Guild Wars 2 took a risk on a new type of expansion this year, but so far it seems to be working

In 2022, Guild Wars 2 celebrated its 10th anniversary with an expansion that closed the book on its first major story arc. With the decade of dragons over, the rest of the year was spent tidying things up. The first season of its living world story was reintroduced, a swathe of quality-of-life updates were made to older systems and activities, and the game finally launched on Steam. In the wake of all that, we named it our best ongoing game of the year.

The big question at the end of 2022 was, naturally, what’s next? And in 2023, ArenaNet gave us a surprising answer. The fourth expansion, Secrets of the Obscure, released in August, alongside a new expansion structure that the studio claimed would allow for more frequent releases—more expansions from a team that, historically, has struggled to make them.

Naturally something had to give. Secrets of the Obscure is smaller than previous expansions, and technically hasn’t finished releasing yet. Instead, the final parts of it are rolling out through major updates each quarter. The expansion’s third map only recently appeared with the first major update last month—and players can currently only explore a small corner, with the rest being filled in across the next two releases.

The upshot of all of this is there are currently a couple of question marks hanging over Guild Wars 2 right now. The first is whether Secrets of the Obscure—when all its major updates have finished rolling out—feels like a worthy expansion with enough to keep players entertained throughout a full calendar year. The second is whether the next expansion releases to ArenaNet’s implied schedule sometime next year. If so, then the compromises are worth the sacrifice—it’s a pace the studio has never previously been able to achieve.

But hey, I’m a Destiny 2 player. I’m used to living with the uncertainty of whether a live-service game is headed in the right direction. It’s where I thrive. And, one thing is for sure: Guild Wars 2 is having a much better year than Bungie’s shooter.

In many ways Secrets of the Obscure feels like a much needed refresh. The dragons are gone. Your regular crew of party members are all off doing their own thing. You’re no longer forced to rely on a precocious Asuran wonderkind or surrogate dragon daughter to act as the deus ex machinas that solve all your problems. Instead, the player character stumbles into a secret war between wizards and demons, and your new allies? They’re kind of a mess.

(Image credit: ArenaNet)

The first map, Skywatch Archipelago, is set high above Tyria across a series of floating islands—Fractals that the wizards you now work with have created as a form of ‘what if?’ scenario generator. These scenarios are usually bad, and the fun added wrinkle here is that—unlike the Fractals we explore in the mists—these aren’t just vague memory echoes. They’re now real places inhabited by real people. They exist.

It’s brilliantly messed up, although I wish the game spent more time reckoning with that fact. It’s mostly handwaved away with an “I guess we all have to make difficult choices sometimes”. But, I mean, do we? One of the experiments is just “What happens if the Wizard’s Tower blows up?” And yeah, the net result of letting an obviously bad thing happen is bad. What did we actually learn here?

There are plenty of fun scenarios to dig into though. Moment to moment, it’s rare I’m wowed by the game’s dialogue—it’s functional, albeit a bit cringy. The real triumph of Secrets’ story, though, is one of scale. The stakes are just low enough that this doesn’t need to be the launching point of some multi-year arc. I could just as easily see the next expansion tackling an entirely different threat in another part of the world—leaning on the series’ worldbuilding and many open-ended scraps of lore to focus on a single mystery before hurrying us off to the next thing. That’s a fun prospect at the conclusion of a 10-year story arc.

And even without the full expansion being available yet, I’m playing more than ever. Guild Wars 2 is the rare MMO that lets you drop in and out without feeling like you’ve missed anything. I’ve taken long breaks in the past, and everything was still waiting for me when I got back—just as relevant as before. But the change to the daily log-in system has given some extra structure (and a more predetermined reward path) day-to-day. The new Wizard’s Vault feature offers a handful of daily, weekly and special goals that reward a currency that you can spend on both cosmetic skins and end-game equipment and materials.

(Image credit: ArenaNet)

In terms of what you’re earning, not much has changed—at least in terms of valuable legendary materials. But actually being able to choose what I earn makes a huge difference, and the new currency is plentiful enough that I can get everything I want without feeling like I have to play each day. It’s a very Guild Wars 2 approach to a battle pass system, including the fact that cosmetic items aren’t removed from the shop, but simply moved to the legacy tab. It’s chill, even if that’s partly because there’s a lot of unnecessary filler in the shop that I don’t think any player would actually need to buy. I have enough tier five crafting materials already, thanks.

Secrets’ second triumph is offering an easier path to unlocking a Skyscale—one that doesn’t require owning Season 4 of the game’s Living World. It’s by far the game’s most useful mount, but one that has always risked trivialising new maps. Sure, I could painstakingly learn the twisting network of New Kaineng’s streets, but it’s a lot easier to just fly over it all. Secrets’ maps have been designed with the Skyscale in mind, and they’re better because of it. And many of the benefits introduced to the Skyscale this expansion have been added to the Griffon too. Path of Fire’s gliding mount is even better with the ability to ride updrafts, and ArenaNet clearly knows it. The Bastion of the Celestial waypoint in Amytas is a particular joy—positioned high in the sky, and letting you quickly glide to any spot on the map.

We’re only just over halfway through this expansion’s update cycle, so there’s plenty of unknowns left on the table. But the last major release brought a new activity—Convergence—that looks to be worth revisiting, and the next update will add new weapons to every profession, and a new legendary armour set to collect. It certainly sounds like enough to keep me logging in for the next few months, and hopefully into the next expansion. Maybe this new plan won’t work out, but for now I’m optimistic.

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