Since the announcement of Heart of Thorns I’ve been meaning to purchase an additional character slot to level a Sylvari Ranger and finally did this past weekend. While I have a birthday boost allowing me to start at level twenty I decided to level the old fashion way for a while to check out the changes to the new player experience. Overall I can appreciate what ArenaNet was trying to do and actually prefer the changes however after the first ten levels the handholding should have stopped.
The first change that delighted me was that my ranger began with a longbow instead of an axe. At first I did not notice the change, because it was far more intuitive that my ranger have a bow. I have started a ranger two or three times before and I never made it past level 4 or 5, deciding the class was not for me. Now I’m sure the disconnect was the weapon, not the class. I’m now in the thirties and still using the longbow partnered with a great sword as my combination of choice.
What I did not like during the opening instance was the locked weapon abilities. Before the changes to leveling I was able to unlock two or three abilities in the first scenario. Now that it is gated behind character level rather than weapon usage I was only able to press the number one ability for the entire encounter. That basically meant auto-attacking for the first ten minutes. Even a brand new MMO player can handle more than auto-attack at the start of a game, at least two or three abilities should be available by the final boss.
Once I was through the inaugural scenario I was let loose on Celadon Forest. Well, “let loose” is probably more accurate a description for the new player experience as the game existed at launch. This was more like “let loose with supervision in a specified direction.” In place of the freestyle start there are now clear indicators as to where you should begin. The game directs you to the first heart then on to the next, and so on. While I never had trouble sorting this out on my own, I see no problem with providing additional direction for those who need it.
The system is not completely static either. There is an icon in the upper right corner of the UI directing you toward your next objective, however it does seem to dynamically update as needed. For example, if there is an event starting up nearby it will adjust and point you in that direction, then once completed it will steer you back to whichever heart you were aimed at before. At level four there is a prompt to learn how to dodge, however when I accidentally overshot the NPC’s placement on the map the arrow pointed me toward the closest heart instead. Once I had finished, I was redirected toward the dodging tutorial again.
Another change I noticed was that dynamic event veteran mobs were much easier to solo. In the past I remember needing help on some but this time I was able to solo an undead drake and her children as well as a spider queen with her brood without trouble. I’ve seen some complaints on the official forums (I know, shocking) about the difficulty level of certain events but I think it was a smart move. Difficulty is something that should ramp up over time in order to improve the retention of players regardless of their experience upon entry. There is plenty of opportunity for challenge as the game progresses, starter zones should be a soft introduction to the game’s combat, increasing in difficulty with character progression.
By the time I reached level seven I went ahead and used my level twenty birthday boost. While I’m glad I took the opportunity to see the changes, I’ve been through these early levels enough in the past and I felt I had seen enough. However once you have used a boost, you still have to manually accept all the leveling rewards by clicking an icon on the right-hand side, and this is when I started to grow concerned that the gradual introduction to the game as designed by ArenaNet went a little too far.
Everything up until level ten seems fine—that’s when you unlock the personal story and I’m okay with that. It is not the strongest part of the game and I think it is best to get players involved in the starter zones introducing the hearts and dynamic events before starting the story. Delaying the personal story also allows you to go through several chapters at once, lending it continuity. When games break up the main storyline too much I lose track of it (my memory is VERY short term) so playing through an entire chapter at once alleviates that problem.
Everything after level ten is overkill. With every click of the icon a window notifying the rewards I had unlocked would pop up and I was shocked at how much was delayed and for how long. To give you an idea of how long it takes to unlock certain features, consider underwater combat. It was initially unlocked at level eight with a single ability. By the time I finished my play session I was level twenty two and I was still missing access to my fifth underwater ability. That stretch is completely unnecessary. If I can make it twenty two levels learning five abilities on two weapon sets, I’m fairly certain I can manage five underwater abilities in a shorter time frame.
On the whole I think ArenaNet made the right decision changing the introductory experience for new players, however if they ever decide to revisit the design I would like to see them ramp up unlocking abilities and features around level ten. At that point players should rapidly receive everything that is missing with the entire game unlocked no later than level fifteen, the same time the first zone is completed. I’d also like to see skill points awarded at level fifteen as well rather than at level thirty, but this does not bother me as much as waiting to unlock basic things like the underwater combat abilities until the mid-twenties.