Review: Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns - Fractals of the Mists Revamp

Before I get started--hi! I'm starting to blog again. Check out my about page to get an idea of what you can expect here: http://opt.red/about

So, Guild Wars 2's first expansion came out a couple weeks ago, and I'm pretty dang pleased with it.

I've spent an unreasonable amount of time just gliding around Lost Precipice, TWIT's guild hall.

I've spent an unreasonable amount of time just gliding around Lost Precipice, TWIT's guild hall.

Chances are that if you're reading this, you're already a Guild Wars 2 player or you're at least familiar with it. If you enjoyed the original release, you should definitely come back and try out the expansion. I'm biased, but if you're new to the series now is also a great time to jump in and learn all the new stuff alongside the rest of the community.

This isn't a sales pitch though--I want to get my thoughts out there about what I think Heart of Thorns did well and what I'd like to see from future updates. With the level of detail I like to go into things though, I could sit here forever and never publish a single word. I think my best shot is to take things one discrete, verbose step at a time.

I thought I'd start by taking a look at one of my most-frequented pieces of content: Fractals.

Fractals of the Mists were first introduced a couple of months after GW2 launched in 2012, pitched as a series of scaling minidungeons that would be tweaked and added to incrementally over time. The updates in practice have not been small or frequent--about a year later they saw a major update that added several new instances, some questionably-fun new mechanics, and a hell of a lot of bugs. Despite fan skepticism, ArenaNet says it sees Fractals as part of the future of instanced PvE content in GW2 and used the expansion as an opportunity to release more big changes to Fractals. This time around, I think they've set Fractals in a new direction that I really like, and will be good for their popularity!

By far, my favorite change to Fractals is that they take less time to play.

Did I mention how absurdly happy I am with Reaper? More on that in another post!

Before HoT, a single run of Fractals contained three random Fractals followed by a random Boss Fractal, making four "Islands" in total. This made it difficult to determine how long a Fractal run was going to take--if your group was unlucky and got Cliffside, Thaumanova, and Jade Maw, you were easily in for at least an hour even if you didn't get stuck on anything. Learning the higher-level Fractals essentially meant setting aside your afternoon or evening, or you'd risk having to leave early, losing your progress towards daily loot.

With the update, each Difficulty Scale is a single pre-determined Island--Scale 1 will always be Ascalon, Scale 2 will always be Swamp, and so on. Completing the Island sends you back to the Fractal lobby where you can repair armor and manage your inventory. This is a conceptually simple change, but its implications are huge. By removing both the randomness of Island selection and reducing the number of Islands in each session, ArenaNet has made Fractals approachable for everyone that can't block off a huge chunk of their day. You can quickly get in a couple of Fractal runs and get the full rewards and progression from your play time. I've been a lot more comfortable using the LFG tool too--everyone I've picked up has been competent and polite, and if I did get stuck with a jerk it would only be for a short time.

Even as somebody who had time to dedicate to progressing in the original, longer Fractal format, I think this change is very positive. There was a certain inherent stress to the old format--running 4 Islands back-to-back was more intense and tiring, especially if the group got saddled with longer or more difficult encounters. I don't think it added to the fun or challenge of Fractals, it just reduced their accessibility. With an explicit return to the safety of the Mistlock Observatory after each Island, my brain gets a chance to relax before diving into the next encounter. As a result, I've found it strangely easier to tackle four or more Fractals in one day. Perhaps this is purely a personal thing, but I'm grateful for the change.

Fractals and Raids have often been mentioned together in ArenaNet's spiels about instanced PvE content, and I think this change is an example of the two-pronged approach's effectiveness. While Raids will be super-difficult content that will have your guild bashing its collective face in on a planned and organized basis, Fractals lend themselves to a more ad hoc, drop-in/drop-out approach. Don't have all day to get killed by a raid boss? Get some guildies together, fill out the last spot or two on LFG, and you're off to the Fractals.

Agony is better explained, and is less of a barrier to new players.

In the way Fractals used to work, many players felt like they couldn't get started due to a catch-22: How do I start earning Agony Resistance if I have none? It was difficult to know whether the next tier of Agony was going to merely tickle you, or knock you on your ass. Agony also kicked in early, and due the random nature of Fractal selection newbies might not have even seen every Fractal yet! Folks who were building up their AR for the first time would always be running to the wiki to make sure they had enough, and people who had memorized the Agony scaling formula would chime in as if anybody would understand them (10 AR at scales 10-19, and +15 AR for every 10 scales after that--duh!) It was a confusing time.

Fortunately, those days of guessing-and-checking and the associated anxiety are over. The introduction of gear-checking Agony mechanics was delayed from Scale 10 to Scale 20 along with the maximum scale being raised from 50 to 100. This gives new Fractal runners ample opportunity to learn the all but two of the different Fractals with no Agony while they earn their first Ascended rings (hah) and Agony Resistance infusions. There's even a guaranteed drop early on to ensure everyone has at least a little AR as they get started. Should newbies need a boost when they start running the Scale 20 Fractals, the Fractal Attunement mastery unlocks a consumable that grants 10 non-stacking AR.

While the wiki is still a detailed resource, there are now a couple of in-game ways to know if you have enough Agony Resistance before you start playing. Each Scale now has a "Recommended Agony Resistance" rating that appears in the top-right UI in the lobby. If you're short on AR, the lobby also has an little, angry, red mote that inflicts Agony on you when you touch it. You can use this to gauge whether you'll be able to survive the extra damage.

Agony attacks typically come from bosses, but not all of the attacks were easy to see due to the overwhelming number of effects typically on screen. Fortunately, this has been addressed by a big, angry, red effect that appears on the boss when it's going to inflict Agony. This is very effective at conveying which attacks need to be avoided the most.

This tell from the Archdiviner used to not have any effects, but that big red cloud makes it a lot easier to spot!

This tell from the Archdiviner used to not have any effects, but that big red cloud makes it a lot easier to spot!

Difficulty Scaling: More of the same?

Difficulty scaling is a blessing to Fractals as much as it's a curse. It lets the developers give the same maps and creatures multiple difficulty levels and replay value without starting from scratch, but whether players will embrace it comes down to a mix of how it's implemented and the path of least resistance it creates.

Fractals have a new difficulty scaling system with HoT, and the results are mixed. Let's start with the positive: everything from scale 1 to 50 feels pretty good! An experienced party can fly through the low scales with ease. Some of the encounters in the 30 through 50 range can feel a bit slow, but I think this is more to do with the new Mistlock Instabilities (more on these in a bit) rather than scaling. At these scales it's never felt like a boss had too much health, there were too many trash mobs, or imperceptible basic attacks were downing me in one hit. Those all seem like indicators of effective scaling to me.

The highest I've gotten beyond 50 so far is into the high 50s and mid 60s, but it's already apparent that the scaling on the high end needs some tuning. My chief complaint is that mobs and bosses seem to have not just scaling health, but scaling toughness--not only do you need to smack them more, but each smack deals less damage. It seems fair to expect high-level groups to have better damage output than lower-level groups, but it's not right to make direct damage less effective at the same time. If taken to its logical extent, this will push high-level players towards exclusively Condition Damage-based builds to bypass the toughness scaling. The infamous "PvE 'zerker meta" did go on for too long, but forcing a condition meta in Fractals only shifts that problem rather than solves it. Both kinds of builds should be balanced and viable.

Rewards get their own long section further down, but the reward-for-time ratio just isn't there for the upper-level Fractals yet. Once you've done them once, it's more efficient to stick to the lower and easier levels. At the end of the day, content that takes longer because you can't hit as hard isn't fun and works against the goal of making Fractal sessions shorter overall. I hope the across-the-board toughness scaling will be removed in the future. 

The updated Mistlock Instabilities are a big improvement.

Mostly.

This update introduces a new lineup of Mistlock Instabilities, the varying mechanics meant to change your group's tactics and keep things interesting. All but one of them are brand new, and the later levels have you deal with two at once. The good ones shine because they add a new challenge or penalty that wasn't there before, but also leave a couple of opportunities to adapt and overcome. When enemies apply random conditions to you on hit, you can counter by slotting some more condition removal than usual, or you can play it more risky and just try really hard not to get hit. When enemies explode on death, fight at range or get out of the way!

However, if we spoke privately in the couple of weeks after HoT released, I may have been quite down on the new Instabilities. That's because the first two are the least interesting of the whole bunch. Scales 31-40 will remove all your boons when you dodge--huh?! Dodging is a fundamental and mandatory mechanic of GW2's combat system, and removing all boons only serves to slow down the group's damage by removing Might and Fury stacks. Similarly, Scales 41-50 add random boons to enemies every time they're critically hit. In practice, this means every enemy will have nearly every boon after a couple of seconds, and they get reapplied so fast that there's no hope of removing them. This isn't a bad mechanic in principle like the dodging one, but some opportunity to counter it is missing. Like Toughness scaling, enemies with permanent Protection and Regeneration only serve to drag out encounters in a boring way.

Setting aside that bad first impression, this new iteration on Instabilities is great. There were a couple of good ones from the old lineup that didn't come back, notably the random Mossman attacks and lightning strikes. Those were well-balanced, and always got some spirited cursing out of my guildies on TeamSpeak.

Fractals has a new Legendary backpack collection, and naturally, I'm all over it.

Dat feel when even the NPCs have cooler backpacks than you...

Dat feel when even the NPCs have cooler backpacks than you...

Literally the first thing you'll see when you enter the Fractal lobby for the first time is a new NPC wearing the new Legendary backpack, Ad Infinitum. It's like someone took a bunch of Fractal Capacitors and smashed them into a set of levitating, technomagical wings. Wow! I sure hope I can use it as a Glider skin in the jungle maps...once I get it.

As of this writing I've completed Finite Result, first precursor collection. Some of the fractals had special Challenge Modes in the Scale 1-20 range I needed to complete--fight the Mossman and Jellyfish bosses with 80% healing reduction, and kill the Jade Maw in under 5 minutes. These were pretty easy, but I expected as much since it's the first collection of three. I traded some Dark Energy to an Aetherblade Quartermaster for a recruitment form. Doing business with high-tech pirates seemed like a really bad idea, but hey--shiny backpacks are important. There were a couple of scavenger hunt things--dip the Frozen Maw's Ice Elemental core in the magma of the Volcanic Fractal, and experiment on some Swampland moss at a lab in Metrica Province. After a couple Fractal Relic sinks and an onerous 14-day time gate I finally got the actual crafting recipe. Crafting the first precursor required rank 500 in at least one of the 6 main disciplines and a big chunk of materials. The next collection, Upper Bound, is very similar and focuses on challenges in the 21-50 range.

All in all it's been a fun precursor journey so far, and doesn't seem too intense for a backpack. Yet.

Let's talk about rewards--I mean, shinies!

In true Asuran fashion, this collection is full of math and logic jokes. They may be vendor junk, but the hilariously-titled books net 5 gold a pop!

In true Asuran fashion, this collection is full of math and logic jokes. They may be vendor junk, but the hilariously-titled books net 5 gold a pop!

Rewards have been a traditional area of weakness for Fractals, and the changes have attracted a lot of ire on Reddit too. It's not all doom and gloom though--I think several of the changes are not only thematically fun, but they'll work out favorably in the long run too.

My favorite change to the rewards is the way Fractal Daily achievements have been reworked. There's now 5 daily achievements in the UI: Daily Adept (1-20,) Daily Journeyman (21-50,) Daily Master (51-100,) and a Daily Recommended Fractal below Scale 20. Advancing your Fractal Attunement Mastery will unlock a second Daily Recommended Fractal in the 21-50 range. Again, there's limited incentive to run higher-level Fractals--considering the current scaling issues perhaps that's for the best.

The first new reward system you're likely to notice is the Fractal Encryption lockboxes and the Encryption Keys needed to open them. Keys are awarded from the new daily achievements, and can also be purchased from one of the lobby vendors. These boxes contain (valuable) vendor trash that progresses a new collection, +1 Agony Infusions, Ascended recipes, mini cat golems, and other knickknacks. The wiki claims that there's a super-rare chanced for an Aetherized weapon skin--I'll believe that when I see it.

Kitty golems! There's a collection for upgrading multiple Mini Professor Mews until you can create a set of all 4, which awards you with a Mini Old Tom. I love silly stuff like this, so you can bet I'll be opening those Encryptions.

Kitty golems! There's a collection for upgrading multiple Mini Professor Mews until you can create a set of all 4, which awards you with a Mini Old Tom. I love silly stuff like this, so you can bet I'll be opening those Encryptions.

You might have come into this post having made up your mind that Fractal rewards are crap, and now you think I'm crazy because I'm not frothing at the mouth alongside you. Look--I've made peace with the fact I'm not gonna get rich playing Fractals. I like playing Fractals. I like helping my guildies build their skills and confidence as they advance to the higher levels. Honestly, opening the economically-questionable RNG boxes is a guilty pleasure--the risk is low, and I'm not gonna go broke from opening the boxes I get as drops. Once I don't need them anymore, I can sell them on the TP. There's not much much to be gained from repeating the higher difficulty scales yet, but there's still plenty of fun to be had in the low and mid-tiers.

This update actually solved my single biggest rewards complaint: you can finally buy Fractal Weapons of your choice. Hooray!

If you wanted to read a complaint though...

The ability to salvage Ascended gear was introduced--anyone with a bank tab or alt full of useless Ascended rings will tell you how overdue some worthwhile way to get rid of them was. Rejoice--salvaging these once-useless rings is an efficient way to acquire Stabilizing Matrices. You'll need many Matrices to craft the Legendary backpack, and they're also the most efficient way to buy additional Fractal Encryption Keys. I'm currently averaging about 4 Matrices per ring salvage, which works out better than buying Keys outright at 20 silver a pop. This is well worth it for anyone working on any of their Fractal collections--if you simply hate rings (don't we all?) Stabilizing Matrices can be sold on the Trading Post too.

Are you kidding me?

Are you kidding me?

Unfortunately, that's the only good thing I have to say about this new salvage system. Ascended salvaging requires a brand new salvage tool that costs 1 gold per use! This cost is ridiculous because the yields from anything besides rings are pathetically bad and do not correlate with the high cost of crafting the gear in the first place. Most of my non-ring salvages gave me nothing but a handful of +1 Agony Infusions, and only a couple gave another new material, Balls of Dark Energy, needed for crafting the legendary backpack. Ascended rings cannot give dark energy. Between how little you get and the fact Ascended gear boxes do not drop anymore, salvaging weapons and armor seems like a complete waste. If you have gear with stats you don't want, you're better off using an Anthology of Heroes to convert it to something useful.

There's a new set of gold fractal weapons introduced with HoT, and I lucked into a shortbow about a week after launch from one of my daily chests. They have starry sparkles around them instead of the white trails left by the regular fractal weapons. I don't know if this is true for all the weapons, but the shortbow has much more of a matte finish when actually equipped, rather than the super-shiny chrome that appears in the preview window.

If gold-sparkly weapons with red accents are your thing, you have a lot of Fractals in your future. Thanks to a new drop and salvage item that comes from the gold weapons, Golden Fractal Relics, you can use Mystic Forge recipes that either yield a random gold skin or the gold version of a particular weapon. Naturally, the random recipe is significantly cheaper than the specific one. On the plus side, every gold weapon you get, even the ones you don't want, will help get you closer to that sword or spear you're longing for. You might still have bad luck getting any gold weapon drops at all...but that's a topic for another time.

Looking Ahead

I really like a lot of the changes that were made to Fractals for Heart of Thorns. There's still room for improvement--besides the other things I mentioned, some new maps would be nice. If you want to grind gold, I certainly won't try to argue that Fractals are a good way to do that. At the end of the day, I think it's fun content that's much more accessible than it was before. If more people are playing it, that's good for everyone because it means ArenaNet will be able to invest more resources in giving it the attention it deserves.

Final Score: ∞/0

"Review scores don't matter anyway." -Genghis Khan