on Oct 4, 2012
This is a hard game to cover. I keep making notes of stuff I want to discuss or complain about, but before I can assemble the words we get a patch where the dev team changes just enough to render my comments irrelevant. So I make more notes, it gets patched again, and the cycle repeats. In fact, we got a major patch while I was writing this article.
And then we got another patch an hour later!
About a month ago I made the post complaining about the trading post being down for a whole week, but they managed to fix the thing about an hour before the post went live. So at the risk of writing a couple of thousand words about something that might look completely different or be changed in the next patch, let’s talk about the story mode.
Every character has a set of personal story missions. These are branching things that let you fill in your backstory and get some flavor lore. These quest lines generally converge as you progress through the game.
For example, as a human you can choose the background of street rat, a commoner, a noble. You can also choose a short-term goal for your character: You want to meet your birth parents, you never recovered your sister’s body, or you’ve always wanted to join the circus. Your first couple of quests will settle the background stuff and you’ll meet human faction Hero Logan Thackery. Once you’re friends with him, you’ll move on to the stuff with your short-term goal. From there you’ll converge into a quest line common to all humans, and further on you’ll converge with quests common to all races. (Then it diverges again. It’s complicated.)
In story missions, you’ll run into cutscenes where two characters talk and emote against a static backdrop. This is opposed to doing things the Mass Effect way, where the game tries to arrange the characters in the scene to enact their lines, despite all the ways this might go wrong: Lighting, camera placement, NPC’s standing in the way, actors floating / buried / intersecting with world geometry, props getting in the way, characters not turning and facing one another properly, characters not keeping plausible eye contact because of positioning or radical height differences, immersion problems with the player asking “how did these characters suddenly arrive in this position?” and the ten thousand other things that can go wrong with a scripted cutscene like this, which is one of the reasons these games can get so expensive to produce. By putting everything against an abstract background they free pass for a bunch of stuff that would be dumb or jarring.
The story quests are a pretty good idea. They give you some identity in the world, as opposed to the various NPC’s treating you like a generic nobody. They make sure that you’re up to speed on the lore, so when you get to the end zones you’ll understand what all this crap about risen, dragons, and branded mobs are all about. Sadly, the whole system is a frustrating mess that’s best ignored after level 20. The big problem with the story missions is that they’re…
I probably shouldn’t throw the word “hard” around like that, or we could end up having this argument again. Difficulty is pretty subjective. The problem isn’t that they are too hard or easy, it’s that the difficulty is all over the place. A simple encounter with a bunch of nameless mooks can result in the player getting completely pancaked. Then a climactic battle will end up being a pushover. This is clearly not the intended experience, but I don’t know what the devs did intend. But the way it is now, I tend to notice the quests that flatten me because in this game death leads to expensive equipment repairs.
|Why would I come back later? You’re still going to scale me down to the same damn level, and I’m at the level cap now!|
If you’re having trouble beating a mission, your first instinct might be to simply wait a level or two and come back. That won’t work here. You’re auto-leveled down to the “proper” level for the quest. Now, over-leveling can help. Eventually the stat bonuses from your higher-level gear will give you an edge, but you’ll need to be 10 or 20 levels over the quest before those bonuses make a meaningful difference. And even then, it’s not enough to turn a hard fight into a cakewalk.
It’s entirely possible these variances are due to character class. Maybe this is a tuning problem. I don’t know. But when I do struggle, it’s usually not because the game is demanding a high level of skill from me, it’s because the game is straight-up…
Maybe “unfair” isn’t the right word here. “Cheap” might be a better way to describe how these fights are set up.
This isn’t a game built around “tanks”, “DPS”, and “healers”. No character in this game is supposed to tank a half-dozen guys at once and expect to come out on top. Having said that, some classes are a lot more squishy than others, and a warrior has a much better chance than an elementalist in a close-quarters fight against many foes. Which is a shame, since this is a really common kind of fight in story missions.
The game is not shy about ganking you in cutscenes. You approach a battlefield, and a cutscene takes over. The talking heads talk and the cutscene exits into a scenario where you’re trapped in a small room with five guys in heavy armor. Or maybe you’re in an open field, but you’re somehow two steps from a group of five centaurs, and each centaur has an attack that can stunlock you for three seconds while the others murder you. If you’re a caster, this is pretty much a worst-case scenario.
There are also cases where your foe runs in and is invulnerable while they deliver their mustache-twirling pre-fight taunt. Since he’s an AI and you’re playing over the internet, he’ll get to enter combat mode and tag you at the same time, meaning he gets the first hit, even though he was the one running his mouth. Boo ArenaNet. I boo you so very hard. Bonus points if you unload all your big attacks on him before you notice the “Invulnerable!” message flashing, so when he decides to allow your attacks you’ll be at a disadvantage.
I consider this is be some major cheating shenanigans. If you want Baron Von Bassass to cackle before the fight, do it in the cutscenes.
Now, I’m not against a good challenge, and if you’re going to put something difficult in the game then putting it in the optional story missions is a safe way to go. However, I feel that if you’re looking to test the player’s skill, there needs to be some kind of proportional reward at the end. Here the quests are very…
The XP is nice if you do the quest at the proper level, but there are a lot of ways to get XP in this game, and most of them are less hassle than this. The money and loot are modest or non-existent. Some quests have foes which will never drop loot, ever. Most of the end-of-quest rewards give you one piece of ordinary armor. On one hand, this is a good safety valve to make sure the player has the gear they need. On the other hand, this gear is just shamefully bare minimum, the sort of thing you find and sell by the handful in the open world. If you’re in need of gear, you can get better stuff from a vendor or the trading post for no effort at all.
|This is the reward for fully exploring a single zone in the game. Thirty-six silver is an AMAZING haul. For contrast, I think I SPENT that much doing a dozen story missions.|
Many quests offer no coin as a reward. However, you’ll likely spend coin on travel. Assuming you don’t want to blow twenty minutes hiking around, you’ll want to use fast-travel points on the world map.So you travel to the capital city to begin the quest. Then travel to the field where the quest takes place. On rare occasions, you’ll even travel to a secondary location. Then travel back to the capital to wrap things up. Congratulations, you just blew through four silver and the quest doesn’t pay anything. The end-of-quest-item is going to be worth less that what you spent on travel. You’re working for the Queen of Tryia, and you’re losing money on expenses. This is particularly true if you’re trying to overcome an unfair gotcha fight by out-leveling it, since travel expenses go up as you level, but the quest rewards for the story missions don’t.
(By the way: The economy in this game is really tight. I mean that in the best possible way. Even with a character at the level cap, I still count my coins. A quest reward at level 80 is only worth about six times the reward for a new character. compare this to World of Warcraft where the end game quests pay a thousand or ten thousand times what a newbie makes. I really like this economy where money always matters.)
Things get even worse if you find yourself dying in these quests, since the more you die, the more money you lose, which makes an already bad situation that much worse. To mitigate this risk, you might be tempted to bring a friend. But you might have a hard time finding help, since these quests are…
Designed for solo play
You think the quest is unrewarding for you? Just wait until your guild buddy joins. Your friend will not get the block of XP at the end. They don’t get the money (if there is any) or the one guaranteed item of loot. As far as the game is concerned, they’re not doing a “quest”. They’re just killing the odd mook.
You friend will need to pay to travel to your zone. Then they will sit through a loading screen. Then they watch a cutscene, staring at you and whatever lamebrain NPC you’re working with. Then they help you kill guys. Then more cutscenes and maybe hiking. Maybe more fighting. Then another loading screen to return to the open world.
Your friend will do all of that running around and waiting, and in the end their only reward is the XP and (maybe) loot from killing mooks. They could have gone anywhere in the world and killed mooks for a lot less hassle. Also, mooks in quests seem less likely to drop loot than mooks in the open world, so your friend is really getting screwed.
Maybe your friend will come along just to see your individual story. This would be a bad idea, since the story quests are…
Your mileage may vary, obviously. I’ve only done story missions for Humans and Norn, and even then I’ve only seen a fraction of the available story-branches.
We have friendly arguments in guild chat, trying to decide which particular NPC hero is the most offensively stupid and counter-productive. Logan Thackery is usually the stand-out among the legions of dunces that inhabit the world of Guild Wars 2, but once in a while he’s upstaged by the others. These idiots are a competitive bunch, and I wouldn’t rule any of them out until the end.
Part of the problem is that these cutscenes set the bar higher. The story here isn’t NEARLY as willfully dumb as Champions Online or WoW, where reading the quest text in search of story is like panning for gold in public toilets. But I think it’s natural for expectations to go up once you’ve got a couple of animated, voice-acted characters on screen.
There’s also the problem that, as baffling as it sounds, these quests are really bad at delivering lore and exposition. The game will often throw the names of places or historical events at you without giving you any clue what it’s talking about. These story missions are where that sort of thing needs to go. Instead of teaching me the lore, it feels like the story quests are quizzing me on the lore. Am I supposed to be reading the wiki while I play?
At one point Logan Thackery asked me where I was from, and I had no idea how to answer. I didn’t know what I was choosing or what it meant. Fifty levels later, I still don’t know what a “Canthan” or “Elona” is. They were never mentioned before or since.
Don’t get me wrong. There’s some good worldbuilding here. If we really want to give the game a backhanded compliment, I suppose I’d say the story isn’t bad for an MMO.
The writing works well when you’re knocking around with your in-game friends and family at the start, but as the backdrop becomes more epic the writing gradually seems more absurd in comparison. It begins as a bit campy, melodramatic, but generally harmless. But once you begin working with your faction’s hero, you will gradually come to hate them and their supreme stupidity.
If you do the missions at the proper level they’re a great way to make a large block of XP, and only a modest expense. If you wait, then the XP is worth less and the cost to do them is much higher. This would suggest that the best way to do story missions is to do each one as it becomes available. However, that means waiting for a level or two between each mission, which is really goofy because the quests are chained together. You’re often rushing to prevent an attack, or trying to uncover a plot, or running to the defense of someone. Having to go level up before you can save the orphanage from being burned down… Well, okay, that’s a pretty common thing in RPG games. But still.
I know I’ve hammered away at this stuff for 2,500 words now, but I want to stress that the story missions aren’t horrible. They’re less dumb than typical MMO fare and less stilted than the “kill ten womp rats” stuff in The Old Republic. It’s just that they’re just an oddly flawed system in a game that otherwise has a ton of polish and carefully considered mechanics.
At this point I’d usually make some suggestions, but I really can’t tell what ArenaNet is going for here. Is this supposed to be a group thing, but they forgot to give your buddies a reward? Is it supposed to be hard but they forgot to give you a reason to go to all that trouble? Is it supposed to be easy but the level designer just got a little too trigger-happy with the mook spam? Are these for giving the player a personal stake in the world, but they didn’t realize how badly two-hour breaks can disrupt a story? Are these for delivering lore, but someone forgot to fill in the blanks?
I don’t know. Given the care that went into the rest of the game, it’s odd to see a system so off-kilter that I can’t even tell what they were trying to do.
Shamus Young is an old-school OpenGL programmer, author, and composer. He runs this site and if anything is broken you should probably blame him.