I recently reached level 80 in Guild Wars 2. This marks the first time I’ve ever reached the level cap in an MMO. For the most part, it’s a very finely crafted game that can appeal to many different people. There’s exploration, fast-paced and aesthetically appealing combat, structured PvP, unstructured PvP, piles of interesting lore, and the whole world is beautiful and lovingly stylized. If you play with a few friends, it’s an absolute blast. It can even be a lot of fun if you’re playing as a loner. It’s highly accommodating.
And then there are the dungeons.
This is me hiding under my associate’s robe, in case you were confused.
Ascalonian Catacombs, or AC as it is now known by historians, is the first dungeon in the game. Bear in mind that the rest of the game works very differently from the dungeons. One of the major selling points of Guild Wars 2 is that the quests and events involve fighting alongside other players without actually having to communicate with them. Anybody who deals any meaningful amount of damage to a monster gains experience for its death, and anybody who contributes to an event’s completion in any way gains rewards afterward. It’s a great way to streamline MMO questing and preserve game flow while also making you feel like you’re contributing to something bigger than yourself.
The dungeons, by contrast, are instanced and encourage (i.e. require) you to join or form a party of five before entering. These are the only places in the game that actually emphasize collaboration between players. (Excluding PvP, but fuck PvP.) This means that Ascalonian Catacombs is the first time the player is expected to actually collaborate with other players.
So, exactly as you would expect, the dungeon is gruelingly difficult to the point of frustration and tedium.
Us staring hopelessly at the battleground where we will die.
Each dungeon has two modes: Story mode and Explorable mode. I’m not sure if ArenaNet understands what the words “story” and “explorable” mean, because Explorable mode doesn’t have any more exploration than Story mode, or any less story. The way it actually works is that you’re supposed to do story mode first; Explorable mode is a more difficult version of the dungeon that continues the story after Story mode. What they should really be called is Part 1 and Part 2, or perhaps Hard Mode and Fuck You Player.
On our first attempt at story mode, we Total Party Wiped on the second room. The room consists of at least three dudes that each have powerful abilities and massive health bars, and there are several traps that can kill you in one or two hits. Any reasonable game designer can tell you that that’s horrible pacing. Difficulty is a complex thing and it’s hard to get it exactly right, but as a basic rule of thumb, you generally want to introduce one extremely lethal game mechanic at a time. Don’t combine these two elements until we’re acquainted with both.
Tell me this isn’t the dumbest looking ghost you’ve ever seen. This asshole is the boss.
The boss encounters are generally exercises in watching for hard-to-spot attacks that kill everyone in the room if you don’t dodge at the right time. Both the final boss of Story mode and one of the mid-dungeon bosses in Explorable mode have an attack that instantly pulls everyone toward him, and then deals a big AoE attack that is absolutely guaranteed to kill you. You can dodge it if you press the dodge button right as he’s telegraphing it, but his telegraph can be hard to spot. Oh, and since this is an online game, input lag is always, always going to be a thing.
And by the way, that’s a problem in general with the combat, not just with those individual bosses. The dodge ability is something every player has, and it’s essentially about a second (or even less than a second) long move that makes you dodge all attacks while in effect. This is one of many examples of the game trying to make itself feel like an action game. And it works, for the most part, unless you’re lagging ever-so-slightly and you just happened to be dodging a split-second before the attack, even though you can clearly see you were dodging when the attack happened.
Don’t get me wrong; as an action fan I’m glad to see an MMO courting action game elements. But when it demands that we use these abilities at just the right time when input lag is hiding in the shadows, it’s a recipe for frustration.
Oh, and then there’s the gravelings.
Can you tell what’s going on? Me neither.
There’s an event in explorable mode that my guildies and I just could not get past. Gravelings are these annoying black lizard things that jump out from big burrows and nibble at your shins. They come in armies, and this event involved breaking down multiple burrows at once, while fighting off the little pricks, and while defending two energy crystals. If the crystals break, the monsters disappear and you have to try again from the beginning.
We tried the event dozens of times. We tried different tactics, we tried forming together at certain intervals, splitting up, turtling, aggressively attacking burrows, basically anything we could fathom. Nothing worked. One of us switched characters to see if the party setup was the problem. We even tried consulting online guides. Nothing worked!
The icing on the cake is that when you die — and you will die — your armor becomes damaged. Armor costs money to repair, and it only becomes damaged from death. What this means is that the game is going out of its way to punish us for failing at its absurd challenges. Why? I’m already being punished by having to start the stupid event over; why do you have to append more punishment on top of that?! If you expect me to try over and over to complete your dungeon, then fair enough, but don’t break my pants and take my money and expect me not to rage quit!
Shamus didn’t feel like going and repairing his armor during the dungeon. I guess he likes feeling the breeze.
I really hate to say this, but playing through the Ascalonian Catacombs gives me the same feeling that fighting the boss fights in Deus Ex: Human Revolution did. They both feel extremely out-of-place with regard to their respective games, and for all the worst reasons. Guild Wars 2 is otherwise a very gentle, accommodating, accessible and inviting game. This dungeon, on the other hand, is overly punitive and aggressively difficult, and it makes no effort to convey its mechanics gradually. It makes me wonder if ArenaNet outsourced it, because that would explain a lot.
I really, really hope they fix these balance and pacing issues in a patch. It’s simply not fair, and it stands out in an otherwise great game.