Patch Notes came under fire on the forums for spoilerizing the previous Episode, which, of course, many people who haven't bought Heart of Thorns already own but have yet to play.
I'm kind of wary about discussing the entire storyline myself. If you're even marginally invested in the plotline that's been meandering through GW2 for the life of the game (and which digs its roots increasingly deep into the lore and story of the original Guild Wars) there are quite a few *gasp* moments and a lot of laugh-out-louds. I enjoyed all of them and I wouldn't want to weaken their impact for anyone else with a few off-hand references.
Sticking to safer ground then, I am very pleased to report that Episode 2 is at least as good as Episode 1 and that they're both better than any episode of Living Story 2. The writing seems tighter, sharper, more focused and less mawkish than it sometimes became in LS2. There's still the odd spurt of self-indulgence but I found those quite forgivable.
The voice acting is especially noteworthy. I've been listening to a lot of MMO voice acting of late, particularly in DCUO and WoW and I have a whole post on the topic mulling over in the back of my mind. Let's just say for now that GW2 has the lead on either of those by some distance when it comes to intonation, expression, appropriate matching of voice and visuals and, most especially, in line reading.
Back in the summer I played through Episode 1 on my female Asura Elementalist. She's 85% Berserker specced which made for something of a white-knuckle ride through the fighty-fighty parts. Bearing that in mind, this time I went with my Charr Ranger.
I was somewhat apprehensive to hear him speak because the voice actor who did all the male player-character Charr voicework from launch to the end of LS2 wasn't available to do the new stuff. I don't generally like my characters being voiced, preferring the Silent Protagonist model of The Secret World, but I'd gotten very used to how my Charr Ranger, the first character I made after launch and my first Level 80, sounded.
Well, the new guy did a great job. At worst it sounds as though maybe my Charr had a bit of a heavy night of it - he's a bit gruffer and a bit deeper - but it's very comfortably the same character talking. Rytlock, of course, remains the star of any show he's in and Taimi is her usual amusing, insufferable, endearing self.
It was a great pleasure listening to all of them along with the other regular supporting cast and new faces but any more detail would be running into spoiler territory. The strange thing about spoilers is that even saying something doesn't happen or someone isn't present can be a spoiler in itself so best just not mention it.
Away from the main storyline there's the not-insignificant matter of a whole new explorable map. And it is a whole map! Not a quarter of a map, like the first installment of Dry Top, nor a bijou maplet like Bloodstone Fen. No, Ember Bay is a full-on, full-feature, full-size full new map in the tradition and scale of the maps that launched with the game.
I spent several hours last night exploring it and I haven't opened it all yet, let alone achieved map completion. It's primarily a volcanic zone (every MMO has to have at least one) but there's some biome diversity, with an extensive littoral and some green foliage areas. Travel is possible by land and air (and sea if you really want, although the undersea seems to be mostly undeveloped) but gliding is definitely favored.
There seems to be a ton of things to do in Ember Bay. Hearts (the original GW2 quest hub analog) make a somewhat controversial return. I really never thought we see them again and I was surprised by how nice it felt to have them back. I hope this means they'll be a part of the next expansion too.
There are umpteen dynamic events in the classical style and some chains that end with big ticket fights. I did two of those that concluded with a huge Ancient Chest ground drop similar to what appears at the downing of a core Tyria World Boss and they did feel a lot more like that model than the Marionnette/Vinewraith open raid style we've been educated to expect.
Indeed, if anything, a return to basics appears to be the theme of this new map. It doesn't discard the innovations and directional shifts of the last couple of years but neither does it ignore the game's heritage and established successes. So far I like it a lot.
There's a fair variety of creatures to fight and interact with. Skritt and Asura feature strongly, which is always a bonus. There are Karka, which generally isn't.
It was very interesting fighting all the various kinds of creatures solo with the same character. The storyline (extremely mild spoiler coming up...) goes quite strong on the toughness and danger of the new creatures to be found in Ember Bay but I found those to be pretty straightforward. As usual it was the blasted Karka that posed a serious threat.
There was certainly no difficulty exploring and participating in the mayhem, not for a ranger at least. How my Elementalist will get on there remains to be seen. I was thinking of re-speccing her anyway...
On a first trip I'd say Ember Bay is a very welcome addition to the game and I hope it presages more opening of the existing map rather than the addition of previously unsuspected pockets. The story is rolling along nicely. I'm intrigued to find out what comes next.
All in all this does feel like a substantial update at last, one that compares not unfavorably with the kind of content drops other MMOs get every two or three months. If you add in the substantial changes to Fractals and a complete new sPvP map then there's really no arguing that this is a significant addition to the game.
Here's hoping for another just like it in November, where it would sit neatly between Halloween and Wintersday, giving us something to get stuck into for every month of the rest of the year. And how about some hard information on that second Expansion?
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