Guild Wars 2: Path of Fire concept artwork for the Crystal Desert and Raptor mount

Guild Wars 2's Path of Fire expansion does not represent a massive evolution, but rather a promising leap forward. The story is vastly more interesting and engaging to follow than the one in Heart of Thorns, the class diversity has been greatly enhanced with the new Elite Specializations, and the Crystal Desert is an absolute blast to explore due to the addition of some of the best mounts I've ever seen in an MMO. Its still the same Guild Wars 2 I fell in love with years ago, but with enough new bells and whistles to hopefully keep it entertaining for many more to come.

So if you're interested in seeing what Path of Fire is all about, as well as how the mount system has been integrated into Guild Wars 2's open world, allow me to share with you my thoughts after spending a couple of weeks roaming thorough the Crystal Desert.

Guild Wars 2: Path of Fire screenshot of the very first city

It might be a desert, but you'll find a lot more than rough and irritating sand in it

After testing out the Raptor mount during the Open Beta I was left highly optimistic about the whole system, and now that I've played the full version I am very glad to say that the rest of the mounts did not disappoint either! Instead of simply being a speed boost, all of the mounts come with their own special abilities and combat benefits. The aforementioned Raptor is by far the fastest land mount since it can leap ridiculously far, the Springer allows you to scale sheer cliffs due to its high-jump ability, while the somewhat mysterious Griffon gives you the option to glide through the air at supersonic speeds. There are a couple of other mounts as well, but the important thing here is that each of them brings forth an interesting new ability to mess around with, as well as some gorgeous animations to make the whole experience just a bit more enjoyable.

It might sound silly for me to praise mount animations of all things, but its obvious a lot of work went into making them as smooth and immersive as possible. Not only does riding a Raptor feel like you're actually on top of a massive dinosaur, but the way it leaps forward really gives you a sense of speed in a way that simple Swiftness buffs never could. What might be the most impressive thing, however, is the simple fact that the giant bunny/kangaroo hybrid does not look out of place. I expected the Springer to be one of those 'cutesy' mounts MMOs add in order to sell cosmetics, but much to my surprise it actually looks like it fits the Guild Wars 2 world. Its still an adorably oversized bunny with floppy ears, but the design is fairly grounded so its not as glaring as you would expect from the description alone.

The only flaw I've managed to find with the mount system resides in the controls. Since each of the mounts has a bit of weight to them in order to feel more realistic, there is a slight adjustment period before your mount is truly capable of turning a sharp corner. When you're running around in the open world this isn't a problem. I'd even go as far as to say its actually a great boon as it gives the mounts a bit of a realistic touch, but when you're stuck in close quarters its absolutely infuriating as you simply cannot turn without doing some sort of half-circle. As you might imagine, this quickly becomes a major problem when you're trying to leap from one tiny ledge to another, only to fall all the way down because your Springer decided to roleplay as a forklift. I can only hope this is something ArenaNet will fix in the future as its an unfortunate blemish on otherwise stellar mount system.

Guild Wars 2: Path of Fire screenshot of the Springer on the top of the world

It might sometimes annoy me, but I still love the freedom the Springer offers

Besides jumping around like a madman, the mounts can also be used for exploration, and this is where Path of Fire truly shines. Unlike Heart of Thorn's confusing map design that requires you to constantly go up and down in order to reach some of the more secretive areas, the routes in Path of Fire are much more straightforward. This doesn't mean that Path of Fire's secrets are easier to access, and if you ever try to go through the Dwarven stronghold you'll know exactly how difficult things can be, but it does mean that they are something you can actively work towards. You don't have to go half-way across the map to reach a Mastery Point right above you like you would in Tangled Depths, but rather you have to figure out what combination of jumps and leaps to perform in order to get to your destination. 

This might sound simple, but its surprisingly tricky in practice as the addition of mounts has given ArenaNet the ability to get really creative the landscapes. Path of Fire might be set in a desert region, but there is a lot more vertical space than you might expect. So sometimes you'll have to scale up a mountain in order to leap from one peak to another, other times you'll need to teleport through a vast network of portals in the correct order, or maybe try and survive a massive gauntlet of enemies through careful movement and well-timed jumps. Its still a bit of a challenge to entirely complete each map, so don't worry about the mounts trivializing exploration, but the good news is that the challenges are no longer a test of patience, but rather a test of skill!

Guild Wars 2: Path of Fire screenshot of the Skimmer mount

The Skimmer does not have much use in exploration, but it makes crossing bodies of water so much more pleasant

Besides the new movement system, it is the visuals and sound that make the Crystal Desert an intriguing place to explore. As I've mentioned earlier, Path of Fire might be set in a desert, but each of the zones have a distinct design and atmosphere about them. The Crystal Oasis is mostly a desert with a densely populated city set near the shoreline, the Desert Highlands combine mountainous terrain with snow-swept Dwarven ruins, while zones like The Desolation and Domain of Vabbi offer a good look at Path of Fire's darker side and themes. I won't go into specifics as I would prefer for you to discover this on your own, but when you find yourself in the Domain of Vabbi I would recommend you pay close attention to what the random NPCs are actually doing all around you. Let's just say that things aren't always as they seem.

Combine all of this with some beautiful visuals and you've got yourself a world that is an absolute pleasure to explore. I many ways my time in the Crystal Desert reminded of Guild Wars 2's original launch - it was less about being super-efficient and more about soaking in the atmosphere and seeking out whatever bizarre landmark I could. Eventually that feeling faded, as it does in any MMO due to the nature of the genre, but I'll have very fond memories of those first two weeks for a very long time.

Guild Wars 2: Path of Fire screenshot of a shattered pyramid

Guild Wars 2 might be an old game at this point, but the visuals do not disappoint!

While the zones were full of interesting details and locations to rummage through, I'm afraid the events and Hearts Quests leave a lot to be desired. During my Open Beta preview I mentioned how the Heart Quests appear to be just as boring and outdated as they were in the original Guild Wars 2, and I'm afraid to say that the full version has only reinforced my opinion. Almost all of them take far too long to fill out, give absolutely no worthwhile rewards, and very rarely have anything entertaining for you to do. Guild Wars 2 became famous because of its highly dynamic and unique events that constantly shape the world around you, so why 'complement' that with completely static quests that requires you to do a random NPC's daily chores? Wouldn't you rather assault one of Balthazar's encampments alongside a small army than help an NPC clean their windows or refill their water barrels? 

Thankfully, the Heart Quest are mostly optional, and if you're like me you're going to completely ignore them and focus on the much more enjoyable public events. Speaking of which, I would love to tell you the event system has seen a massive improvement in Path of Fire, but its pretty much exactly the same as it ever was. I don't consider that to be a negative as its still a great way to get players out into the world, but I must admit I expected to see at least a couple of new event types. As it stands, Path of Fire's open world content is pretty much exactly the same as Heart of Thorns', though with one very, very significant difference - the lack of meta events! 

Guild Wars 2: Path of Fire screenshot of a massive forged camp

Wouldn't you rather attack one of these encampments than run in a circle killing the same three enemies?

Heart of Thorns went a bit overboard with massive zone-spanning events that involved hundreds of players, yet despite the flaws inherent in that system I still found it to be a perfect embodiment of what Guild Wars 2 is truly all about - teamwork. There is nothing better than grouping up with your fellow players and then fighting a boss the size of an average skyscraper! As such, I am very sad to say that Path of Fire has absolutely none of that. Outside of a couple of minor events and the farm-focused bounties there is simply no reason to group up, and perhaps more worryingly, no reason to repeat content as there are no major rewards to seek out or bosses to hunt. There is the occasional Collection that requires you to roam around the world, but unless you're interested in that specific armor set there are very few incentives to return to earlier zones.

Now don't get me wrong, I am perfectly happy with the content Path of Fire has put forth so far, but the big question still remains: what happens after? In Heart of Thorns there was always a reason to revisit old content, be that tons of loot or the pleasure of playing alongside massive amounts of people, so even if you joined a year late it was remarkably easy to find an organized group consisting of over a hundred members. In Path of Fire the only relevant group content you can do are Bounties as they reward a decent amount of loot, but there's only so many times you can run around killing the same few enemies over and over again. So while Path of Fire has good content backing it up right now, its going to be up to ArenaNet's post-launch support to keep the Crystal Desert from becoming properly deserted. 

Guild Wars 2: Path of Fire screenshot of a bounty hunt

The Bounties are fun in small groups, but if you want loot you really need to be in a larger party

While I ended up being slightly disappointed with the lack of large events, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the story is genuinely interesting to follow this time around. Just to put things into perspective, Heart of Thorns' main storyline was so tedious to me that I only forced myself to beat it in preparation for this review, even though I pre-ordered the expansion the moment I could! Path of Fire's campaign on the other hand was a fun ride from beginning to end. 

The writing is much better and there are less needlessly snarky scenes that ruin the whole atmosphere, the voice actors have received much better direction so their performances have greatly improved,  the story missions are no longer a constant barrage of sniper enemies that make each one drag on forever, and there are actually things happening from beginning to end! That last part might sound like a silly thing to praise, but after replaying the Heart of Thorns story you can't believe how relieved I am that there are very few missions that are boil down to 'we need to kill waves of enemies in order to progress slightly forward on the map'. 

That said, I'm still not happy with how the story was structured. There are far too many important characters that just get tossed aside moments after meeting them in what is supposed to be an emotional scene, yet due to the fact that we know nothing about them is mostly a "what just happened?" kind of situation. A real shame since some of these scenarios could've genuinely been touching, but they were never given the proper time to develop. This goes doubly so for one very important reoccurring character from Guild Wars 1, a character that is so powerful yet so utterly useless to the overall narrative that I'm still not sure if that whole story arc was an elaborate joke.

Similarly, while the final mission is a visual spectacle, it is very obvious that the last few chapters were rushed. There's 10-15 missions scattered across the first two zones incentivizing you to explore them fully, while the final three zones barely have a couple of missions combined. Its a bit off-putting as the ending just kind of materializes out of nowhere, but on the positive side its a much better ending than the previous two, especially in terms of gameplay. So while I still think Guild Wars 2 has a long way to go in terms of storytelling, Path of Fire represents a very solid step forward. If ArenaNet can improve their technique even further for Living World Season 4 I think they could have something genuinely good on their hands, something I won't have to surround with a dozen disclaimers before praising. 

Guild Wars 2: Path of Fire screenshot of a story boss fight

Instead of generic grunts, the new story missions focus more on unique bosses

After playing the Open Beta I entered Path of Fire with fairly low expectations for some of the Elite Specializations, most notably the Mirage which simply did not play in satisfying manner. As such, I am once again very glad to say that the full version has brought with it some noticeable improvements to the majority of classes. Most of the clunky spells have been reworked, while some of the underpowered ones have received much needed adjustments. There's still a lot of work to be done as the classes are nowhere near balanced, but the important thing is that all of them appear to be rather fun to play.

There is one problem that hasn't been improved, however, and that is the simple fact that some Elite Specializations have been devised entirely with PvP in mind. The Mirage and Spellbreaker are perfect examples of this since most of their toolkit doesn't really work in PvE, while it appears to be pretty damn strong in PvP. So while they might be perfectly fine in open world content, I have a feeling I'm going to have to go back to being a Chronomancer given how much more party-orientated it is than yet another DPS spec that mostly cares for itself. A real shame since new Elite Specializations only come every couple of years. I can only hope ArenaNet will somehow manage to strike a balance and make all of them viable in both game modes, because to do anything else would be an unfortunate 'waste' of some highly enjoyable playstyles.

Guild Wars 2: Path of Fire artwork for the Mesmer Mirage class

The Mirage is fun, but its easy to see that it wasn't designed with PvE in mind

Closing Thoughts

Guild Wars 2: Path of Fire is pretty much exactly what an MMO expansion should be. It adds a whole bunch of new toys to play around with, while still keeping of all of the previous content as relevant as it was when it first launched. So if you've enjoyed what Guild Wars 2 has to offer throughout all these years, then I would say its well worth grabbing Path of Fire as well since it hits all of the same notes. Whether its going to be as long lasting as Heart of Thorns, however, that still remains to be seen. I certainly hope it will because the Crystal Desert has shown itself to be a rather enchanting place to explore, a place I wouldn't mind returning to every now and then.