Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Sun Also Rises



with apologies to Earnest Hemingway.. 

So it's only taken me some six years after purchase to do so, but this weekend, at long last, I completed the Guild Wars Nightfall campaign with a single character - on Normal Mode!  And I gotta say, when you do at last get through that last mission, you are filled with an incredible sense of accomplishment.  Because make no mistake about it - the last few missions in Nightfall are hard.  In fact, what I thought I might do in this post is spend a little bit of time talking about the last two missions specifically in the Nightfall Campaign, and then close with some comments about the difficulty curve in general in Guild Wars, and what it might mean for Guild Wars 2. 


The Gate of Madness
The official Guild Wars wiki has this to say about The Gate of Madness:
This mission is considered one of the hardest in the Nightfall campaign - due to large demon patrols-15% healing effectiveness, chaos rifts that continually spawn foes, and battles with both the Undead Lich and Shiro Tagachi.
And let me just say - they are not kidding!  I didn't keep an exact count, but I'd say I entered the Gate of Madness at least a dozen times.  Some of these were just exploratory forays to see how far I could get with a particular build, or to learn the patrol routes.  But of those, at least half of them were serious attempts.  So at least six serious attempts before I finally got it down.  The wiki has a fine general walkthrough of the mission here.  And you'll be glad to know that the exploit to capture the shrines using only your heroes still works.  You're darn right I used the exploit!  As hard as this mission is, I gladly accepted any advantage.  And it's actually kind of amusing to stand back, send your group of heroes to each shrine, completely losing sight of them, watching only their hitbars and the color of the shrine as an indicator, and then bringing them back.  I felt very tactical! 

Overall though, I think there were three specific things that turned the tide on this one for me and allowed me to finish it.  First - I don't know how many healers you're used to running with in your group - but you need three in this one.  Three full blown, healing monks.  You simply have to have enough healing.  Second - there are two skills you must put on your bar.  One is a resurrection of some sort.  A signet is best - I used Sunspear Rebirth Signet, but you have to have something.  On one attempt, I finally got all the way through all of the stages, including defeating the Undead Lich King, and faced only Shiguro.  But things started going bad, and I realized we needed to withdraw and regroup.  I fled, and 2 of my heroes made it out with me.  Unfortunately, none of my monks did.  And they were the only ones with resurrection on their bar.  Game over, start over.  There will be times when you're the only one smart enough to run away.  You do not want to find yourself unable to rez even one of your members to keep going.  The second crucial skill, in my opinion, is Pain Inverter.  And let me tell you - it isn't a picnic to unlock.  Because if you haven't yet done Eye of the North, you have to run the gauntlet through the first level of the Shards of Orr to get to Gadd's Encampment as one of the multiple quests you do in that chain to get the skill.  And the Shards of Orr gauntlet is its own puzzle to figure out.  But seriously it made the difference in the end, and was totally worth the effort.  Shiguro is going to wreck you in the end.  And the only way I found to wreck him back was to load up all three monks with Empathy, and I carried Pain Inverter.  And that brought him down.

Finally, there is one more thing you'll need - and that is patience.  In fact, I'd say it may be the most important aspect to this mission - because you simply cannot handle two groups at once.  Well maybe you can - but I couldn't.  So you're going to spend a couple of times going through the mission just learning the patrol routes, and learning the best order of taking out the rifts in stage two.  And you'll need to wait between patrols, until you're sure you can take out the group of Margonites, or Chaos Spawn, by themselves, and you won't get another.  Two aggroed groups means a wipe and a start over.  And in fact, it's part of the reason I was extremely hesitant to invite another person along is because people in general just want to rush.  And you can't rush this.  You need to take your time.

The Gate of Abaddon
After the Gate of Madness, the final mission in the campaign is The Gate of Abaddon, where you fight the god himself.  The general sentiment seems to be that this mission isn't as difficult as The Gate of Madness, and on that point I wholeheartedly agree.  I did however, do some preparation work, which I think was key, based on the advice given by the walkthrough at Guild Wiki, which in this case I found to be more helpful than the official Guild Wars Wiki.

In my poking arounds in Sparkfly Swamp, I had gone ahead and taken the time to complete the small (and easy) quest chain to add Hayda to my group of heroes, and it was fortunate that I did, for she turned out to be very useful in this mission.  I spent the time to acquire Cautery Signet for her, and Wastrel's Worry for my heroes, and gave that to all three of my monks.  I also made sure each monk carried Purge Conditions.  The walkthrough says that with three monks, and two Cautery Signet Paragons, this mission should be a cakewalk.  Well I only had one Paragon, but I did have three monks, and while I wouldn't necessarily call it a cakewalk, I was able to complete it fairly handily.

The Finale
I won't give away too many spoilery elements about the end of Nightfall.  But I will just say that the designers at ArenaNet do a remarkable job of capping off your journey, and making it truly feel like a heroic moment.  Just about every NPC you've met along the way will be there, and to see them all together congratulating you, just brings home in a tremendous way what a long strange trip it's been.  The feeling is hard to describe, but for me it's one of gaming's finer moments.  Suffice it to say, I was not disappointed.

But what does it mean?
By now, you should be aware that in Guild Wars, there is a distinct metagame.  It's the game you play beyond the game, and that is the game of skill selection.  Guild Wars has been described a number of times as having collectible card game mechanics, and that is absolutely accurate.  

But until recently, I had always assumed the really hardcore portion of the metagame was reserved for the PvP aspect of the game, in which I don't participate.  But it turns out there is a second metagame, beyond just skill selection, that becomes extremely important in the PvE game.  And I think most people don't realize it.  I know I didn't, for the longest time.  There is a reason its been six years before I actually finished this campaign - a reason that I have at least three other characters that got 75% of the way through the Nightfall campaign before I got frustrated by the difficulty and just shoved off to play other things.  

Because the other game is your hero loadout and their skills.  In order to get through the Shards of Orr I needed three monks - each kitted out with full smite skill bars, and two dervishes.  It is a selection of heroes and skills that is absolutely worthless in just about every other part of the game, and absolutely essential for getting through that dungeon.  For Gate of Madness, I needed three monks, now fully kitted out with healing bars, and I needed to replace resurrection skills with resurrection signets.  And for Gate of Abaddon, I needed a Paragon outfitted with Cautery Signet.  She had a crucial role to play in that mission, but once I returned to Sparkfly Swamp, she was pretty much worthless, and I replaced her with a minion master, whom was far more useful there.  The thing is - no where does Guild Wars teach you this.  The only learning you receive is solely by virtue of the fact that you'll reach a point where just mosying along with your favorite group of heroes with their favorite skills you will find yourself completely unable to progress.  It was only through extensive reading on the various wikis did I come to learn how crucial it was to actively manage not only my selection of heroes at any given time, but the skills you put on them.

I consider this a complete failure on ArenaNet's part.  Not on the design choice itself - I can live with that.  But on their complete and utter failure to teach you about the design choices they made, and what you need to do to succeed.  You shouldn't have to spend two hours reading wikis to learn how to progress one hour in their game.  But you do.  At least you do if you're a dunderhead like myself.  Now, Nightfall was released six years ago.  So these choices, and these mechanics were made a long time ago.  We already see huge differences in some of the design philosophies ArenaNet has as a whole now, versus what they did then.  But I think it is safe to say that, like Guild Wars, I suspect Guild Wars 2 will have an extensive metagame.  A second game beyond the obvious one, that you also have to play.  

The only question is - will they teach us what it is, or will we have to rely on learning through failure to figure it out ourselves.

End on an Up Note!
Design philosophies and player education choices aside, I'm incredibly pleased to have finally finished another of the Guild Wars campaigns.  Kaytte is already well on her way into Eye of the North, and I feel better equipped now to face its challenges than I ever have with any other character.  My name in game is Kaytte Harmony, and if you are playing, don't hesitate to add my to your friends list - just tell me who you are. :)

And remember - You never fight alone!