GW2: Path of Fire Weekend Demo

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Crystal Desert, ahoy!

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Reddit is in love with the raptor mount’s animations – the sheer attention to detail is amazing.

Riding one of these feels very vehicle-like or ship-like, no quick side-strafing but more steering like a speedboat… that can leap long distances.

I created a warrior for the weekend demo.

This time around, Marauder stats were provided (similar to Berserker with less Power/Precision/Ferocity bang, but more Vitality), which I thought was a nice compromise for experienced players who can’t live without the damage potential they are used to, but had extra health pool for the new players.

I’m not sure what necromancers started out with, but both UltrViolet from Endgame Viable and Aywren reported some difficulty with the introductory instance that showed players arriving to the Crystal Desert and learning how to use mounts.

Part of it might be a problem with the preset traits and skills. The warrior started with a greatsword and rifle, which happens to suit my open world playstyle fine (direct damage, one melee and one range option) but I took one look at the traits and couldn’t quite make head or tail out of it.

I suspect they built it more defensively for new preview weekend players. “Kick” was on my skill bar, among other things. Ok, breakbar hint, I suppose, but I am totally not used to using the warrior physical skills. Especially after they changed it in the new patch and gave it an ammo mechanic in the hope of making it more popular/viable a choice, but new mechanic = something not even vets are familiar with using right now.

You can picture me poking at it quizzically with this sort of expression on my face.

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So I took some time at the start to flip things to the more standard PS berserker build I was used to, minus the banners for group support, plus Wild Blow utility and Head Butt elite skill for breakbar (I’ll take the hint).

Also, since experience versus Balthazar mobs in Siren’s Landing has taught me that Anet is very very fond of quick stacking burns as a theme on his faction (recipe for immediate “Ow!” and falling over downed), a condi cleanse might be super helpful. Shake It Off went on the utility skill bar.

Lastly, finishing off the open world utility trifecta besides a breakbar skill and a condi cleanse, a stun-break. Warriors have a number of options, I just like Balanced Stance because it gives swiftness for running around, stability if used pre-emptively, and breaks stun if used reactively.

With that, the story instance felt fine, though I did feel like I was hitting with… if not quite a wet noodle, at least a wooden sword. See, the downgrade was that the demo stats were all exotics – armor, weapons, trinkets – along with Marauder slightly diluting the max damage of Berserker stats possible.

On the bright side, I used no food, no utilities and completed it just fine on exotics, so it is doable – and I presume they tested with all exotic gear, if this is their preset demo gear.

The big issue, imo, is mostly that folks not used to GW2 combat are not used to two things:

  1. Moving while pressing skills, and knowing what the skills are so that they can be chained smoothly
  2. Reading the itty bitty tiny buff icons on the mob’s status bars and general mob combat animations and indicators that have become second nature to people who play GW2 more often

Running out of orange circles by being pre-emptively mobile and ready to sidestep is a trained reaction by now for most of us, while a new player probably doesn’t even -see- the orange circle against the beige sand of a desert setting, let alone react in time.

Reading animations is another thing. Mobs have been charging at us since Mordrem mobs in Dry Top and Silverwastes. You gain an instinctive “uh oh” hunch when a mob starts pausing and looking at you funny, gathering itself up… before you know it, you’ve thrown yourself with a sideways dodge out of the way of the oncoming charge.

This is a learned reaction. Painfully acquired over time from getting charged and knocked down and around every which way to kingdom come. Not to mention, getting shot to hell by the straight ground line of Mordrem snipers.

You go from not even knowing the mob is going to come at you, to recognizing that “ok, this mob type is probably coming at me,” to trying out different mobility solutions (running sideways will probably still get you caught, just hitting the dodge button leaves you still in the oncoming path), to realizing that the best solution is to dodge sideways, to -practising- the ability to dodge sideways (holding one key down while pressing another, are your keybinds in a comfortable place to do that?) until it becomes something you can do on demand, and even subconsciously.

(And if you are a little insane, like my particular raid group, you practice synchronized group dodging aka “dodge left” to control a particular mechanic for a certain raid boss in a predictable manner.)

Bottom line is, no one starts out ABLE to do anything automatically. It was practiced and developed over time. Frustration at the stages before “can more or less do it” is completely normal.

But anyway, after the story instance completes, you’re tossed out into the first open world map of the expansion.

Boy, were they really careful with its design.

The first thing you get is a fairly big settlement, not quite racial city-sized but definitely larger than a village or outpost.

You can run around it in relatively welcoming safety, like Lion’s Arch. It introduces the special mechanics of the map – races, bounties – and has some amenities like a bank and trading post.

What’s pretty special is that in a fashion somewhat remniscent of Warhammer Online, you can actually get “public quests” *ahem* “dynamic events” within the town confines.

You can run around and collect objects with your mount and contribute to event completion. A pack of rampaging choya (planty quaggan things, but -angrier-) can attempt to stampede into town. It gives the whole city a little more life – or at least, more action.

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The real verisimilitude comes from the outside.

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This -is- a big map, compared to the rest of the GW2 zones. (And mind you, one third to one quarter of it on the right side also appears to be locked off at the moment.)

Wide open is the watchword, and IT FEELS GOOD.

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Explorer souls, rejoice.

The awe of gorgeous surroundings, the curious sensation of wondering what’s over the horizon in whichever direction yonder and just -choosing to go- there (without being hindered by sheer drops, puzzle updraft/mushrooms and Mordremoth’s clingy tendrils), and then finding something interesting to see – all that is back in the map on weekend preview.

I find myself sometimes just wanting to run on foot through the place, rather than mount up.

If you miss that sense of MMO as a WORLD, rather than as a meta map with a game objective on a timer, then I think you can get some sense of that back in Path of Fire, if the rest of the zones are similar to this one.

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World map-wise, it looks pretty promising in potential. Given the coloration of the Elonian region, we might see bits of the Brand, the sulfur deserts of old with the junundu wurms, as well as grassy oases in the Crystal Desert proper.

Even in the first map on preview, it’s not -all- beige desert, there’s some other colors too, if you know where to look.

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What I do like, that I haven’t really seen commented on:

There are some really faithful references back to Guild Wars 1, with added new combat mechanics twists.

Man, hydra farming was a thing in GW1 – which I was never very good at, but tried my hand at anyway.

And I remember they were Elementalists of much fiery rainy pain.

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Hydra says “ahai.”

Now here’s something we haven’t seen before, mob skills that use a lot more verticality.

The meteors are a little mean when first encountering them (I got smashed by the first meteor before I could react, the first few times) but after a while, you realize they’re going to do that and keep moving so that you’re not there by the time it lands.

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Their heads pop off. And they wiggle around like beheaded triple trouble wurms. That’s a little nuts. But a very nice effect.

Overall, it’s not just the mount animations that are worthy of praise in Path of Fire, it’s pretty much all the mob animations. Sand sharks dive in and out of the sand in a convincingly fluid manner, unsoweiter.

The fanged iboga, another GW1 throwback, with an arcing poison/hallucination style attack as befits its mesmer class.

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New shapes are coming. A fire wall, in all its 3D glory.

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New buffs on the mob’s buff bars to read too. It will be interesting to see if boon stealing will be more valuable a mechanic in Path of Fire.

Bounties are an interesting map activity. Basically, they are like Queen’s Gauntlet mobs. You can pick up a bounty to go and trigger them in the open world. Once “summoned,” they exist for the space of 9-10 minutes, and anyone walking by can join in the fight, dynamic event style.

They have more complex mechanics than the standard open world mobs. Apparently, they can spawn with different buff “affixes” so they may vary from bounty to bounty, and necessitate slightly different tactics to defeat.

They seem to be a good intermediate training/tutorial mechanism on GW2 combat.

For one thing, it’s not a cage fight like the Queen’s Gauntlet.  One can break off combat any time and run away far enough to get out of combat and switch skills/change traits to adapt to the encounter.

For another, multiple people can join in, help each other, teach each other, or at least in a worse case unfriendly scenario, -observe- how another person is soloing while in a downed state.

I followed a commander tag calling for help and fought a really angry giant choya on a flat mini-island in the ocean. The thing was rolling around like a rolling devil on steroids, smashing anyone that got in its way (ie. everyone -on- the floating platform of an island) and summoning up ley line energy things that spun around and did damage – essentially limiting even more of the already limited arena.

After getting downed a few times, I rolled off into the ocean to float and actually read all the mechanics on the mob’s bar. The ocean was a perfect safe zone. (It was a little tough to figure out the correct side to even jump back up into the fight.)

There were 3-4 other people there, all getting smashed to high heaven. Barely anyone was touching the break bar.

Which…seemed like the best strategy, actually, because it wasn’t going to stay still otherwise. And it was lethal once moving erratically.

So I gamely jumped back onto the platform, tried to land Wild Blow, Head Butt, and even Rifle Butt. There was one other person that also helped cc a bit. Together, we managed to knock out the break bar and stun it. Now it was a punching bag for a crucial few moments. Rinse and repeat. Bounty done.

There was another bounty out in the desert. I can’t recall what it was, but I do remember it had the Sniper affix.

What this produced was a slow-moving shiny ball that would select a random player and creep towards the player. It moves -just- a little faster than one can sidestep though. Once it hits the player, a target gets painted on the player and a ley line energy snipe of doom emerges from the bounty and does 95% of one’s health bar, if not more, and typically downs the player.

Cue an amusing sequence of everyone getting downed in turn and Benny Hill running away from the death ball.

I wanted to “solve” this mechanic, so I backed out of the combat leaving the two other players to alternate being downed and switched skills.

The first thing I thought of was to “block” the sniper hit.

I wasn’t on my guardian though, and warriors can usually only block reliably on demand with a shield… which I didn’t have on the demo character and wasn’t interested in wrangling with the gear explosion and stat selection of the demo box.

The other thing warriors have that essentially are more sophisticated “blocks” is a) endure pain (immune to all direct damage, but conditions go through) and b) defiant stance (heal for the amount of damage that hits you, within the limited three seconds or so that it is active).

So I put both of those on and went to test them out on the shiny ball of doom.

Allow shiny ball to hit me, trigger defiant stance. Boom, sniper shot heals me to full. Giggle maniacally.

Shiny ball comes looking for me again, and trigger endure pain. Boom, sniper shot does no damage. Perfect.

So now I just need to manage cooldowns so that one is always ready to go by the time the shiny ball comes to me… tricky… hmm, what about classes that don’t have the specialized skills of warriors, can they do anything? Well, anyone can dodge with an invulnerability frame… HMM…

The next time the shiny ball comes in, I cross my fingers for luck and dodge the moment it hits me. BAM, evaded, just as the sniper shot comes in.

Therrrre you go, that’s IT. That’s the solution. It’s a mini-training tutorial for dodging!

Suddenly, I am the only person staying alive consistently while the other three people also fighting the boss just keep going down when the shiny ball decides they look interesting.

I leave them to observe me for a while: a mixture of not wanting to attract the shiny ball of doom and get sniped to death while locked in a revive animation, and wondering if the other three can learn by observation and arrive at the solution.

Mind you, these were not completely new players. The lowest had a 56 mastery point level, the middle was somewhere around 143, and the last was a full 193 mastery like moi.

They downed, revived themselves, downed again.

I stayed alive, and sat at range pewpewing the bounty as a rifle warrior.

After the second time they downed in sequence, feeling a little bad that I wasn’t bothering to rez them while I was enjoying my sequence of reactive dodging or soaking the sniper shot, I tried a teaching moment.

“Dodge when the shiny ball reaches you” was all I needed to say.

The next time they revived themselves, I watched as the shiny ball hit them. And BAM, they dodged and stayed alive. Just like that. The bounty died.

These were not complete newbies. They -knew- how to dodge. What they lacked was the ability to read the mechanics and experiment with solution finding. Their first impulse was to run away from the ball, and they kept trying to do that, even when the ball caught up with them and kept downing them.

I don’t know if this problem solving propensity can be trained or encouraged, but certainly, these new mobs are a way to at least let some people inclined to strategizing have some fun, and then the best solutions will get passed around verbatim or via Dulfy guide until everyone just knows “the strategy” for the encounter.

It’s a nice intermediate step from normal open world mobs anyway, but less punishing than that in Heart of Thorns (you don’t just die and have to waypoint run from far away, running out of combat is possible and mostly the punishment is getting downed).

My only fear is that this might break in larger numbers and groups of players. If they can be zerged down like guild bounties, then it’s possible that some players will just go ahead and do that and learn close to absolutely nothing (but maybe some osmosis will still happen in the company of others.)

Still, the weekend preview map feels surprisingly empty. Either the maps are deliberately being kept at a very low population number per instance (haven’t had skill lag in here), or folks have seen what they came to see and don’t want to progress further in a demo, or exploration as an activity doesn’t actually interest the present GW2 population as a whole.

I really hope it’s not the last. There doesn’t seem to be violent opposition on Reddit to this, so hopefully, people like it. I’m personally quite happy to have more of this stuff. (Cantha is a word that comes to mind, just sayin’.)

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Nightime in this zone is fantastic. What better to end on but screenshots of this?

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Path of Exile: Once More, Unto the Breach

I seem to have found myself back in Wraeclast over the last few days.

News of Path of Exile’s impending Ascendancy expansion (in less than a week, Mar 4th) tempted me back into rolling up a character to check out the changes I’ve missed since I last played.

Basically, I missed the Awakening expansion, which landed sometime in July 2015, and I’m a little sad that I did.

Still, better late than never.

The Awakening was apparently versioned as Path of Exile 2.0, and I can see why.

Significant improvements have been made. That’s really saying something, given that I’d already enjoyed the game even before this.

The most obvious addition is the inclusion of Act 4, which adds new story, maps and bosses to the existing Acts 1-3.

What is not obvious, but extremely pleasant on play through, is how much effort Grinding Gear Games has put into smoothing out the leveling experience with this addition.

Previous criticism has been that difficulty in PoE felt very uneven and spiked in places – I even drew a fun graph once – you get used to it and learned to compensate. Well, now it feels like the line has gotten much smoother.

Not necessarily flatter as in easier difficulty, Act 4 bosses felt like soloable mini-raid bosses with various attack animations, the need to keep moving and circling, and even different phases and mechanics sometimes.

Just smoother, as in less sudden spikes, more of a gradual ramp up. There are more maps, since there’s an entire Act 4, so levels can be spread out into those new maps, and there’s less of a need to farm for 3-5 levels in a specific farm map before moving on. (There’s still the option to do so, of course, but you now have the option to just play through the game normally too.)

It feels good.

Considerable thought has also gone into making it easier for players less willing to sell and trade on a constant basis to obtain skill gems for different character builds, as you can now buy these from NPC vendors as you progress through the Acts.

“Just playing through the game” self-sufficiency now feels a little more playable as an option, between this and the ability to craft desired mods through vendor recipes or Forsaken Masters crafting. (Presumably this is playing at a much different level than those stuck deep in PoE’s endgame. Plenty of time for that once you hook players in the first place though.)

The UI has had some quality-of-life improvements. Small stuff, but again it feels good. An in-game clock, the ability to toggle on life and mana bars over your character’s head, the option for a smaller latency graph display next to the minimap, visible refill levels for life and mana, being able to see item level by holding down Alt, rather than having to pick up each item and type /itemlevel, on and on. Itty bitty seeming stuff, but with big impact.

What’s -really- huge is the introduction of deterministic lockstep mode, as a separate option from client predictive.

Desync was an old complaint that Path of Exile kept encountering, especially when using fast movement/teleport skills that would show the character on the player’s client in one position, while network latency meant the server still thought the character was in another position (usually surrounded by monsters, leading to death) and you’d only find out when both server and client had hashed out their little disagreement some split seconds later.

Some people didn’t like that, so now they’ve added an option (seriously, aren’t -options- such wonderful things) to force the client to sync with the server before showing you the move/action taken. With low latency to the server, this is apparently quite wonderful as it completely eliminates desync and delay is equal to the ping that you have to the server.

(Apparently, they also tried to tweak the netcode to improve the client predictive mode as well, so players who can’t use lockstep aren’t completely left out in the cold.)

What is amazingly wonderful (and a bit of a miracle, really) is that for once, Path of Exile is a game that actually has servers set in the country I’m staying in (though you have to type it in, as the Singapore server is apparently a lil sekrit option – probably piggybacking off the Garena servers.)

That means I can actually play with deterministic lockstep mode on… at 15ms or so.

(Also, no forced region-locking. I can actually use a GGG account, not a Garena one.)

State of affairs… unprecedented. *brain explodes*

Of course, it’s not all song and games. The Singapore server has a tendency now and then to hiccup and start jittery lag spiking for a night or two of complete unplayability, forcing me to switch to a US West Coast server at 190-200ms or so, but when it decides to play nice, it is awesome.

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What’s also awesome are the new art assets.

The map backgrounds just feel a touch crisper and slightly higher resolution than the old ones.

The mobs are nuts, in a good way.

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These crazy little totem things feel like they stepped right out of a twisted Miyazaki movie. They appear to be innocuous background scenery like mushrooms or corals, but as you approach, they seem to wake up, their eyes glow blue like stunted gray aliens, and then they shoot you with said blue energy bolts darting from their eyes.

(My response: Roast them in a field of fire. Hooray for fire traps.)

There’s also a boss fight in Act 4 (not my video) that made me laugh immediately as it reminded me of GW2 Sabetha’s rotating flamewall attack pretty durn quick, along with the same requisite strategy of running in a circle as close as possible to reduce the distance run.

I ended up toughing it out with healing flasks at Normal difficulty, since I was playing a tanky high-armor Marauder, and reaaally slowly killing her with fire traps (my secondary skill, since I couldn’t stay put long enough to use my primary killing skill of Incinerate – that spell just got completely countered by her mechanics) but I definitely think this fight is going to need preparation and thought at the higher Cruel and Merciless difficulty levels.

Apparently, Act 4 Merciless is intended to be an alternate challenge to PoE’s map endgame, and given how elaborate the bosses already felt in Act 4 Normal, I think that’s definitely going to be fulfilled intent at the highest difficulty.

I’m already laying in plans to get some kind of movement or dash skill before I do this fight on Cruel. Probably going to find out the hard way all the other stuff I’ll need to kill her.

Lore-wise, Act 4 also felt really good. Some really familiar historical names were brought into the picture, and the whole experience felt quite epic.

I wish I could go into more detail than the above, but the truth is that I play Path of Exile on a very shallow level, I’m no expert, I’d like to learn but it’s such an in-depth game that there’s always more to learn every time I play the durned thing.

The good news is that it’s still extremely enjoyable while not understanding half the things that’s going on under the hood, and it only gets better when you do understand that little smidgen more.

Unlike *cough* some other company I could mention, you get the feeling that Grinding Gear Games knows their game, knows their audience, and are focusing very strongly on that niche. They’re not trying to be the next MMO, the next first-person shooter, the next card game, the next raid game for funsies or introducing odd out-of-place features to catch a crowd that’s currently not into the game.

They’re making an awesome oldschool Diablo-like ARPG with mindblowing build options, challenging fights, RNG loot and map variety, and improving the heck out of it with each patch and expansion.

Come the Ascendancy expansion, I suspect it’s going to get even better still.

GW2: Epic is the Expansion’s Watchword

If there’s one thing that strikes me about the Heart of Thorns expansion, it’s that ArenaNet has been really trying to up the scale on this one.

That's a pretty big frog.

The Nuhoch are pretty big frogs. These guys are part of a fan club.

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This guy’s fanclub.

Everything is larger than life and supremely gorgeous. There may be only four maps, but they are probably some of the world’s most dense and tangled maps that an MMO has ever produced.

Perhaps LOTRO’s Moria might try to compete, but your typical MMO’s maps are merely only spacious but barren – this area is for that quest hub, kill 10 such-and-such named mobs, pick up 20 blah items and the rest are just mobs to grind through or run past.

Also, you cannot glide over or down to various scenery in Moria, and thus it loses by default to any MMO that offers flying or gliding.

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Funny story about an item fetch quest that an NPC on GW2’s Heart of Thorns personal story sent me on. He told me to go get 6 ‘Chak Enzymes,’ either by talking to various other NPCs that had various ways which you could obtain said item, or by running around the open world killing said Chak, which are really annoying bug monsters that apparently eat ley line magic energy or something. Sorta like karka on magic steroids, triply annoying.

I talked to two NPCs, attempted to go in search of some items they wanted in trade, stumbled into some Chak bugs and thought, oh well, may as well kill them and get some enzyme that way…

…and then I followed a tunnel down, another tunnel around, slipped and fell and glided to safety somewhere, killing a bunch of Chak along the way, and realized “Oh, I have 6 Chak Enzymes now, I can go back.”

Except that I was thoroughly turned around by this point and made about six or seven abortive attempts to get back to the NPC, cleaving through a whole bunch more Chak along the way…

…By the time I found my way back to said NPC, I had about 27 Chak Enzymes on me. Oh well. Let’s just pretend I’m an over-achiever and say nothing about my sense of direction. Or lack of.

I digress. Let’s talk about scale. I poked my head into the new Desert Borderlands WvW map today. (Confession: Not to WvW, just to use a crafting station quickly without moving from where I was in the PvE world.)

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This map greeted me when I hit ‘M.’

After swearing a little, I scrolled down to see the rest of it.

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Well, -that’s- going to take a while to learn how to get around, and what all the special spots/events are… when I get to it eventually.

My NA guild claimed their guild hall a couple days ago, and fortunately nabbed Lost Precipice, so I have access to ogle both map variations.

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Yeah, well, we say “guild hall,” we really mean a wide swathe of territory in which you can build multiple buildings. The scale of it may not be obvious in a map, so just take a look at the circular formation in the southeast corner of the map…

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It’s this thing. A coliseum. I presume it can eventually be upgraded into a place where small PvP duels can take place (the space within looks comfortable for 1 vs 1 PvP, or 2-3 players to dodge around), and spectators can gather on the bleachers above to watch.

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The guild banners on display around the map are really cool.

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Random scenery around the map. I think half a pumpkin is sticking out of the right hand side. One can apparently place guild decorations in the zone, but I haven’t had time to check out that functionality yet.

I think it’s lovely that our community’s decorator types (you know who they are, there’s bound to be a few compulsive ones in every guild or community) can step up and prettify the place for those of us with somewhat less interest in investing lots of time making things look nice aesthetically. (And you just know there’s gonna be a few jumping puzzles and other displays of creativity eventually.)

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And this is the other map, Gilded Hollow (courtesy of one of the OCE TTS guilds)…

…yeah, the mind boggles.

(The draw of Lost Precipice – while seemingly slightly smaller in map size – is gliding, supposedly. There are apparently jump pads around the place that one can activate for updrafts to glide on. Unsure of just how it all works right now, whether stuff has to be unlocked or whatever.)

No other screenshots as yet, I’ll have to find the time to run around both maps in depth eventually.

I do have a few more screenshots I want to show off, but this is where I lay out a certain amount of spoiler warning:

There will be three pretty pictures from the Heart of Thorns story. I do not place them in any context, but they may show off some environments which you may prefer to stumble on yourself.

IF SO, STOP READING NOW. GO AWAY. COME BACK LATER.

If you have very little plans to ever complete the Heart of Thorns story, or don’t feel that you will be spoiled by seeing alien environments with no context or commentary whatsoever, then proceed on.

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