcloud. Maclaine Diemer has effortlessly stepped into the very big shoes that Jeremy Soule used to fill and done both Arenanet and the world of Tyria proud.