On the Path of Fire

Last Friday at around 6pm Prague time, Path of Fire, the latest expansion for Guild Wars 2 went live. As you can probably tell from my use of an exact local time, I was there, en route to the Crystal Desert as fast as my little virtual legs would carry me.

What was it like?

Very enjoyable. I played the necromancer I got boosted to level 80 when I bought the expansion. I picked the class for survivability and because it seemed thematically appropriate to a desert land with a high undead population, although to be fair that description applies to a lot of places in Tyria. (I am looking at you, Orr.) Around 6pm fireworks started to go off and the player population of Lion’s Arch began a New Year style countdown and then it was time to look in my story journal, have a quick chat with one of the local councillors and head off to Elona in a borrowed airship.

The opening instance saw me locked in combat with the Herald of the fire god Balthazar and a plethora of his mechanical-magical minions, the Forged. It is a confession of my un-leetness that I found some of them pretty tough but my small army of undead minions earned their keep and kept me alive. I also picked up my first mount, the raptor and headed out into the Free City of Amnoon where I was swept into the currents of local politics. It was brawls with the undead reps of Palawa Joko in the local casino (shades of Casablanca), interviews with refugees fleeing the warzones and swift involvement with local politicos who seemed suspiciously keen to take advice from an unknown outlander. It was atmospheric, involving and a lot of fun.

I like the look of Elona. It’s a mixture of Arabian Nights, Arrakis, ancient Egypt and Ur. It has heft and a certain monumentality. The music was great. The monsters felt a little over tough at times. I’m not sure whether it was because they often came along in great numbers, the fact I am not used to them or some combination of the above.

Time and again, my initial choice of necromancer proved its worth. My overworked minions kept me alive in the teeth of a small army of firebreathing hydra when I stumbled into the valley that was quite clearly their breeding ground. I facerolled my way through encounters with Forged warbands and sandsharks and all manner of strange creatures that called the desert their home– at least they did until I killed them. There were lots of escort quests, protect the refugees stuff and quite possibly the most annoying quest I have ever encountered in an MMO. I’ll get back to that later.

The political setup, as it often does in GW2, seems oddly familiar. There’s war between powerful factions in which displaced civilian populations are pawns and victims. There’s a local political scene where nobody seems to quite know what to do and everybody blames everybody else. The real world echoes are obvious but they make the events of this surprisingly alien world quite graspable.

In gameplay terms, the most immediately evident thing is the new mount system. Like everybody else with the expansion I was soon speeding around on a raptor and I’ve encountered mantas and those giant bunny things that some people probably find cute but which fill me with an urge to unload my gunfighter thief’s pistols into them. (Sorry, bunny lovers everywhere.)

I’ve heard some people complain about the raptor’s handling. It does not move just like your character avatar, only faster, which is the way mounts work in most games. It has inertia, responds to commands with some delay and in general feels a bit like a real-world riding beast. This makes accidents almost inevitable but it gives a frisson of realism to riding along a cliff edge on a half ton meat machine. The ArenaNet people have said they wanted to do mounts differently, and they have succeeded. They’ve also continued the tradition they started in Heart of Thorns where unlocking a mastery on one character lets you use it on all. I’ve spent a fair amount of time lumbering around central Tyria on mine as I level my aforementioned gunfighter thief.

The icy far north presents no obstacles to my intrepid raptor

I am in no position to comment on the other big gameplay innovation of the expansion, the new elite classes and I doubt I am going to be for months. I will probably still be struggling away trying to get the mastery point for being a sous-chef in the kitchens in Amnoon. This is the quest of supreme annoyingness I mentioned earlier. It’s one of those ones where you have to indenture yourself to a sneering master chef who sends you running around the kitchen collecting ingredients that you have to toss to him. When you inevitably fail, you are treated to more sneers, and most annoyingly, a rerun of the introductory abuse session on a semi-random basis. I normally don’t mind these things, I just switch my brain into neutral and repeat them until I have memorised patterns and object placements but this one added a not-so-new wrinkle.

A few times I managed to get all the objects tossed with time to spare and still I was failed. This might be a clever satire on the futility of this type of questing but it seems more likely to me that the quest might be bugged. It’s possible as something so simple as a bit of lag letting me think I have more time left than I actually do. In any case, I eventually gave up in disgust.

Also on the downside, there were one or two of the usual glitches you expect when you try a new expansion– log-in server failures, getting unexpectedly booted by the game client and so on. Perhaps more seriously, my computer, which runs basic GW2 and Heart of Thorns with nary a problem, struggled with the graphics of Path of Fire. It may be the heat haze effects or the sand drifting everywhere, but I often found my frame rates dropping into the teens. I’ve never had them anything less than around 30 anywhere else in the game. Recently, frame rates are back to normal so it may have been something with the code in the client itself which has since been rectified, or it could have been just the sheer number of players in the starting zones initially slowing things down. In any case, I’m glad to see performance return to normal.

So that was it, a smooth fun launch to an interesting expansion. I’m looking forward to seeing more.

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