by Scott McGough on April 3, 2015
From the very beginning, Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns™ was designed to maximize every player’s jungle experience. Gameplay, story, and the terrain itself were all conceived, fleshed out, and woven together to create a unified and immersive world that hooks players and keeps them hooked. Under the steady hands of Matt Wuerffel and Jon Peters, the Heart of Thorns team collaborated, iterated, and executed on a series of features and themes that deliver our most satisfying and comprehensive gaming experience to date.
Location, Location, Location
The foundation of this experience is the region itself: the Heart of Maguuma. Initial map design coalesced around the concept of “biomes,” or levels of terrain, each with its own flora, fauna, and gameplay opportunities. From the towering heights above the jungle canopy down to the root-riddled depths below the surface, each map in the Heart of Maguuma focuses on vertical as well as horizontal exploration. Players can explore jumping puzzles in the trees, hopping from crashed and flaming Pact airships, to giant, grasping Mordrem vines; or scale rope bridges and wooden walkways that connect the forest floor to colorful hylek tree-frog villages in the boughs. Majestic golden outposts are juxtaposed with ominous bioluminescent caverns, each with their own unique mix of hostile and potentially friendly denizens. Every biome is loaded with content and incentives to explore the levels above, below, and beyond, providing unprecedented levels of gameplay density.
Themes and Schemes
Each map also has its own unique themes and map-wide meta-features that connect to the story and the characters in new and exciting ways. For example, in Verdant Brink—the first map players encounter once they enter the Heart of Thorns—the wreckage of the Pact fleet serves as both terrain and a character, defining what sorts of activities and encounters players will find there. Players meet and interact with the desperate survivors of the crash, helping to fortify their positions, gather much needed supplies, and fend off the voracious hordes of Mordrem.
The Brink’s meta-feature is the increased importance of the day/night cycle; things are tough enough while the sun’s up, but once it sets, the Mordrem redouble their efforts and the landscape becomes even more dangerous. Natural predators like the fire-breathing wyvern give way to the more monstrous and deadly toxin-spewing Mordrem variety. Players have to make the most of their daylight activities to prepare for the coming darkness, because once night falls, straight-up survival becomes the primary goal.
I’m Going Up, Down, All Around
New methods of exploration also create new opportunities for more gameplay. The new Mastery system in Heart of Thorns gives players the chance to build up their region-specific skills, like gliding, which allows for deeper and more complete exploration of the environment. Max out your gliding Mastery to discover previously unavailable areas and gameplay challenges. Max out your hylek language and lore Mastery to access content the frog folk reserve for those in the know.
Replayabililty, or Storytelling and Retelling
As if there weren’t enough to do in the Heart of Maguuma, we made sure that when players experience the story of Heart of Thorns, there are ample reasons and rewards to justify going back and doing it all over (and over) again. We set out to give players plenty of options to explore and plenty of loot to earn to make replaying these story instances not only attractive, but essential.
First, we took a page from the Living World’s book and made our story-specific instanced content replayable so that players can give the instances a second, third, or fourth try any time they like. Key story instances also have binary choices that define how the story unfolds; for example, after choosing to trust Laranthir and rescue the sylvari prisoners from their Mordrem captors, players can go back and instead relieve Laranthir of command to experience entirely different gameplay and narrative-path challenges. These branching choices always pay off within the same story instance, so players see the results of their decisions right away. We also included special difficult-to-attain achievements with specific challenging conditions to satisfy before players can earn the points.
As the map-based gameplay and story instances were so tightly bound thematically, we also consciously broke one of the main game’s cardinal storytelling rules and allowed key characters to exist in both story instances and in the open world. Those characters who are not involved in the main story arc can still evolve and change as players progress through the expansion’s open world content. This adds impact to the choices that players make, and the results of those choices ripple out across the entire region and affect the characters struggling to survive in it. For example, whether players trust or distrust Laranthir in that initial story instance, the Vigil’s second-in-command will patrol the open world with a crack squadron of sylvari snipers, providing overwatch to beleaguered Pact survivors and raining destruction down on Mordremoth’s hordes. He and his squad work their way across the entire Heart of Maguuma, doing their thing and winning over some of their former comrades who doubt them, until they are positioned to support players in the final confrontation—and it’s up to players to decide whether they want Laranthir’s help.
Wait, Did You Just Say Something?
Finally, we were able to restore the player character’s ability to speak—not just in story instances, but also in the open world. It may seem like a simple thing, but having your onscreen avatar speak whenever it makes sense for them to do so creates broad new avenues of engagement and interaction. Players can participate in verbal exchanges with friendly NPCs, hurl threats and challenges at enemies, and bark mission-specific orders to comrades. They can have these exchanges while in motion or even in combat. Best of all, we are also now able to give each race their own distinct lines so that norn, sylvari, asura, human, and charr characters can speak like actual members of the unique cultures and societies from which they hail.
Come On In, the Jungle’s Fine
The writers, designers, and artists on the Heart of Thorns team were tasked with integrating key features like story, environment, and gameplay to an unprecedented degree. To put it bluntly, we can’t wait to see what you do once you enter our jungle playground—if you have half as much fun playing it as we did building it, our mission will have been a rousing success.