ArenaNet has managed to create a praise-worthy expansion for Guild Wars 2 with a team that is only half the size of what it once was.
What do you need to know
- What is it? An MMORPG set in the fictional world of Tyria
- Reviewed on: PC - Ryzen 5 3600, Radeon RX 5700 XT, 16 GB RAM
- Developer: ArenaNet
- Publisher: NCSoft
- Release date: February 28, 2022
- Available on: PC
Guild Wars 2 expansions have sort of a mold by now, with each one initially having new elite specialisations, means of travel and story as the highlights. ArenaNet didn't try to reinvent the wheel with End of Dragons and this proved to be a good decision. After all, why would you fix something that isn't broken in the first place.
Following the story of the Icebrood Saga that quickly lost a lot of sense and eventually had to be wrapped up in an equally fast manner, Guild Wars 2 fans didn't have extremely high hopes for End of Dragons, the new expansion in Cantha. Thankfully, this wasn't the case as the story itself was done well but you can still feel the effects of the lower manpower in the studio, compared to what could be achieved before.
One example of this is the high number of new characters that weren't fleshed out as much as one might hope and whose arcs were either abruptly cut or weren't finished yet. That said, the ones we did have along for the ride are quite interesting and it's already safe to say a certain hat-wearing detective is quickly becoming a fan-favourite.
He wasn't an already established character - he appeared as End of Dragons launched and was there for a storyline that spanned a grand total of four maps. Such a feat doesn't just come along, this is clearly the result of character background and a story arc that were crafted with great care. While I took the detective as an example of things to like in the expansion as far as the story goes, he is not the only one that attains the "endearing" status very quickly. He was just there from the start and it was easier to avoid spoilers this way.
On the flip side, some character stories had to be cut short or ignored until the epilogue. There is a certain redemption arc that was highly interesting but didn't amount to much in the end due to these issues and instances like these are probably the best indicator that ANet is not at the peak of its power as a studio.
However, the team's efforts are pretty amazing since the positives are ultimately strong enough to carry the weight and produce a highly entertaining experience. The reason for this is that the team apparently takes the approach of quality over quantity as neither the story nor gameplay were artificially stretched out just so a few minutes could be squeezed out for the player engagement numbers at some presentation. When you get into the End of Dragons, you are in for a fulfilling ride, not a lifeless world with a bunch of chores involving collectables.
One thing to keep in mind is that the world Guild Wars 2 was quickly uplifted with technology from Asura and now even faster with Jade Tech. In other words, the game is quickly losing the appeal of a fantasy world inspired by medieval cultures and is currently sporting a mix of knightly tales, futuristic lasers and a cyberpunk setting. Whether this type of setting is appealing remains to be judged by each player, all I can do is give you a heads up.
While there is a lot to like about the story of End of Dragons, I found the gameplay to be shining brighter in the spotlight. The new elite specialisations vary in their degree of usefulness in both PvE and PvP but ANet nailed the most important nail on the head - these things are a lot of fun.
Willbenders are a completely new way to play a Guardian as you zip around the battlefield like a caffeinated squirrel, Bladsworn Warriors get to shoot and slice up their enemies at the same time, Vindicator Revenants get to invoke two legends at the price of one, Catalyst Elementalists get to be nerfed. I'm sorry Ele mains, I couldn't resist.
Anyway, the sheer amount of creativity that went into creating these new specs is almost palpable and it genuinely inspired me to start creating something other than Warriors. The best part about the extremely fun specialisations is that you don't even need to hang out in Cantha in order to enjoy them.
The moment you hit level 80, you can start learning them and utilise them all over Tyria which is a very good example of new benefits that extend to past content, whose worth is then propped up by the new mechanics. In simpler words, End of Dragons will enrich your adventures in older content considerably, which is always a welcome sight.
Even the content that is strictly connected to Cantha is looking amazing. The new strikes are fun to play and the mobility of the bosses presents players with new challenges as they no longer need to just memorise skill rotations to max out their efficiency. With the new content, you will have to be quick on your feet and keep managing the cooldowns which results in exhilarating encounters.
This is not usually the case in MMO PvE since a lot of games simply allow the good old tank and spank tactics while Guild Wars 2 proactively tries to push the players to the limit of their skill in order to create memorable moments.
On the other hand, the new meta event in the final map of End of Dragons has run into several issues. The meta feels pretty good as players are completing smaller events all over the map which gives you the feeling of being a member of one of the smaller squads that eventually come together to form an army and attack the final objective.
However, it quickly gets scuffed and thanks to a large number of players in a small area, all you get to see is a giant boss head and a bunch of special effects that are small in comparison. This also results in players feeling lost in the crowd which generally leads to a lacklustre experience as the entire process takes more than an hour and the rewards may not be worth the investment while all that time could be spent in content one could enjoy more.
By the time of publishing this review, ArenaNet made several improvements to the event and it remains to be seen how it will compare to the popular ones, like the Octovine which is a quick way to get some pocket money.
Jade Bots were generally a good addition to the game as they are another example of enhancing the experience of the existing content. Their benefits carry over and literally serve to make existing things better. Want a second wind after getting down? The bot's got you. Need a quick updraft for your glider? It's got your back again. Overall, they are a great addition to the game and the associated mastery path is not a tedious grind either.
Graphics and performance
Canthan aesthetics have been a bit of a rollercoaster for me. Seeing Shin Jea, Kaineng, Echovald and Jade Sea provided me with various amounts of excitement and awe but some areas left me underwhelmed.
New Kaineng is perhaps the only part where ArenaNet went with quantity over quality. On the surface, the city looks great and it's absolutely massive but when you start interacting with it, it just feels bland, hollow and deserted. The streets of this huge metropolis barely have any people in them and the walls are sometimes just unnecessarily tall, leading to the feeling that Ubisoft created it.
But then you visit Shing Jea and Echovald. The former is brimming with life and looks absolutely gorgeous with its vibrant colours as you navigate the valleys, hills and waters alike.
While I really liked that area, it still couldn't compare with Echovald Wilds for me. After all, Echovald Forest stole my heart 16 years ago and I was exceedingly happy to see how much justice ANet did it in End of Dragons. The gloomy but beautiful forest where wood and stone are intervowen retains its ambience all these years later but now we can also explore it vertically.
The Kurzicks are mostly gone and with them, a degree of the gothic charm the forest once had. Then again, the forest itself was a character of its own and it is still that way today. Arborstone and House zu Heltzer are still there, faithfully recreated and now seen from new angles.
Luxon fans were not as lucky. Their Jade Sea has been exploited by Canthans and now just looks like a giant quarry with litter all over the place. The Harvest Temple and its surroundings are the only parts that still look like the old Unwaking Waters and the jade is still too green, to the point where it almost looks gaseous.
As far as the performance goes, I was highly impressed how well the game handled the scale of maps and even the massive number of players in the big meta event. This is largely thanks to DX11 integration and while it still has a few graphical glitches, there is no denying it is an enormous improvement for every player.
End of Dragons is a positive step towards a bright future in Guild Wars 2 and even though the flaws are apparent, the expansion just suffocates the negatives with the vast amount of positive things coming from it.
As such, End of Dragons is a definitive triumph for Guild Wars 2 and ArenaNet, well worth the price of admission even though the previous expansions aren't bundled in the basic purchase. A fan can hope this is the start of a road leading to a lot more content of this calibre.