Fresh, exciting, and fun but comes up just shy of greatness.
Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns delivers on being a solid expansion to the already enjoyable base Guild Wars 2 experience. If you already have a predisposition to disliking the MMO genre or Guild Wars 2, this expansion won’t suddenly turn you into a believer. What it will do is offer tons of content for one flat rate that fans of the game probably have no qualms about picking up immediately.

If you haven’t played Guild Wars 2 for a while, you will first notice a ton of changes. This might actually be a bit overwhelming to returning players. Skills have been redone. Lion’s Arch has a gorgeous new layout, and the world has undergone some Living World story changes that you may not be aware of just yet. That is perfectly fine. Long before you dive into the level 80 content of Heart of Thorns, you will undoubtedly want to spend a bit of time familiarizing yourself with the old mechanics and trying to come to terms with the new features that have been recently added.

Perhaps the biggest change in all that time was that ArenaNet was able to fine-tune their story and story-telling methods. Gone are the stylized art pieces that swept in from the sides when two characters were talking. Instead, all story dialogue either takes place through cutscenes or through a more natural “in world” experience that doesn’t rip you out of the moment. The only drawback to this new approach is that you may sometimes miss some important bit of information by looking around and becoming lost in the gorgeous new areas.

The four new areas in Heart of Thorns are scattered throughout the Maguuma Jungle, a place that fans of the original game are probably well acquainted with. The new zones feature a wealth of verticality, with fights and activities moving from the expansive underground tunnels all the way up to above the tree tops. The combat and activities are enhanced by a number of new abilities such as gliding, mushroom jumping, and more to aid you in your efforts to reach new areas. The only significant drawback to these new systems is the fact that they must be unlocked through the new Mastery system. The only way to unlock most of these new abilities is to gain experience. This unfortunately means that you are often in a position of dedicating a significant chunk of time into grinding out a new ability unlock. This issue is compounded by the fact that some story progression is gated behind your ability to unlock a new skill. Unfortunately, you never really know precisely which new skill you will need to continue progressing unhindered until you unlock the next gated story segment. This means there will be long stretches of time where you are doing nothing but world events in order to gain enough experience to progress through the main story segments. It also doesn’t really help that you cannot earn experience towards the new Heart of Thorns specific Masteries by questing in pre-Heart of Thorns areas.

The good news here is that world events happen frequently enough and with enough variety that you never really get bored with the grind. Sure, you could choose to repeat some of the game events for that precious experience, but you are never forced to do so. You can choose to help do a massive world event quest chains or you can gain some experience killing creatures. Alternatively, there are a number of mini-game type events, such as a shooting gallery type event, that you can try your hand at to gain some experience and earn new gear unlocks.

Fortunately, for those with multiple characters, the new Mastery system unlocks points across your entire account. That should significantly lessen the downtime on your other characters, should you choose to take them all through the story. Moreover, you should take them through the story if for no other reason than it is an incredibly enjoyable experience. The only thing you will really have to contend with on your alternate characters are the new elite specializations. Each class has a new specialization that is only unlocked once you complete each character’s basic skill trees. Chances are that if you hit level 80 and played casually throughout the base game, unlocking the first skills in your new elite specialization won’t take much time at all. When I first started Heart of Thorns, I was immediately able to unlock my elite specialization on my main character and a couple of new skills in it.

If you aren't keen on simply playing the new content with an old character, you can instead opt to play through most of the game as an entirely new class, the Revenant. This particular class calls upon past heroes from Guild Wars lore in order to fill out their skillset. This allows the Revenant to swap easily between damage dealing, to tanking, to healing within mere seconds. Initially, the Revenant has a look and feel all of its own. It’s enjoyable for the first half of the game but eventually it begins to fall into the same sort of pitfalls that the other classes fall into. Players will undoubtedly find a particular set of skills that they feel works best for them, thus eliminating a big part of the allure of swapping around to the different play styles that the class offers. At the very least, this means that it’s not any more powerful than other classes and should eliminate the oversaturation of this new class into the game. That it to say, you will probably see just as many Revenants running around as you will Mesmers, Assassins, or any other class type.

Heart of Thorns tops off its new content with a Stronghold map that seems to draw inspiration from popular MOBAs of the world. Desert Borderlands is the new and gorgeous looking World vs. World battleground. Sadly, it seems to suffer from a lack of population even after a few weeks of the new expansion being out. Guild Halls are probably my favorite new addition to the game. They are massive in size and can be upgraded with various perks through a collective effort by the guild members. They are certainly a welcome and beautiful addition to the game but may prove to hold a high barrier to entry for smaller guilds.

At the end of the day, Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns managed to reignite that spark I held that once burned bright for the franchise. The story was enjoyable, despite the occasional grind between major story quests, and the new guild additions alone would be worth the upgrade. However, ArenaNet also included a new class, new specializations, and new skills that make the game feel like an entirely new experience at times. Heart of Thorns is an absolutely must-buy for fans of the base game and for those looking to see a “buy-to-play” game done right.

+ Plenty of verticality in the new areas, giving plenty of venues of exploration and ways to fight.
+ The story is very engaging.
+ New class and new specializations.
+ The new Guild Hall locations are massive in scale and incredibly impressive.
+The combat and gameplay mechanics from the base game are just as solid as ever.
- There is certainly a bit of a grind here and there. Story missions are sometimes gated behind having to grind for new ability unlocks.
- Forced group activities are sometimes difficult to complete due to lack of players in an area.*

*As I understand it, this may have been tied to a bug that wasn’t properly placing players into populated servers.
- Progression in the new Mastery system is a bit confusing.
Related Information
Title: Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns
Platforms: Windows, Mac (Reviewed on Windows)
ESRB Rating: T for Teen (Blood, mild language, use of alcohol, violence)
Disclosure: Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns was provided to Total Gaming Network for review purposes.