Everyone heard the earth-shattering roar that shook Tyria this past weekend, right? No, it wasn't another Elder Dragon awakening; I'm talking about the fan response to ArenaNet's presentation at PAX South in which CEO Mike O'Brien and Lead Developer Colin Johanson revealed what Heart of Thorns means for Guild Wars 2. Yes, Virginia: It's an expansion pack.
The irony is a little too much, to be honest. Heart of Thorns is the most exciting thing to happen to GW2 since launch, but I won't be able to cover it in this column. I'm going to get all maudlin if I dwell on that, so let's cap things off by talking about the game. And since I want to end my last FSC on a happy note, I'm going to talk about all of the things I'm tremendously excited for in HoT. Once more past the cut, dear friends!
We aren't getting a new playable race yet, and we may not be getting a brand new weapon type in spite of the spear-heavy trailers, but we are going to have access to the one thing I always hoped for and never thought I'd see in my wildest dreams.
When I was a wee sprout back in the 1980s, I saw an animated film called Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (you might have heard of it). I wasn't old enough to grasp the themes or even to recall the name of it until much later, but I knew I wanted a glider so I could be cool and free like the film's main character. I was so dedicated to having one that I remember upcycling a chair for the purpose at the tender age of five or so, although my plans were thwarted when I had to give the chair back to my mom.
After ArcheAge showed off its keen gliders, I immediately decided that gliding should become a standard feature for all MMOs, especially GW2. I even engaged in lengthy discussions about the feasibility of hang gliding in Tyria, spending multiple real-life minutes and actual words on the subject even though I thought the chances of it happening were slim. I passionately defended my dream of being able to jump off things and soar majestically like the crane instead of -- as Johanson so eloquently put it -- going "splat." I'm a die-hard defender of flying mounts because I love traversing the virtual airspace, but gliders are even better because using them can potentially involve skill and clever use of the environment. And unlike flying mounts, they're not so convenient and safe that they completely trump any other mode of travel.
On my first viewing of the HoT trailer, when the three characters jumped to escape becoming angorodon chow and floated away on the breeze, I made a noise so loud and piercing that my cats haven't forgiven me yet. I have so many questions: Will we be able to customize them, possibly through the gem store? How many mastery points will I need to access gliding, and how many will it take to become the gliding mastery master? Can I put all of my points into gliding right away and attain the hard mode "terrible at jungle combat, excellent at jungle gliding" build? How upset are the survivors of the Pact crash going to be if I use the wreckage of the battle as a launch pad?
In any case, dreams really do come true. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.
Of course, I can't spend all of my mastery points on hang gliding. I'll need to spend plenty of them on learning the languages of the jungle. I have no idea what this is specifically going to entail, but I'm throwing my wholehearted support behind it because this is exactly the sort of feature I've been dying to have and probably could have been convinced to barter a finger for.
Long-time readers of this column are undoubtedly familiar with my stance on roleplaying and immersion. If you're a new reader -- well, I'm sorry we had to meet like this, but in short I feel that acknowledging roleplay is one of the biggest growth opportunities MMOs have. These features exist simply to encourage curiosity, promote investment in the game world, and draw players' attention to the things that set that particular world apart from every other game. Sure, combat is important and achievements are great, but MMOs often skew so completely toward those two categories that anything outside of them is treated as superfluous. For a genre that purports to be about building virtual worlds, the worldbuilding part gets short shrift more often than not, at least where gameplay is concerned. It's one thing to tell players a story, and another to weave that story into the heart of all of that character progression stuff we're doing.
I wrote about the possibility of specializations almost exactly one year ago after it was a topic of discussion in the collaborative development initiative, and I'm beside myself to see it actually happening in the game. Although Johanson confirmed only a specialization and a half -- the staff-wielding Druid specialization for Rangers and an unnamed Necromancer specialization that uses greatswords -- the official HoT trailer hints at a few more. A Mesmer using a shield and sword and what looks like time-based spells led to speculation that the profession might see Chronomancer as a specialization, and a hammer-swinging Engineer accompanied by tiny flying bots could easily be some kind of machinist. On closer speculation, the characters also seem to be wearing new armor pieces that might correspond to their chosen spec.
My interest in specializations when they were first under discussion mostly came down to one thing: build identity. If everything comes together in HoT, that's exactly what they'll encourage by giving players new skills, traits, mechanics, weapons, and possibly even cosmetic collections to help define our own particular area of expertise. I think that sense of identity and specialization is important in a game where the usual roles of tank, healer, and DPS don't exist as we know them; trait lines are a good start, but they aren't visible enough and don't change enough.
We're getting only one specialization per profession for now, but it seems like the base profession will still be viable on its own, so there's still a measure of choice there (on paper at least). I didn't see the Revenant coming, and when Johanson started talking about the heretofore missing third soldier profession, you could have knocked me over with a feather, but it's the ideal time to add that profession rather than trying to get it into the system at a later date. Much to my delight, ArenaNet has committed to never adding further level cap raises or tiers of gear to the game, and that means character progression will likely come through flexibility and variety rather than stats. I think specializations will become one of the defining features of GW2.
If there was a theme to the HoT announcements at PAX South other than "jungle," it was that yes, ArenaNet does listen, and we're getting a great deal of what fans have been asking for. Much of what was confirmed or hinted at came directly from CDI threads or general feedback from the fanbase. It's not adding everything that's been brought up and thoroughly discussed over the past two years, but ArenaNet appears to be getting the big rocks in first. If these systems prove their worth, there will be plenty of time in the future to fit more in.
The impression I have of HoT is that it's very much for the fans, and that ArenaNet has been looking forward to letting us see what it's been working on. The first demo will reportedly be playable at PAX East in March, after which O'Brien says things will "move fast," with beta beginning soon after. It may not be long until we have the expansion in our hands.
There are things I'm worried about, sure. All of those debates I've had over flying mounts have taught me that there are a lot of players who find vertical spaces disorienting or frustrating, and I'm not certain how people will react to that sort of environment design on such a large scale. Guild halls look amazing, but will they be accessible to smaller guilds? Ending up on the right megaserver can still be a pain in highly populated zones, so I think more tools to help organize groups over the current arcane methods of sever-hopping and praying for invites to go through are necessary if we're really going to be getting massive, challenging content. And players already resent those who are in Silverwastes to do jumping puzzles and exploration when they're trying to get people in to run a breach or Vinewrath, so will population caps be tweaked to support the jungle's reportedly huge amount of varied content?
I'm willing to wait until we get more detailed information before I pick at all of that too much, though. For now, I want to say thank you to everyone at ArenaNet, and congratulations. It must have been hard to keep things zipped up over the past few months, but for me, purely as a fan, it was definitely worth the wait to hear about it.
Talk about your lousy timing, huh? As excited as I am for Heart of Thorns, I'm gutted that I won't be able to write about it here in the Flameseeker Chronicles.
It's been an absolute privilege to write this column about a game I love. During my time at Massively I've met so many wonderful people, made awesome friends, and had amazing experiences. I'm in a place that I never thought I'd be two years ago, and this job has taught me more about both GW2 and the MMO industry in general than I ever expected to learn.
I'm so thankful to all of you who have read my articles, left comments, and shared a love of GW2. I'm also thankful to those of you who may not love GW2, but have provided thoughtful critiques and insight. If you'd like to keep in touch -- and please do! -- you can find me on Twitter as @ceruleangrey. I'm not one hundred percent sure what's next for me yet, but I do know that I plan to continue playing and writing about GW2 far into the future.
In the meantime, best wishes. May Grenth protect you, may Kormir enlighten you, and may you never find a miniature devourer in your shoe. I'll see you in the Mists, in Tyria -- and definitely in the jungle.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Equip cleansing skills -- just in case.