on Oct 17, 2012
A while back I talked about how infuriatingly stupid the faction heroes are in Guild Wars 2. I was referring to the story missions, but looking back I realize their really offensive behavior isn’t in the personal quest line, it’s in the dungeons. Their erratic and obnoxious behavior is a side-effect of an overarching problem that plagues Guild Wars 2, which is that the dungeons are awful.
The conventional wisdom is that the dungeons are “too hard”. I hate to say that without qualifiers, because the game is in such an extreme state of flux. Three weeks ago the Ascalonian Catacombs were brutally unfair and senselessly hard. Then I played through it again a couple of nights ago and it had been changed and it was basically tolerable now.
On October 5th, 2012 I got together with this party:
|Some of us are naked because our armor has broken from repeated deaths. There’s a cap on how much repairs can cost, so it’s more economical to wait until you’ve got multiple damaged items before fixing them.|
We had an enjoyably miserable time running face-first into the wall-shaped difficulty spikes, and as part of this bonding experience we all agreed that we should write about it. Here was our group, from left to right:
Jarenth – Level 69 Charr Engineer
Hoffenbachager – Level 80 Norn Mesmer
Myself – Level 80 Human Warrior
JPH – Level 80 Asura Warrior
Krellen – Charr Engineer, later swapped for level 42 Norn Guardian (pictured)
Click on them to read their thoughts on why the dungeon system is broken. Everyone has a slightly different take on it, and they all make for an interesting read. They do a pretty good job of outlining why the dungeon was broken, stupid and unfair, and why most of us aren’t wearing pants, so I’m not going to go over all of that again.
Welcome to the Dungeon
A lot of character classes get special abilities: Knock foes down, knock them back, or lock them in place. (In MMO lingo, these sorts of things are called “crowd control”.) You can also lower their combat effectiveness with powers that blind them, weaken them, bleed them, confuse them, slow their use of special abilities, and other attacks that don’t impact their hitpoints directly. (These are called condition damage.) The problem is that there’s no real reason to mess around with these tricks in the open world. It’s usually just faster to charge in and kill them with direct damage.
There’s also a whole mechanic built around combo fields. This is where one player uses a power that creates a field which can be triggered by another player. Maybe you put some hoodoo that sets a group of monsters on fire. If an ally uses a blast power inside of that field, then all allies in the area will gain might. There are a ton of field effects and lots of powers to trigger them. In open world questing, this usually only happens by accident.
Okay, welcome to the dungeon. You’re here with four of your friends, and it’s time to get a feel for the nuances of your class. Learn about the other classes in the game and discover how your powers might compliment each other. Practice using crowd control, condition damage, and combo fields. There’s a lot to learn here. Let’s jump in:
What the hell!?! This thing is hitting me for half my health! I’m down! Can you – thanks… I need to get clear – I’m down again. What? Where is all this damage coming from? Fire? Are there traps in here? There are traps everywhere? Yes, I’m trying to dodge, but I’m always out of stamina! Grrr. I’m still poisoned? Yeah, I’m trying to knock this guy down, but he’s immune. I’ll try blind. No, he’s hitting me anyway. We could… nevermind, I’m down again. Forget it, that pounce attack just one-shotted me. I’m dead. I guess everyone is too.
This would be a great time to learn all about the crowd control and condition effects, but most foes are immune to that stuff. This would be a good time to learn some teamwork, but you’re saddled with a brain-dead AI companion like Logan Thackery who will talk big in the cutscenes and then Leeroy Jenkins into a fight and die horribly, leaving you to deal with a room full of enraged monsters. This might be a good time to learn to coordinate your attacks and play around with combo fields, but the screen is a maelstrom of particle effects, floor circles, damage numbers, and swarming movement so you can’t tell if you’re doing it right or if it makes any difference.
And you’re still in the first fifteen minutes. Of the very first dungeon.
Lack of Coherent Challenge
|This is what? Who hit me? What’s happening? What are all these little red icons beside everyone’s name? Who designed this mess and why am I still playing it?|
Some people claim that the dungeons are too hard. This is true. The problem is that they are also too easy. Many fights have a waypoint nearby, so you can respawn and run back to rejoin the fight. The only way you can lose is if the entire party gets wiped, which will cause the boss to reset. As long as one person is still standing, your steady stream of respawning players will eventually bring him down. Your equipment breaks when you die, and those constant repairs can get expensive.
The problem isn’t just that some dungeons are too hard, it’s that their underlying mechanics aren’t designed to encourage or reward interesting play. The extreme difficulty is actually masking a more fundamental flaw, which is that these fights aren’t testing for a particular level of power, skill, or gear. There’s no thrill to victory, since anyone can win a fight when they get infinite respawns. When you die, it’s no clear what you did wrong, how you could get better, or what the game expects of you.
This is singularly unsatisfying gameplay. It’s like the old coin-op arcade games where you could continue by inserting more coin, only in this case you’re using the coins to pay for equipment repairs. Or, to swipe Jarenth’s much-better analogy, it’s like a version of BioShock where the splicers hit for 3/4 of your health, but you can still endlessly restart at the vita-chamber. The only way you can lose is if you get bored or frustrated enough to quit.
|Question: Why am I paying an anvil to repair my gear? Better question: Why is our cloth-armor elementalist paying an anvil to repair their gear?|
Death is supposed to be your signal from the game that you have screwed up. You’re supposed to look back and learn from your mistake, and hopefully do better next time. But even after hours of slogging away at these meatgrinders, nobody is really getting a better understanding of the game or its mechanics. The game isn’t teaching us, or even giving us perceptible signals for success and failure. Are we dying more than we should? Is this the intended amount of death? We have no metric to gauging our progress except death toll, and that hops up and down based on party composition and the encounter you’re doing.
It’s common for a group of mid-range foes to completely outshine the boss in terms of raw murder-power. Sometimes a handful of mooks will slaughter your party, and sometimes the final boss will be a pushover.
Class / Build Problems
Guild Wars 2 made such a big deal about removing the need for the healer / tank / damage class trio. They sort of did, but in the dungeons they replaced it with something far worse: Unknown and unpredictable challenges that require particular classes or builds to defeat. Yes, maybe you’re sick of spamming chat in World of Warcraft, trying to find a healer for your five-player party because the mechanics demand a healer. But here we have a system where you might get halfway through a dungeon only to discover that you don’t have what you need to get through.
In the gravelings example discussed by the others (see the other four posts linked above) we clearly needed someone who could do a specific type of area damage, as the area damage we had with us wasn’t the “right” kind. In another dungeon, we ran into a boss that got to heal itself whenever you hit it with any type of condition damage. (Poisoning, hobbling, weakening, blinding, bleeding, setting on fire, reducing defense, or any number of other status effects.) The problem was that almost everyone does that sort of damage, and a couple of character classes and builds are specifically designed to stack as many conditions onto an enemy as possible. A player might reach this fight and discover that their character is suddenly invalid and unable to contribute.
Are players supposed to review the wiki, respec their character, and change their gear in order to prepare for a dungeon?
|No, don’t use magic. Or guns. Or pets. Or swords. The best way to deal with this giant robot is to throw stones at it. I mean, OBVIOUSLY.|
As I said earlier, this is the point in the game where players ought to be working together to combine different types of condition damage, use combo fields, and really explore the extremities of the Guild Wars 2 combat system. This is where the fast-paced, action-oriented gameplay should shine. Instead, bosses are immune to a lot of stuff and the really big bosses are designed around some stupid gimmick. Maybe you’re given some unique weapon (even if your class can’t normally use that weapon type) and you’ll have to figure out how it works while the boss stomps on you over and over. Other fights might have you using a catapult. Many fights require you to pick up boulders scattered around the environment and throw them at the foe for huge damage. Suddenly your specific class abilities are meaningless and you’re reduced to throwing rocks.
And ANOTHER Thing…
|Having heroes disagree is GOOD. Having them bicker, whine, mope, and toss petty insults around is BAD. I hate these people WAY more than I hate the “real” villains of the game.|
All of this is in addition to the other lingering problems with the dungeons. The faction heroes squabble like idiot tweens. Bosses jump up after being defeated, spout off some mustache-twirling smack talk, spawn a bunch of bad guys, and then run off while your character stands there doing nothing in the cutscene. The fights are ponderous. The loot is insulting even if you don’t have most of your profits swallowed up by equipment repairs. The environment design isn’t as visually exciting as the rest of the game, and often dungeons end up being very monotonous and one-note. The faction heroes get pancaked in every fight and leave all the work for you, only to step up at the end and get all the attention and credit.
This is where Guild Wars 2 should shine, and instead it’s the worst part of the game. This part is so bad sometimes I forget it’s part of a game I love. The wrongness is so intense and so comprehensive that fixing it would require a redesign from the conception stage. Having said that: Just turning down that murderous difficulty – while not a solution to the legions of problems – would at least make the dungeons tolerable and worth doing.
This game needs some good, challenging bits. Some people have rightly complained that the open-world game is too easy. Players need something they can sink their teeth into, but this isn’t it.
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.