Exploring the Catacombs: the Good, the Glorious & the Endless Pain-train
I started off writing a short article with no spoilers, detailing the weekend affair between the AC Explorable Mode Dungeon and me, but it was shaping to be a GW2 puff piece without much substance. So here's the deal - ahead is a wall of text, built on top of spoilers and held by together by blood, sweat and editor's tears. I know it's intimidating, but the view from the top might just be worth it. PREMISE
I ran the Ascalon Catacombs Story-mode dungeon with two different characters in previous GW2 events and each time held back judgement. For one, it was a finely crafted dungeon - perhaps the truest to this name that I have visited in any MMO since the dawn of internet gaming - the setting and architecture were fitting, it has traps, actual lore-drenched NPC assistants, logical enemies or, the one word to tie all of the above together, AC has atmosphere. It just felt like a real dungeon. Further, it emphasizes the game mechanics beautifully - perhaps a party could have bullied its way through with sheer stubbornness, spawn-running and a few lucky dodges, but if you put at least a little effort into providing support and assisting downed players, the going is fast and relatively painless.
Yet that was exactly it. The story mode would not have been a challenge for any experienced or organized group and served the purpose of being the introduction to Guild Wars 2 instanced dungeon content. With the leap Arena Net is taking towards redefining “the end game”, it falls to the Explorable mode dungeons to hand out the titles for PvE Bad-Assery and Being-Better than anything the developers could throw at you. So did it work? I completed two and bashed my head against the third Explorable mode this weekend and below is what I remember after the swelling went down.
GETTING STARTED & CAN YOU PUG IT?
If you have kicked it around in MMOs games, you must shiver with dread at the mention of PuGs. Pick-up Groups are the massive multiplayer idea of gambling - you bet your personal time on the outcome of you and a bunch of strangers being thrown in a dungeon designed to punish bad party play. It is a noble idea in theory, with the promise of blossoming in-game friendships and roots dating back to the days of tabletop D&D gaming when heroes met in village X and discovered they share a quest to defeat the great evil (or in recent MMO terms, to gather their class gear), but PuG-ing for top-tier content has given birth to numerous horror stories.
At just level 35, the Explorable Mode of the Ascalonian Catacombs is definitely top-tier content. When it comes to a team, I had two of my guild mates with me and happened on the same two players we completed the normal instance with in April. (Narina, Vyra - If you read this, thank you for being pretty awesome, fellas! :)). We were not concerned with professions, trusting in Arena's claim that every setup should be able to finish every dungeon, but for those interested, the party make-up was guardian, ranger, necromancer, warrior and mesmer. For me, it was more important to approach this the right way and with the right set of mind - we knew it will be difficult, it will take hours, things might not go according to plan, bring on the challenge. That kind of thing. Further, we went in geared up to the teeth, with decent armor, crafted 35 masterwork weapons and accessories and plenty of utility skills unlocked. Lastly, most of us (and later, all of us) got on Mumble.
DId all of this make the difference? You bet. However, in preparation of the Explorable mode, there are two things more important than anything else - to have patience and to understand how to play with others.
THE PAIN-TRAIN OR HOW ENCOUNTERS WORK
Following the weekend, my guildmates and I had several people tell us they got to the first room only to get stuck at the Spider or they called it a night in the face of Lieutenant Kholer’s one-shot team-fatality combo (the first encounter to award Ascalonian Tears, by the way, which are the currency that allows you to acquire the dungeon set). I admit to feeling a little pride to have succeeded where others did not, but that actually gives me a chance to talk about how Guild Wars 2 encounters are designed.
Another current MMO developer (The Secret World’s own Funcom), made a point of stressing how their dungeon encounters slowly scale and introduce a new mechanic with each new one, only to combine all of those in the final showdown. Sure, it is logical, but in my opinion this makes for a somewhat poor and predictable experience and further, is a form of hand holding, which MMO players as a rule scoff at. Especially when it is done out in the open. Not so with Arena Net, though - they are a subtle bunch.
Here’s the thing: going into that dungeon you already finished the story mode and know the basics. The first challenge sets the bar for how well your party needs to work together to complete the dungeon. Except for one encounter down the road, the Spider Queen ties for the second nastiest fight in the whole Catacombs.The large AoE that appeared to merely tickle in the March dungeon-build that Totalbiscuit cast now kills in seconds. The adds apply poison. The Spider hits like an ugly and on top of all, casts an immobilize, which is often a death sentence. Lieutenant Kholer’s fight, on the other hand, takes place on the same arena where you had your final encounter in the Story mode. Much like then, you have to be mindful of a pull that drops you at his feet and downs all but the most armor & protection-heavy players in the following aoe. But you know what, that’s ok.
Fact is, boss encounters are designed around the idea you will not avoid every mechanic and this is what makes the fights hard and entertaining. Getting a fallen party member up mid-fight, as silly as this will sound, gives you the one boon not in the wiki - party morale. If it is not safe to be revived, you could port to the nearest waypoint. Most encounters do not segment the dungeon and boil down to You or He/She/It/Them, time limit none. Many times we had one or two players remaining in the fight by the pimples on the skin of their teeth, while the others did the pain train (choo-choo) and sprinted from the nearest waypoint to rejoin, jumping with anticipation as if it would make them go faster (well, I jumped, the others ran like the normal, adjusted people they are ><).
Agree - if you were to go down in other MMO titles, that would be it. Barring a combat rez, you will be studying the floor/ceiling for the remainder of the fight, twiddling your thumbs or maybe take a bathroom break (but there's a limit even to that). This design makes combat experience linear and narrows a player’s role and responsibility. Yes, working within a limiting scope of rules does comfortable and safe, but one thing we should not do is short-change ourselves as players - much like adulthood, a lot of us tend to grow up as the responsibility that is given to us increases. Recognizing this (I hope), Arena makes us all equally responsible for the lives of our party and the outcome of the whole fight. A lot to handle for someone used to the old class mechanics, but later in that first dungeon run, faced with an obstacle that repeatedly kicked my party’s butt, I found I had it in me to be better - more focused, stubborn and driven - and the rewards increased accordingly.
Therein lies the success of the Explorable Mode - it is five man content that is punishing enough to seriously challenge ambitious players, while making you feel the weight of your individual contribution to the success. The full, shining one-fifth of it, regardless of profession!
BUT HOW HARD IS IT, REALLY?
Right now, couple of days after the fact, I am still confused about it - ACEM (lets read it as ace 'em) is both too hard and not enough.
Let me give you some context. I believe that it will not be long before players get the hang of the Spider Queen and Kholer fights. The biggest factor is accepting that combat works differently in Guild Wars 2, you are expected to die, get revived or run back and the rest is just a repetition of the game mechanics - dodge, assist, avoid, damage, buff, debuff. What will separate the better players from the rest is being faster with the dodge, smarter with the positioning and generally, staying alive in an encounter a little longer while actively engaging a boss.
Those first two fights (including a champion graveling in-between and the Cave "Random Event" Troll champion that might join the Spider Queen fight - yes, thank you, Arena Net, for trolling us twice!! ) are the same regardless of which scenario you pick. Of the three NPCs at the start - Deetha, Tzark and Hodgins - we went with the Asura as he made the best argument. If the dungeon was to collapse, he said, we could not possibly get all the loot. At least that’s what I remember from that conversation.
It wasn’t painless, but soon enough we arrived at the Lovers’ Crypt, the destination of Tzark’s first unique NPC event for his branch of the Explorable Mode. I’ll try to explain it as vaguely as possible. There’s a bar that has to reach 100%, a graveling invasion that tries to destroy two NPC gizmos and us, attempting to stop them. We spent the next two or three hours of our lives in that room, breaking only to craft new weapons so we could squeeze every bit of damage out. We learnt details of each other's professions, tried out a dozen combinations and almost every attempt played a little better individually and together and progressed a little further towards the end. That end was as shameful as it was glorious - four of us were down, the progress bar was at 98%, one of the gizmos was destroyed and only one player stood between a horde of 30-40 gravelings and the other device (a lone Marine vs a wave of zerglings, mixed with Giant mutant zerglings, if you’re looking for an association). I won't judge our brave mesmer if he pissed his robes.
That encounter made me a better player (or let us rather say it brought out the better player I already was, which is poetic stuff!) and further, it did something that I have mentioned before as the selling point of GW2 - it manages to create emotional memory out of small scale, everyday content, be it PvE or PvP. Few days later, I can trace our progress in my mind and say it probably wasn’t such a big deal. The memory of how it felt beating it persists and is likely to stick around for a long while.
The rest of the dungeon introduced nothing new and had I not been on a serious high from getting through the previous event, I would feel disappointed. The end boss, for all its size, was particularly easy, almost as if they were letting us have this one as a reward for getting there. It turned out that was the case with the next branch of the Explorable Mode, following Deetha this time. This being the story line we had already seen in the TotalBiscuit cast, it was neither surprising nor hard and in fact the equivalent of that big, punishing event from our first run took all of 3 tries, 15 minutes and some well placed aoe traps to slow, cripple & immobilize, as well as a wurm for distraction. (I want to say I have mixed feelings about this particular encounter, as it took skill-based play out of our hands and replaced it with well timed pulling of chains and a few gimmicky utility skills). The last boss was interesting & varied, but not particularly challenging, proven by the fact I crashed to the desktop, zoned back in, leisurely ran the whole way back and of the four that kept fighting none had yet to kiss the floor.
I tried to tell myself that perhaps we had just gotten that much better at working together as a party, but no - the third branch of the Explorable dungeon, following Hodgins, the human, showed it to not be the case. There is, currently, a serious discrepancy between the difficulty levels of Deetha's (the Charr) explorable branch and those of the others two. We gave up on Hodgins’ special event, it being late, somewhat buggy (a player got stuck outside the room twice) and, well, hard. You are to protect him, a fragile NPC, while destroying graveling burrows that spawn mobs whose sole purpose is to cause you or Hodgins pain and neither he nor us could take a lot. Even though we felt we might have arrived at the right tactic, it felt like we would need those 30 point elite skills or a lot of luck to pull it off.
CONCLUSION or DID ARENA NET PULL IT OFF?
While I think of myself and my guildmates as above-average, skilled players, we are not particularly bothered by being the best, most efficient or most elite. One of the things that the Explorable Mode dungeons emphasize for us and what has been key in sticking together as a guild is trust. Trust that the others are giving as much as you and are mindful of their part in your fun. Were our runs what we hoped for? Yes! Fun, challenging, surprising. They could be more, however.
For one, the dungeon progression is uneven - I am not complaining of that, but it seems odd that the final encounters are easier than the first one (even if they are more entertaining). This is a subject to tweaking and feedback and I hope there were many groups that managed to finish the Explorable Modes, shared a look, said "Ok, did the rest of you guys just play with only one hand?" (true story, badasses over here ...) and gave their input. Here is ours - buff those final bosses, they should make players sweat tears, blood & gamer beverage of choice! Secondly, at this point one of the scenarios is much easier than the other two and, as the players with me noted, would likely end up being the one ‘farmed’ for the Ascalonian Tears, with which you buy the dungeon set.
At the end of the day, though, we had just ran a unfinalized build of the introductory dungeon and, like with the rest of the game, Arena Net broke the conventions and delivered a fresh and challenging experience, trolled us (literary), made me feel like a champ more than once and revealed a little more of the story of Tyria. Also, had the audacity to hide a demo for something like a puzzle at the back of Tzark’s dungeon branch and not include a chest! You owe me loot, ANET, you hear!! But thanks for the rest - was a blast.