Last Saturday night, the stars must have aligned because I finally managed to cobble a Guild Wars 2 group together for Knights of Mercy’s first completed run of Ascalonian Catacombs. Ultimately we had one level 80 (Kahill), one 60ish (Bippa), one 40ish (Kriin), and two 35s (myself and the mister) but in keeping with the game’s philosophy of level and adjustment we were all scaled down to the story-mode dungeon’s appropriate level of 30.
Before I begin, I want to separate and make a distinction between the overall experience I had (it was a blast!) from my thoughts and opinions of the actual instance itself (on this matter I have a lot on my mind).
I’ll just start by saying this — whether you will enjoy AC (or I guess GW2 instances by extension) will be heavily dependent upon your personality type and on the reasons why you choose to do group instanced content. If you like the traditional order and planning that goes into an instance run, can appreciate the beauty of everything running smoothly like a well-oiled machine and the myriad steps coming together just perfectly to culminate into success…well then, you’ll probably find GW2’s instances lacking. In contrast, if you’re the more laid back type, enjoy working creatively with others, are less achievement-driven and don’t mind too much the occasional randomness or when things get chaotic…you’ll love it.
Myself, I think I fall right smack in the middle of these two extremes, which is why I’m not surprised I came out of AC with mixed feelings. As someone used to playing support roles like healers and tanks, I have to say the experience distressed me — but not for the reasons you would think. In fact, I initially thought that getting used to not being part of a trinity would be a problem for me, but here I surprised myself because in reality, moving past that was so very easy.
Yes, in most games I’m usually a healer and more often the tank — but do you know why? It’s certainly not because I particularly relish the role of being the meatshield and taking damage for others, and I was actually more than happy to shed that responsibility. While I like playing support roles, they’re definitely not as fun as being DPS and being able to pew-pew-pew-pew-pew to your heart’s desire. Plus, as any experienced tank or healer will tell you, sometimes it’s stressful as HELL. But I do it anyway, because what I really love is helping others. As in having the ability to keep others, especially my friends, alive.
Now I’m not saying you don’t have that kind of dynamic in GW2 groups, because if anything, you’ll find that pretty much everything you do will be helpful to your party, just in more subtle ways. The only difference is, there will be nothing like an “oh-shit heal” or “snap aggro” to save the day. Chances are, you will be watching your fellow friends and adventurers fall to defeat like flies around you, time and time again. In the end, it was this nagging guilt I ultimately found to be the most distressing, because I am used to being able to “rescue” others, not because I missed not having a role.
The good news is, I got over it quick. I had no choice, because the truth is, you will probably die in AC. Not only that, you will probably die a lot. You get used to it, and that’s just the truth of it. In fact, I see many indications that this is actually meant to happen, which I will go into later.
Like so many aspects of GW2, when it comes to the matter of difficulty, the first instance also serves to illustrate an example of yet another duality — in some ways it’s so easy, in other ways it’s so hard. Initial trash mobs actually gave us more trouble than two of the bosses, namely Master Ranger Nente and Kasha Blackblood, as we took both of them down first try without anyone being defeated. Other encounters, like the lovers Ralena and Vassar required our group getting a little creative. Having no tanks and aggro in this game, we instead relied on knockbacks, roots and boulders to separate them and keep them apart.
King Adelbern was another story. There really is no other way to put it, he was a bitch of a fight. We fell to the final boss again and again and again. And yet, there was actually never any uncertainty that he was going to go down and we were going to come away with a dead, grumpy ghost at our feet. Not once did we ever have to stop and say to each other, “Oh crap, guys, there’s a real possibility that we might not be able to do this,” the reason being a waypoint located a mere hop-and-a-skip away from the encounter. Yes, during the fight it’s best to try and stay alive, but if defeated, continuing the fight involved no more than warping back up and running back in again.
Once again, I thought I was going to hate this aspect of GW2’s dungeon fights, but in the end I found myself strangely fine with it. As one of my guildies said, “EMBRACE THE ZERG!” That became my mantra. Not only that, these instances were tested extensively and I have faith in ArenaNet’s competence that I do not doubt that the encounter would have been what it was if they hadn’t intended for things to be like this. I truly believe everything is the way it is for a reason.
I have some thoughts as to what those reasons might be, of course. For one thing, taking the away the “fear of wiping” allows the group to become more confident in experimenting with their abilities — an important effect, considering this is story-mode in a starter instance. With experience, I’m sure the reliance on zerging will go away, but at this point, without that threat of failure looming over our heads it was amazing how much of the pressure was lifted. It made us more relaxed and apt to get creative, encouraging everyone to look around and try to string combos with our fellow group members.
Speaking of combos, all I have to say is: learn them, try to remember them. After Kahill primed our group on combos, we all took a moment to inform each other of our builds and skills, as well as learn how to recognize what to watch for from others and how to follow up with our own set of abilities. I won’t go as far as to say combos will make the instance easier, because with constant movement, issues with positioning, and just in general random unforeseen circumstances happening all around you (not to mention that most combo effect durations are very brief), chances are you won’t be able to pull off most of the ones you attempt. But, it does make things infinitely more fun!
Utilizing combo fields.
So that’s what I was doing during the last fight when we weren’t worrying over wiping or failing — experimenting, getting creative, messing about, thinking, observing, learning. Admittedly, it does take the fun of organization and execution out of group play, but then again, the type of freedom I just described would not have been possible in a million years if the encounter had been designed any other way. At one point, Blue Kae (Kriin) mentioned that the fights actually reminded him of those from Champions Online, and I have to agree. That was another MMO which allowed you to embrace “the self” and superhero-dom, relying more on simply letting you enjoy your own skills, and less on adapting them to roles.
That said, I shudder to think what my experience in AC would have been like if I had been with a PuG. At least in this learning phase, I highly recommend going with a guild group or people you know (but then again, I advocate that for all group content anyway, regardless of game/instance/experience!) because the more you communicate and learn your own and each others’ play styles, the easier and more predictable things will get, not to mention the many more opportunities you will get to synergize. It’s much better than trying to second guess or anticipate a stranger’s actions every time.
Ultimately, my AC run with my guild has been an eye-opener. There were aspects of it that pleased me greatly but at the same time things that irked me to no end. Going back to what I said at the beginning of this article, how you personally feel about them will depend on who you are. I for one would not get too hung up on people’s claims of what GW2 did “right” or what they did “wrong” when it comes to their instances. To me, that’s akin to debating what thunderstorms do right, or what the color red does right, or what the taste of pickles does right. GW2 dungeons are different, but they are what they are.
I also meant it when I said that I believe everything is the way it is for a reason. Whether you like them or not is going to come down to taste, which is as personal as whether you like piña coladas or getting caught in the rain (and in case you’re wondering, I think piña coladas are too sweet, though I don’t mind getting caught in the rain. It’s incidentally why I also like thunderstorms, though I am ambivalent towards the color red. Pickles, on the other hand, I happen hate hate hate hate hate hate HATE the taste of them).
If you’ve stuck around this long and are still reading, I just have one final thing to say: if you find yourself heading into AC for the first time, the best advice I can give, and that I personally followed, is: 1) play with friends! 2) stay flexible and keep and open mind! 3) Just sit back and enjoy this gripping tale about a fallen city — being a fan of the Ghosts of Ascalon novel, being able to stand amidst the ruins of this significant place was especially poignant. Do all this, and it won’t really matter how you feel about the instance or its fight mechanics or its design and all that crap…because you will be having too much fun to care.