After three weeks of players stomping around the Maguuma Jungle, later today a brand new challenge arrives in Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns. The first wing of the much anticipated Raid content will become available for brave groups of 10-players to tackle, offering a whole new difficulty level compared to the content that has come before.

I know this because last week I was taken on a virtual tour to meet Gorseval, the first boss of three that await players in the Spirit Vale. With a group of ArenaNet employees at my side, and lead designer Crystal Reid offering me pearls of wisdom and answering my questions over voice comms, I dived in to see if the team had successfully created finely tuned epic encounters that worked with the gameplay Guild Wars 2 is known for. While I hate to paraphrase something from ‘that other MMO’ in a Guild Wars 2 article, there’s no other way to put it…

I was not prepared.

Reacting to the challenge

As ArenaNet have been saying for some time, it’s all about providing challenging group content that goes well beyond the difficulty of dungeons and Fractals. “It’s about giving players the real challenge in terms of pushing their skill level as a player, and coming together in these small groups to overtake these encounters for super epic rewards,” said Reid. She went on to point out how it was important that players were reacting to the action with skill combos and dodge rolling, instead of just watching the UI.

Reid continued by explaining how the gameplay mechanics allow for players to adapt to changing circumstances during encounters. “Any class could equip a bunch of toughness gear, act as a tank and reactively position the boss and take those heavy hits,” she said. “Most classes can fill a healer role, and they all do them differently as well, and that can play to their strengths depending on the boss encounter.” She went on to state that the advantage of GW2’s reactive gameplay is that players “can pivot and recover so someone else can fill those roles at the same time,” all thanks to weapon and ability changes. Reid gave us one scenario where if a Druid healer went down, an Elementalist could switch to water attunement so that healing could continue.

Facing Gorseval

That said, it was clear that as with any raid in any game, preparation is key. Before we began to fight Gorseval our raid leader explained how players would be taking on certain roles – tanking, adds, healing, and another task that was specific to the encounter – breaking walls. As an Engineer, I was focused on dealing the damage and breaking any stun bars, but I also had some limited healing capability just in case of emergencies. After our group ready check, we swooped in with our gliders – yes, they do feature in this encounter – to face our nemesis.

The mechanics Gorseval uses are, to some degree, not too dissimilar to those found in an end-of-event-chain boss in the Maguuma Jungle. I asked Reid if she felt that the open-world bosses has in fact been preparing players with gameplay hints within encounters. “I think that a lot of what the open-world content in Heart of Thorns has been teaching players is a lot more about things like bringing break bar abilities to interrupt those break bars during those really key moments,” she replied.” On top of that, bringing the concept of a healer in your group that will help you keep party members alive through some of the damage that the creatures will do. Here’s the thing, though – unlike the open-world content, there’s no room for error. If you go down in a public event there are usually 30+ other players to help you up, but here every player has their role. Even the slightest slip-up could be costly for the entire group, as I was about to learn.

It all seemed very familiar to first – hit the boss, evade hits, take out the break bar, dispose of adds… but then it all changed. Panic set in as I learned how we needed to jump from the platform and use our gliders to avoid a huge attack that would kill anyone it hits. Worse still, any adds left up would buff the boss, so we were in a rush to get them down before jumping. It was close, but we managed, eventually pushing the boss into its second phase. All of a sudden, we had four giant mobs slowly walking towards that, if they reached the centre, would spell doom. The steam split to either slow them down to deal as much damage as possible, with what could only be described as a photo finish.

But then the third phase game.

All of sudden there was new things to worry about on top of his phase 1 attacks, and then we realised one thing we had overlooked – the enrage timer. We had only managed to get Gorseval down to half health by the time it hit zero, and his platform-wide AoE began to charge. It was over, and there wasn’t a damn thing we could do about it, but it had done enough to show me that ArenaNet had found the right balance. The challenge was real, having pushed my skills to their limits, and even though we had been wiped out I was eager to try again.

Besides, I was told by the devs that it had been “the single best attempt in these [press] previews.” Feeling smug and cocky, I absolutely had to try again.

Gauging the challenge

Admittedly, we didn’t get much further than that stage, but the important thing here is that I had experienced first-hand the difficulty, and it felt crushingly appropriate for a Raid. To help illustrate this, I asked Reid to illustrate the difficulty scale of 1 to 10. If regular open-world content was a 1, and Raiding was a 10, where would something like Tequatl or end-of-chain-event bosses like the Legendary Matriarch fall? “Realistically their difficulty scale, if we’re comparing them to raids, are probably really only around a 4,” she replied. “The length of time it took players to kill those encounters in the open world verses the length of time we’ve seen people take to kill these encounters internally through testing is quite a significant amount for time involved to taking them down.”

With Gorseval being just the first boss of this particular wing in a zone called The Forsaken Thicket, I asked Reid just how much more challenging the rest of the bosses in the Spirit Vale were by comparison. “We saw a number of boss kills on the Vale Guardian during beta weekend 3, and we expect to see a lot more during the first week that it’s released,” she began. “But as you progress through the wing you should see some of the success rates fall off a little, as the encounters become more difficult.” Reid went on explain the Spirit Vale contains three bosses plus one event encounter, similar to those found in the open world. “Each of the wings is comparable in size,” she added.

In terms of longevity, Reid explained that the aim for the raids was to ensure its content remained challenging and relevant for the game’s lifespan. “The encounters we are building today and releasing [this week] are still going to be relevant in a year or two from now. A new player coming into the game could go take on these raid encounters and there’s still going to be just as challenging years from now as they are the day we release them.” This is no doubt thanks to Heart of Thorns’ approach to the end game – no new level cap or gear tiers.

That said, this led me to ask if the team could guess how long it would take for players to beat the content, but Reid seemed unsure. “It’s hard to say at this point in time exactly how long it’s going to take people to do some of these,” she replied, stating the time commitment would be a huge factor in defeated Raids. “We’ll see varying degrees from varying groups where some groups are able to get through faster than others and that just boils down to two main factors – time available to play [and] skill level. I guess [there is ]a slightly third factor [of] the want or drive to actually defeat these encounters, which in turn causes players to want to become more skilled at the game to take down these encounters.”

Rewards for success… and failure?

When it comes to loot, Reid explained that it would work similarly to everything else in the game, and that “every single party member is going to get loot on every boss kill.” However, players will also get a special currency from bosses that could be spent on special rewards. The most interesting aspect of this is that players would get these rewards just for attempting the boss, although they would get significantly less than if they actually defeated them.

I asked Reid if she could give us an idea of how long it would take a player continually down on their luck to get enough for a reward. “It’s hard for me to guess because the loot is handled by the rewards team, and so they have a much better frame of mind on terms of their expectations,” she replied. “I can say that there’s a weekly cap on the shards, and I believe it’s set up in such a way that there’s some time commitment involved to working on these encounters and getting some of this currency but not so much that it feels impossible to obtain.”

Discovering new stories

So where do the raids fit into the game’s story? “Thematically, all our raids are connected to game lore to make the world feel more complete,” Reid began, but was quick to point out that players wouldn’t miss important plot points if they didn’t do the raids. “It’s not driving the story going forward, it’s merely touching on a lot of the stories that we’ve always wanted to tell but may not have had room for them in the main storyline.” The fact that sort of storytelling will remain in the Personal Story missions, or any potential future Living Story content, will no doubt bring relief to those who aren’t interested in Raids yet want a they narrative fix.


Building the Raids, and personal picks

With Raids being such a huge and hotly anticipated piece of content, I asked Reid what challenges the team faced when trying to ensure all the pieces came together whilst ensuring the gameplay still felt familiar. “I think our biggest challenge was identifying how to make our action combat based system that doesn’t have traditional roles like other games and making it work with Guild Wars 2,” she began. “Really, that was only a minor challenge at best. A lot of it boiled down to building interesting encounters and then just finding a group of people internally that really wanted to take on these challenges. We went and played these challenges together and found that it was incredibly rewarding and a lot of fun to take on together.”

With our session drawing to a close, I ask Reid which boss in the Spirit Vale wing was her favourite. “I would probably have to say the last boss is my favourite because it involves a really, really complicated skill I had to build that I spent a lot of time going back and forth forever on” she replied. “The end result is something we’ve never done before from a skill design standpoint. I’m really excited to see what happens when players do that for the first time.” I expect it will kill a lot of people too. Probably.

Finally, I asked our traditional closing question – in your opinion, what is the most badass thing about Raids in Guild Wars 2? “It’s probably got to be the legendary armour,” Reid said almost instantly. “You equip it, and you run around in the open world with this crazy set of armour on, and people will see you running by and they should be thinking “Oh man – that guy has this amazing looking set of legendary armour! This guy is hardcore, and has totally defeated all the raid content!”

A huge thanks to Crystal for taking the time to chat to me, and to the developers for bravely fighting by my side. If you haven’t already, be sure to check out our Guild Wars 2: Heart of Thorns review for more details on the expansion.