Flameseeker Chronicles: Guild Wars 2's adventures in babysitting

Edge of the Mists--Frostreach
I'm having a great time in Guild Wars 2's new Edge of the Mists map. It's rekindled my love of World vs. World. I've spent so much time there that I've gotten pretty good at not accidentally running off ledges (although I've probably just jinxed myself), and my collections of empyreal fragments and badges of honor are steadily growing.

Against all odds, I also managed to tear myself away long enough to write this column, which is good because there's a lot to talk about this week: What's so great about this cluster of floating rocks? How is Braham handling his new caretaking responsibilities? Why do people keep referencing the Zerg from Starcraft when they talk about GW2?

Actual zerg swarm
The pitter-patter of little feet

Zerg gameplay, which in a GW2 context usually refers to steamrolling encounters through sheer numbers, is looked down on primarily because it trivializes content. It doesn't matter how many interesting mechanics ArenaNet gives a champion enemy or how far enemy stats and hit points are scaled up; if a gigantic blob of heroes happens by to lob multicolored death at the unfortunate beastie, the beastie is probably going down in a matter of seconds. Crap, you can almost hear the champion enemy thinking as he cycles fruitlessly through his moveset. I didn't sign up for this.

It's not always possible to win fights in GW2 by treating enemies like group-bonding piñatas, but that's a fairly recent development. Some of you young folks may not remember what things were like in the ancient history of several months ago when Tequatl was an easy and quick festival of auto-attacking, but the revamp definitely made it a more interesting fight. It's entirely possible to fill a zone to maximum capacity and fail to kill the three-headed jungle wurm or even to fail the Twisted Marionette encounter if people aren't on their toes. ArenaNet has gotten much more adventurous and creative with mechanics, adding events and requirements to big battles that demand coordination and aren't optional.

Comparing classic WvW to EotM shows similar lessons learned. In Eternal Battlegrounds and the Borderlands, it's pretty easy to avoid fighting; conversely, it can be hard to find fights when you want them. When I last played before the release, champion enemies like the big fat grub in EB were usually ignored because time spent pummeling sacks of HP for a single loot bag and a few badges is time not spent running from one keep to another capturing them for better rewards. Some commanders defend territory and lead their armies into battle, but plenty of others are content to shrug and move to the opposite side of the map, since a flipped tower or keep is one that can be retaken later for more loot.

EotM doesn't entirely fix these issues, but so far I'm finding running with a group a great deal more interesting than I do in classic WvW. There's still no particular reason to stick around in a structure and defend it, but adding powerful buffs and transformations as incentive to hold areas makes defense a higher priority: You want to have these buffs. You definitely do not want the enemy teams to have them.

The EotM equivalent of keep lords can still be almost instantly stomped into the dirt by a massive group, but their mechanics do make things interesting for smaller roaming squads, and I've seen the champions decisively turn the tide of battle when a clash between two groups takes place on top of them. Area champions such as the desert wurm in Badlands provide roughly the same rewards as taking a tower or supply depot, which makes them a resource instead of something to shrug at. And since EotM is smaller and more compact than the wide-open EB and Borderlands maps, it's both harder to avoid enemy players and easier to catch up to them. I have gone entire play sessions in classic WvW without fighting anything but NPCs; that isn't so easy in EotM.

Best of all is the design of the map itself, which is not only beautiful to look at but easier to take strategic advantage of, sometimes in hilarious fashion. A clash of zergs in an open area will usually come down to numbers, buff-stacking, and (to a somewhat lesser extent) organization, and EB and Borderlands are mostly made up of open areas. EotM's multiple layers, tricky terrain, and occasional environmental traps can tip the chances of victory, and playing there marks the first time I've ever been part of a small squad which routed an entire massive zerg simply because we had the high ground, a chokepoint, and decent organization. Is that possible to do in EB and Borderlands? Sure. Are you more likely to encounter situations like that in EotM? Yes, just because it has more areas where terrain can be turned to an advantage. This results in more opportunities to do what my wife calls "going to the badge store," and it's always a nice feeling to watch your enemies scatter before you as the spoils of victory pile up at your feet.

In short, EotM doesn't fix every issue with WvW gameplay, but it's a great start, and I'm really looking forward to seeing new ideas tested there. For my money, it's definitely funner -- and that is totally a real word.

Portrait of Taimi--official art
Tiny Taimi's amazing field trip

Last week I waxed concerned over sticking living world story elements in EotM because nudging PvE players into PvP areas has historically not worked out very well (and this is not a phenomenon unique to GW2). While the scenario I dreaded -- WvW and PvE players griping at each other and ArenaNet to the exclusion of everything else -- thankfully hasn't materialized, it's still caused some grumbling. People who do not want to PvP are free badges, loot, and WXP. Heck, I go to WvW to PvP and I'm still free badges, loot, and WXP if I'm caught alone on any character that isn't my Necromancer, and sometimes even then. I know well the pain of trying to complete an objective without getting into a fight or attracting attention and having to try over and over again because you might as well pin a sign on your back that says "KICK ME FOR CANDY." It's one of the reasons that requiring WvW for full world completion has been so controversial.

Sure, you don't actually have to get into any fights to progress in the story; all you need to do is head to the center of the map and pick up a single object from an area beneath the Juncture in which there aren't any major objectives. This is very easy as long as your group holds the area and no rival players are there, and it's next to impossible to accomplish solo if you're a PvP novice and somebody has decided to camp the area for easy kills, something I've seen happen several times so far. I'm sure it's a non-issue for most people, but I would have placed Scruffy's parts in each team's camps closer to the "Wow, look how neat this place is" bits and not smack dab in "Let's see if we can coax you into a fight" country.

That said, the dialogue between Taimi and Braham that takes place in the safe zones is wonderful. I worry less with every chapter that Taimi will start to grate on the nerves; it's common for little kid characters of the run-off-and-talk-back variety to come off as unsympathetic, pint-sized sociopaths that the audience is nevertheless expected to enjoy because aww, kids are cute! The writers have hit a good balance with Taimi, who actually behaves as a child and not a miniature slapstick comedian channeling a demonic entity. Part of this is Braham's willingness to correct her behavior, and in turn, Taimi's desire to be liked and protected by Braham. In other words, he's allowed to be the adult. Taimi, like many little kids who have tested authority and found it lacking, obviously finds some comfort in having a stable person nearby who sets appropriate boundaries for her and allows her to be a child. Braham is protective, and so Taimi gets to be vulnerable. It's a very sweet relationship in the making.

This release is packed to the brim with interesting dialogue (try standing near Braham and Taimi and see how long it takes you to hear everything they have to say), and I'm going to save discussion of the A Study In Scarlet chapter until season one of the living world is over. I don't want to spoil anything. I will say that this release has done an excellent job of filling in details and providing depth, which sounds simple but in practice makes all the difference. When characters bring up and discuss the same details that players might, it automatically enriches both them and the setting and makes it less frustrating to have new questions raised. The audience is assured that the story is taking these things into account, that the characters are three-dimensional enough to worry about the wider implications for their world, and that the plot is less likely to gloss over characterization and worldbuilding to make something work that shouldn't. This builds trust between the writers and the audience, and that has done amazing things for the living world story.

Making friends with griffons is very important.
Enjoy the silence

We've been promised -- or is it threatened? -- that all hell will break loose in the next release. For the moment, I'm enjoying the relative peace and quiet and general feelings of goodwill. Despite my earlier worries, it's heartening to hear other players saying that this is one of their favorite releases and to see them having fun.

Take advantage of it while it lasts because by the time this column goes to press, we should have some more information on the next chapter. You can go ahead and imagine me chortling menacingly here, not only because you can't hear me over the internet but because I have a sore throat and can't chortle.

Are you enjoying Edge of the Mists? What are your spoileriffic theories for the next release? Do you wish you had your very own Scruffy, and has anyone got a throat lozenge? Let us know in the comments, and I'll see you in the Mists!

Anatoli Ingram suffers from severe altitis, Necromancitosis, and Guild Wars 2 addiction. The only known treatment is writing Massively's weekly Flameseeker Chronicles column, which is published every Tuesday. His conditions are contagious, so contact him safely at anatoli@massively.com. Equip cleansing skills -- just in case.
This article was originally published on Massively.