Guild Wars 2 is different to other MMOs. It favours public events over NPC quests, giving its community an incentive to work together. It makes it easy and painless to group with friends, and rewards people for adventuring through zones below their character’s natural level. It experiments with open-world design to create fights against monsters so big they fill your monitor. It even destroyed its capital city as part of a two-year chain of updates that spawned new landmarks, harder challenges and more complex and collaborative events.
Heart of Thorns is Guild Wars 2’s first expansion, and it’s different too. It adds a new region—the Heart of Maguuma—and new enemies, bosses and events. More than that, it marks the beginning of the next phase of Guild Wars 2’s development. It introduces systems that will be expanded on throughout its life. “This is not ‘hey, wouldn’t it be fun to do an expansion pack? Let’s throw in some features,’” says ArenaNet president Mike O’Brien. “This is us thinking about what Guild Wars needs to continue to grow and evolve for years to come.”
There’s a traditional template for an MMO expansion: an increased level cap, new tiers of gear, and a dramatic shift to the economy that often results in a community abandoning old zones and dungeons in favour of new, more rewarding content. ArenaNet hopes to avoid this by introducing an entirely separate system of progression. Heart of Thorns won’t raise the level 80 limit. Instead, players journeying through the jungle will earn ‘masteries’—a set of specifically tailored upgrades designed to help them through the new events.
Some masteries enable passive buffs that boost defence against the expansion’s new enemies. Others enable characters to learn ancient languages in order to find and unlock hidden locations. In the demo I played, I chose something more immediately gratifying: the hang glider. Heart of Thorns’ maps will be more vertical than any previous zone. Each will feature three biomes: the floor, the roots and the canopy. The hang glider lets you smoothly soar between sections, although in the demo, the playable area was too small to get a sense for its scope. Nevertheless, anyone who’s ever faceplanted after a jumping puzzle attempt should welcome the ability.
Not all of the masteries are limited to the new zones, either. The build of Heart of Thorns that I played included two potential game-wide bonuses: one that enabled precursor weapon crafting and another that provided buffs and extra rewards in Fractal dungeons. “We really think of the masteries system as the endgame progression system for Guild Wars 2,” says Crystin Cox, monetisation lead. “It’s not just about the Heart of Maguuma. There’s a whole bunch of land and content that’s already there.
“We really do want you to feel like masteries is what endgame progression is about,” he adds, “and we also wanted to make sure it didn’t feel like we were leaving behind that part of Tyria. It’s still important and it’s still got great content in it. We wanted to add more reasons to go back and experience that again. We definitely wanted to make sure [masteries] felt global.”
Maximum-level players will also have the opportunity to choose a specialisation. Each profession will provide a different specialisation option, and choosing it will enable the player to unlock a new set of combat abilities designed to significantly alter and expand their class. “We’re trying to make it feel like it’s almost a sub-profession or a secondary profession, if you will, and not just a new set of a couple of skills,” game director Colin Johanson tells me. “Their profession mechanic changes as well.”
So far, the only publicly revealed specialisation is the Ranger’s possible transformation into a Druid. Picking it will let the player equip the ranged fighter with a staff, giving them plant-based attacks. The idea is to expand each profession’s role, giving them extra utility in combat.