And now, for something completely different. Regular readers of this little e-space may recall that I play Guild Wars 2, The Secret World and World of Warcraft at variable rates. Irregular readers know this now, so hey, level playing field. In the review hiding behind that link, I praised Guild Wars 2 for its laissez-faire attitude and everything-goes approach to levelling and PVP. It’s a design choice I really appreciate: while I don’t have the actual numbers here, an incredibly unscientific estimate would be that in the last month or so I’ve played Guild Wars 2 about five times as much as World of Warcraft and The Secret World put together.
This article is not about that.
In that earlier review, I also ominously note that “…I’m hearing mixed reports about the PvE dungeons“. I hadn’t played any dungeons at that point, hence the reservation.
I have played Guild Wars 2 dungeons now. Ascalonian Catacombs and Cadeceus’ Manor in Story and Explorable and Twilight Arbor in Story, for those of you keeping score. I’ve also played the first two dungeon instances in Mists of Pandaria (that is, Temple of the Jade Serpent and Stormstout Brewery) a few times. In honour of this dual perspective, and because of certain environmental factors (more on that later), I decided to write an article critiquing the dungeons of Guild Wars 2; an article I tentatively like to subtitle:
“Why Guild Wars 2′s instanced dungeons should be jettisoned out of the nearest airlock.”
On October 5th, 2012, a Guild Wars 2 dungeon party was formed consisting of me, the ever-elusive JPH, career me-impersonator krellen, Eikosi League co-founder and general nerd godfather Shamus and relatively newcomer Hoffenbachager, who, yes, we did call Hoff all the time. Our goal was simple: to complete a run of the Ascalonian Catacombs, Explorable Mode, third path. Spirits were high; optimism, palpable.
Four hours later, we left the dungeon. Defeated, dejected, broken. We had defeated maybe six encounters: one warm-up fight, two trash packs, one ‘optional’ boss and two regular bosses (a giant spider and a ghost man). None of these encounters had been easy, and Ghost Man Kohler had hurt our morale significantly, but we soldiered on regardless.
Then the Graveling Burrows event happened. I’ll refer the interested reader over to krellen for a more detailed description of what this event entails, but know that it involved about three hours of meticulous planning, coordinated efforts, and abject failure at every turn. We were, in short, rebuffed.
On that day, a pact was formed. Each of us would, in their own way, write on Guild Wars 2′s dungeon experience. It would not be kind. What you read before you now is the result of my anger; an anger coloured by my recent-updated knowledge of how instanced MMO dungeons can work.
Game design and dungeon flow
As mentioned, I have fairly recent experience with several dungeons of both the Guild Wars 2 and Mists of Pandaria variety. For my article, I figured I would attempt to juxtapose the two, and in doing so, explain why Guild Wars 2′s dungeon experience is as generally miserable as it is.
I feel there are two issues at play here. One is an issue with the game design in general, revolving around the ‘Holy Trinity’, while the other deals with dungeon design directly, mostly incorporating matters of flow.
If you speak MMO, you’ll likely know what the so-called ‘Holy Trinity’ refers to. For those of you who don’t, a summary: in many MMO games, the larger boss fights depend on players specializing themselves into certain roles. Taking damage, healing damage, doing damage: Tank, healer, DPS. This system allows groups of players to defeat enemies that are leagues stronger than each of them individually, in a carefully coordinated manner. While World of Warcraft by no means pioneered this system, there is no question that it has perfected its implementation of it over the years; as a result, this trinity of player roles is now virtually everywhere.
Now, the Holy Trinity (dropping the air quotes now) is not a bad thing, per se. The existence of a framework frees the designers from having to start from scratch on every single bossfight, and it frees the players from having to figure out those fights from scratch. No matter what comes, you’ll need tanks, healers and DPs, right? And while simple fights in this method can be rather boring — the eponymous ‘tank ‘n spank’ — World of Warcraft has shown that there’s plenty of wiggle room to work interesting mechanics into it. On the other hand, the existence of the framework is limiting: it forces players to group up in certain ways and only in certain ways, which tends to create shortages: ‘LF1M Need Healer’, that sort of thing. Class/role balance is also a pernicuous thing: for fun, try asking any Vanilla WoW player about levelling a Prot Warrior and see what happens.
(Anecdote: I quested with a Prot-specced Warrior friend in the early days of Burning Crusade, once. we got a quest to kill ten of some animal or another. By the time he had managed to kill one of them, I had killed the other nine.)
Guild Wars 2 has attempted to do away with this Holy Trinity-centered design altogether. Each of the eight classes has their own healing abilities, which (in theory) alleviates the need for focused healing — though certain classes, like the Elementalist, can still do this fairly well — and there do not appear to be any aggro-related skills, which not so much alleviates the need for tanks as simply makes it impossible to tank. Each class is handed a set of offensive, defensive and utility skills; survival, we are told, is a matter of personal attention and good teamwork.
Which is a neat idea and all, but it seems like Guild Wars 2′s dungeon designers didn’t get this memo: the encounters and boss fights in the various dungeons seem almost tailor-made for a tank/heal/DPS setup. When your boss is one big dude, with strong, hard-to-dodge attacks, a party of five equal jacks-of-all-trades is going to get progressively smacked around. One encounter in Ascalonian Catacombs Story depends on dragging two bosses away from each other, which almost seems to presuppose aggro mechanics. And if the fights consists of a near-endless wave of small spawns… my first instinct is ‘tank grabs them all while the DPS does AoE’. A party of World of Warcraft characters could have done it easily, in fact: I made a similar joke somewhere during our third hour in and was met with only agreement. I think it was right after yet another failure where we all individually got killed by Gravelings, unable to help each other shake them as we ran around the map like highly confused pinballs.
This is problem one: the encounters you face in Guild Wars 2′s dungeons are incredibly at odds with the encounters you face in Guild Wars 2′s everywhere else. To do well in the dungeons, you have to emulate a system that doesn’t actually exist, facing bosses whose design presupposes the existence of that system.
Guild Wars 2′s dungeons flow like a jello waterfall: there’s definitely movement going on, and you can almost somewhat see the appeal from a distance, but it’s clearly a bad idea and the fact that it exists means someone, somewhere, hasn’t been doing their job properly.
It is here that I make the inevitable comparison to World of Warcraft. WoW’s dungeons are, flow-wise, generally a treat. Boss encounters tend to escalate in difficulty, each fight has more-or-less appropriate rewards, trash mobs are used to keep tension high and tie the whole together thematically, and while I wouldn’t want to imply dungeons start off slow, every dungeon has a clear semi-climactic final boss, usually significantly bigger (if not meaner) than those that came before.
Or, for that matter, take the dungeons in The Secret World. Each one is built around one or two core mechanics, and every encounter — every trash pack, bossfight and environmental danger — is designed to teach you how to deal with these mechanics. The final boss incorporates everything, and mastery of the dungeon’s theme means mastery of the fight.
Guild Wars 2′s dungeon design can be best described with the phrase ‘slap-dash’. Encounters are simply strung together with almost no sense of connecting rhyme or reason and relative power levels are all over the place: I’m all for suspension of disbelief, but the first boss in Cadeceus’ Manor (a massive fire-spitting golem) is equally dangerous to the second boss (a regular human Door Guard), and the trash-NPC ambush in the next room. There’s no escalating difficulty at all: there’s random difficulty. Succes or failure on any given challenge has absolutely no bearing on your chance of success on the following fights.
Mechanically, the fights are a mess too. Guild Wars 2 is generally very forgiving of player death: besides a little ‘armor repair’ money sink, you are free to immediately respawn at a waypoint of your choice. The problem is that this works in dungeons too. And worse, there is absolutely no system in place to prevent players from simply running back into a fight-in-progress. Hell, with the lack of aggro mechanics I described earlier in place, this often feels like the only way to actually win. It’s how we beat the ghost-luitenant: a joyless slog of running through identical hallways, dodging unremovable insta-kill traps, hoping that at least one player would stay alive for long enough to stave off the boss’ health-regeneration. Trash mobs killed don’t respawn if the encounter resets, either; at times, I felt I was playing Bioshock, Vita-Chambering my way to victory one death at a time.
This is not to say Guild Wars 2 doesn’t punish players for dying, of course: go down too often and your armor breaks, forcing you into more expensive repairs. The game has only a tiny indicator of this actually happening, so when smaller pieces of armor — like gloves or shoes, or the optionally-invisible helmets and shoulderpads — break down, only your own perception can prevent you from wading into battle in sub-optimal gear. The image of Shamus’ character standing around in her underpants, suddenly alerted to her advanced state of armor-decay by sheer force of visual indicator, became iconic for our doomed dungeon-delve. It happened more often that you’d think.
And to top everything off, Guild Wars 2′s dungeons are incredibly reward-sparse. While most bosses drop massive treasure chests, the actual rewards are relatively lacklustre: unlike World of Warcraft, where dungeon gear is often significantly better than anything else at a comparable level, in Guild Wars 2 it is remarkably easy to find magic, uncommon and rare items everywhere you go. There’s no oomph to the loot, is what I’m saying. Furthermore, dungeons are strongly back-loaded: in Story Mode, the quest-completion XP and first-time item are given out only at the end; in Explorable Mode, you can collect tokens that can be traded in for cool, visually-themed armor and weapons… if you manage to get all the way to the end. Again, World of Warcraft tends to hand tokens like these out per bossfight; in Guild Wars 2, it’s an all-or-nothing deal. In our case, it was nothing.
Christ, what a ramble.
Guild Wars 2′s dungeons are not fun. I’d go as far as saying they’re the anti-fun: every run of an Explorable Mode I’ve ever done has further sapped my desire to do more. I will still do the story mode of each dungeon I haven’t done yet, once, because the dungeons further the game’s main story, and because anything involving Destiny’s Edge is like watching a bus full of nazi clowns drive off a cliff: hilariously schadenfreude-filled and completely morally scot-free*.
In summary, don’t do Guild Wars 2 Explorable Mode dungeons. I don’t care if you can do them: I have no delusions about my own skill vs. the skill of people who actually try their best. But each of them, to a tee, is a poorly designed mess of bad encounters and frustration, and there are so many better things you could be doing with your life.
*Seriously though. These idiots couldn’t even save their way out of a wet cardboard box.**
**Not a structurally sound one, either: one of those cardboard boxes that always breaks during the first move.