Perhaps more than ever, the pressure is on for ArenaNet to deliver with Guild Wars 2's next expansion, End of Dragons, due out next month. The ending of the game's last "Living World" season of story updates was maligned by the community for feeling too rushed—hurrying and sometimes discarding story beats that had been built up over the last couple of years.
There's a real need, then, for ArenaNet to show that the shift away from whatever the Icebrood Saga was originally intended to be was worth it—for this third expansion to make players excited for what the future of Guild Wars 2 might hold. Ahead of End of Dragons' release I got a chance to find out if it will. A hands-on session offered a whirlwind tour of a of few new areas and activities, including an event chain in one of the new maps, and a peek at the new guild hall—located on the island of Guild Wars 1's concluding story mission, The Final Confrontation, where players defeated the leader of Cantha's Ministry of Purity.
It's all promising, but as a longtime player, it's hard to get a sense of how these activities will feed into the game's larger systems. Fishing is a fun pastime, but how will it tie into the longer term loop of collections and crafting? A Siege Turtle-centric public event is a fun new challenge, but will the structure of map currencies and rewards keep players coming back for years to come?
Arguably, then, the most meaningful thing I got to experience was one of End of Dragons' new Strike Missions—an example of the instanced, end game challenge that ArenaNet is betting on for this expansion. Introduced during The Icebrood Saga season, Strike Missions are 10-player encounters that offer players a short-form, raid-like experience. Most are based around a single fight: a boss with a handful of mechanics to overcome.
The Strike Mission I played—one of the easier ones available in the expansion—feels grander than its predecessors. For one, it ties in more neatly to Guild Wars' ongoing story, featuring the return of Living World Season 1's Mai Trin. This in itself came as something of a relief. I wasn't a Guild Wars 1 player, so I was concerned that an expansion based in that game's Canthan region would be filled with fan service I had no connection to. But Mai Trin is a nod to Guild Wars 2's own past, a character that briefly terrorised Lion's Arch before disappearing into the Mists. Over the years, the game has left plenty of hanging story threads, and the focus on this character in particular is a sign that End of Dragons is planning to pay some off.
More than just story beats, though, the mission itself feels like a refinement of Guild Wars 2's instanced combat. This is an MMO that, at its core, is about movement and positioning, and the game's best bosses embrace that. Mai Trin's basic attacks are a patchwork of AoE patterns, and on top are a selection of greatest hits familiar to long term players. AoEs will target and follow each player, forcing the entire team to separate to avoid taking multiple hits. There's the green AoE field that players have to stack on to share out the damage. There's a variation of the Fractal flux bomb, that needs to be taken away from the group to avoid dropping a massive damage-over-time field on top of your party. There's bullet hell orbs and phantoms that require crowd control skills to defeat. But on top of these returning standards, there's the sense that ArenaNet has thought about the personality of the people you're fighting, and also created a selection of new attacks to fit.
It's hard to get a sense of the Mai Trin mission's difficulty—in the demo we had invincibility so we could see the full fight, and to avoid spending time ensuring we had a good distribution of roles. But in terms of pure stuff happening, it feels closer to the current Whisper of Jormag mission—the one most likely to cause a PUG to wipe. As the fight progresses, multiple attack mechanics stack on top of each other—the final phase resembling a dance of dodges and quick thinking as players stack, separate and come together for a quick burst of damage. And again: this is the easiest of the current crop, with an additional challenge mode to make it harder still.
"We’ve taken the feedback on Icebrood Saga Strike Missions to heart," says Cameron Rich, senior game designer at ArenaNet. "We’re focusing more on mechanics that cannot be easily ignored, simplifying the reward process, and providing an increased difficulty option in the form of challenge mode." It feels like ArenaNet has learned from how players now complete Strike Missions like Boneskinner, which are ostensibly difficult, but made easier by a ten-person party's ability to simply outheal its central mechanic. This new set of Strike Missions are designed with puzzles that can't be brute forced. You either learn the mechanics, or you wipe.
Some of the game's current crop of Strike Missions are longer and less focused. In one, Forging Steel, players take control of a Charr Warband escorting a tank across a large map full of challenges and activities. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it's also the one that full clear groups always skip. For End of Dragons, then, ArenaNet is focusing on the core of what Strike Missions should be: single boss encounters that require skill to learn. "The End of Dragons Strike Missions each have unique elements that let them clearly stand apart from each other, and each Strike Mission focuses on a single unique encounter," says Rich. "This allows our development team to hone their craft in creating satisfying bosses with a variety of mechanics, and for players to display their skill in taking them down."
As someone who's spent plenty of time in the game's current Strike Missions, I'm confident the Mai Trin fight was better than any of them. But the gamble for ArenaNet is that Strike Missions are an attractive proposition for returning and new players, especially given the prestige most MMOs place on full raids. "Compared to Raids, Strike Missions offer fun and engaging encounters that players can tackle even if they only have an hour of time to play for a day," says Rich. "We believe in that accessibility, and think that the End of Dragons iteration of the game mode builds on the strengths of the game mode while showcasing the lessons we’ve learned."
It's an attitude that certainly fits with Guild Wars 2's more accessible design, and I do appreciate an end game activity that doesn't take an entire evening to slog through. Clearly, then, Strike Missions are the focus right now, but Guild Wars 2's history is littered with end game instanced content types—dungeons, fractals and raids among them—some abandoned, others that have gone without an addition or update in some time. Will Strike Missions be Guild Wars 2's de facto instanced end game going forward?
"For End of Dragons, our focus is on levelling up the Strike Mission experience for players," says Rich. "We aim to make sure they are the vehicle through which we can bring high quality, new end-game content. In that way you could say Strikes have the spotlight on them right now in Guild Wars 2. That said, we don’t view any of our instanced content as 'de facto' for end game players by any means."
That suggests fractals and maybe even raids could still get some more love in the future. For now, though, I'm happy with what I played. I can't talk about everything I experienced, but this single boss fight had more surprises and personality than anything I've seen from the game's instanced content in some time. If ArenaNet can maintain that level of quality and spectacle throughout, then Strike Missions could be reason alone for MMO fans to check out End of Dragons.