My experience of going through the Catacombs dungeon at ArenaNet’s recent Fan Day was perhaps the single most enlightening experience of the entire wonderful day . It had everything – the companionship, the fun, and the visible fulfillment of many promises and bold statements on behalf of the developers. It was, effectively, a microcosm of the event as a whole: in it, one could find all the elements which defined the success of the entire venture.
By the time we hit the dungeon part of the programme, we’d spent about an hour, maybe a bit more, in-game already that day. Between that and any demo time that folks had racked up at conventions, we weren’t total strangers to the game. I spent all my game-time on Friday as a warrior, because I wanted to see how it felt compared to my memories from PAX last year, and I wanted something I was relatively familiar with to head into the dungeon. Our group consisted of two warriors, two necromancers, and a guardian – certainly a far cry from any type of ‘holy trinity,’ which bode well for testing ArenaNet’s promise that there’s no magical balance of professions that’s necessary for success. I mostly kept my longbow up, with double-axes to switch to when things got up close and personal.
What a trip! We talked to this charr dude outside some pretty-lookin’ ruins to get things started. He gave us a dialog option of story or explorable mode, although once the game actually ships you’ll have to complete the story mode in order to then unlock explorable. We were greeted immediately by the coolest intro cinematic ever – in fact, it’s so cool I’m going to go ahead and embed it here so you don’t accidentally not click a link and miss out on this.
Completely awesome, right? We obviously weren’t invested in this storyline long-term, since it was relatively isolated for us, rather than being built up to by past experiences on these characters, but it gave even us a reason to feel like the dungeon was significant, and gave us a starting mindset from which to approach the whole adventure.
I’ll admit: I went in totally paranoid, afraid this dungeon was going to just rip us to shreds and leave me a disgraced, crying mess in the corner. That actually turned out to be a pretty healthy instinct, as we had a total party kill within the first 10 minutes. There were some Vent issues going down, so communication wasn’t necessarily a strength of ours (which also explains what might otherwise be a suspicious lack of conversation about cross-profession combinations throughout this post). We rallied (not in a literal sense) after that, though, and didn’t have another party wipe for the rest of the dungeon. We were able to keep smart about our aggro and order of attack, so even though there were some intense moments and tight spots, they kept things interesting rather than just being overwhelmingly difficult.
One peculiarity is how quickly you kind of step into the way things are in the world of Guild Wars 2. For example, as we were faced with the ghosts of old professions from the original game, it took us a couple frustrating minutes to remember that we needed to kill the medic. A couple of devs admitted to having the same paradigm shift when they first went through the dungeon: you get so used to the liberating idea of not having a dedicated healing class that you forget what a nuisance they can be.
The majority of the ghosts and other monsters we came across were unsurprising – we were revisited, as I’ve mentioned, by the ghosts of professions long since put to rest, as well as a number of rather gnarly-looking specimens of the types of things that live in catacombs. Some of them weren’t any major challenge, or were so only because of how gosh darn many of them there were, while others (the once-human, mainly) posed a pretty serious threat to us as players, regardless of whether or not they were technically ‘elite’ mobs. For example, I found myself on the receiving end of a relatively nasty knock-back shot from some ghostly Ascalonian Rangers that sent my heavily-armored self tumbling head-over-tail and made me pretty quickly aware of the fact that these guys were not to be trifled with.
I have to say, the dungeon wasn’t particularly emotional for me, as it apparently was for Rubi. For one thing, I’ve always been something of a charr sympathizer, from the moment I learned that the Ascalon region was theirs long before the humans came along and usurped the area. For another, I make it a point of personal distinction not to get attached to the undead, especially when their little nega-minds have been warped by sorcerous hatred. Yes, I have fond memories of gabbing about how cute the Melandru’s Stalkers were with Master Ranger Nente, but all bets were off after he allowed his soul to be domineered and twisted by his mad king.
Speaking of Master Ranger Nente, let’s talk about the bosses in this dungeon. They are not epic on the level of the Shatterer, but they are interesting, and even in Story mode they each present a different set of considerations. Nente, for example, jumps around as only the incorporeal can do, has a couple truly annoying distance attacks, and you’re fighting him while on a particularly pesky ring of ruined masonry. (I will admit that the first [and, happily, only] time I tripped off that ledge, I was torn between vexation at having to find my way back up to the battlefield, and an absurdly giddy delight at the very fact that I was able to fall off the ledge to begin with. It was a refreshing reminder of some of the most basic limitations that GW2 has removed.) The good Master Ranger is all about watching where you put your feet and keeping a beaded eye on his vaporous self. The Lovers’ crypt (fighting Ralena Stormbringer and Vassar) switched your focus: once the little ghosties have been summoned from their eerie tombs, intersecting white rings appear on the floor around where they stand. If they get too close to each other, they unlock some truly nasty powers to throw at the players. So, where just previously you were looking at your own two feet, the emphasis switches to keeping the enemy where you want them – with the lovers apart, they’re like any other high-end mob: intimidating, perhaps, but ultimately doomed to humiliating defeat. Kasha Blackblood, the third boss in the collection, has an effect that is probably pretty unsurprising for a minion-master type: let too many of her constructs go unchecked, and she uses the little blighters to heal herself. Happily, we had enough AoE going (not to mention, likely, pure dumb luck) that I only found out about that skill of hers afterwards – we shut the minions down to a point where they weren’t really problematic.
In a way, each of these baddies and their battles comes down to control – of yourself and the mobs – and awareness – of location, your teammates, and the terrain.
Locational awareness is made all the more accessible by the ground-targeting of AoE. A white ring on the ground generally suggests that whatever is going on in there affects enemies – for example, when I as a longbow warrior fire off an arcing shot, a pale white ring shows the ground-area that is about to be full of burninated enemies. Conversely, a red circle on the ground around you means that your world is about to be very, very full of pain. One learns very quickly to be grateful for the opportunity to dodge the heck away from those little circles of terror and death. I’m told that there’s a pale blue effect when AoE heals are being laid down, but I honestly have no recollection of seeing this – which either means that nobody in our dungeon thought them necessary, or I was way back doin’ my longbow thang when folks closer to the forefront brought on the healing.
These visual cues, accompanied by a simplified mob interface ( being told one or two of the enemies’ special tricks in a general sense, rather than seeing precisely when and what skill they’re using ) really does lend an immediacy and intimacy to the combat. You learn to recognise what it means when that elementalist ghost starts turning in just such a way, you remember to keep an eye out for walls and corners that will prevent you from rolling out of the red circles of suffering, and you truly do get lost in the heat of battle. As a warrior with a longbow, I was more or less hanging back and doing my thing, but every time ‘For Great Justice!’ popped back up, I’d dash forward a bit and use it where it might do my comrades some good. While I was there, I generally had the good sense to switch to dual axes and get in some tasty hand-to-hand, before running back to take up my bow again. So things shifted, there was a definite tide to my movements, but it was determined by how I wanted to play, and it worked seamlessly (apparently) with the way that my companions wished to play – I say this because we did, after all, beat the story mode – and in a quite respectable time, if I do say so myself.
All of this experience, which was quite nearly overwhelming all on its own, was augmented and enhanced by the presence of the developers themselves. We had Will Fairfield, a dungeon designer assigned to be our guiding light, walking around making helpful suggestions when we seemed to need them, and a self-appointed peanut gallery making potentially less-helpful suggestions whether we needed them or not. The beautiful Izari and myself were sat with our backs to a row of empty chairs, which a handful of devs took turns inhabiting. From this vantage point they felt free to comment on my play style (Izzie ended up having some sort of connection problem due to being on a demo timer and ended up moving to a different computer while Mike Zadorojny tried to see whether or not he could maneuver through the very matrix of the game itself to get a character into a dungeon in which it had no right to be), events of the dungeon, and anything else that crossed their merry minds. I got to hear where they’d had problems with a dungeon, discuss whether or not I though two characters seemed to have similar behavioral quirks (no, I shan’t name character names – there has to be something for you to discover on your own), and generally had to attempt to keep myself from getting distracted from the mission at hand by entirely enjoyable conversation. (That’s all well and good, might I add, until it’s crunch-time, you’re faced with an onslaught of vicious, mindless spider-babies and there’s someone in the background insisting “Double axes! Whirling Axe! Use Whirling Axe!” while you back frantically away from the seething horde of venomous nasties. )
For those of you eager for a visual representation of this experience, I suggest you check out GuildCast’s video and screen-shot gallery, as I had the ability to compile neither. Rubi, excellent woman that she is, has more than made up for that. The entire dungeon was beautiful – the architecture, the mobs, the skills, everything. Of course, the artistic side of ArenaNet will have to be part of a whole different post, as it was yet another of the most significant elements of the day.
There is a great deal to discuss and recount from that trip, many things that I appreciated as a fan of the game, a fan of games in general, and on an even broader scale. But this dungeon? It had it all. I didn’t really need reassurance that ArenaNet was going to live up to its word regarding the goals they’d set for making this game absolutely wonderful, but if I had entertained such qualms, our fifty-or-so minutes inside the catacombs would have more than laid them – much like those Ascalonian ghosts – to rest.
About the author: Elixabeth has been a Guild Wars fan since the release of Nightfall, and is now eagerly awaiting the release of Guild Wars 2. To bide the time, she began fiddling around with the online GW community and takes great pleasure combining two of her great loves (writing and games) here at TalkTyria. Follow her on Twitter, if you like!