Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Guild Wars 2 Elementalist - Early Impressions

So as I was writing this, I spent a good bit of time viewing full builds over at the GW2 codex, and came to realize that if I'd spent some time in sPVP, I could have played with full, level 80 builds, and probably provided a more complete picture of how well the elementalist class is working.  I just about decided to ditch the entire post, because I know that first impressions are not always the most accurate, and they may or may not reflect the class as a whole.  But after thinking about it some, I decided to go ahead with it.  I think first impressions - and more importantly - player perceptions, are still important.  A lot of people may never step foot into sPvP, and so the only impressions they get of the class are those they get while leveling up.  Even if the class is perfectly balanced by the time you get a full level 80 build, it may not matter, if you feel like it's horribly under-powered, or stupid boring, for the first 40 levels of play, and quit it to go play something else.  So with that in mind, I decided to go ahead and share these perceptions, even though they're only from the first 18 levels of play for the class.  And of course, I respectfully reserve the right to come back and say "Yeah none of this is even close to correct" after I've spent even more time with the class.  With that being said, here's what I played, and what I thought.

A Bit of Background
So the second Guild Wars 2 BWE is behind us.  The game was far more stable than the first event, server performance was greatly improved, and overall the experience continued to be remarkably polished.  But now that we've got past some of the "Ooh wow!" moments, it's time to look at some of the classes and systems in more detail, and for this post, I want to talk about the elementalist.

Erianna Steele, Warrior.  Enjoys moonlit walks,
a big sword, and a solid shield.
In the first BWE, I took a warrior to level 16, and had an absolute blast with the class, enjoying it far more than I expected to.  I've heard from people that played warrior that they found the class difficult to play, or that they died a lot - but I personally didn't find that to be the case at all.  In fact, of the three classes I've played so far, warrior felt by far the most survivable.  But that's fodder for a different post.

In the final hours of the first BWE, I decided to give another class a bit of a try, so I started an elementalist.  For this event, I decided I'd continue with the new class, and so set about  continuing to level her.  My goal was to get her to 16 or so as well, and do it over the same content as the warrior, thus providing a good bar by which to measure one class against the other.  By the end of the beta I was level 18, and had even spent some time with a ranger as well, levelling her to 8.  So overall a fairly good spectrum of experience to draw from.

Kaytte Harmony - Water Elementalist.  Would kill
or die for a decent bra.  And pants.
Water Bending
It is no coincidence that my two primary characters in Guild Wars 1 are a warrior, and elementalist, respectively.  But my Guild Wars 1 elementalist is a bit of an anomoly.  Instead of going down the more common fire specialization, my GW1 elementalist is a water elementalist.  Her primary purpose is to snare, root, hinder, and interrupt, and then damage last.  So I went into the elementalist knowing next to nothing about how they work in Guild Wars 2, but I did know that I wanted to play her as a water build - whatever that entailed, and see how that worked out in terms of viability.

I'm assuming you know the essentials of how Guild Wars 2's weapon skill mechanics work, so I'm not going to go into great detail on that.  But I will talk a bit about the elementalists unique mechanic - their attunements.  Like all GW2 classes, you get a unique collection of skills based on which weapons you have equipped.  But additionally, with elementalists you get four elemental attunements - fire, water, air, and earth.  You can switch between them by hitting F1 through F4, but there's a coodown when you leave an element to switch to another.  You can switch quickly from fire to water, say, but it will be an amount of time (I think it was like 15 seconds or so) before you can switch back.  There are traits you can take that reduce this time, at the higher levels, but it's really not viable to "attunement dance" - at least certainly not in the low levels of the class.

Weapon Skills
Take this Stick.  Hit this Tree Until you Are Good With This Stick
Like all of the weapon skills, you start with the auto-attack ability for a particular weapon, and use of that ability works towards using the #2 ability, and then eventually the #3 ability, and so on.  I want to take a moment her to comment on this system.  First, I really like having different abilities associated with different weapons, and the fact that if you can even create combinatorial variations by changing out main hand and off hand weapons.  But I really do not like the current method of having to use the weapon repeatedly, over time, to unlock those skills.  Because this system discourages experimentation.  If you're running along adventuring with your friends, or with the random group that's doing a dynamic event, and you pick up a new weapon, your choices are as follows: 1.) Don't use the weapon, because you already have all 5 skills unlocked with your current weapon, and you don't want to gimp yourself while killing roving bands of centaurs; 2.) Equip the new weapon, and gimp yourself back down to "auto-attack only", essentially nullifying not only your surviveability, but also your usefulness to the group, or 3.) Drop what your doing, go off by yourself into some relatively non-threatening area, and spam auto-attack on mobs while running in a circle to avoid their hits until you've unlocked the skills for the new weapon.  None of these choices are very appealing.  What you'd really like to do is to have the skills for that weapon already unlocked, and to be able to use the new weapon immediately, and to start experimenting with it.

Now I understand completely the desire to meter somewhat your skill acquisition.  But honestly, I'd personally prefer if they just level-locked the skills, but you got all the skills you had access to for each weapon immediately.  So for instance at level 1 you could use auto-attack for all weapons.  At level 3 your could use the first 2 abilities for all weapons.  At level 7, the first 3 abilities for all weapons - etc.  The point is, having to spend time using a weapon before you can make full use of the weapon is just a bad system, and discourages experimentation.

This Class is Easy!  You're Doing it Wrong!
And for elementalists, this effect is exacerbated.  Because not only do you have to learn new skills for each new weapon combination, but you have to do so for each attunement as well.  So if you switch from rod and focus to say, staff, then you have to learn not five new skills, but twenty - five for each of the four attunements.  So here's what happens I think for most new elementalists.  Though the class starts with rod and focus, they quickly pick up staff (because hey, we're mages, and mages use staves, yo), and because fire is the left most (and default) attunement, they start using that.  And whoah they rain down a metric shitton of death and destruction using fire with the staff.  The fire staff abilties are all extraordinarily good.  It provides a stationary, targeted AOE that damages over time, a PBAOE that does huge burst damage, and a friggen "cover the entire centaur army" AOE damage over time that wrecks everything.  So suddenly fire/staff elementalists are dishing out tons of damage standing away from the group and not having to hardly move at all.  And then they wonder why the class is so boring.  And easy.

Water for Elephants - Bad Idea
This if course, was not the tact that I took.  I'm a sucker for making things more difficult for myself than I have to.  For one thing, between the first BWE and the second, when my wee elementalist was still around level 5 or so, I saw a YouTube of this guy wrecking in PvP with dual wielding daggers, using a fire build.  And I was all WHAA?  Dual wielding dagger elementalist? I'm all over that!  So one of the first things I did when the BWE 2 started, was find myself a pair of daggers, and start using them.  Also remember, I wanted to play a water elementalist, so I also switched over to water attunement, and started using that as much as possible.  Now similar to GW1, water is really the support attunement.  Only, instead of snares and roots (thought it does slows as well), it's really the healing spec.  And I was totally cool with that.  In fact, it was perfect, as I was playing pretty much the entire weekend with my son, whom was playing a thief, so it would give me perfect opportunity to see how well the support role worked.

Yeah.. I'm going to need fire for this..
And, well, let me just say, I think water needs help.  It provides some damage capabilities, but nothing that gets anywhere close to fire's output - or air's for that matter.  But it's not supposed to because it provides heals and slows. But honestly, for the most part all of the healing abilities felt like too little and too late to be of real use.  For instance, Geyser is a targeted AOE heal-over-time.  But its duration is incredibly short, and its radius is incredibly small.  And in a game that relies on all of its melee classes being extraordinarily mobile, asking them to stand in the fountain to get healing is, just, well, ridiculous.  Now Healing Rain is actually quite good.  It's a giant AOE heal over time that can really lend good help to a large group.  But it's only available through staff, and has a pretty long CD.  Healing Trident seems like a better idea - it's essentially a ranged weapon, and when it hits, it does a bit of AOE healing to allies near the target.  But again, the healing effect seemed negligible, and often the ally was too far away to receive it.  And Healing Wave, which is a PBAOE, again well often I wasn't standing in the middle of allies - they were up in front of me attacking the mob, so it would go to waste.  The point is, it really felt like the healing abilities that were offered up weren't nearly good enough to justify sticking with water as an attunement, over the sheer damage that could be dealt with fire and/or air.

Water for Life
Now by now you may be thinking - well the designers don't really intend for you to use only one particular attunement, they expect you to switch between them at will, using the best thing for the situation.  But I actually don't think that's the case - or at least, I think it's only true to a certain extent.  That's because of the way traits work.  Once you get to level 11, you start unlocking trait points - one per level.  And in elementalist, the traits are aligned along attunements.  That is, there's Fire, Air, Water, Earth, and one general purpose trait - Arcane.  And because of the way that the cool stuff in traits unlock - that is, only after every five trait points, you're going to be incented to dump all your trait points in one trait line or  another.  And of course, the traits that you gain for the most part grant you benefits only when you're using that attunement.

As I was determined to stick with water, I dumped all my trait points into water.  So by level 18, I received regeneration whenever I was attuned to water, and I could heal nearby allies whenever I was attuned to water.  So any time I was in air or fire forms, I wasn't really as effective as I could be.  That is, by level 18, I was a bona-fide water elementalist, and it behooved me and my allies for me to stay in water attunement whenever possible.  Except of course, fire was so good often I still switched over to fire just to put down a particular pesky mob.

Anyway, so I tried to go water attunment, and dual daggers early on.  And I died.  A lot.  Not nearly enough damage, not enough healing, and all of the abilities are short range, so you're often more in the thick of it than you might like.  I died so much that I got frustrated with the class, and rolled a ranger, and leveled her to 8.  But after awhile, I decided to return to the elementalist, and give her one more chance.  I switched back to staff, which allowed me to stay out of things, and I used fire a bit more, but continued to press on water as much as possible, as well as levellng my air.  And things got better.

By the time I was 18, I started to feel like I'd turned the corner on my elementalist, and was really starting to dig her. Part of it was that I now had green weapons across the board - staff, rod and focus, and dual daggers.  I got enough points into water traits that I was feeling more survivable, and I took some arcane signets (arcane blast and arcane storm) to shore up the damage abilities of the spec.  In the end, I ended up using a rod in the primary hand, and a dagger in the off hand, and was starting to groove on the build.  But it was a rough road to get there.

Must.. Level.. Earth..
What About the Other Elements?
For all the weapon sets, I leveled through all five abilities for fire, water, and air.  For only one set - the sceptre and dagger, did I get any progress in earth, and even then, I think I only unlocked 4 of the 5 before the beta was over.  In fact, over the course of the entire weekend, over all the elementalists I saw (and there were a bunch), I only ever saw exactly one using earth abilities.  And this I think is a problem - and it stems from the experimentation problems I mentioned earlier.  So of the four elements, I'd say fire is still best, though air is arguably a very close second.  Water a distant third, and earth - well who knows about earth.  The little I played with it though, it definitely had potential, with great damage over time and knockdowns.

You Think You're So Smart - I'd Like to See You Do Better!
So one of the first things I'd at least attempt would be to get rid of the unlocking of weapon abilities by using that weapon over time, as I mentioned above.  I'm just not a fan of that system.  But even if you keep that, at the least, I'd change the order in which the attunements appear, left to right.  Because I think most everyone's inclination is to unlock their attunements from left to right.  I'd put air up front, because it's good damage, but doesn't feel quite as overpowered as fire does.  I'd leave water second, earth third, and fire last.  The people that want to be fire elementalists are just going to set to fire anyway, so they won't be affected.  And for everyone else, this encourages them to work through, and give the other elements a try, before settling on fire, if that's what they decide to do.

As I said above, by the time the weekend was over, I really liked the class.  But I do think it's currently presented a little one sided (Fire good!), and if it's not tweaked, the other attunements just aren't going to receive their fair shake.  What do you think?  Way off base?  Are all the elements fine?  Or should I just stick to fire like a sane person. What about your class - how did it play over the weekend?  Comments are cool!