Flameseeker Chronicles: Guild Wars 2's Gates of Maguuma is a leap forward

Skritt just got real.
A few months passed between season one of Guild Wars 2's living world story and the start of season two, and the first content release of the new arc was going to have to make a big splash, no matter what it turned out to contain. Fans grumbled warily about the chances of being asked to repair road signs for weeks while waiting for the meat of the story, and ArenaNet played its cards close to the vest. Teasers, speculation, and season one recaps were all we had to quench our thirst for GW2's second season. We were parched, moving endlessly through a vast wasteland of -- wait, there's a metaphor here. Hold on, it's coming to me.

Anyway, we've been delivered to an oasis: The Gates of Maguuma are open, and we've taken our first steps into a new region of Tyria. Along with several other media representatives, I was invited to take a developer-led tour of the new Dry Top zone and story content. Does it live up to the anticipation? The answer necessarily contains spoilers, so read on at your peril, mortal.

We've got dirt

Our adventure begins in Brisban Wildlands. The portal to Dry Top is choked by giant thorn vines, which glow with fell power as evil vines tend to do. A regular event pops here to clear the jungle corruption and reopen access to the portal, and you'll need to drive back the vines and kill husks and thorn wolves, creatures typically associated with the Nightmare Court. Boy, I sure hope that's nothing to worry about.

Tangle Root is the new section of Brisban that leads to Dry Top, and it's an interesting little setting in itself. The Seraph are stationed here -- including Marjory Delaqua's sister, Belinda -- and they're trying to trace bandit-smuggled copper back to its source. The area contains a water wheel, tanks, and water pipes, which I was told are used by the people hidden away in Dry Top to make survival in the wastelands possible.

Once you enter Dry Top itself, you'll immediately find the crashed Zephyr Sanctum, or at least part of it. It seems that the rest of the caravan kept going after the sabotaged ship fell from the sky, and considering that it was carrying not only dozens of people but their leader, that certainly raises some questions.

The environment of Dry Top is like nothing else in GW2. It's bleak but beautiful, full of striated red rocks and deep crevices. When the Zephyr Sanctum crashed, aspect crystals were scattered across the landscape, and touching them will grant access to the same movement skills used in previous Zephyr-tastic content. They've been shattered by the impact, though, so their power has been weakened and their use is limited by both charges and duration.

Dry Top is most fun with other people, and hopping around to explore and fight things with the playthrough team was a blast. The zone is very vertical, especially in the first half, and explorer types will find any number of nooks and crannies to go ferreting around in. My own snooping yielded plenty of events, as well as a skill point, vistas, and somebody's loose pocket change (good for an achievement, but not legal tender). The iffy part about this area is how dependent it is on having some proficiency at jumping, even with the assistance of the aspect skills. When the Zephyr Sanctum was stationed in Labyrinthine Cliffs, it was self-contained and easy to avoid for those who find rapid movement skills and jumping puzzles frustrating. In Dry Top, players need to execute a short series of jumps just to get past the entry waypoint for the first time. I personally find jumping fun and I love having the aspect skills available in open world content, but several players I know have gotten motion sick or experience mobility issues, making the sometimes fiddly targeting of the aspects exasperating. Hopefully as the season progresses the Zephyrites and their allies will consider building a few ramps to ease access to the zone proper.

Fortunately, there's lots to do at the ground level once you're inside -- just keep an eye out for quicksand, which you do not want to stumble into unawares. Aiding the Zephyrites and protecting them from Inquest and other hostile creatures will get you geodes, which can be traded for goods at special vendors. The more events players complete, the more items are offered and at better prices. Life gets really interesting when a sandstorm hits.

Dry Top rotates between "sandstorm" and "no sandstorm" at regular, timed intervals. Sandstorms make exploring considerably more dangerous, since visibility is greatly reduced and new events spawn depending on how happy the Zephyrites are with players' efforts. Want more Champions during a sandstorm? Complete more events across the zone. Sandstorms also uncover buried lockboxes, which can be opened with lockpicks obtained by doing zone content. They've got some decent stuff in them, including the new Exotic helms. Those can be combined into a third helm, which offers the unparalleled realism of wearing a scarf and goggles at the same time.

At first glance Dry Top is tiny, even compared to a mini-zone like Southsun. The vertical content helps beef it up, but there's also a lot to suggest that we've gotten access to only a small part of it so far. Not only does the story content take us past the current confines of the zone, but a few creative people have found ways to do a little unofficially sanctioned exploration. It's safe to guess that Dry Top will open up further as the plot progresses.

Since this is permanent content, it's great to see how much has gone into making the new zone rewarding, fun to play in, and visually appealing. It's not a lootfest that will draw farmers from every other area of the game, but it doesn't have to be, and I hope that it's compelling enough on its own merits to defy the idea of gold per hour being the only measure of a zone's worth. It's also nice to see new and possibly farmable sources of rare materials; dust mites might look like Hell's Pop Rocks, but they're my new favorite critters after one dropped a charged lodestone into my bags.

Admittedly, I was worried about Dry Top. The last attempt to add an open world PvE zone gave us Southsun, a gorgeous area that hasn't quite lived up to its potential. The whole karka plotline currently feels divorced from the rest of the game, which was a widespread problem with the first season of the living world right up until the final chapters. The execution of the narrative itself has improved by leaps and bounds, though, and the story journal allows for endless replay whether you're revisiting purely for plot or to work on sets of associated achievements. In practice it feels like a fairly smooth marriage between missions in the original Guild Wars and vanilla-flavor GW2's personal story. The first instance in Tangle Root is a typical "destroy waves of enemies" mission, although unlike many of the personal story steps of that nature, it's short enough to not overstay its welcome. The instance bosses have some cool mechanics, and achievement runs use a status icon to give a heads up if you've failed. It was never fun to do an entire two-hour mission in GW1 only to find that I'd gotten the second tier reward without knowing exactly what I'd missed or when.

My impression of the story journal is that it's very cool, but using it seems to be causing confusion for some players. To play through the story, you need to open up your Hero panel, select the chapter from your story journal tab, and activate it, which is a big shift from being able to just hit up the nearest green or yellow star icon. It's also possible to head straight to Dry Top without playing the story content, although I don't recommend it because the story is really good. If you have any interest at all in GW2 lore, trust me: Soak this story up like a sponge.

Chillin', chillin, mindin' my business with the excellent Elisabeth Cardy!
Spoilers and wild speculation begin here

The first chapter of season two has done more to advance the overall story of GW2 than most of season one. Much of what was missing from season one can be boiled down to a lack of connection to the rest of the game world; sure, bringing in lore from the original Guild Wars is a frequent request, but we also had an entire world of plots set in Tyria's present that have gone largely unexplored since launch. In the last four releases of season one, we finally discovered the truth about Scarlet Briar: She was under the influence of an Elder Dragon. Season two jumps at the cliffhanger we were left with, and approaching it from an unexpected angle provides a wealth of information.

Those who hated Scarlet might think going back to her story is a bad move. Worry not: ArenaNet confirmed during our play session that Scarlet is definitely gone. She's not secretly alive, and she won't rise from the dead. What we're left with is the trail of events leading to her actions in season one, and the dawning realization that the major villain of the past year was probably a bit player and the gateway to a much bigger story.

For those who didn't hang around the Zephyr Sanctum much at all during the Festival of the Four Winds, the identity of the saboteur who took down the Zephyrites does come kind of out of left field, since most of the impact comes from seeing how eager, seemingly kind-hearted Trader Aerin underwent a sudden, murderous change in the skies over Tyria. Sufficient context is provided to understand the story, though, especially if you hang around Scarlet's old apartment in Prosperity and watch Taimi explore her audio diary.

Looking toward the future! Or waiting for a sandstorm. Either way.
There are fewer blips in worldbuilding than I feared, although the part where my character deduces the saboteur's gender from his name alone was offputting. Sylvari don't conform to gender roles, and the names of NPCs are often gender neutral or indeterminate -- Aerin is even a traditionally feminine name in real life. The conflict between lore concerning gender in Tyria and how ArenaNet handles it in practice is a subject for another article, but it was the one moment that threw me out of the tale. Nearly every other element does a fine job of making Dry Top a stable part of Tyria. We didn't just waltz up to a place we coincidentally had never visited before; the people who live in Dry Top are there because they don't want to be found, and until now it's been reachable only through hidden pathways. A jungle vine tentacle near the zone's first waypoint gravitates toward the magic and gets zapped for its trouble. A Hylek hermit tells an interesting fable about a great monster drinking up all of a tribe's water; when he's slain hastily in pride and anger, the water rushes out and washes the tribe out to sea. Hmm.

The new method of storytelling provides satisfying chunks of information and fuel for speculation, in contrast to the way season one often felt like grasping at straws. A sharp-eyed player noted that the diagram on Scarlet's wall (which the main characters draw attention to and assume is an abstract sketch of Tyria with the Pale Tree at the center) actually bears more than a passing resemblance to GW1's Realm of Torment. It makes possible coincidences -- even meta ones -- very interesting in retrospect. The chapter also begins addressing the possible connection between the newly awakened Elder Dragon and the Sylvari race right off the bat, connecting the long-standing thread of the Soundless to the current story.

So was Scarlet Briar, like Aerin, one of the Soundless? Narrative Designer Angel Leigh McCoy weighed in: "It's an interesting question, and one we haven't established the answer to in-game. Scarlet never actively attempted to become Soundless. That requires meditation and lifestyle simplicity, neither of which Scarlet was very good at. She merely was independent and not part of the Grove community." Entering Omadd's mind-expanding device and forcibly shattering her barriers may simply have had the same result in less time. In either case, this chapter suggests strongly that it's the Sylvari themselves who are potentially vulnerable to this dragon's influence despite their supposed immunity to dragon corruption.

It's amazing to see the level at which this release has brought the GW2 community together to theorize and compile information. Instead of leading us down path after path, the first chapter of season two has done an excellent job of hinting at ways in which all paths might lead back to the huge, overarching story of Tyria itself.

How are you enjoying Dry Top and the infusion of permanent content there? What do you think the Master of Peace is carrying in his glowing bag? Are you excited that Belinda Delaqua's neato nodachi-style greatsword is in the wardrobe? Have you encountered the Llegendary Llama? 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 biweekly Flameseeker Chronicles column, which is published every other 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.