"... what ArenaNet has in store was enough to make me excited for the game again."
Man vs. Wild
When Guild Wars 2 launched, it was clear it took a very different approach to PvE content than its predecessor. The world was bigger and more interconnected than the world of the original game, and thanks to its stellar art design, it had a distinct style that even extended throughout the game's user interface. In the years since, the game's Living World storyline and content updates have completed two full seasons, and it's all those subsequent updates and tweaks to the game that appear to inform the first expansion, Heart of Thorns.
The first and probably biggest thing to note about this expansion is that it does away with yet another MMORPG tradition: the level cap remains set to 80, rather than being bumped up to accompany the new content. In the place of a new tier of gear or additional levels to grind is the Mastery system, a collection of skills that supplant growing character stat numbers with abilities like hang-gliding, bouncing on springy mushrooms, and based on what I saw in the menu, quite a bit more.
My time in the demo gave me two strong impressions. The first was that ArenaNet has clearly refined the content and questing quite a bit over the years. After completing an instanced story mission, I found myself plopped into the new area helping allied forces fight their way across a twisted landscape. There's a lot more up and down in Maguuma Jungle than any previous place in Tyria and the jutting outcroppings of rock, steep cliffs, and precipitous drops allow for ample use of the quickly-unlocked glider.
To give you an idea of how this all plays out: after cresting a large hilltop and grabbing a sniper rifle, I and several other adventurers laid down covering fire for the forces on the ground trying to advance through waves of small ground enemies and much bigger, organic monster artillery-type beasts. After clearing a path, I leapt straight from the top of that hill and unfurled the glider, gently floating right into a fresh new batch of evildoers in need of a solid facepounding.
One tradition the expansion isn't bucking is the addition of a new class, which in Heart of Thorns' case is the Revenant. When it came time for the aforementioned facepounding, it was with the Revenant's hammer and form-switching abilities that I did so. Lore-wise, this new class channels ancient heroes of the past (and if you're a Guild Wars lore buff, you might even recognize them) and makes use of channeling the Mists to supplement their heavy armor-clad smashing. Whether it was teleporting to my foes for a powerful strike in Legendary Demon Stance or swapping over to Legendary Dwarf Stance (no weapon swapping here, much like the existing Elementalist class) and protecting myself and my allies with stone defenses, the Revenant offered a lot of up-close brutal combat. One of my favorite abilities was a Legendary Dwarf utility skill (relegated to the right side of the skill bar) that laid down golden road directly in front of my character. Standing in that road rendered me unable to be shaken in any way, no matter what powerful attacks came in. This cool dynamic of the Dwarf form's immovable stoicism and the Demon's aggressive and brutal attacks made this class quite a bit of fun to play.
My time wrapped up as we completed this mission and a ladder seemingly dropped out of the sky. Running up to it informed me that I could climb it to board a strike ship (fantasy chopper). Not being the type of person to turn down such an appealing offer, I was whisked off to an area with a large cliff face overlooking a circular chunk of rock far below. Flying in a bit after the rest of the players around me, I unfortunately discovered all too late the giant wyvern that blew me right off the platform. I flew back in after respawning, and so began a very cool group battle against the massive beast. During the melee, the wyvern would occasionally take to the skies to bombard the heroes below; this could be stopped with another of the Revenant's abilities, a rather bad-ass grappling chain. It was a sight to behold as the giant monster attempted to fly away only to be stymied by several chains flying into the air to keep him grounded. Sadly, the learning curve was a bit too long, and the clock on our demo ran out before we could claim victory.
Man vs. Man
The second demo I got my hands on was a test of the new player versus player mode, Stronghold. Drawing inspiration from MOBA-style games, a Stronghold match sees two teams fighting to break through the gates to the opposing side's Lord, who must be slain to secure victory. Along the way, team members gather Supply to produce units that march down the lanes on their own. In my demo, we had a choice between spawning archers, skilled at taking out the NPC guards around each gate, and doorbreakers, skilled at doing exactly what you'd think. Once both teams grokked the concept of playing, our matches were enjoyable back-and-forths that had us shouting across the room to one another, asking who was needed where and whether or not we needed more archers or doorbreakers.
Another interesting wrinkle (one that I took full advantage of) was the presence of coalescing mists around the map. Much like Baron Nashor
in League of Legends, these are periodic spawns that can shift the flow of a battle if utilized properly. If you manage to reach and commune with them before the enemy, a legendary hero unit is added to your laners. Safely getting these stacked units to the enemy Lord promises a quick and bitter end for them, and on more than one occasion, the summoning of a hero turned the tide of a fight in my team's favor.
While my time with Stronghold was limited, it was easily the most fun I had playing Heart of Thorns. It offered quick matches that seemed to vary between 20 to 30 minutes, and a pleasant degree of strategy and back-and-forth between the two teams. That this is not just a single map but an entirely new game type made me excited to see what other battlefields will be available when the expansion drops.
Given my patchy history with Guild Wars 2, I was quite pleasantly surprised by my time with Heart of Thorns. The dynamism of the public questing, fun traversal, awesome new PvP mode, and enjoyable class mechanics were such that I was inspired to pick up the original again and give it another shot. It wasn't perfect, as most work-in-progress builds aren't. I found the glider controls to be a bit finicky (and the deployment lag led to me falling to my demise on more than one occasion), and without more experience in the late-game core Guild Wars 2 experience, it's hard for me to say how existing or lapsed players will feel about the new content. I'm also not entirely sure about the longevity of the Mastery system, great concept though it seems to be. The expansion doesn't currently have a release date, so there's likely plenty of time to squash issues and get a better idea of how all these new systems will pan out. At the very least, what ArenaNet has in store was enough to make me excited for the game again, so you can bet I'll be keeping an eye on it as development continues.