In Guild Wars 2's second expansion pack Path of Fire players travel to The Crystal Desert and Northern Elona where they experience the continuation of the story that was set out in the game's third Living World Season. Does it live up to the hype?
Without spoiling the story, in Path of Fire players start their adventure in Lion's Arch where they take an airship transport to Amnoon Oasis. From there the story turns into a chase to find one of the six gods Balthazar before he kills one of the Elder Dragons.
Balthazar wants to consume the dragon's power in an attempt to become the most powerful entity in all of Tyria. According to one of your team members, Taimi, magic balance will be skewed if too many Elder Dragons are killed, resulting in disastrous consequences for the entire continent.
The Path of Fire personal story gives a much needed insight in what happened to the Six Human Gods of Tyria because neither the original game nor its first expansion pack Heart of Thorns went into much detail.
My biggest grief with the personal story is that, given the large five new maps, it felt like a roller coaster ride because the distance between certain story chapters is sometimes the length of an entire map.
This is especially the case in the final story chapters set in The Desolation and Domain of Vabbi. It gives the impression that the final part of the story was rushed in order to get the expansion pack out the door sooner. My estimate is that out of all the new terrain available in Path of Fire less than 25 percent was used for the personal story.
I understand that this is likely done to try to get players to explore the environments and participate in map events. However, is that really the best way to get players to participate?
That being said, the Path of Fire story is a major improvement from the base game and Heart of Thorns. Mostly because it is always able to put its focus on the most relevant story details but also because going after Balthazar and learning about the six gods is a lot more interesting than just taking down Elder Dragons.
The story features voice-overs for pretty much ever line of text, just as players would come to expect, and features a surprisingly low amount of cutscenes or pre-rendered movies, keeping the player in control most of the time - and it feels great.
In terms of character development the story is also able to put a lot of focus on your team mates, with Rytlock's Mist adventure backstory being a pleasant surprise. The way he acts and interacts provides the base for a touching connection that very few story characters, Tybalt Leftpaw to name one, have been able to provide thus far.
Sadly, this also means that the story focuses entirely on roughly four different main characters, mostly your team members, that aid you on your journey. This prevents many of the other interesting characters we've met in Living World Season 3 and Heart of Thorns from being properly included.
Being set in the Crystal Desert and Northern Elona, the new expansion features a lot more open terrain and as a result features increased draw distances. This greatly helps to immerse you in the desert environment along with a range of ambient heat haze post-processing effects.
All five new maps are as large as expected and each of them offer enough variety to make them stand out from each other.
For Guild Wars 1 Nightfall fans the expansion features surprisingly few locations to geek out over. Yes, The Desolation and Domain of Vabbi are there but other than that most of the locations share no visual connection at all.
That being said, the places that do look familiar have received stunning visual overhauls. I was particularly mesmerized by the yellow sulfuric glow of The Desolation, which just pops out a lot more than it did in Nightfall.
In terms of map design, the biggest issue I have with the new maps is that they make no use of the masteries earned in Heart of Thorns.
I assume this is to prevent players who didn't purchase and play through Heart of Thorns from feeling locked out of certain areas. While that is definitely a valid point to consider it does mean that almost all the previous mastery progression is invalidated, which goes against the core ideals development studio ArenaNet set out when creating Guild Wars 2.
Mounts and masteries
The five new mounts, the Raptor, the Springer, the Skimmer, the Jackal and the Griffon are great additions to the game. Each have their own set of abilities and specializations, making each of them stand out in their own way.
Being able to use mounts in the original game is what is really a major game changer. The ability to jump, leap, and even fly across core maps make them so much more enjoyable to visit and (re)complete.
It wasn't until I revisited Heart of Thorns maps with mounts that I realized just what an amazing addition mounts are to the game. This is especially the case with Heart of Thorns maps which by their nature have always been quite tedious to traverse, until now.
If there is anything negative to say about mounts it is that the Springer has very poor horizontal movement speed mid-air, especially when you haven't maxed all of its masteries, and that the hovering physics of the Skimmer are quite disappointing because of its average implementation.
Progressing through mount masteries is surprisingly not as grindy as Heart of Thorns masteries were, which is a night and day difference. Players will find most of their masteries unlocked after a week of casual play without worrying about them too much.
While nothing but good things can be said about new mounts and masteries, it does make me wonder if the mastery system will be as good in a third expansion pack. There are only so many useful features one can put behind masteries before they start becoming gimmicks instead of genuine features, and mount masteries seem pretty tough to beat.
The single biggest issue Path of Fire has is that it features so little repeatable content that is actually worth putting your time into.
This is not because of a lack of given mastery experience but rather one of plain and simple gold rewards. Current existing content simply provides more gold per minute of time spent, making it a lot more appealing for the core playerbase to focus on instead.
This problem also becomes painfully apparent when analyzing the abundant repeatable heart quests.
When repeatable heart quests were first introduced with the game's Living World Season 3 updates it was praised, though mostly on the game's subreddit, for adding replayability to new maps.
In Path of Fire maps the majority of heart quests are of the repeatable type, presumably with the purpose of trying to keep the new maps alive longer.
However, the current implementation and usage of repeatable heart quests in the expansion pack is one of the worst design choices I've seen in the game thus far.
It is not that difficult to pinpoint the issues with repeatable heart quests so I'm surprised the mechanic hasn't been changed yet.
One major issue with it is that it actually has a chilling effect on map participation because the progress you make is reset rather quickly within 24 hours.
Secondly, heart quests are essentially still the same type of mind-numbing "fetch item" or "kill x enemies" quests that the game's developers initially ridiculed it's competitor World of Warcraft for when Guild Wars 2 launched in 2012.
Most importantly, however, the rewards locked behind repeatable heart quests are so poor that there really isn't any incentive to do them at all and thus are essentially a giant waste of time.
If repeatable heart quests are made easier once you have completed them the first time this may make them slightly better, but the development studio has not announced any changes yet.
Why is this important? Because there is actually very little to do on the five new maps once you have completed your personal story, map exploration, and the Griffon collection, except for a few dynamic events, such as the addictive Casino Blitz in Amnoon Oasis, bounties, acquiring more mastery points and finishing remaining achievements, of course.
The lack of worthwhile repeatable content can also be noticed in other areas of the game, such as meta events and bounties.
The new maps don't feature map-wide repeatable meta events like the game's first expansion pack Heart of Thorns did, although small scale events do exist.
This is actually a welcomed change because it allows players to freely explore the environment and play around with mounts without having to worry about waves of enemies hindering their passage.
However, the problem is that there is almost no substitute for map-wide meta events except for bounties and small scale events.
Bounties are distributed and started from bounty boards that are, usually, conveniently located on each of the five new maps.
Once a bounty is started a champion enemy will spawn somewhere on the map for players to defeat. Upon defeating the enemy the player will get experience and a chest with salvageable rewards.
Bounties are a great way to earn mastery experience, I even maxed my Griffon mount masteries fairly quickly by doing them, but these give subpar gold rewards otherwise compared to Heart of Thorns meta events.
I have yet to delve into the intricacies of the nine new elite specializations because really getting to know their rotations can easily take weeks but thus far the impression is that they aren't as big of a game changer as the initial Heart of Thorns elite specializations were.
This is for the most part due to the fact that elite specializations were never designed to be upgrades over older elite specializations but instead were designed to introduce more variety in gameplay.
The most promising new elite specializations seem to be the Scourge because of its new AoE range attacks and teleporting portal for competitive game modes, the Firebrand because of its ability to convert virtues into offensive and defensive tomes, and the Weaver because of the new Elementalist weaving skill mechanic that is difficult to learn but rewarding to master.
The Path of Fire soundtrack is without a doubt an amazing production. It features new tracks that fit the game perfectly as well as older, nostalgic tracks from Guild Wars 1 Nightfall.
The only negative here is that the soundtrack pool of some maps includes tracks that are also featured in Living World Season 2 and Season 3 updates and therefore deteriorate the experience given that most players have already listened to these tracks for hours and hours.
It is quite disheartening to see that the game's engine still hasn't received significant upgrades since the game launched in 2012. The engine has a hard time making use of multithreading, presumably because strenuous calculations can't be loaded off of the main thread.
Frame rates are average in PvE maps, rarely hitting 60 frames per second on mid to high-end machines unless you set all graphics settings to low. There are areas where the game has a hard time keeping up with the many textures and models it has to load and render, even with an SSD drive and fast RAM.
This is particularly the case when visiting the new Windswept Haven guild hall where frame rates are noticably lower compared to the Heart of Thorn's Lost Precipice and Gilded Hallow guild halls, sometimes hitting frame rates as low as 25 frames per second.
Is it really that big of an issue? Maybe not. If Path of Fire was released in 2012 this performance section wouldn't even be in this review, but because 60 frames per second really is the expected standard frame rate these days it is well time that the game and its engine are brought up to par with other titles released this year.
Given the expansion pack's current retail price of $29.99 in North America and €29,99 in Europe Guild Wars 2: Path of Fire has great value for both old and new players, making it a deal that is almost impossible to ignore.
All things considering, Path of Fire is definitely a step in the right direction. The new environments are interesting to explore, the new elite specializations mix up existing gameplay, the soundtrack has both new and older, nostalgic tracks, mounts are an amazing addition to the game, the new personal story is great although still a little short and bounties are a great addition if properly incentivized.
Guild Wars 2: Path of Fire gets a solid 8 out of 10 score.
Out of 10
Guild Wars 2: Path of Fire