On April 15th Guild Wars 2 got its first feature pack, as packed with features as advertised. After the first day or so of trying to figure out where our town clothes disappeared to, it's becoming clear how much has changed: There's a lot more to take in and adjust to than might be immediately apparent.
The experience for new GW2 characters has changed so much that I rolled up yet another alt post-patch to try it out. That was my plan all along, and I didn't do it because I just bought another character slot and didn't have an Asura yet. I chose a profession that's known for being less fun without traits, so I could see what it's like to not have them before level 30. It was not because I wanted another Engineer and already have two Necromancers, two Guardians, and two Mesmers.
It was also necessary to use a total makeover kit for legitimate data-gathering purposes. Aww, look how cute he is! I can use all of my unlocked dyes on him, and dress him up in outfits, and -- right, down to business.
A whole new world
Any characters created before the feature pack release still operate under the old system and will have their traits automatically unlocked at the appropriate levels. Characters created after the release will have a bit more legwork to do while leveling up; the good news is that ArenaNet has given enemies in the open world a balance pass to account for traits being less accessible. Swapping critical damage percentage for the new Ferocity stat has also resulted in characters doing a bit less damage across the board, but it doesn't make much of a difference in leveling content. If you do get killed, at least you won't have to shell out silver for repairs any more!
After rolling my brand-new sharktoothed flopears, the first thing I did was to cheat. I dug into my hoard of experience scrolls and tomes of knowledge to boost myself to level 30, which gave me the freedom to move around a variety of maps past the starter zones. Level 30 is also the new threshold for unlocking the trait system.
I've already discussed the changes to the cosmetic system at length, but it's worth noting that outfits are a really good way to cover up doofy lowbie gear without needing to spend transmutation charges. I appreciate them for that alone, especially since the Bloody Prince costume makes my Asura look like he should be doing some heavy '90s-era World of Darkness LARPing. I dig that aesthetic.
I'd heard mixed opinions on the new Megaserver technology, so I headed to Brisban Wildlands to try it out for myself. I chose Brisban because I play there regularly and have gotten familiar with the pre-patch feel of the place; it was usually pretty deserted even on my high-population server. I could count on maybe seeing one or two other players over the course of several hours (and some of them were hanging out to roleplay -- you know who you are!), which made completing some of the events in the zone very difficult. Brisban has a number of events and hearts that involve champions, veterans, multiple veterans, champions and veterans, cramped quarters packed with difficult enemies, and worst of all, hyenas with that annoying crippling move.
Brisban Wildlands was one of the first zones added to the Megaserver rollout after the patch, and on arriving in the zone, I was almost immediately struck by how populated it was. It wasn't exactly crowded, but I haven't found groups of people doing events in Brisban since the first few days after GW2 launched. I even ran across a couple of event states I'd never seen because they usually fail within a few minutes, and between a couple of other players and me, we managed to take down the Sinister Triad commanders shortly after they spawned instead of letting them roam free to terrorize the zone for hours.
I didn't have a positive impression of the Megaserver technology immediately after the feature pack dropped, but I think that was mostly because I first experienced it in a city stuffed to the brim with disoriented players. Map chat during the initial post-patch period was not fun, and I bristled at the change in normally quiet, friendly cities. "This is just like being on an overflow," I muttered darkly, because I talk to myself.
Fortunately, things seem to have settled down. It'd be nice to know whether this is due to the sorting technology working properly or I just need to have more faith in humanity, but I still see tons of roleplay happening in Megaserved cities like Rata Sum and the Grove, and map chat in the open world has been lively and helpful overall. Some players are reportedly having trouble getting matched up with their guildmates and party members, but technical issues are probably a lot easier to fix than community issues.
I was surprised at just how easy I found traitless killing: Enemies die a lot quicker now than they did with traits before the patch. The balance changes make tooling around on a lowbie character painless, but I have some reservations about how it might affect downscaling since level 80 characters could already kill low-level mobs by sneezing vigorously in their general direction.
The collaborative development initiative discussion on horizontal progression was chock-full of players asking for more involved forms of character advancement, which I am 100% behind because paying for a book to click on was pretty hollow. Being asked to complete a map for a single trait unlock isn't a huge deal, and neither is needing to find specific events; those are both activities players are likely to run across in the course of leveling, and they provide a bit of direction. On the other hand, some trait unlocks require dungeon groups or putting a lot of work into the personal story. That seems like a disproportionate level of investment, especially since few new players will have enough experience or information to determine whether an individual trait is worth the effort.
One of the themes of the horizontal progression CDI thread was how cool it might be to replicate the feeling of skill hunting in the original Guild Wars. I think on a basic level the changes to how traits are unlocked accomplish that, but attaching adept-tier trait unlocks to level 50+ personal story steps and dungeons strikes me as the GW2 equivalent of skills that couldn't be captured unless you were three-quarters of the way into a campaign's story. As a new GW1 player, I always found it frustrating to look up a skill for a build I wanted to try, only to realize I had something like six hours' worth of mandatory content to get through first. In that light, the ability to just head to the nearest profession trainer and buy traits is a good thing, but it requires both skill points and coin in amounts that are probably reasonable for a veteran player and not so much for someone on her way up to 80 for the first time.
I'm not going to either condemn or exalt the whole setup based on my exhaustive and highly objective experience of running around in game squinting critically at the changes for a few hours, but I suspect it'll probably need tweaking eventually. I do feel comfortable saying that trait hunting adds something to the leveling experience that I personally found lacking, which is the need to actively invest in a character to make him more powerful. My only worry is that level 30 seems a little late to say, "Surprise! Now that you're almost halfway to max level, it's time to introduce one of the most important parts of developing a playstyle!" Unlocking the first minor trait at level 15 or 20 would at least let players access the trait UI so they can get used to swapping points around and make plans for obtaining their first major adept-tier traits.
Predictably, not everyone is happy with the changes. Some people miss having everything unlocked as they level up without any fuss, and it's true that not having that makes it harder to experiment with builds while leveling (although you can always head to the sPvP lobby and try stuff out to your heart's content). The changes to traits are a direct result of feedback from the community, though, and one thing I can -- and do -- consistently praise ArenaNet for is being willing to make adjustments in good faith based on player requests. I imagine that this has to be one of the riskiest parts of MMO design because we're not always able to articulate exactly what we want and why we want it or to foresee the effects that having what we think we want might have on our game experience. We're also not a hive mind, and catering to one group of players (however vocal) carries the risk of ticking off another.
I've seen some of GW2's staunchest critics describe it as a game that jettisoned substance in favor of convenience, and while I don't think that was ever entirely true, I do think ArenaNet originally tried some ideas that missed a bit of what establishes an MMORPG as an RPG. The feature pack changes have moved GW2 closer to a good balance between ease of access and progression, and by choosing which direction to head in, ArenaNet has hopefully set a definitive tone for upcoming content. I doubt it's a coincidence that we're getting this coat of polish before the start of the second living world season.
I can see clearly now
Far be it for me to neglect the best part of the feature pack: glasses. Glasses are an extremely important addition to Tyrian battle fashion, and they have the potential to increase character attractiveness by a cool 700%. Be aware that this can result in enemies ceasing hostilities so that they can ask you out on a date, so if you don't want Risen sending you dead, rotting flowers, I recommend going for a bear hat or something instead.
Have you tried playing in a Megaserver zone yet? Updated your traits? Checked out the rune and sigil changes? Given your character a makeover? Let us know in the comments -- and feel free to share screenshots if you've got a new look. 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 biweekly Flameseeker Chronicles column, which is published every Tuesday. His conditions are contagious, so contact him safely at firstname.lastname@example.org. Equip cleansing skills -- just in case.