“In some cases, we went way outside the box,” says Johanson. “It’s definitely trying to create a wider variety of roles for players in combat and with their profession.”
Only one specialisation will be available per profession in the expansion, but—as with masteries—this is now the template for adding to Guild Wars 2 as a whole. “Every decision we made, and the entire reason we made this expansion,” Johanson says, “was so that, when this expansion releases, we have the framework. We have the pillars we need so that we can regularly grow the game in the future.”
“It needs character progression to keep that possible,” says O’Brien, “so you can evolve your characters—even though you’re max level, and even though you’ve got the best gear in the game—and learn the skills and abilities you need to take on new content that you can’t take on yet. This expansion pack is all about laying the groundwork; the features that we need in place so that we can build that new character progression and new challenging content for years to come.”
Heart of Thorns’ new areas are designed to offer some of the most difficult events that ArenaNet has yet produced. Regular players can get some idea of what to expect from the Silverwastes—an experimental zone added late last year as part of the Living World storyline. It introduced a new enemy type—the Mordrem—that specialised in crowd control, and a layered event cycle made up of multiple stages. ArenaNet sees Silverwastes as a test run for some of the expansion’s ideas, and plans to take things even further in the new zones.
In the demo, I took part in a multiple-stage event on the jungle floor. Mordrem forces were harassing a pact outpost, and I was tasked with helping to clear them out. Players organised into numerous related roles—killing enemies, planting bombs and providing sniper cover from a cliffside vantage point. These parallel tasks are designed to keep events varied across multiple attempts, yet still form a cohesive objective across the event as a whole.
With the Mordrem dispatched, I was sent off to fight the Wyvern—a new legendary tier boss. Guild Wars 2’s boss design has become far more complex over time, going from simple challenges like Shadow Behemoth and Shatterer to the more involved Twisted Marionette and reworked Tequatl. The Wyvern seems like a natural progression of that trend. His napalm-like fire breath stuck to the metal platform my group was fighting on, reducing our battleground. As we failed to stun him at a crucial moment, he took off—flying overhead and laying down strips of fire, thus dividing us and making it difficult to resurrect downed players. It was a tough fight, and all the better for it.
As this is a Guild Wars 2 expansion, dragons are at the centre of Heart of Thorns. Specifically, an elder dragon called Mordremoth. At the end of the Living World updates he was revealed as the original creator of the Sylvari – the game’s playable plant race. In the opening cutscene, it’s revealed that many Sylvari turned to Mordremoth’s side when they entered the jungle. It’s a new direction for the story to take. Previously, the game’s sense of cooperation and togetherness bordered on saccharine. Now, mistrust and suspicion are rife.
It’s not yet clear how strong the dragon’s control is over the race, nor how it will affect the way Sylvari players are treated. “It’s been fun for us, because before we even made Sylvari that was the plan,” says Isaiah Cartwright, lead designer. “The narrative we want to tell is that there is almost a racism in the game now... people don’t know which Sylvari is good and bad, and that naturally makes everyone think all Sylvari are bad. Being a Sylvari while navigating that is really fun.”
More than ever, Guild Wars 2’s story will be venturing out of instances. Even Heart of Thorns’ new profession, the Revenant, is tied deeply to the game’s lore. A heavy armour class, the Revenant works by channelling the spirit of legends—historic figures who will be recognisable to players of the first Guild Wars. There are five legends available, and you can switch between them much like the Elementalist switches between elements. The difference is that legends are more than just a power set. They have a personality, too.
The demo provided two such legends and both offered a dramatically different playstyle, changing the healing, utility and elite skills. Taking the power of jovial dwarf king Jalis Ironhammer, I gained more survivability options, more support options and, more crucially than either, giant floating hammers that rotated violently around my character. The other legend, the demon Mallyx the Unyielding, was entirely different. His focus is on status effects, and the more I collected, the more damage my character could output. Even healing works on this principle—providing HP based on the number of conditions my character was carrying. It’s a new way of playing that encourages tactically taking damaging debilities.
Heart of Thorns will also introduce a new Guild Hall system, and new PvP and world-versus-world maps. There are plenty of bullet points in its feature list, but the reason I’m excited is that this expansion lays the foundation for the game’s future. For ArenaNet, it’s not just about the next year of the game’s life, but about the next two, three, four years and beyond. If all goes well, we’re about to enter the next era of Guild Wars 2’s development. As someone approaching 500 hours in its existing incarnation, I couldn’t be happier.