The first expansion for Guild Wars 2, Heart of Thorns, attempts to do a lot. With changes to the way end-game progression works in the form of masteries and additions to old classes being introduced, Heart of Thorns has changed a lot of what many players, including myself, have come to know and expect from Guild Wars 2. With a departure from the themes of Season 2 within the story, and a host of new additions in the maps, Heart of Thorns is a breath of fresh air for the Guild Wars franchise. This impression has been split into two parts, with the first section handling impressions of the Heart of Thorns’ story, and the second half dealing with the additions of Masteries and Elite Specializations.
Heart of Thorns takes place exactly where Season 2 left off: The Pact fleet has been destroyed, Mordremoth has awoke, the Sylvari are dragon minions, and members of Destiny’s Edge are scattered across the jungle, and it’s up to you to save the world.The narrative and general theme of the Heart of Thorns story is a rapid departure from what I had come to expect from Guild Wars 2. The old style of cut-scenes from the original personal story have long since been removed. Instead, the majority of your interactions take place within the open-world. Pre-rendered cut scenes have also found their way into the mix. They added much more depth, and let moments that may have not been so epic in dialogue options, play out in a more memorable way.
Before Heart of Thorns, Guild Wars 2 often suffered from its tone being too light hearted at times. Many of the more sobering aspects of the story, such as the destruction of Lion’s Arch, felt cheapened; while my characters made bad puns (“Ready to rock!”) as Scarlet Briar’s cackling voice drowned out the harrowing screams of citizens being slaughtered around me. So, I welcomed the change in story, as it took a darker tone. This darker theme is echoed though the atmosphere of the maps the story will push you through. As I watched beams of light from a city made of gold, barely pierce their way through the choking vines that saturated the sunlight above me, I was quickly reminded of my place in the world: enemy territory. When I first stepped into the Maguuma Jungle, I was greeted with the soaring heights of Verdant Brink. The new and uncharted atmosphere of the map is reflected in the story. The first few missions will have you running across the new area trying to muster what support you can, survey the damage that has been done, and try to find someway to locate the lost members of Destiny’s Edge. The story and map went hand-in-hand to leave me feeling as if I was in a race against time against impossible odds. At times, though, this darker theme was diminished slightly, with the biggest culprit being the final fight, which amounted to defeating Mordremoth with the “power of friendship”, by turning his allies against him.
Instead of the instanced content many will be accustomed to, Heart of Thorns has a new approach in having a lot of the story take place in the actual “live” world. By not forcing me out of the maps, it meant that I would often stumble across groups of players who were attempting a Hero Point, or my path would take me into a large event. My immersion wasn’t broken by loading screens, or suddenly finding myself alone in a section of the jungle, when just a few moments before, I was surrounded by other players. Instead, being out in the maps reminded me that I was part of a living and breathing world –- it showed me that the story was bigger than my own, and there were other players involved. This helped to strengthen the moments when the story did place me into instanced sections –- it somehow felt more personal and important now that it was only me.
Another new addition to how Heart of Thorns tells its story is your character now speaks. There were multiple times where it was a pleasure to hear my character speak out on events happening around him, and made me feel as if I was a living and breathing individual. Shouting instructions to soldiers around me and discussing the best course of action with my allies made me feel like the Pact Commander I was meant to be. Unlike the personal story, where I felt like a background piece, the story thrusts you into the main role. When characters spoke to me, I felt in charge, and this was my story. Although, if like me, you do the story with friends, it would have been nice for our characters to talk to one another, acknowledging the other Pact Commander. However, it can be excused, as there is only so much an expansion can fit; but this is something ArenaNet could consider for the future. The story does an excellent job in playing into this new addition, and takes every opportunity to show it off. Whether I was just standing around at a camp, waiting for an event, or deciding my next action in a story mission, my character would be quick to comment or voice his opinion on something. Although, at times, I often felt as if the comments my character made weren’t my own, leaving me disjointed from him and the story. Still, it was all a welcomed change that made everything I did feel more alive.
At other points, the story tasked me with gaining a specific mastery before I could continue. Before being able to gain the help of the Itzel, for example, I first had to master the ability to speak with them. I often found myself being able to use masteries as a shortcut to unlocking a new story step. The story acts as a tutorial in everything but name. The masteries it’ll force you to unlock are often needed for basic travelling, but it’ll quickly let you off the leash. Although these locks seemed frustrating to me at first, it offered me a glimpse into how the jungle is designed: behind gates that you must train to unlock.
However, these new additions tie into the biggest thing that Heart of Thorns takes away: freedom. The Guild Wars world felt alive, not because my character talked, but because I was able to delve into the depths of dialogues with NPCs. The world around me played out stories without the need for my interaction. I fondly remember being lost for hours in the archives of the Priory, in Season 2 of the Living World, learning about lore, and finding hidden gems in dialogues which gave nods to older, forgotten story arcs. Due to the scope that the story attempts to achieve, with the new additions of its narrative, it’ll leave you with more questions than answers. “I’ll tell you later” seems to be the running theme of how it all works: Rytlock got new powers, but we never find out how and Braham got a haircut, and never explains why, to name a couple. At several points in the story, I was left thirsty for more lore, with places like the ruins of Rata Nova feeling like a missed opportunity for lore delivery, like the Priory Archives from the Living World.
While the new ways that the story was delivered in Heart of Thorns were a welcomed change to Guild Wars, the actual problems with the content and story left me wanting more, and caused me to focus more on the plot holes than the few epic moments the story managed to weave.