When I first stepped into Verdant Brink last month, memories came flooding back to my first impressions of Orr. The immediate sense of war, as Pact soldiers rushed around fighting to gain hold on the land against the impending forces of an Elder Dragon we had come to kill. Only this time, it was different. We didn’t have the upper hand, the Dragon did. The Dragon wasn’t fighting for its life, we were. Mordremoth had crippled us and for the first time since Tequatl wiped a map with a tidal wave, I felt the threat of a Dragon.
Zhaitan never lived up to that threat. Sure, he killed some of my friends (a particular apple loving one still stings), but I never felt that he was fighting back, that he wasn’t going to let us mere ants destroy all he’d worked for. When I killed Zhaitan, it was my chance to be the hero, but I didn’t feel like a hero – I felt like an exterminator killing a defenceless animal. I’d killed the biggest threat to Tyria, so why didn’t I feel good about it? The answer, I believe, is because Zhaitan’s presence was never felt in the world – something Mordremoth seems to be changing.
Show Don’t Tell
It’s a popular opinion (one that I share) that ArenaNet’s artists have made a beautiful game. The environment is always spectacular but one thing I’ve always felt they didn’t do enough of was telling a story through the environment. While the dynamic events and flavour text of the NPCs do a good job of telling the story of the map, I wish I’d see more of the story in the world itself. My favourite example of this is Dolyak’s Rest. You approach this skill point and see Dolyak corpses scattered across the floor. If you wait long enough, you see an old injured Dolyak approach the place and die. Without any context, you know this is a place some Dolyak’s go to die, that they journey here to. You can speculate why they take that journey yourself and if you want more information you can ask the NPCs around.
I was glad to see then that Verdant Brink showed me the story of the map instead of telling me about it. I knew the moment I’d stepped in that I’d be dealing with the aftermath of the Pact’s fleet, that they’d need me to help them recover and strengthen their forces as Mordremoth’s forces attempt to destroy whatever we had remaining. The story was unfolding before me before I’d even spoken to a scout. You can see and feel Mordremoth’s presence everywhere. The weapons we used to kill Zhaitan lay scattered in wreckage amongst rocks destroyed by vines descending and ascending across the craggy environment. The Pact are rummaging through bits of metal and fighting off the surrounding threats as they clamber to gain any ground they can before night falls. The atmosphere has been set; this is no Dragon to be toyed with. Mordremoth won’t be taken down without a fight.
“Commander, we need your help!”
Another area ArenaNet have improved vastly upon in Verdant Brink is the dynamic events. In the core game, dynamic events often feel trivial and sparse. There are too many stories going on in singular events, or in events with one or two steps and it can sometimes be hard to grasp why the NPCs need help with what they’re asking of you. There are a couple of gems in the vanilla maps, such as Harathi’s attack on Ulgoth, which tasks players with gaining ground against the centaurs until they finally take on this leader of the Modniir, but overall some feel like they’ve been added to give players something to do.
Verdant Brink tackles this by giving events distinctive sections with an overarching story. If you find yourself entering the map as dawn breaks, you’ll be tasked with helping Laranthir of the Wild and the sylvari hating charr, Aviator Skybreaker. The dynamic event starts simply: fight off the Mordrem and defend the entrance of the map before leading the awkward duo to the top of ancient ruins to tackle the Mordrem Breacher responsible for the earlier attack. The half a dozen events flow well and keep the action flowing as they lead players to different areas of the map. They tell a coherent story that’s easy to follow, always keeping the ultimate goal in site and the player entertained without dragging on for too long.
While ArenaNet have improved the storytelling and variety of these events, there are still some long standing issues present across them. Events can sometimes feel grindy and drag on for too long without clear context of what to do. Whilst sniping Mordrem high above in ruins or throwing food at a frog trying to convert other frogs to its religion are unique to this map, they last far too long and aren’t clear in their directions of what to do. Often times, comments of “What are we doing?”, or “It’s bugged” filled say chat as players were left without clear visual cues.
One way to tackle problems such as this is more textual or audio clues. Taking the Zintl food throwing event as an example, I would add a bar to the top right corner showing the frustration of the Zintl. Manage to anger him enough? You win the event and your reward is a swift amphibian spear to the face. To add some variety to the event, it would have also been nice if Zintl guards periodically attacked the group punishing them for disturbing their leader. For the sniping event at the ruins, my favourite part of this was the necessary split between the top group sniping the Mordrem and the lower group that CC them to make them vulnerable. Audio clues would help here with Laranthir mentioning that weapons are ineffective until the Mordrem have had CCs used against them. I also felt that more failure needed to be involved if those Mordrem reached the ruins, such as some of the bombs being destroyed. This also would have been a perfect time for either Laranthir or Skybreaker to perform a powerful CC that makes them vulnerable informing players of what to do. Whilst I applaud ANet for creating fresh dynamic events and filling the map with variety, they need to ensure their events are easy to understand or their players will be left frustrated and abandon the event chain.
When night falls, a new set of events appear that intend to change the dynamic of the map. In Colin’s words, the night version of Verdant Brink should feel like a totally different map compared to during the day. I found these events disappointing – they were mostly defend events with scattered champion events across the land. I found a lot of players AFK at spawn waiting for dawn to break during these. They didn’t feel different enough to the core game. Colin mentioned that we have yet to experience all that the night events can offer and what we saw in the first beta weekend was a very early iteration of night, so I look forward to how night has changed in the looming second beta weekend.
What I hope to see is the daytime stories resonate and cascade throughout the night without making failure too punishing so players are inspired to soldier on. For example, if Laranthir and Skybreaker manage to kill the Mordrem Breacher terrorizing the map during the day with the players’ help, then they reconcile their differences. They then defend themselves in the night together as a tightly knit unit moving the Pact camp from the entrance of the map to the ruins where it’s easier to defend. During the downtime, they could have unique dialogue that only plays if the day events succeeded discussing Mordremoth’s attack against the Pact and what it means for sylvari everywhere. Additionally, throwing in some speculations about the old ruin from both Laranthir and Skybreaker’s perspective would help add flavour to the map. If they don’t manage to defeat the Breacher, however, Skybreaker’s distrust grows and she separates her and the team she leads to a Pact camp on the other side of the map leaving Laranthir to deal with the Mordrem Breacher terrorizing the land. Again, unique dialogue here could play where they each reflect on the failure separately. Perhaps we could see a lone Pact sylvari asking for help from Skybreaker’s camp but she is rejected and left to fend for herself during the night, which spawns its own event where players can choose to help her find solace. There’s huge potential with this map in making the players influence the outcome and greatly increase the replay value and variety of the events that spawn. ArenaNet have crafted a fantastic event system that keeps their game fresh, and I hope to see them crank it up for Heart of Thorns.
Overall, Verdant Brink is a huge improvement to the core maps and I’ve only played 25% of one layer. It’s clear ArenaNet have learned and taken feedback into consideration when it comes to storytelling and packing their maps with interesting content. With the upcoming second beta weekend looming closer, I look forward to exploring the next layer of Verdant Brink. Who knows – maybe there’ll be a fancy noble sporting his favourite red underwear again?