Neverwinter: First Impressions

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First Impressions

If Dungeons and Dragons Online and Lord of the Rings Online had a baby, that baby would be Neverwinter…

And when I say “baby,” I mean exactly that.

As in, it seems to be the much more simplistic version of either game named above.

The default UI is remarkably reminiscent of LOTRO with its text font and tiny size with elaborate button graphics on the skills you can barely make out at the default size.

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I mean… really? Can’t see nuthing.

It joins LOTRO as being the second game where I felt the need to bring up the UI beyond 100% and magnify it to like 1.3x.

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I may have overcompensated a little, but at least I can see some of the icons now.

(Somewhere out there, the dev that spent their time coloring in the icon graphics and backgrounds is celebrating.)

Quest gameplay-wise, it feels like a version of DDO where you talk to NPCs, get quests, then run to ye olde dungeon or adventure instance where you then get your own personal dungeon crawl.

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Or sewer crawl.

The good news is that these personal instances are great on FPS.

Even on my ailing computer, I can hit 40-60FPS in these places.

The bad news is that I managed to pick the day some new update dropped to try the game, so the central city of Protector’s Enclave – where the game first drops you right after completing the tutorial (kinda neat in that you don’t have to go through numerous starter zones to get there) – was an utter rubberbanding lagfest of epic proportions.

I'm sure it's a nice city... if the textures loaded in, and if I could actually move...

I’m sure it’s a nice city… if the textures loaded in, and if I could actually move…

Framerates alternated between 9-1o FPS if I was lucky, and this is probably the first MMO I’ve encountered whose FPS indicator bothered to show FPS below 1 in decimal points. (Yeah, 0.3FPS, such awesome!)

One pretty neat thing that Neverwinter has is the ability to adjust graphics card-dependent and CPU-dependent graphics separately.

Landmark’s FPS indicator taught me that my CPU tended to be the weaker of my pair, so I cranked it down to near minimal, giving up view and draw distance, and was able to get my GPU settings  up to a nice looking medium. This at least gives broader options for people to adjust what they can or can’t give up for smoother gameplay. (I generally don’t need shadows or a gazillion physics particles flying around just to make things look ‘better’ and more busy, for example.)

Tradespam was running rampant in the big city, being spammed faster than I could move, along with cryptic LFGs of strange abbreviations for content I assume was for super max leveled elder game players.

Welcome to gibberish edition.

Welcome to gibberish edition. Let’s see: goldseller spam, high-end microtransaction trades and holy trinity/need correct class and gear for group problems of some sort or other…

One generally ignores those and lets them scroll by as stuff I won’t understand as a newbie vacationer anyway, but everyone’s personal mileage for tolerating those is different.

Along with the ubiquitous lockboxes, whose drop rate is fairly insane.

It's all rainbow colors, it must be neat stuff, I guess!

It’s all rainbow colors and much blue and purple, it must be neat stuff, I guess!

Fortunately, I have no idea what any of those words mean, so it’s eminently ignorable for my vacationing purposes.

(I did manage to sell off 8 of them on the auction house, so -someone- out there is buying them…)

Others may find it more difficult to ignore, similar to how I personally have trouble ignoring the existence of raids in traditional MMOs being heralded as the pinnacle of existence and all the good gear being available only there.

The difference to me is that I’m paying $15 a month in those games, same as everyone, and would rather not have my preferred playstyles treated like second class citizens.

Here, I’m paying a big fat $0, so little inconveniences are to be expected. (The trick is to have the inconveniences not be game-breaking and encouraging quitting out of frustration over maybe sometime converting into a paying customer.)

I guess it may boil down to essentially a difference of philosophy. Traditional sub-based raid games say, “We start at an egalitarian playing field of $15/month, and it’s what you choose to do with your time that determines how far up you go. Take the game rules for what they are and put up with any inconveniences and annoyances to get there, no two ways around this.”

Free to play games say, “You can come try out our game with no obligations whatsoever, though you may have to put up with some inconveniences and annoyances along the way.”

Bad ones continue, “If you want to get rid of all the nuisances and get far up in the elder game, you’re going to have to spend X sum of money, no two ways around this.” Where X is a substantially larger sum than $15/month.

Good ones say, “You can do it with money, or you can do it with time, up to you, the choice is yours.” And usually the average X is ballparked around $15/month.

(I’d talk about buy to play too, but that usually just means “Kindly pay us the sum of a normal single-player game up front for the work we’ve already put in, and you can enjoy the basic game more or less feature complete.”)

I tend to prefer “the choice is yours” games over the “no two ways around this” games.

Back to Neverwinter and the baby analogy.

Said baby appeared to have been stolen from its crib by Cryptic Studios, who really wanted a kid of their own and tried to do nice things for it, but seemed generally confused about bringing up a child, and who eventually threw up their hands and gave it to foster parents Perfect World International, who are at least giving food to the kid and keeping it alive, but only insofar as it can work for them in their sweatshop.

The hand of Cryptic Studios can be seen in three things: the character creator, the combat system and the foundry system.

Character Creation

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While not as expansive as City of Heroes, the character creator affords a very decent range of options while still keeping to an immersive thematic feeling that keeps half-orcs looking different in skin tone and bulk from elves, and so on.

Hair, faces, eyes, scarring and tattoos, numerous sliders for tweaking face and body shapes, Neverwinter’s got it.

There’s even a flavor option to choose your place of origin, a la LOTRO’s characters hailing from various regions, and to take your pick from a number of Forgotten Realms deities to follow. Plus an optional biography space to add your character’s bio that will be visible to other players, similar to City of Heroes.

It did really help to bring out the lore aspect, aided by my personal familiarity and love for the Forgotten Realms setting (if a generation or two before the stupid Spellplague – repeated apocalypses conveniently timed to coincide with new editions get old fast) and utilized that prior IP knowledge to garner a bit of quick buy-in with the game.

Quest writing-wise, it also reminds me of City of Heroes. Decent enough, very wordy, recreating some of that tabletop or singleplayer RPG feeling in talking to NPCs and getting a long story about why you need to go here and there, kill ten kobolds, pick up ten crates or play through one instance or another.

A considerable amount of the text appears to be voiced, for the main storyline anyway, which adds an interesting touch – though I must admit to rather rapidly running out of patience hearing a voice read the text to me and quickly clicking through to continue.

Combat

The combat system feels very simplistic.

Even more basic than City of Heroes started with, if that can be believed, as if they ran out of game designers that could manage spreadsheets… or were maybe setting themselves up for a console MMO.

Left click for basic quick attack, right click for harder hitting drawn out attack, maybe a handful of extra skills more to be earned slowly as you go up in levels. Six classes or so. with some of the most awkward sounding names I’ve ever heard – Control Wizard, Great Weapon Fighter, Hunter Ranger and three others I barely recall, a rogue, a tank and a cleric type, I think.

It’s like they had to specify, oh no no, you can’t actually play a full out wizard… you only get a wizard stuck in the role of cc.

Or guess what, not only can you pay an extortionate amount to become Drizzt Do’Urden, ride a giant spider and have a cool panther, you get to be a ranger and a hunter all rolled into one! Because WoW hunter is cool. LOTRO and Forgotten Realms Ranger is cooler. And naturally Neverwinter HUNTER RANGER must be the coolest!

(Struggling not to die from laughing here…)

Having just come from games like Guild Wars 2 and Wildstar, the active dodging they tried to implement in Neverwinter feels decidedly sluggish in comparison.

It’s not as responsive as either game, for one. You have to hold down shift+direction a lot longer to maybe dash somewhere, if your keypress registered at all.

There didn’t seem to be any way to quickly move out of range of regular melee attacks, nor was circle strafing a very good strategy to avoid getting it, because your attack animations rooted you in place for a couple seconds (an old City of Heroes thing that seemed to be have been carried over in the engine.)

Dashing or dodging out of the way seemed to be only mostly useful for the super slow and very obviously telegraphed attacks – either big red AoE circles or large bulky giant types moving a big club in freeze frame slow motion in an attempt to hit you.

While this seemed rather retardedly obvious to avoid, I learned why they couldn’t make the animations any faster… because the dashing doesn’t respond any quicker than that.

It might be latency at work again, but I had a 5o-75% chance of getting out of the way in time of any of these very blatantly obvious telegraphs – either because the dash key wasn’t responding the instant I pressed it, or because I was locked in a basic attack animation (well, I have to try and do -some- damage to it, right?)

Neverwinter uses an always on mouselook style, which I suppose is a change from having to hold down the right mouse button all the time, and targeting consists of moving your reticle over the mob you want to hit.

The process of doing damage mostly felt like one button click spam, with some extra odd attacks on cooldown later as you gain levels and skills.

Damage mitigation as a Great Weapon Fighter mostly appeared to consist of kill things fast, try not to soak too much damage and quaff healing potions when necessary. There are presumably some gear stats to help and a blocking mechanism for the tankier Guardian Fighter (was that the name?) and Cleric people probably can stand in as mobile free healing potions for your health bar (hey, some weirdoes like that kind of ‘support’ role.)

It did raise some questions in my mind of how necessary or costly it would be to buy healing potions later on in levels if I didn’t own a cleric in my back pocket, but for now, difficult fights do seem to drop them, so it ended up more or less evening out. Use one, kill things, get another.

The overall feel is still very slow, and rather turn-based, in comparison to GW2 or Wildstar. If either of those MMOs feel too fast, confusing and chaotic, Neverwinter may be the more sedately paced combat you’re looking for.

May. Because it’s still really awfully simplistic.

And seemingly based a lot on vertically progressing gear stats. My basic broadsword damage jumped from 32 to 86, for example, moving from one piece of quest reward to another.

Which personally, doesn’t bode very well for its PvP being on any semblance of an even playing field.

I’ve heard rumors that Neverwinter’s PvP is pretty pay-to-win, so I’ve not even bothered trying that part of the game yet. That might be a breaking point for anyone who enjoys PvP and is thinking about the long term prospects of Neverwinter, but I’ve never been that kind of competitive sort and it doesn’t bother me from enjoying the rest of the game if it’s segregated off in some private arenas.

Questing – Dev and Player Created

The foundry system looks promising, and seems to be Neverwinter’s saving grace.

For a free game, the design respects immersion a lot, even if overall player behavior doesn’t.

Starting players are led in an extended tutorial via a whole sequence of quests given story flavoring. Here, after a sequence of your main story quests chasing some miscreants, you’ve found some intriguing treasure with writing on it that looks culturally interesting to a kobold. Go talk to the kobold in the main city who also happens to be an auctioneer and see if he’ll take it off your hands. (Voila, we find the Auction House – even if we haven’t already figured it out via the UI buttons on top.)

The auctioneer doesn’t want it, but recommends you take the curio to a lady who deals in wondrous goods and you’re shown yet another Bazaar / shop / trading thing. Maybe it was the gem store. I sorta blanked it out because trying to survive in the main city at 3 FPS and lower means you’re sitting in the graphics options menu tweaking that far more than paying attention to any other bit of UI popping up and you just press whatever keys necessary to get the quest done, your reward collected and your next quest picked up that preferably ain’t in that lag ridden city.

I haven’t tried a Foundry quest yet, but they introduce it in a very similar fashion. Some NPCs that are part of the world will actually point out Foundry quests that occur near the area you are in. Talking to them brings up that portion of the UI, so you get just that subset of foundry quests to choose from.

Innovations

Quest-wise, I’m also rather impressed by how smartly and smoothly the quest tracker shifts quests up and down based on the NPCs and regions you’re closest to, with optional glowy sparks that lead you directly to where you’re supposed to go. This is something that I’ve seen from a WoW add-on, but never by default in any MMO before Neverwinter.

I do like the whole guided beginner experience they’ve set up for Neverwinter.

Similar to Runes of Magic, you get a gift box that you open at certain levels for free stuff.

With every level, your UI will tell you just what else is new and has changed, so that you can go and upgrade the thing or check out this new feature.

Even the auction house NPC will recommend some gear for you (though I’m sure veterans will laugh at it for being inaccurate or whatever, but newbies are content with basic handholding, thanks) and this is pretty much the first time I’ve seen an auction house actually tell you that you can get the gear via doing a quest instead.

Nope, I didn't know!

Nope, I didn’t know! I’ll get around to it after this sequence of quests, I guess!

Everything that threatens to be overwhelming when you take it all in at once, is staggered and parceled out slowly so that you can take in each feature on its own. The quests introduced me to Skirmishes – some kind of quick cooperative group experience fighting off waves of enemies, PvP – which I chickened out of trying, and presumably will get around to Dungeons at some point.

Crafting, or Neverwinter Professions, amuse me to no end.

They’re different from most bog-standard MMOs, for one, and a bit more like SWTOR in style, if I’m not mistaken. Instead of gathering all the materials, clicking a button and  stand around waiting for a progress bar, they take a page from the mobile or facebook game genre in terms of more long-term time management.

You set up some task in queue, walk away while the timer ticks down, and come back after 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 2 hours, 4 hours, a day, or whatever, to collect your goodies and start the next task. At least you can be playing the game or offline while it does its thing.

Playerbase

Well, the good news is that the game looks exceedingly busy. And lively.

That’s the beauty of a free to play game. The barrier for entry is notoriously low, so folks jump in and begin any time, and there’s that constant influx milling around with the veterans.

However, the barrier for entry IS notoriously low, so you have bots, AFK accounts of various sorts taking up room in queues, players who may as well be bots for all the interaction they do, people speaking assorted languages in a Tower of Babel style chat that gives me new sympathy for what the GW2 EU servers had to deal with under megaserver rule, tradespam worthy of GW1 Spamadan and so on, mixing in with people looking for others who might actually chat intelligibly in English and join groups, amidst the rampant stubborn soloist types (guiilty!)

If you’re looking to play Neverwinter as an MMO in a social setting, you’re in for sifting through a bit of crud to find some treasure. Though the treasure does seem to be out there – there were some comprehensible guild messages, and a few veterans answering newbie questions and seemingly willing to help out – probably because it’s so rare to find like-minded similar-playstyle players.

Conclusions

Will I keep playing it?

Well, I might.

For the moment, it’s free. There’s a lot of new systems I’m curious about, which always draws me like a magnet, and I really like the newbie guidance system so far.

The big minus to Neverwinter is its ridiculously boring combat. Click click click swing sword click swing again, oh the big attack reservoir has filled up, hit big attack button to do lots of damage, click click keep swinging.

Alternate with dodging forward and backward through mobs as needed for telegraphs, and seeing how many swings you can get in before the AI figures out it needs to turn around.

The story wrapper is a decent plus.

If you’re just looking for an hour or two to wind down after work, with no necessity to turn brain on too much, getting a few quests done in Neverwinter ain’t bad in terms of mild entertainment experience.

Long term-wise, I dunno. It looks like it’s setting itself up to be a vertically progressing, massively grindy token buy game for good gear, with the option of spending real money to speed one’s way through the grind. I might be wrong, but that’s my lowbie perspective looking upwards at the moment.

Worth playing up until the point it gets tedious or demands cash, I suppose, which is a far sight more than you can say for other games that demand regular payments of money up front for you to eventually learn the same way down the road that the long term elder game isn’t for you.

GW2/IF: Back on the Narrative Hunt – Emily Short and Fractured Fairy Tales

The terse, evocative beauty of words...

One of the things I started missing while enjoying Guild Wars 2 was narrative. Huh? Doesn’t GW2 have narrative?

Well, yes, and while I don’t mind the later personal story as much as some, and I appreciate the branching choices involved in creating that personal story, one of the things I did feel about it was that it was very… fractured. You’re not meant to go on it non-stop, you’re encouraged to take time out for hearts and DEs and what-have-you.

As a result, I feel a little less story continuity than say, in GW1, where you get to go on a nonstop story mission ride until you get bored, then you go off looking for trouble with side quests and back alley zone exploration and vanquishing. It’s nice enough, for what it is, and I appreciate seeing some of my chosen allies along for the ride in the higher level stuff (though I really miss my first NPC companion Maverick, whom we never see again past level 30.)

Ditto the dungeon stories. I did them completely out of level order and it’s a bit… hard to put them back together in any semblance of plot order. It’s not really a spoiler to say that Destiny’s Edge fights and squabbles a lot in the earlier dungeons, then they kiss (ok, not really) and make up and learn their lessons in the later dungeons, in time for the final big fight.

The world stories are okay, when you talk with the NPCs, it’s pretty entertaining, but there’s not much of a “me” story when wandering the world. Or rather, nothing terribly interesting to relate.

Who wants to hear the story of me following a trail of mithril ores until I got to a cypress tree, slaughtering drakes and wolves and polar bears along the way, until I found an orichalcum ore, yay, then I saw a rich mithril vein and had to figure out how to get to it, and it was guarded by a veteran something or order, and hey, there’s a cave there I never saw, so I went down it and saw stuff, and oooh, a chest, and oh darn, wasn’t I meant to be completing this zone, except by now the vista I was wandering to is somewhere southeast of here instead of northwest so I guess it’s time to head back in that direc…eep, a DE just exploded on me, ok, fightfightfight, and now this escort DE wants me to go that way (looks longingly at the vista)… oh screw it, the vista is always going to be there, trots off after the mass of people following the NPCs…

I guess it’s a narrative, and it’s a player-engendered one, which is sorta kinda sandboxy but not quite, but it’s also the same as what most people are doing, just not in that precise order. It’s a bit more meta-gamey than roleplay-ey, I guess.

There’s perhaps more unique diversity of experience in more sandbox games like Eve, where folks can be isolated in one tiny corner of the universe and have their own special adventures brought on by their self-chosen goals, but for myself, I’ve never really liked the idea of being just a small insignificant cog in some vast machinery understanding only a little part of the overall big puzzle. Fun for a little while, maybe, but I don’t have the patience long term for it.

No, the kind of narrative that will offset the lack of it in GW2 nicely would be short, bite-sized stories where I can take on a role and immerse in a world given to me by the author, and make meaningful choices to drive the story forward, and possibly have it branch out into significantly different endings and consequences based on what I chose to do.

That kind of narrative is best found in interactive fiction (IF) games.

And since GW2 does so wonderfully visually, the perfect yet different complement is literary elegance.

Every year, around this time, I start getting an itch for IF, because of the anticipation of Ifcomp, a yearly competition of interaction fiction (or text-adventure games) where you get to play a bunch of them for two hours and vote on your favorites. I’m about two weeks early, as the voting starts October 1st and authors are just submitting their games in September.

So I decided to check out a bunch of games I haven’t played, and my go-to author for IF is Emily Short, a true master of this medium.

If you haven’t played text-adventure games in a long time, or at all, do give them a try. It’s moved on quite a bit since the stilted unfriendly two word parsers which make trying to solve the game an exercise in authorial mind-reading and walkthrough following. The best of the lot are very well-written, technically clever and conjure up fantastic worlds and characters and dialogue in text.

I first fell in love with Emily Short’s work playing Metamorphoses, which I don’t really recommend to start with for IF newbies, but heartily do for those used to the genre. It’s mysterious, literary, figurative, symbolic, and very very well-coded. The puzzles involve transforming objects into different materials (hence the name of the game) and there are alternative solutions for each puzzle and stuff reacts in a way very consistent with the materials they are made of. It’s very impressive for what it sets out to achieve, and demonstrate what IF can do successfully.

Instead, for newbies, I’d suggest something I just tried a couple days ago and found quite doable. Bronze, part of her Fractured Fairy Tales series, is a story of Beauty and the Beast. It’s notable for having a novice mode, which explicitly helps out those new to the entire genre. It’s anything but a simple story, though, as you explore through the Beast’s castle, you will learn more of the history of its inhabitants and form your own opinions and emotions up to the point of the ending(s) where one can choose to have vengeance on or save certain characters (for whatever reasons or morals or ethics guide your hand.)

For the ultimate in super-short entertainment, A Day for Fresh Sushi is what is known in IF as a “one-room” puzzle, apparently solvable in three moves. As far as I understand it, this was a speed IF, coded in two hours, so it’s not as comprehensively parser foolproof as most of Emily Short’s other works but it’s amusing five minute entertainment to read the snark of the titular evil talking fish character while you’re trying to feed him. Low investment entertainment, worth trying, just don’t expect anything resembling perfection, but pretty funny.

Eg.

>x fish

Even if you had had no prior experience with him, you would be able to see at a glance that this is an evil fish. From his sharkish nose to his razor fins, every inch of his compact body exudes hatred and danger.

The fish notices your gaze; makes a pathetic mime of trying to find little flakes of remaining food amongst the gravel.

Best of Three is a very interesting simulation of a conversation, as a girl meeting someone you once had a crush on in high school, realistic to the point of awkwardness. It’s amazing how differently you can choose to react. I spent one game just gabbering on about anything under the sun, barely shutting up once. And another where I was silent through most of it, leaving the old flame doing most of the awkward filling in of the gaps until he eventually gives up and takes his leave. And I don’t think I’ve seen all the possible endings yet.

Bee is also realistically interesting. It’s different from the others in that it’s not in Inform format, but in a web form called Varytales. You play a girl who sets out to win the National Spelling Bee, but will lose, someday, somehow. But the reasons and motivations for the above are what is really important here. (It’s got a lot of resonance with my previous post on thinking about why we game. And what we consider winning and success.) There are some major major themes running through this story, about home-schooling, about parents, about work and play – friends, homework, school and siblings. How you define success, and how you define learning. Oh, science and religion. Big themes. Very worth a read. Or two.

(And it’s in web format, so you just click, rather than typing, if you’re scared of the IF parser.)

For those not impressed by overly flowery words, I’d recommend something not-Emily Short, but hilariously funny. Lost Pig, in which you play an orc, who has lost a pig and must find it. If you get through this one without laughing or liking it, you are beyond saving.

Eg.

Pig lost! Boss say that it Grunk fault. Say Grunk forget about closing gate. Maybe boss right. Grunk not remember forgetting, but maybe Grunk just forget. Boss say Grunk go find pig, bring it back. Him say, if Grunk not bring back pig, not bring back Grunk either. Grunk like working at pig farm, so now Grunk need find pig.

The whole thing is written from Grunk’s POV. It’s crazy fun.

There are a lot more good ones that Emily Short (and others, not mentioned here) have written, Galatea, Flashpoint, Savor-Faire, City of Secrets, etc. that I’ve played ages past before, but I mainly wanted to cover the four less-known ones I just played, Bronze, Sushi, Bee and Bestof3, in this post. The other two are classics that have etched themselves into my brain and must recommend.

And how do you play IF, you may ask?

Well, in all the games I just linked, in the top right hand corner, there is a little button that reads, “Play Online” which you can just click and the game will start and you don’t have to do any more worrying than that.

If you’re more of a hardcore fanatic and develop a taste for this sort of thing, there are interpreters and clients that you can download (click on “Show Me How”), and the game files from that archive, and then you can play the things offline. Z-Code and Inform games run off something called Frotz, there’s a bunch of variants.

And there’s an app in the iStore called Frotz which works for iPad and iPhone, more or less. This is my preference these days, as it’s more portable than sitting in front of a desktop (which dangles Steam and other MMOs oh so temptingly.) It has a bit of a tendency to crash or stall in mysterious fashion with bigger, more sophisticated games on my ancient iPad 1, at which point, I just switch to online play versions, but works all right for 75% of the games I’ve tried.

The basic conventions for IF are as follows:

EXAMINE everything. Just type ‘x’ followed by a noun. Eg. ‘x cat’ ‘x cupboard’ ‘x drawer’ etc.

Moving is usually via compass directions. North, south, etc, and shortened to N, E, S, W, NE, SW, NW, SE, etc. and there ‘s occasionally up and down, in and out.

To see what you’re carrying, INVENTORY or ‘i’

From there, just try anything and everything. Push, pull, touch, feel, hit, kill, whatever verbs shake your boat. And you can always try HELP or HINTS if the game provides for it.

GW2: A Light in the Darkness

Fear Not This Night, indeed.. Hope is just a sunrise away...

Wow. Just… wow.

I did the level 55 Personal Story quest: A Light in the Darkness a day ago or so, and it is one of the most awesome experiences I’ve had so far in not just this game, but my MMO history. Crazy good level design. Huge kudos to all the folks involved in creating this.

If I weren’t already a die-hard alt-holic, this would make me take quite a few characters up high enough just so that they could go through it too. I’d classify it along the lines of the sort of rousing heroic storytelling sort of on-par with the Nightfall ending and the Eye of the North finale, so you can have an idea of whether you’d like it or not, if you’ve played the original.

It’s the sort of thing that makes me feel “oh no, I’m getting near the end of this great story, and I really hope GW2 comes out with another chapter, another sequel, another expansion soon, cos I want MORE, dammit.” (Yeah, barely one week into the game’s launch, realistic, much?)

Some spoilers follow, so be duly warned:

When you see such a grand painting on the loadscreen for the mission, you know you’re in for something really special.

Essentially, A Light in the Darkness sets up foreshadowing for (I presume) the eventual moment that you hit level 80 and get to go to Orr and Arah and (maybe) confront Zhaitan.

Just as the Ringbearer seeks out Galadriel for a vision of the future, you seek out the Pale Tree for a vision of the future by entering the Dream (which is ever so slightly more hazardous than looking into a bowl of sacred water.)

There’s some wonderful storytelling and voice work. The NPC companion whom you would have met in an earlier part of the story narrates the history of Orr as you progress through the map, mentioning key characters like Vizier Khilbron’s reading of the Lost Scrolls to stop the Charr invasion (which caused a Cataclysm that sunk Orr) and it immediately made me want to run back to Guild Wars 1 to see the Vizier again in the missions where we meet him, and check out all the references in the first game.

God, I love GW lore. Those of you coming into GW2 completely new to the world don’t know what you’re missing. (Take some time to work through GW1 later, if you can.) The lore bible is thick and goes back way more than 250 years in history and there are all kinds of references all over the place, ArenaNet pays so so much attention to immersion.

Speaking of which, this was the first time my Charr, who has been primarily staying in human and Charr zones working to help the peace treaty to stay more or less RP background and lore-appropriate, got to the Sylvari areas. And got to see Ventari’s tablet. (Screenshotting it was not easy, the stupid camera still needs some work done on it.)

It looks like the real deal, all right, and if you bothered with a New Krytan translation, you’d see that someone took the trouble to inscribe the tenets onto it.

I only bothered to check the first two lines, “Live life well, and fully, and waste nothing” and “Do not fear difficulty. Hard ground makes strong roots” so the rest of it could be an ad for dish soap as far as I know, but I doubt it, GW loves their lore. (The rest of the tenets can be read by referring to the Ventari Tablet wiki page.)

When you’re in the Dream, Arah looks glorious. Golden foggy and far away, but glorious. I can’t wait until I can get there for real, and see what has happened in the wake of the Elder Dragon, which I guess, is the point of setting up the foreshadowing.

There are a couple more optional conversations with Dream reflections of Destiny’s Edge, which allude to the storyline in the book, and explains a little more on why they’re all so screwed up now.

In a way, it’s very clever. One needs signature characters in an MMO in order to have some lore, but the signature characters, if too heroic, are always in danger of overshadowing the player character, making the player feel like Gandalf’s errand boy or playing a second-string story alongside the real protagonists’ stories.

GW1 lucked into avoiding this when players developed a fondness for Gwen, a happy child who hero-worshipped the PC in the tutorial (so we still feel important) and a general tragedy befell everyone, making folks wonder about her fate. Then the clever writers decided to revisit her and screw her up a little by the time we meet her again all grown up. A good story is all about characters who change, in significant ways.

In GW2, we have a merry band of adventurers, who, opposite from stereotype, are no longer all together and one big happy family. Quite the opposite, they’re all at each other’s throats, and while it would be a pretty grand culmination to see them working together to defeat the dragon -based on you, the exceptional hero actually managing to resolve their differences – some days, it feels like you’re never really going to get to that point. We’ll see. (I attempted Twilight Arbor storymode a while ago and -somebody- ran away again. My Charr bias is showing.)

There’s a rousing general’s speech and a grand melee involving the three combined Orders of the land and a couple of undead giants (remember giant of Nageling? Corrupt it, then x2, but scale it down somewhat for being on your lonesome.)

This is not the whole vista of what happens, just a small portion I cropped, so as not to completely spoil the effect. Just x2 to get a little closer to what happens.

I never fail to be awed by the number of NPCs, friendlies and enemies, this game can put out at any one time. And really, why not? I’ve always thought more MMOs should give a player more NPC allies. If you’ve a support or healing focused build, this may give you more a fighting chance, and the downed/defeated/revival mechanic means that even if smashed into the dirt, you can still get the NPC up again and it’s not the end of the world, game over, repeat escort mission and curse the NPC AI.

Some of the Orrian mobs also reminded me of Enchanted Weapons of GW1 fame. That’s all you see of them, their weapons. Egads, so you sort of end up guessing their class/skills, moving out of their attacks and prioritizing through guesswork based only on that. On the bright side, they drop heavy bones. I haven’t seen much of bone chips and bone shards and their ilk, it’s probably the zones I’ve been staying in, but I really want them to craft armor with stats I want.

And at the very end of the entire vision, you see this,

as the most spectacular Jeremy Soule music begins a triumphant heralding as you finish one last conversation with the Pale Tree’s Avatar, who tells you, it is time to face The Gate Guardian.

Ascending more steps into the golden glow, and it really is like Ascension in a sense, where you’re symbolically confronting some manner of guardian being (though not a doppelganger in this case,) you see It as a silhouette in the distance as the music swells to a crescendo, leaving you charged with maximum awesome.

It was one of the most spectacular fights ever, thanks to all the buildup. Also, thankfully, not too difficult, as it would really have ruined the whole experience if I had to keep restarting from a checkpoint. Just watch for the queued up big attack, avoid it, and one should be fine.

And just when you think it cannot get any better than this and the Dream ends and you’re back to “reality” in the Pale Tree’s Grove, they give you the absolute kicker of a choice.

Big big spoiler warning in the following pic, watch out:

Oh god. Your metagaming self knows -exactly- what is going to happen. Your worst fear is the one that is going to come to pass. That’s what choice picking in this game does, after all, it sets up the branches of your storyline.

It’s beautiful storytelling. How can you be a hero, a proper changed hero with a character arc and all, if you do not confront your fears?

There is no best choice. They’re all bad, in a good way. Potentially devastating to the character, but awesome roleplay story potential and sets up crazy anticipation waiting for the shoe to drop.

Immediately I want to make more alts so that I can see all the branches of the storyline again, dammit. I hope their maximum number of character slots is a really high number.

For the record, I’m playing a paladin-like goodhearted compassionate Guardian on this playthrough (he even helped the Skritt cos they’re so cute, even though most Charr must think of them as little thieving pests), so I went with the first choice. It’s going to set me up for tragedy later, I’m sure.

I’m dreading the arrival of that fate already. (But in a really good way.)