Guild Wars 2's next update tackles big questions while adding a deadly new zone

The Guild Wars 2 of today isn't Guild Wars 2 that launched in 2012. Changed by the “Living World” system, many areas of the game bear little resemblance to their original designs. Entire cities have been leveled by monsters, zones nuked and entirely redesigned, and many game systems have evolved and expanded over the years. Right now, Guild Wars 2 is as good as it’s ever been.

Last year's Path of Fire was a much better expansion than Heart of Thorns, changing things in a meaningful way through the introduction of mounts and new specializations. Compared to other Episodes this Season, A Star to Guide Us, is a sizeable update: Not only does it continue pushing the story forward, but it also includes a large, brand new open-world map named Jahai Bluffs, a new raid, new Elegy armor set, a customizable hideout known as Sun’s Refuge, a new mount-focused mastery, and a brand new Legendary scepter called Xiuquatl.

This story contains some spoilers for Guild Wars 2's story.

I hate spiders 

Season 4 of the Living World story takes place immediately after the defeat of the God of Fire Balthazar. His power was transferred to Aurene, a tiny little baby dragon, and Kralkatorrik, a 1,000-foot tall Elder Crystal Dragon with a wingspan so large it can block out the sun. He’s literally a big deal.

The past few episodes have built up the tensions between the various factions and this episode kicks off with the player overseeing a meeting. Specifically about what Aurene’s continued maturation means to the people of Tyria. How will a dragon raised by humans act? Does she recognize the player and other friendly characters as allies? It’s a tricky situation that’s never been dealt with before now.

At the beginning of my hands-on preview, we headed into a cave overrun with monsters. It all feels very much like existing story missions in Guild Wars 2, but the banter between the NPCs makes the routine cave crawl a lot more fun. Cutting through hordes of eight-legged freaks is a lot more entertaining with the big, brawny Nord in the group is whining about his fear of spiders and their webs. At one point we walked into a room littered with spider eggs and the anxiety in his voice was palpable. 

Before long we were faced with the first boss fight of this section of the episode, a massive mama spider—like there was any other option. Once we did enough damage she webbed us up and carried all of us across the map to different sections of the cave—all the while Braham, the arachnophobic Nord, screamed like a small child. 

Eventually Aurene the baby dragon appeared and shortly afterwards the cave was overrun with 'branded' enemies, creatures corrupted by big, bad Kralkatorrik’s breath. At this point a familiar face appeared that I'm not going to spoil for you, but fans of Guild Wars will be very excited to see this character back in action. Following that event was another boss fight, but this time against a Branded Riftstalker that unleashed hell through area-of-effect attacks that required carefully timed dodge rolls to evade. 

Even though this wasn't a major encounter, it did a great job of showing off why Guild Wars 2's combat is still so much fun. Its emphasis on mobility still makes it stand out in a genre filled with idle, World of Warcraft-style combat.

A place to call home 

Following another series of events that I don't want to spoil, the party travelled to Sun’s Refuge, a hub town inside of the Jahai Bluffs. I was surprised by just how large the village turned out to be once I upgraded and unlocked its various subzones. It’s so large, in fact, that it has multiple entrances to the Jahai Bluffs, which means it can be used as a sort of hub to travel between the Bluffs' various areas.

Every player has access to their own unique instance of the Sun’s Refuge hideout and you can invite your friends into your version to see what they've unlocked. Many of the NPCs who reside here are more than just idle ornaments, too. For example, I played a cute game of hide-and-seek with one of them. Another one let me build a duelling arena where I could challenge friends that I had invited to my version of Sun's Refuge to some friendly combat. It's these little touches that really make Sun's Refuge a distinctive and fun place to hang out in between forays into the Bluffs.

Danger on the Bluff 

The relative safety of Sun’s Refuge is short-lived. I was soon thrust back into the dangerous wilderness of Jahai Bluffs, which is a purple-and-black-soaked corrupted desert hellscape overflowing with extremely hostile creatures. My guide from ArenaNet was dead set on showing me a swirling tornado of magical energy that roams around the map in real time, but given the nature of open world game design, it wasn't nearby.

So I hop on the back of my floating manta ray-style mount and we set off. I glide over groups of enemies with each chance I get and try out the new mastery, Bond of Vigor, which boosts my mount’s endurance regeneration to hopefully withstand a bit more damage.

Once we finally get to the tornado it was well worth the journey. When you hit the center of it, the swirling energy whips you upwards as your character spins around uncontrollably. At the peak of the vortex it spits you out high above the map giving you a great chance to pop out your glider and collect the magical balls of energy peppering the sky. You wind up so high in the air, in fact, that you’d die immediately if you fell to the ground… which is what I did eventually. 

For the PvE players, A Star to Guide Us really seems to have a bit of everything. We didn’t get to try out the new raid, Mythwright Gambit, which takes place inside the Mystic Forge itself, but everything else from the new zone, dynamic world events, evolving story, and customizable Sun’s Refuge are beefy additions to an already year-old expansion.

Living World Season 4 Episode 4: A Star to Guide Us is out now.