There are a lot of places ArenaNet could go for Guild Wars 2's next expansion. After all, the Elder Dragon saga has ended—and with it the ongoing story the game's been telling since it launched back in 2012. There's plenty of unrevealed landmass left on the world map. Who knows what new stories are out there? But in Secrets of the Obscure—which launches next week on August 22—players won't be exploring the land at all. Instead, we'll be moving on up, with two new locations set high in the skies above Tyria. This is an expansion based around the Wizard's Tower, the mysterious structure once found hovering high above a small village in Kessex Hills, now moved to a new location high above the ocean to the northwest of the Maguuma Wastes.
I recently got a chance to do a guided tour through the new maps of Guild Wars 2's fourth expansion, and check out some of the features it will bring. What I discovered was that, because this is an expansion set in the sky, it's also one that has been built around the game's best mount.
The Skyscale is Guild Wars 2's second flying mount. Where the first—the Griffon—is all about gliding through the air, the Skyscale is far more versatile. You can fly vertically, hover in place, and launch off a wall to propel yourself upwards. It's the helicopter to the Griffon's plane, and as a result it's by far the most useful of the many excellent traversal options the game's mounts provide.
It's about to become even better, too. Secrets of the Obscure is upgrading the Skyscale to be a combat mount, similar to End of Dragons' Siege Turtle. A new fireball skill will let you launch fiery explosives at enemies on the ground. Hold it down, and you'll switch to an action camera view, letting you manually aim the direction of your scaly pal's fireball. It's a fun little interaction, although already I'm dreading how many people are going to try completing entire meta events solely through mount attacks. I see you, Turtle campers. You're not fooling anyone.
Both the Skyscale and the Griffon are also being updated to make use of both updrafts and leylines, letting you more easily move between the islands of Skywatch Archipelago, the expansion's first map. As I jump into a leyline, ArenaNet notes that, if you see an island in the distance, there will be a way to fly to it—suggesting there might be some interesting things to find in the more out-of-the-way sections of the map.
The map is a sprawling scatter of magical islands. These are Fractals, reflections of the world that are created in the Mists. Elsewhere in the game, they're used as repeatable dungeons, but in Secrets of the Obscure ArenaNet is planning to explore the lore behind them and their creation. It's also a way to bring in fragments of stories from throughout Tyria's history. There are islands that reflect various places we've previously been to—Elona, Cantha and Central Tyria are all represented. But some take a different form to the places that currently exist in the game. One island, for instance, is based on Rata Novus before its destruction by the chak.
I'm looking forward to discovering what stories are lurking across these islands—and how else the locations will differentiate themselves from the continents we've already explored. For my preview, though, I was mostly there to try the new Rift activity. This is Secrets of the Obscure's new repeatable open world passtime. Using the new Heart of the Obscure artefact, you can scan your map for the nearest rift, and rush over to open it and kill the Kryptis enemies that pour out. Kill enough, and a boss will emerge. And then it's on to the next one.
It's a familiar enough event type, with different tiers of difficulty that you can progress through. Tier one rifts are designed to be soloed, while higher tiers are designed for larger groups of players. Each completion will reward essences that can be used to craft a new item called Kryptis Motivations, which you can use to find those higher tier rifts. A self-sustained cycle, then, with no cooldown, and that will be available on maps throughout the game—in both core and previous expansion maps.
It's an activity that fits well into Guild Wars 2's open world design, where squads of players bouncing between repeatable events is the norm. It's not uncommon to visit a Path of Fire map and see a commander leading players between bounty events, or to wander into a Heart of Thorns zone in the middle of a big map-wide meta event. The key to rifts being successful as a sustainable activity will, as always, be the rewards. The essences you earn will be needed for a new open world legendary armour set—planned to release in one of the post-expansion quarterly updates. That should ensure they stay relevant for some time.
The second of Secret of the Obscure's two launch maps is Amnytas, the floating home of the Wizard's Court—an ancient, secret faction being introduced with this expansion. It's a collection of floating structures, each dedicated to a different school of magic. It's a different vibe to Skywatch Archipelago, which is a chaotic landscape containing vastly different biomes. Amnytas is more ordered and structured—massive, clean marble buildings looking out to the open skies.
The first thing I notice is the names of its various structures. We arrive at Bastion of the Natural—one of a number of large compounds that all share the same naming convention. There's Bastion of Strength, Bastion of Balance, Bastion of the Obscure and so on. If you've completed Guild Wars 2's fourth raid wing, this might all sound familiar. I ask if there's a connection between this location and the Bastion of the Penitent raid, and while ArenaNet refused to elaborate much for fear of spoilers, it confirmed that yes, the similarity is deliberate.
Amnytas is the main stage for the Kryptis's assault into Tyria, which has been happening for some time before players arrive, to the point that some of its structures are already covered in demonic corruption. In the centre of the map is a massive tower called The World Spire. ArenaNet claims this is the highest players have ever gone—both in the lore, and physically in-engine. It's at the top of the spire that I get to see a portion of the map's meta event chain—a Guild Wars 2 staple that usually culminates in a massive boss fight. I see Amnytas's boss spawn in, and while I'm not allowed to reveal any details, I can at least say it's a dramatic and spectacular sight.
The meta continues the expansion's utilisation of the Skyscale, with parts of it requiring the use of both the mount and its new aerial fireball attack. Fortunately the process of acquiring the Skyscale is being made much simpler—no longer tied to a lengthy quest chain requiring Season 4 of the Living World. Expansion owners will, by default, get access to the Skyscale while on Secrets of the Obscure maps. In addition, ArenaNet has also created a new method of acquiring a permanent version of the mount for use outside of the expansion—one less arduous than the original collection.
The final stop on my tour was the Wizard's Tower itself—the new hub for this expansion. It's from here that you can launch Secrets of the Obscure's Strike Missions, but also access basic vendors and services. As a space, it feels more user friendly than End of Dragons' Arborstone, not least because it actually puts crafting stations next to the Mystic Forge. Fingers crossed it has its own teleportation scroll.
I also get a brief look at some of the other features being added for the expansion, including the new relics system. This is a new equipment item that replaces the bonus effects offered by armour runes, which as of next week will give stat bonuses only. I was given a handful of relics for the playtest, which offered the following effects:
- Relic of the Citadel: After using an elite skill, call down an artillery strike on the skill target or nearest enemy that inflicts stun.
- Relic of the Krait: After using an elite skill, emit a wave of corruption that inflicts damaging conditions.
- Relic of the Nightmare: After using an elite skill, send forth a nightmare pulse that inflicts fear and poison on nearby enemies.
- Relic of the Zephyrite: Summon crystals that apply protection and resolution to allies after using an elite skill. Crystal duration scales with the recharge of the used skill.
- Relic of the Wizard's Tower: After using an elite skill, shield yourself with a projectile-reflecting barrier while summoning a wave that pulls enemies towards you.
- Relic of Cerus: Upon using an elite skill, summon an Eye of Cerus that emits a rotating line attack, dealing damage and converting boons into conditions.
ArenaNet noted that these were picked as some of the more flashy options available, and confirmed that there will also be relics that don't trigger from elite skills. I'm looking forward to seeing the full range and discovering what effects they contain, and broadly I'm hopeful this will be a good long term change. Swapping out runes isn't exactly a trivial task, so this already feels like it could offer more options for versatility and customisation. I could see myself swapping in a Relic of the Nightmare ahead of a boss with a large defiance bar—giving my Basilisk Venom elite skill some extra juice against an enemy that requires big crowd control to stun.
The studio also gave a quick demonstration of the new Wizard's Vault—a replacement for the daily achievement system. This now gets its own menu button, and will offer a selection of daily, weekly and special objectives that, if completed, will grant Astral Acclaims. This new currency can be redeemed for special rewards from the Vault—including emotes, weapons and mount skins. ArenaNet says it will be updating the Vault's rewards throughout the year, but will never make older rewards inaccessible—they'll simply be moved over to a legacy tab.
The style of objectives can also be customised to an extent, in a way that sounds similar to the current Guild Missions system. You'll be able to choose the type of objective you want to complete—for instance, opting out of PvP if you'd rather not face the wrath of the competitive community. As described, it sounds like a positive switch. God knows the achievement system as it stands feels outdated (although dailies were less egregious than the many collection quests that still live in there). Mostly, I'm just happy that there'll be a way to earn some new mount skins without spending real money on gems.
As much as I enjoyed this small taste of Secrets of the Obscure, the much bigger test is how it'll feel in the weeks after release. This is a smaller expansion than before—a deliberate move on ArenaNet's part to cut down the time between major releases. Even some of Secrets of the Obscure's features won't arrive until months after its launch, as part of the quarterly release cycle designed to follow each new expansion. It's these quarterly updates that will bring a third map, the new legendary armour set and new weapons for each of the game's professions.
It's a big shift from the previous, admittedly inconsistent expansion release cycle, and it's going to take players time to adjust. It may not even happen until an expansion or two down the road, as we get a better sense of what the effect of these more rapid releases are having on the game at large.
Nonetheless, I'm excited to see how it goes. As someone who's played through the occasional lengthy update drought, having a more reliable and consistent release schedule does sound like a positive step. Moreover, I'm looking forward to the new narrative approach. There's benefit to pushing aside the big, overarching threat in favour of what ArenaNet is calling a series of more isolated stories—a way to highlight different parts of the world and explore new mysteries, albeit with a light throughline connecting them together. Secrets of the Obscure won't have the same world-ending stakes, but I'm already looking forward to putting my head in the clouds and finding out what else is hiding up there.