This is Guild Wars at its absolute best.

Guild Wars 2: Path of Fire is the best that the Guild Wars franchise has ever been. ArenaNet has done an absolutely stellar job here. The visuals are fantastic. The already solid graphics and colorful spells complemented by gorgeous vistas throughout a number of varied and richly detailed environments. The story is thoroughly engaging from start to finish. Any reservations about the additions of mounts into the franchise should be tossed aside. Perhaps most importantly, ArenaNet learned from the mistakes in Heart of Thorns and addressed the biggest problem that plagued that previous expansion: the grind.

Guild Wars 2: Path of Fire takes place throughout a number of varied location in the Crystal Desert and Elona, an area introduced back in Guild Wars Nightfall. Going into the expansion, you may believe that all you're going to end up seeing is sand and maybe an oasis or two. Let's face it, the desert in the original Guild Wars was, well, to put it bluntly: It sucked. I hated the desert in the original. It was bland and difficult as hell. I honestly cannot believe that I went through there as often as I did on a few different characters. Thankfully, Path of Fire is not the same desert from our nightmares. While Path of Fire does offer up plenty in the way of sand filled areas, you will also experience snowy mountains and canyons, lush green valleys rife with colorful plants and a variety of fauna, purple crystalized areas tainted by angry dragons, and even desolate, fire laden locales that house enemy-filled fortresses. Even the areas that focus on sand manages to include scenery such as beautifully detailed oasis cities, toppled pyramids, enemy filled encampments, and more. The diversity found between areas and even within the same sections is impressive and should offer some relief to those worried that there wouldn't be anything but sand and pain. Perhaps the most amazing thing in all of this is the fact that you won't even see half of these locations and areas if you are strictly sticking to the main story content. It wasn't until after I played through the expansion and then found entire sections of this expansion that aren't even touched upon in the main story. Many casual players may never even see some of these locations, which is honestly a shame because they are incredibly gorgeous. I didn't even know that there was an entire section full of snow filled canyons and mountains until after I was done with the story.

I wouldn't worry too much about these areas going to waste, though. Each areas contains a number of optional side-quests that you can partake of at any point. Many of these can be accomplished on your own but a few may require the assistance of a few others. These optional events are varied enough that doing them never feels like a chore. Some events have you killing various mobs that have taken over a farm. Some events find you seeking out and dealing with some less than honest traders. Another event had me tending to the wounded and sick by applying medicine and bandages to them based on their injuries. I fed the hungry and took care of monster filled tents at a refugee camp. One of the very first events I did in Path of Fire was race my Raptor against other players. One event even had me answering trivia questions that encompass the history of the entire Guild Wars franchise. Hopefully you remember more about the lore of the first games than I did. So no, not all of these events are of the simple "kill this thing" variety. If you don't feel like doing these particular events, perhaps you will find enjoyment in the newly added Bounties that come with Path of Fire. Each major area in the game contains a special set of Bounty boards that allow you to pick a target and set out to defeat it for some nice rewards. In my experience, most of these bounties could not be defeated while playing alone, especially the Legendary ones, so be sure to bring a friend or simply follow other groups that have put together bounty parties in an area. Anybody can participate in these, even if they never picked up the bounty for themselves. This is a great way to tackle tough world bosses and earn some great loot in the process. Unlike in Heart of Thorns, players do not need to constantly grind out world events or Mastery Points in order to progress their story. This is no doubt in response to nearly everybody that took issue with this sort of mechanic in Heart of Thorns. To help you keep up with those bounty parties, you'll want to have a means of travelling fast. Thankfully, Path of Fire added mounts to the Guild Wars franchise for the first time ever. These mounts are more than just a way of getting from point A to point B at a speed that is faster than walking. They are deeply integrated into how you navigate through some of these new areas in a way that doesn't feel tacked on or annoying. Mounts are also used to reach Vista locations and Hero Challenges in Path of Fire, meaning that some of them will be gated until you get the appropriate mount. Do note that I never had much of an issue with this as the Mastery Points were not necessary for me to obtain outside of one specific instance, which I'll get to in a moment.

The mounts added with Path of Fire are a Raptor that runs fast and has a long jump ability. There is a Skimmer, which is essentially a manta ray looking creature that floats above the surface. This mount is especially useful in areas where touching the ground means assured pain and possibly death. The Springer is a gigantic rabbit that can jump high into the air for hard to reach areas. It also has the added benefit of reducing fall damage on the way down from dangerous heights. The first optional mount is the Jackal, which is a magical creature that can teleport short distance to avoid detection. Its most useful ability sees it utilizing sand portals to travel great distances and reach entirely new areas with extreme ease. Finally, there is the Griffon. The Griffon is another optional mount that is not tied to the main story. While it cannot take off, per se, its glide is almost as good as actual flight. Mastering of the Griffon "glide" mechanics will allow you to traverse great distances with ease. All of these mounts are able to be used in nearly pre-Path of Fire game area. There are just a few exceptions to this, such as in some cities and story missions.

Mounts have felt like a perfect fit for Guild Wars 2 and the franchise as a whole. The way they were implemented in Path of Fire makes them feel less like a simple means of conveyance and more of an integral part of the story. As mentioned, the Mastery Point grind in Path of Fire is nearly non-existent. I cannot thank ArenaNet enough for almost completely abandoning what was arguably one of the worst mechanics from Heart of Thorns. There is just one exception to this, however. In order to progress the story, you will need to level up your Raptor enough to get the Canyon Jumping ability to jump to a new area. This means that you will have to not only have enough experience but you will also need enough Path of Fire specific Mastery Points. I freely admit that I had to consult a map to find the more easily accessible Mastery Point locations in order to unlock that ability and continue my journey. This happens fairly early on in the expansion though, and it was a problem that never came up again. Looking back on that particular mission, it could very well be that I did not need that ability, but it certainly came across to me that it was necessary in order to pick up on some additional and potentially optional background story. Speaking of story, Path of Fire picks up where Living World Season 3 left off. It's all about Balthazar and man is he ever pissed at you. Balthazar just happens to be a rogue God. Specifically, he's the God of War. He also just happens to have his own army called the Forged. You might say that Balthazar is kind of a bad ass and he would probably agree with you. Balthazar wants to kill Kralkatorrik, an Elder Crystal Dragon, in the hopes that he will gain immense power for his efforts. The problem is, if successful, not only will the lands of Tyria have a super powerful exiled God of War to deal with, the battle between the Gods and the Elder Dragons could literally destroy the world. That may be just a little bit of an issue. Luckily, you and other heroes are there to try to stop Balthazar from carrying out his plans. Your encounters (yes, there are multiple) with Balthazar are, to put it simply, epic. The final fights feel like something I typically only saw in raid boss encounters from other games.

You will visit a number of locations both within the Crystal Desert and beyond. Some of these places are certainly going to cause fans of the original games to geek out a little bit. I know I did. The story flows organically and can be easily completed on your own. There is just one boss encounter that may cause some players to become frustrated. I should also point out that I did have two missions glitch out on me to the point that I had to restart them. These issues have since been patched and happened very, very near the launch of this expansion. Really, I cannot say enough good things about how quick ArenaNet acted to roll patches out to issues in the first week or two of the expansion's release.

I would be doing this review a disservice if I didn't also mention that Path of Fire adds in a new Elite Specialization for each profession. The completionists out there are probably already well on their way to finding every new Hero Point that they need to fully complete their new skillset. Though they may have a hard time deciding if they want to focus on fully attaining their new Specialization or if they would rather look for the handful of new armor and weapon sets that were added. Path of Fire also adds in a new Guild hall, though I have not been able to personally take a look at this area. There are also new Miniatures and Pets to collect. And while I don't personally care much for completing collections, I will say that I did pick up a few of the new Miniatures here and there. Different ones can be purchased from vendors in each area. I really appreciate how ArenaNet has constantly kept the story going in Guild Wars 2 in a way that feels meaningful. The Living World content is a great and free (provided you access the game each time the new episodes are added) way to bridge the gap between the major expansion releases. With the way Path of Fire ended, it's also quite obvious that ArenaNet isn't yet done with the Guild Wars 2 world just yet. It's not a cliffhanger ending in the way you may be thinking. Path of Fire has a very clear beginning, middle, and end to the Balthazar focused plot. However, we are definitely looking at there being either a Living World Season 4 or another expansion. Maybe we'll even get both a new Living World and a new expansion later on. Whatever it is, I'm ready for it, especially if it offers up the same high level of quality I saw in the story, the environments, the mission variety, and everything else that Path of Fire has to offer.

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Additional Information
Guild Wars 2: Path of Fire (Developed by ArenaNet, Published by NCSOFT)
Starting at $29.99 (USD) for the PC and Mac (Other packages include the Deluxe at $54.99, and Ultimate at $79.99)
Rated T for Teen for Blood, Mild Language, Use of Alcohol, Violence
This game was provided to Total Gaming Network for review purposes.