Along with our group-selected 2015 Game of the Year Awards, each member of the PC Gamer staff has independently chosen one game to commend as one of the year's best.
I'm on a break from Heart of Thorns at the moment. In any other MMO, that would be considered a failing. As a genre, the business model almost demands that players be constantly playing. If they ever try to leave the rollercoaster, they might decide to unsubscribe. Or, if it's a free-to-play MMO (which is to say pretty much all of them) they might not become so infuriated by the lack of some basic quality-of-life feature that they'll spend money in the microtransaction store. That, I assume, must be the thinking behind some MMOs' monetisation schemes.
Not that Guild Wars 2 is grind free (source: any of its seasonal events) but the meat of the product feels like it's designed for people who don't want to make a lifelong commitment to a single game. Before the release of Heart of Thorns I had a couple of max-level characters, each with a full set of very good gear. After the release of Heart of Thorns, I had the same max-level characters, each with a full set of still very good gear. With no additional levels or tiers of loot, there's no pressure to keep up with some new power curve that threatens to leave me behind. It's the chillest MMO I've ever played.
So far, this has mostly been about me not playing Heart of Thorns. I also enjoy it when I am playing it. The expansion restructures Guild Wars 2 in a variety of clever ways, and provides a sort of natural, localised progression that isn't tied to making your character's number be a slightly higher number. It also doubles down on the effortless event system, rewarding ad-hoc cooperation between players. Each new map has its own distinct meta-event, funnelling people from individual activities towards huge, collaborative challenges.
There's a fun sense of anticipation as you build towards an event's end and wonder whether or not this will be a successful run. For some, the sense of missing out on completion is a frustrating waste of time, especially when success isn't tied to individual performance. I kind of like it. I get oodles of achievements from singleplayer games—most of them bend over backwards to make me feel like Dr. Great, Chief Physician of Being Swell. Guild Wars 2 is a reminder that, just like everyone else, I'm an ultimately insignificant speck in a world that doesn't care—barely in charge of my own destiny, let alone that of anything large-scale or important. In a nice way, that's also fun.
Ultimately, Heart of Thorns feels like what an MMO should be: hundreds of players working together towards a common goal. It's amazing how many games in the genre still don't do this—that seemingly encourage you to see other players as background actors, or active inconveniences. It's getting much better nowadays, but massively muliplayer is still too synonymous with small groups and instances.
Buying into Heart of Thorns means you're also buying into all of its subsequent content updates. I enjoyed Guild Wars 2's living story stuff, and I'm looking forward to seeing what form it takes within the expansion. (Admittedly, I will probably never do the raid, but it's nice that it's there.) Heart of Thorns brings a modular design to Guild Wars 2, making it easy to see how future expansions would fit neatly into the game. It adds loads to do, and the possibility of loads more in the coming months and years. But it's also happy to let you go at your own pace—to enjoy dropping in to an event chain safe in the knowledge that you'll gain progress no matter what you choose to do.