GW2: An Aetherblade Retrospective

So, here we are, six days later.

A good time for a retrospective analysis of the Aetherblade Retreat dungeon perhaps.

I’m surprisingly not as sick of the Aetherblade Retreat yet as I got of the Molten Facility by this stage.

I think the main buzzkill for me was that groups had evolved to a pure cheese strategy for MF (stacking inside berserker – the corner glitch for the trap room was merely annoying in that it bespoke a “lazy” way out mentality) and that the experience had devolved to that of being purely “on farm.” Rinse, repeat, brain off, gobble shiny at the end.

One simply cannot turn brain off in the Aetherblade Retreat.

There are cheesier methods to handle some of the pain, yes.

I admit I freely utilize the corner during the adds/cannon thumper sequence in the AR whereas I simply refused to hide in the lazy corner for the MF because it took me too far away from golf banishing the protector, I prefered the strategy I evolved on my own rather than following the “understood” one blindly, which was less efficient.

What is the difference? Aren’t they both corners?

I dunno. Somehow, to me, the corner pull is something that is an established and accepted dungeon running strategy since MMOs began. It’s not “lazy.” It’s not brainless. It’s simply a clever means of not running like an idiot into the full barrage of ranged mobs, and repositioning them to a situation of your advantage. It takes a small amount of group coordination to accomplish (people must wait out of sight, one person must pull, properly.)

You’re still killing them, it’s not bypassing the objective. And it can be screwed up if not done correctly. Some fellow stands in full view – pull gone, chaos begins. Some fellow moves out of position and “cleverly” attracts a cannon blast that overlaps onto the other guys gathered in one place – mass death to the unwary. Fer instance, I once had to roll out of one of those (I’m not unwary, ha!) and warbanner the rest of the group back to life.

And frankly, when I saw how that barrel absorbed the cannon blast, I admired the first person to have discovered that spot. Projectile – scenery obstruction – part of the game, no?

Then there’s Frizz and the golems. Even when you understand the mechanics perfectly, execution is also a challenge. I expect to wipe at least a few times in that chamber, mostly because I am not some arcade god of jumping, and sometimes because running the place when sleepy is an exercise in asking to be zapped by lasers. The situational awareness required in that room is fairly daunting.

On a good day, I can keep track of it all, stay one or two steps ahead of the golems’ pulling and spinning, anticipate the incoming low laser, execute jumps on and off the crates flawlessly and just barely, remember to eventually attack the golems when I can.

On an average day, I bang into and fall off the crates when intending to jump them, get yanked around once or twice by the golems, and get occasionally zapped in the butt by a laser,  sometimes saved only by a high health pool and the stun breaker I now remember to switch in and carry (balanced stance) instead of the standard improve dps For Great Justice.

And there are attempts when Murphy’s Law catches up with me and not only do I smash into the crates when trying to jump, I headbutt them desperately like a fly against the window, then two seconds later get dazed by the incoming laser, electrocuted to an inch of health remaining by the other one following close behind, frantically flail away gaining just enough distance to take a breath and pray for regen to kick in, get yanked through a laser before that thought even completes, get beat up by two golems, then to add insult to injury, my brutalized body is flung by a golem spin into the central column where Frizz is demanding for his stains to be eradicated, and my downed state is then zapped by even more lasers before vengeance is off cooldown (not that I’m traited for it, but it’s the last spit in your face satisfaction, y’know?)

In a way, the Mai Trin and Horrik fight is a degree easier in that the things to be kept track of can be split up between different team members. The aggro holder really just has to kite and stay alive, maybe worry about bleed stacks and only if they’re really good, they might worry about the teleporting shadowstep and nullifying it with an aegis or whatever.

The middle team members can get away with a lot. Honestly, they can get carried by just poorly autoattacking and leaving the competent players handling Mai Trin’s movement, though this slows the entire party down by quite a bit. Better players help to move themselves (and Horrik’s AoE) closer to the aggro holder, apply heals and support and condition removal, dodge her shadowstep when they get targeted and rez if stuff goes wrong.

The furthest team member (which often changes dynamically in a team that doesn’t pre-set this role) has it somewhat harder. He or she has to NOT die to the shadowstep (something that is often failed by a squishy someone who didn’t realize that backing off to heal or put distance between themselves just invited this role on themselves) along with the jobs of the middle party members.

I’m actually somewhat fond of the two solutions that have evolved to take care of the barrage phase. The coordinated group solution is really elegant. Everyone on the same page, group synergies providing swiftness, healing, protection, orbiting the place as a united clump. When it goes well, it is absolutely thrilling, because you know these types of groups do not happen often. When it goes wrong, it is often quite annoying, because one or two guys are inadvertently screwing the team over. We’ll come back to that in a moment.

I’m glad the  “fuck you all, this is a PUG, I don’t trust you, let’s spread out” solution also works. Because people do PUG, and it would be asking too much to have everyone manage to accomplish the other strategy. In truth, there is also a level of group coordination, because the further people spread out (in their corners and the center) and STAY STILL, the easier it gets for everyone. But it puts a bit more personal responsibility on each player to take their little steps in time and dodge when appropriate.

(In a zero coordination PUG, this phase leads to a wipe or only two survivors or less, because one or two people persist in hurtling around like a headless chicken changing up the cannon patterns with so much randomness that one requires a fair amount of luck and good reflexes to survive.)

Now let’s get back to the capacity of one or two clueless players to screw over the team.

If your aggro holder in the golem stage is absolutely clueless, your golems can remain stuck in the shield buff for ever and ever, leading to literally mass confusion and pulls everywhere, golems wandering through the center column at will, and it becomes the world’s greatest marathon challenge to survive until the guy dies and hope the next one in the lineup can manage the golems better. And with each death, the team dps goes down, so it’s a tougher solo or duo, even if it can be done slowly if the last few players are good.

Ditto the Mai Trin fight, where if the one weak link is the aggro holder or the one who consistently eats the shadowstep and falls down, the battle can stretch on into an endless dance of either managing to miss all aoes on the ground or constant rezzing.

How about the trash mobs, where if you just have one maniac who charges into the entire spawn that contains two or more vet Aetherblade Strikers, the whole collection aggros and goes STRAIGHT for the guy with the highest toughness (which may not be the original maniac?)

Philosopically, I don’t like this. It reminds me of what Tobold calls a type C raid encounter. It’s difficult because it challenges your weakest link player.

Granted, in GW2, it can never be a fully type C encounter because 1) you can convert this to a type A encounter if you get strong players in key positions (like someone who can tank) ie. beg, hope, pray, ask for, or play your own anchor guardian, 2) pave over a lot of individual player mistakes with strong group synergy support builds and 3) there is the downed state in play and anyone can rez (which allows for more room for heroic comebacks and for strong players to both show off how good they are and spend a good amount of time rezzing weaker ones.)

But it still kinda is.  And has the potential to be type C in a random group. Which, of course, has social consequences.

Depending on how well behaved or patient some players are, this may be as mild as a question to a non-level 80 if they have a level 80 they can bring to this dungeon, and a shrug if they don’t. (Though when I tried this once, I somehow managed to “enrage” a player into logging his level 80 guardian instead of going on his level 36 lowbie, who promptly and wordlessly plowed us through one of the faster smoother AR runs I’ve experienced, as if he was trying to prove something to me – why, thanks? I guess I should ask that more often. After all, I’ve already spent 1-2 hours on two separate runs helping/carrying a level 33 and a level 45 through – successfully, mind you, just took a while longer.)

And of course, the immature and the badly behaved love their relentless and unforgiving kicks of anyone they feel is unworthy of themselves. (The classic request I saw was the one who said – “know what you are doing, if you die, /kick.” Um, no thanks. That sets the bar a little too high for me, knowing as I do how easily one player can screw up another in here. I wonder if he ever got anyone for that group.)

Even the average fall prey to picking and choosing, if you scan the GW2LFG site and note the amount of requests for EXPERIENCED or EXPERT AR runners. Only 80s. (And guardians. And heavies.)

One of my best memories of the Molten Facility dungeon was how I managed to get into a few roleplaying groups who sat around wisecracking through the whole experience. It felt like a story. An epic movie.

No such thing in the Aetherblade Retreat. It’s been pure business. To be frank, I can barely recall a single line of dialogue. Asura guy in the middle. Mai Trin tries to fly away in an airship, we catch her (and blow up another airship if we’re good.) That’s all the narrative I paid attention to.

I was far too busy worrying about a) not dying, b) the mechanics of each fight and c) communicating these mechanics to the rest of the team before they got me and us killed by doing something “wrong.”

I talk SO much during this dungeon. Especially when given the excuse to by someone who says they’re new. (I try not to say anything in groups who claim they are experienced, but then I wince inside when I see messy messy things happen when I know there’s a better way to pull it off.) Possibly because I’m a bit of a control freak. Tank nature coming out in me.

  1. The first two spawns, anything goes.
  2. Laser section, whatever.
  3. Thumpers, please get in the corner, it’s the smoothest way I’ve seen it pulled off.
  4. Golem fight – wear my keyboard out explaining the mechanics and hoping the key message to kite in a circle goes through (shield buff way annoying.)
  5. En mass spawn, not a big deal.
  6. Bridge grenadiers – watch out for conditions from the grenades and/or reflect them.
  7. First nasty Aetherblade Striker spawn – persuade everyone while fighting grenadiers to hang out on the middle island, take a right turn to the corner to turn off the panel, pull out the spawn to the island, it’s possible to separate strikers from taskmasters. (This sometimes does not happen. People fall over dead and bounce back up again as a result.)
  8. Two spawns of Inquest, anything goes.
  9. Second nasty Aetherblade Striker spawn – attempt to hold people back as they fight the second spawn of Inquest to hang back where they are, pull out again to separate the group of three Strikers which fucking hurt.
  10. Explain jumping and door bit if necessary.
  11. Escort Kiel and try to make sure everyone on each side knows how to meet up to take out the last en masse spawn.
  12. Final fight of long fucking explanation yet again. (Or ask about barrage strategy in an “experienced” group and watch possible chaos happen when it turns out, no, people really didn’t agree on the same strat, after all.)

Story? What story?

It’s been step up and teach relentlessly or “lead.” Or wordlessly observe the quality of the group without my input (some are fine, some are bad.)

Now, you may ask, is this a good thing?

I honestly don’t know. I’ll admit, there is a certain naches feeling from seeing a group you guided through the dungeon complete it successful and with as minimal pain as possible. I also admit to being lazy and wishing everyone automatically knew my strategy so that the group will just perform perfectly in sync without me having to type and talk so much.

I admit to having some good experiences with a dungeon of this difficulty level, from the learning and puzzling out of a satisfactory solution strategy, to recognizing and meeting up with familiar names (who actually respond favorably seeing my name show up – ok, it was just one guy, I’m not that popular, but I see other names I recognize and trust to be competent enough to do the dungeon with.)

I’m a strange person who likes the experience of random PUGs (in retrospect only, sometimes) and to come back with weird ass stories like the weekend morning of mine when I’d expected to be teaming up with NA nighttime players and ended up in two successive groups of possibly Chinese/Taiwanese players. Who, credit to them, could understand what I said in English. And no credit to me, who stared back stunned and uncomprehending at the chat text full of Chinese characters and eventually asked for a broken English translation. (So much for 12 years of education that vainly tried to instill some Mandarin into someone who never used the language at home.)

On the bright side, I did understand some of the simpler phrases, and rather marveled at how succinct their MMO language style was. From three guildies vainly trying to tell their fourth dysfunctional colleague to quit faffing about attracting cannon fire onto the four of us stacked into the corner, “别站那” (Bié zhàn nà or Don’t stand there.) How they typed it while under fire and everyone was dying, I don’t know.

And after we accomplished getting them Personal Space, which was an exercise in me explaining in English wondering if anyone understood the whole complicated sequence, and them trying to ask when the appropriate time to log out was (don’t ask me what it was in Chinese characters, I STILL DON’T KNOW WHAT THEY SAID, the guy eventually boiled it down to “now switch?” and I either said, “not yet” or “yes, now,”) there was the appraisal at the end where everyone checked if they received the achievement and the choruses of “有” and “有了” (Yǒu and Yǒule, “Have”) made me so darned happy.

It was actually culturally interesting to see how “ruthless” they could be. Three of them were about to kick out a random ranger from the group when I snapped at them not to be biased and to just go – we had been waiting quite a while for our group to form. Thank goodness I was on a warrior. I suppose I eventually earned some level of trust/respect by showing them the path and getting them Personal Space. Then their fourth dysfunctional guildie joined while we were attempting a second run to get FTL for them- and where the three of them faithfully trotted to the corner, now convinced the strat was good, hence the desperate explanation to the weird one – and after a few multiple wipes at the golems – the instance holder ragequit, kicking us all out of the instance. (I left in a hurry after that, having reached the limit of my linguistic capabilities while running a challenging dungeon. Do note, dysfunctional guy was an elementalist, ranger made it through successfully, everyone else the same. Players, not classes.)

On the other hand, as Ravious points out, fewer people are running this dungeon than the Molten Facility. He and I may disagree on the details as to why, and to be frank, if you look at GW2LFG, there are still requests for AR at all hours of the day… But anecdotally, there’s been less people standing around at the Tarnished Coast entrance, and there never ever were as many as gathered for Molten Facility, both my guild rosters (big casual ones skewed towards WvW) show an observably lower number of people attempting this over MF, and most tellingly, monocle and potent recipe prices are trending upward. Monocle supply has dropped, potent recipes quantities seem about constant.

That suggests we do not have an increasing number of people running the dungeon or the same numbers of people running the dungeon with increased speedrunning frequency as I think the Molten Facility did develop to. People do AR once or twice or just long enough to finish getting their achievements, then stop, exhausted. Even the keener ones like me are both finding it harder to form groups for it, and to knock out many in a day, and the quality of pickup groups is hard to predict, which means more hesitance is involved running this dungeon. TP investors may be moving in to scoop up the remaining supply now that only a week more is left, driving the price up some.

Ravious thinks the AR rewards are not sufficient incentive to tempt people away from the lucrative CoF1.

Hell, I see people choosing to do fractals while the limited time dungeon is open. Are you telling me fractal rewards are even niftier than AR’s rewards?

I think the rewards are just an excuse. If AR was easy, do you seriously think people would not have it on farm mode, hoping for a jackpot to sell on the TP? Look at how popular the Southsun Settler Instigators were, for a mere -chance- at a yellow. You get a -guaranteed- yellow (and a gold piece) finishing AR.

That is, assuming you finish it.

AR is hard. Challenging. Not brainless. Exclusive.

It’s what people want, they say.

Funny that they aren’t in it, then.

After I did my guild missions today, I joined a couple of them on a round-the-world trip to about 3-4 world bosses. They were packed. Overflow was popping for some of them.

It all kind of reminds me of the constant frequent hardcore requests for FFA PvP sandboxes. Immersion! High difficulty! Freedom to choose to be good or evil! We will wait for communities to form like how Ultima Online did with white hats and black hats and it will be awesome!

Give us a cool challenging dungeon! High difficulty, not faceroll easy! Allow good players to show off their skills! It will help build community by “encouraging” players to group up to accomplish their goals!

And the reality is that when the design fails to constrict or limit or guide players in the direction of mutual cooperation and inclusivity, and instead pushes toward the other end of the spectrum, many choose to be exclusive assholes.

Granted, there are some who are helpful. GW2 at least set the right notes for it. But I keenly remember how wonderful CoH’s community used to be, until concerns of loot steadily overtook the existing culture. Design stealthily influences player mentality.

For every person who reaches out to the community for help to conquer a difficult dungeon and forms bonds that way, I wonder how many more simply give up and opt out.

How many are we leaving out? How many are we losing?

For myself, I am personally quite satisfied to have “solved” this dungeon. In that I’ve learned a strategy by picking up tips here and there and evolving my own spin on things that can generally push most groups through with not -too- much pain.

I’m not sure that I can say outright that I -like- this dungeon. I can do it. I find both boss fights challenging but doable after understanding the mechanics and practising. I like to a limited extent the uncertainty of the pickup groups I get into and observing the interactions and how different players drive their classes and characters. I like the one gold reward at the end and the yellow, while eyeing with a distant wary hope the highly unlikely possibility that something better will pop. I find it interesting that AR highlights that the concept of aggro-holding and tankiness still exists and the control/support/damage trinity can and should be important.

I don’t like how exhausting the golem fight can become, especially with the pulls that throw in a tide too much randomness for comfort. I don’t like how how the lasers and cannon barrage sequence shows up player weaknesses and encourages selfish player behavior (eg. sorry, can’t rez you just yet, you need to stay dead and watch how much better we are at this game than you.) I don’t like how the difficulty of the dungeon encourages people to be exclusive and pick and choose from their personal superstitions of success (levels, classes, builds, etc.)

As mentioned, I’m not much one for repetitive dungeon grinding, I’m already feeling somewhat bored and tired contemplating excessive repeats of AR and will probably just amuse myself joining a group or two when I feel like it, experienced or unexperienced as I feel like either a fast run (that might possibly turn disastrous) or a teaching run (that might possibly turn disastrous.)

Was creating the dungeon worth it for players like me, who may enjoy the process of learning and discovery through it, then discard it once done? Was it worth making for the people whom through AR, may have realized and learnt how much more sophisticated their class or teamplay in GW2 can be? Was it worth creating it for the really hardcore players who may have sleepwalked their way through it with their stellar builds and then say, they want even more of the same, preferably even harder?

And was it worth pissing off the casual majority who may be frustrated to be told by the game (and possibly other players)  in fairly brutal fashion that they’re not quite “this tall” to enter the ride, see the story, complete the event achievements?

Not to mention the soloists, whose cause I always support, but I’m definitely not up for trying to solo AR. It may be technically possible, but I don’t think it’s worth the pain to even try.

I have no easy answers for this.

I think the Aetherblade dungeon has its good points. I would have much preferred it come not as part of a limited time event and have it just -there- as permanent content like fractals, sort of like the Underworld or Fissure of Woe in GW1, for folks to slowly learn it at their leisure and not be pressured by the prospect they might “miss” it.

But I’m also convinced that its difficulty level makes it too exclusive, leaving out too many players who are also a part of the GW2 community.