Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns Full Review

WvW Desert Borderlands
WvW Desert Borderlands

Author: Katu Matson
Title: Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns
Publisher: NCSoft
Developers: ArenaNet
Release Date: 10/23/2015
Platform Reviewed: PC
Time Played: ~90 hours

Concept and Execution:

Heart of Thorns is the first expansion to ArenaNet’s 2012 MMO, Guild Wars 2. It adds four new maps, new endgame progression, a new class, elite specializations to existing classes, a new PvP gamemode, significant changes to the serverwide PvP system (called World vs World vs World, or WvW for short), extensive changes to the entire guild system including the addition of guild-claimed instanced halls, and changes to the game’s primary endgame dungeon, Fractals of the Mists. In addition, it also continues the narrative set in place by the game’s Living Story, an episodic set of instances that star the player’s character as the Commander of the Pact. Familiar characters both from the original personal story (such as Trahearne, the Pact’s Marshal; and Destiny’s Edge, the guild of notable NPC adventurers) and the living story (such as the player’s “guild” – Rox, Braham, and so on; and former villains like the Sylvari Canach) all have roles to play.

The bulk of the “Heart of Thorns” content takes place in the four new maps in the Magus Falls area. This is what I consider to be the expansion, proper, rather than content that released concurrently with the expansion. The rest of the features that released with HoT deal with expanding the core game and laying in place a framework for future updates. Not all of the content released with the expansion is gated behind purchasing it, however. For example, while Guild Halls are located in the expansion areas, they can be accessed by anyone whose guild has them unlocked, regardless of what version of the game they’re playing. The new WvW borderlands, the new Fractals system, and the new PvP game mode are accessible to the entire playerbase. The new maps, the Mastery system, the elite specializations, and (of course) the story, all require the expansion, however. For the sake of keeping this review to a reasonable length, I will be reviewing in greater detail those aspects exclusive to the expansion. And lastly, while the expansion also boasts the addition of Raids (a much-requested feature on the part of the fanbase), their release has been staggered back a few weeks from the expansion, and as such, are not out yet.

The story of the Heart of Thorns begins in the Silverwastes, an area unlocked in the most recent free Living

Story update. Your character moves from the familiar arid sands through a previously unnoticed nook in one of the major rock faces, and emerges in the Verdant Brink, a massive rainforest filled with danger and giant frogs. The first time you enter, you’re treated to a cutscene which shows the entire glimmering Pact fleet of airships suddenly torn from the sky by massive tentacular vines. Some of the Sylvari aboard (a race of humanoid plant-based life forms, revealed during the last Living Story to have been designed as minions of the dragon Mordremoth) go berserk, eyes glowing like embers, and turn on their fellow soldiers. You see Destiny’s Edge and the Pact Marshal fall with their ships. It’s your job to help the Pact recover from this tragedy, to hunt down your friends and see if they’ve survived, to rescue a kidnapped crystal dragon egg, and to ultimately try to take down an Elder Dragon who, in his own words, “is everywhere.” A bit of a tall order, but nothing you can’t handle.

The story in Heart of Thorns is no literary masterpiece, but it is very good for an MMO (The Old Republic, for comparison, is preposterously good story for an MMO). Much of the story is not in the instances, marked on your map with a handy green star, but in the jungle around you. NPCs familiar and new will talk to you about what’s going on: what happened when Mordremoth attacked the fleet, what life has been like since falling into the jungle, and so on. The map-wide events all contribute to the narrative of this disaster, telling one cohesive tale of different races from different lands working together to keep the dragon’s minions at bay.

The linear story itself is also quite enjoyable, albeit a bit rushed, thanks in large part to the excellent cast of characters. Taimi, an Asuran child with a limp and a genius-level intellect; and Canach, the sarcastic and hilariously antagonistic reformed villain, in particular, really shine. Another major bonus is that your character is fully voiced as well. This was a point of contention in the more recent Living Story episodes – whenever it was time for the player character to speak, the cut-scene would end, and you’d communicate via text prompts, as you would with ambient, non-voiced NPCs. It was understandable: with five races with two sexes each, that’s ten times the amount of redundant dialogue to record. Thankfully, ArenaNet pulled out the stoppers for the expansion, and your character is as strident, powerful, and occasionally snappy as he or she ought to be.

Far and away my favourite part of the story, however, is playing through as a Sylvari. There is, for obvious reasons, a lot of distrust and fear regarding the Sylvari in the story who have not yet turned to Mordremoth. Many of the NPC Sylvari feel the need to prove themselves capable and dedicated to their cause, able to resist the “dragon in their head.” Others express doubts about themselves, warning their comrades to end their lives immediately if they turn. It’s like a less cliche and more interesting zombie flick. As a Sylvari Commander of the Pact, you are naturally entitled to some respect. Many soldiers will express gratefulness to see that you’re well and still on the right side of the war. Others will distrust you, being disrespectful regardless of your title. The former are wonderful, making you feel happy to uphold their expectations; the latter are extremely satisfying to put in their place.

Additionally, as a Sylvari, you have access to several unique (albeit small) bonuses. I won’t cover all of them, as they should be experienced rather than told, but you’re given the chance to help a young Sylvari resist the call of the dragon just as he’s about to give in. You can also, of course, hear the call yourself. What simply sounds like roaring to the other races, to a Sylvari sounds like fully-formed words. “Submit to me, as you were meant to.” It’s a wonderful easter-egg for players of that particular race.

Concept and Execution Grade: 23/25


Boss Fight Arena in the Sky


One of the major draws of the expansion is the addition of gliding. Guild Wars 2 has always (to the delight of some and frustration of others) made relatively significant use of platforming, and gliding enhances this focus on vertical motion. Especially in a game without mounts of any kind, the ability to float through the air (rather than fall unceremoniously to one’s death) is fantastic. It helps that it’s implemented elegantly, feeling like a fluid transition from the normal platforming options. You hit space to jump – if you’re airborne long enough, hit space again to deploy your glider. To free-fall, simply hit the space bar while you’re gliding. The downsides to the system are that if you have high latency, it’s sometimes hard to make some of the more precision-oriented “jumps,” due to the delay in opening your glider; additionally, gliding is limited to only the expansion areas. This latter “flaw,” however, is likely unavoidable. The massive core Tyria maps were not designed with gliding in mind: it would have an effect on things like jumping puzzles (obstacle-course-like areas that reward successful platforming with a chest of loot), events, and could result in players being able to glitch outside of the terrain.

Guild Wars 2 relies on what developers are calling “horizontal progression.” Once you’ve hit max level, once you’ve gotten the best gear, you’re set. Even the game’s most prestigious weapons, Legendaries, have no advantage over a normal top-tier item except that, when out of combat, you can change the stat sets on the fly. Character customization comes in a primarily aesthetic package: making your character look amazing. As such, it’s a little disappointing that the expansion offers very little in the way of new armor and weapon skins; less than 10 sets altogether. Admittedly, the sets they do offer, such as the Leystone armor set or the Auric weapons, are visually stunning.

Additionally, playing MMO “dress up” isn’t for everyone, and one of the more common complaints regarding the game is the lack of a true “end game” – after you hit level cap and gear up, there’s not much else to do. Heart of Thorns introduces a new form of endgame progression in the form of the Mastery System. The expansion has shipped with two types of masteries: “Heart of Maguuma” and “Core Tyria.”

Masteries require two things to work: Mastery points (which are earned by map completion, achievements, finishing the story, etc) and experience. You choose which track you’re interested in “training,” and while selected, all experience earned goes toward learning that mastery. Once you’ve filled your xp bar, you unlock the mastery with the points you earned. It was a confusing system at first (I’ve got these mastery points, why can’t I spend them?), but ultimately, it’s not a bad system. Guild Wars makes it relatively easy to focus on leveling masteries as a goal. For one thing, there’s a massive amount of buffs you can equip that boost exp gain from kills, and others that buff it from other sources (such as completing events) as well. Additionally, monsters that haven’t been killed in a while grant an “exploration bonus” based on how long they’ve been alive. This is good encouragement to not just participate in the event chains that run through the maps, but also to visit the less-active corners of the maps, and to just wipe out everything in your path. That said, it can definitely feel “grindy” to have to earn that level of experience AND all the associated mastery points (the number of both needed for each subsequent level increases), especially if you were hoping to get multiple things done quickly.

The HoM masteries are concerned with the new maps, and getting along inside them. Mastery tracks such as the aforementioned gliding help you get from place to place more easily (or reach otherwise impossible locations), and others such as Itzel or Nuhoch Lore allow you to become closer to the denizens of the jungle by opening up unique vendors or allowing you to use their special traveling techniques (such as Bouncing Mushrooms or Nuhoch Wallows).

The Core, or Central Tyrian masteries offer things like increased revive speed, the ability for “true auto loot” (when a mob dies, any drops transfer immediately to your inventory), advantages in the Fractals of the Mists dungeon, and the much-requested ability to craft precursors.

Combat in GW2 is an active, fast-paced, locational system. If an enemy fires an arrow at you, you can sidestep it. If they swing a sword at you, you can run behind them to avoid it. If they drop an AoE at your feet and you can’t run out in time, you can dodge out of it (the dodge system is a relatively complex system that allows you to become momentarily invulnerable as you dodge all attacks). While HoT doesn’t necessarily add any significant new mechanics in terms of actual gameplay, there is a challenge to combat that is found in the jungle that the rest of the world, by and large, lacks.

An Exalted. With a Frying Pan.
An Exalted. With a Frying Pan.

The enemies in the jungle are described even by the local NPCs as “smarter” dragon minions – a bit of a jab to the rotting Risen that belonged to the Elder Dragon Zhaitan (may he rest in peace). However, it’s not just the Mordrem who are smarter. The Coztic hylek, identical in many ways to the Itzel, except they’re mean and sassy; and the Queztal Tengu (an ostentatious bird-race), are equally battle-savvy. They are among an elite few groups of enemies who not only have a dodge mechanic for normal attacks, but are programmed to avoid areas of effect spells. Even the saurian beasts who wander the jungle put up a significant fight.

The reasons behind the steep difficulty disparity are multifold, but the two major ones are regarding the player base. The first is that we asked for it – literally, the forums and the subreddit, for years, have been teeming with people who are hoping for more of a challenge out of their PvE content. The second is that this is the developer’s attempt at shaking up “the zerker meta” – a phenomenon wherein the most skilled players forego any defensive stats whatsoever in favour of the most damage, with the assumption that the sooner something is dead, the sooner it can’t hurt you anymore. This is largely possible in core Tyria – active defense such as blocks, invulnerability, or avoiding getting hit at all is so effective that, to the very efficiency-minded, there is no point sacrificing potential damage to mitigate hits that you’re not even taking. This is significantly less easy to maintain in Heart of Thorns. Things in the jungle hit harder, and more often, than enemies in core Tyria. They also apply more control effects, such as cripple, chill, and knockdowns. In the jungle, then, it’s advisable to alter your build. You might want to swap in some toughness rings or weapons, or you might consider giving up a trait or two to something defensive. You might just choose to travel in groups.

Another thing that has the potential to help are the new elite specializations. The way a character build works in GW2 is that you have three “trait specializations” to choose from, which determine what your build focuses on (are you offensive? Defensive? Do you do direct damage or condition damage? Do you specialize in control effects like stuns or fears?), and you get your stats from armor and trinkets. Your skill bar consists of ten buttons, which correspond with 1-0 on your keyboard. Keys one through five are determined by the weapon you choose (on a per class basis – ranger sword and warrior sword are VERY different), and you choose your other skills: one heal skill, three “utility” skills, and one “elite” skill. The elite specs are a trait specialization line that unlocks an entirely new set of options for your whole skill bar.

Let’s use my favourite elite specialization, the Necromancer’s Reaper spec, as an example. Once the trait line is chosen, you now get access to a new weapon, the greatsword. You have access to a new heal, and new elite, and a choice of four new utility skills. You can mix and match these as you like, using a combination of new and old as it suits you. The other aspect of elite specs that differentiates them from a normal trait spec line is that they alter some of your class’s base mechanics. For mesmer, you get a new way to shatter your clones that involves a form of “time travel;” for guardian, your virtues are all entirely new active abilities rather than fire-and-forget; for necromancer, your shroud skills change from ranged to melee (with a giant scythe).

Some elite specs are definitely better than others, though. Reaper, Chronomancer, and Herald all feel polished, thematically blend with their base classes, and bring a lot to the table. Other specs like Berserker or Druid have limited use, clash with the class they belong to, or simply feel unfinished.

Finally, there’s the new class: The Revenant. This class does a lot, not the least of which is satisfies my desire for perfection (there were three classes with light armor, three with medium…and two with heavy). The revenant is a heavy-armored class that has been described as a “reverse elementalist.” Where elementalist’s weapon skills change based on their elemental attunement, the revenant’s utility skills change based on which legend they’re currently channeling.

The legends are based on notable figures from Guild Wars history. Shiro, who was a major villain in the original game, provides the direct damage stance. Mallyx, the demon, deals in conditions both on enemies and on yourself. Ventari, the centaur responsible for the Sylvari’s tenet of conduct, provides healing and support. And Jalis, the famous dwarf king, focuses on damage mitigation, tanking, and general support. The elite spec offers a fifth choice: Glint, the famous dragon lieutenant killed by her own master, which provides individual and party buffs on an impressive uptime. Revenants can choose two legends to swap between.

It was suspected that the class would be so powerful and so desired that other classes would become obsolete, but thankfully this hasn’t been the case. While the class is certainly powerful (and new and flashy), it is not without its flaws. For one thing, very few of the legends synergize well with one another. Traits tend to favour just one, and not any others, and it feels like a waste of time to leave your primary stance for another one that is less powerful due to your not having traited for it.

Mechanics Grade: 20/25


Jungle Canopy in Verdant Brink
Jungle Canopy in Verdant Brink


The jungle maps are, in a word, amazing. They are massive, intricate works of art, with layer after layer of beauty and danger. They heavily engage my sense of adventure, reward my intense desire to explore every hidden corner of a map, and also appeal to my less-developed desire for getting really, really lost. Though only four new maps are added, each one is easily twice the horizontal size of most core Tyria maps, and almost all of them have 3-5 vertical layers to explore: from the highest golden canopy to the dark and swampy jungle floor.

Also, within these four maps is a surprising amount of variety. From forest foliage to winding caves, to a city made of gold, to a series of islands suspended over a massive chasm (in which lurks something the scale of which has never been seen in Guild Wars 2 before), the Heart of Maguuma is much more than just “a jungle.”

The expansion’s audio is impeccable. I say this without hyperbole; both the ambient sounds and the score are extraordinary. I’ve heard multiple people remark about the quality of the soundtrack, which impressed me: if the average person likes your game’s music or audio work enough to bring it up, then you’ve really accomplished something great. The songs in the jungle have their fair share of the bongo-heavy rhythm-centric music that’s rather cliche to such a setting, but they’re utilized to good effect. The meta events are backed up to an epic, sweeping score than serves to emphasize the scale of what is being accomplished. Even the log-in screen has a new theme, which, albeit somewhat generic, is well-composed and suits the tone of the expansion well.

Perhaps more impressive than the music half of the soundtrack is the environmental noise. The jungles sound, obviously, very much like jungles – but they have a strange, almost alien quality to them. The shrieks of unfamiliar birds or rumbles of fantastic beasts echo throughout the forest. In the dens of the Chak, a massive insectoid race, terrifying chitters and scratchings can be heard. Even the packs of tiny Pocket Raptors make adorable reptilian squeaks as they swarm your body like land piranhas.

One of my favourite aspects in games is the voice acting, which, in my opinion, is often the backbone of a game. Unbelievable voice acting makes for unbelievable characters, which can kill a game faster than almost anything else. Thankfully, the acting in GW2 is quite good. This shouldn’t be surprising, with such big names on the roster as Nolan North (Uncharted, Arkham Knight), Troy Baker (The Last of Us, Bioshock Infinite), Jennifer Hale (Mass Effect, Knights of the Old Republic), John DiMaggio (Futurama, Adventure Time) and Felicia Day (Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog, The Guild). However, even the “bit parts” are well acted. The Itzel hylek have a tonal, almost sing-songy vocality; the bulky Nuhoch have a throaty and deep intonation. The Exalted are exactly as serene and detatched as they should be, and the acting for the rescued Pact soldiers has an appropriate undercurrent of amazement and terror. The ambient Skritt (a race of diminuitive rat-people obsessed with “shinies”) are the only exception to this – but I say this only because they are clearly just a person “doing a voice,” as they say. It’s a bit immersion breaking, but frankly the writing and the delivery is hilarious enough that I’m willing to overlook the questionable verisimilitude of the vocals themselves.

Atmosphere Grade: 24/25


The Final Boss in Wing 1 Raids (Beta)
The Final Boss in Wing 1 Raids (Beta)

Entertainment Value:

Welcome to the jungle, we’ve got minigames! Or so Guns N’ Roses would have surely sung, had ArenaNet taken my suggestion to hire them to perform a theme song for the expansion. One day, someone will recognize my genius. In the meantime, however, there’s Adventures. Adventures are timed challenges scattered throughout the jungle: some of them involve collecting a certain amount of scrap metal before your health is depleted. Some of them are races or obstacle courses, some involve decimating vines with flamethrowers or catching airborne bugs; there’s a lot of variety. These give a good chunk of experience, plus other rewards, and have a leaderboards system to encourage you to make enemies of your friends and guildies. Easily the best feature of Adventures is the ability to stop your run at any point and start over. Because many of them require precision (even seconds could cost you your gold medal), it would suck to have to complete the entire thing, feeling like you were wasting your time. Thankfully, the moment you accidentally miss your jump, you can press the exit button, and choose to either reset, starting back over at the very beginning, or leave the challenge entirely.

The downsides to the adventures are twofold: firstly, several of them feel a little unpolished (which is to say, impossible to get gold in), and some are outright bugged. I expect both of these problems will be fixed in the near future, but as of right now, that’s a major drawback. The second flaw, which I am less confident in a fix for, is that all of them take place in the open world, rather than in an instance. In some cases, this means that another player doing the same challenge could bring aggro down on you, or in one way or another throw off your groove. In other cases, the Adventures become inaccessible because the worldspace they occupy is besieged by enemies for a particular event. In still other cases, someone who is particularly focused on catching that last firefly could end up occupying a slot in the map that could otherwise be given to someone intending to participate in the map’s final boss fight. While I have heard arguments from both sides, I believe personally that overall, the game would benefit from having Adventures placed in instances.

As an expansion is intended to, Heart of Thorns gives you a lot of new content to complete: hundreds of new events, achievements, new armor and weapon sets to earn, and so on. Each of the new maps has an associated overarching map “meta” event (which consists of numerous individual event chains converging on one massive mapwide boss fight), and a slew of associated achievements.

Firstly, achievements. I am not ashamed to say that I am happy as a clam to grind away at achievements. I am what they call “high achievement:” similar to how a dog is referred to as having a high prey instinct, that’s me with achievements. If that sounds like you, I can pretty much already guarantee you’ll like this expansion. They’ve added lists upon lists of new achievements, the most illustrious of which are a relatively new (but not HoT exclusive) system called Collections. Collections, unsurprisingly, involve collecting items (or performing certain actions) in exchange for achievement points and other rewards such as loot or titles. The collections range from the mundane to the deeply exciting: from Koutalophile, which revolves around collecting spoons (yes, spoons), to the collections that allow you to craft Precursors (a type of weapon used in the crafting of Legendaries, and some of the most coveted items in the game).

Secondly, the events. These are, in many ways, where the expansion shines the brightest. Each zone has an intricate chain of events that begins on a specific timer, and in many different places. For example, you might help the Exalted defend one of their waystations, and restore power to it. In turn, they’ll help you and the Pact move to another location to set up camp. From there, you move further, ending up at a Pylon that requires significant teamwork to power up, and completing this chain of 4-6 events rewards you with some incredible enchanted armors to aid in the defense of the stronghold. Each event, scattered around the zone, eventually leads up to a massive coordinated battle against a boss in the center.

With events such as these, two things are required: people, and coordination. These can be difficult to acquire if you’re not familiar with using the LFG tool to find organized overflows, or if communication is hindered by people not paying attention, or not understanding the tactics. However, in many cases, even if the event fails, there is still a reward for trying (and in the case of Auric Basic, which I have been using as an example), it’s not too much worse than if you succeeded.

My only criticism of the events is that it can sometimes be difficult, in these massive and multilevel maps, to find them. They show up on your map only if you’re close enough to them, and it’s often difficult to locate on which level the event occurs. Additionally, with Heart of Thorns, GW2 has implemented a system that prevents AFK players from reaping the same rewards as those participating: you must remain with an event to the end to retain participation credit. If you leave (say, if you die and need to revive at one of the infrequent and often-contested waypoints), you can lose credit, even if until that moment you’d done 100% of the work, and you were on your way back. Personally, I prefer the old system, whereby you can assist in part of an event and continue on your way, enjoying a bronze-level of credit if the event completed without you. I feel that this new system will discourage people who are on their way elsewhere to stop and assist an event that needs help, and it is too punishing to those who genuinely deserve credit. Conversely, if you participate in enough map-wide events to get your participation maxed out, then you can sit AFK wherever you’d like, and continue getting rewards every time the meta event progresses.

I do not mind the undeserving getting a handful of rewards, personally. But if the developer’s intent was to punish those people, they have somewhat failed, and instead have made life a little worse for the people who actually earned the rewards.

The new PvP game mode is called Stronghold. I must now admit that I am no great PvPer, mostly because I get far too into it, taking it too personally and being That Guy when I lose AND win. I rarely, if ever, play in Structured PvP, and as such I did not spend as much time in Stronghold as I did in the PvE areas of the expansion. That said, what I did play, I enjoyed. The game mode is objective-based, rather than strict “team deathmatch” style PvP. There are two “lanes” – one offensive and one defensive – down which your team has to push (for offensive) or defend (for, well, defensive) to reach the other team’s base.

The primary objective is to kill the lord of the other team, but it’s a bit more strategic than simply rushing in and sticking him with the pointy end. Your team can gather supply (which can be taken by the enemy team over your dead body – literally), which can be used to purchase NPCs that help you fight enemies or break down barriers.

Finally, my personal favourite part, is the Mist Champions. These are summonable NPCs based on heroic characters in Guild Wars lore, and are powerful allies in the fight against red team. Aside from being another source of damage (and another potential target for the opposing team), the Mist Champions (Turai Ossa, Grymm Svaard, and Nika) excite me on a purely lore-based level (my priorities are showing again, aren’t they?).

The primary draw of Stronghold as a PvP game mode is that it has an appeal to a wider audience than the merely bloodthirsty. While, obviously, player combat is the primary challenge, it is not the only challenge. Stronghold is more League of Legends, more Halo, than strictly 5v5 bloodbath. I spent much of my time doing my best to get supply to the barracks to summon Archers to do my fighting for me, and it was nice to feel like I was still helping my team even if I wasn’t capping points or slaying foes.

The new WvW borderlands are visually stunning, but in my experience, largely empty. I must disclose that the server that I’m on, Sanctum of Rall, is no WvW giant. While we have a somewhat active community for it, it’s not uncommon to find a borderlands mostly enemy-owned, or devoid of life altogether. Such is the way of the lower-tier servers. However, this is exacerbated by the fact that the bulk of players have been focusing on the new expansion-specific content, and the fact that the WvW community in general is frustrated at some of the changes that have been made to the game mode. The complaint I have seen the most is that WvW is now “too much like PvE,” which is an issue I can sympathize with, even if it is not an issue I personally have.

Overall, there is much to do in Heart of Thorns, assuming that all the things it has to offer are things you actually like doing.

Entertainment Value Grade: 20/25


Overall Score: 87/100



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