This weekend I and several hundred boatloads of other people got access to the first Guild Wars 2 Open Beta event; 60 hours of fighting, dodging and accidentally unleashing violent underworld beasts (I’ll get to that) in the fantasy land of Tyria. What unravelled was an MMO quite unlike any I’ve played before – one that played the way I think I always imagined an MMO should, but never seemed to. Join me after the jump for more.
Guild Wars 2 has long been touted as a potentially revolutionary game for the MMORPG market; with a system of shifting, world-changing ‘Dynamic Events’ replacing traditional questing, a class/skill system based on self-sufficiency and versatility, and PvP on a scale rarely seen in MMOs, the goal of ArenaNet in developing Guild Wars 2 echoed from the hills in the gaming community – an MMO that redefines the genre and brings in a new era of online gaming.
I’d actually take issue with that, overall; for me, it felt less like a gigantic revolution in MMORPG gaming and much more like MMO gaming the way I always imagined it should be, though of course that’s still an achievement not to be dismissed. Questing does exist, story is there, combat is there, skills and customization and character interaction are all there; each, however, has been streamlined to the point that Guild Wars 2 feels natural, intuitive and easy to play. Once I jumped in, my movement from activity to activity was pretty much continuous and uninterrupted. I left Guild Wars 2 thinking, “Yeah, that makes so much sense, it should’ve always been done that way.” It’s a game which feels like a true re-imagining of the best parts of MMO gaming, stripped of the fat and presented simply.
I left Guild Wars 2 thinking, “Yeah, that makes so much sense, it should’ve always been done that way.”
That intuition permeates the whole game – for me, it’s what made it so much fun to play. There were three major features of the game that jumped out at me over my weekend playing: first, the way the game encourages you to play with others; second, the combat system and the sense of power every character has over their skills; and third, the sense of choice and exploration the game offered right from the beginning.
Playing nice with others
It’s easy to forget playing the majority of MMOs that this is a genre meant to be social. Encounters in most MMOs are mutually exclusive or based on competition – you steal someone’s boss kill, someone’s resource node, and others have to wait for the respawn timer to tediously tick over. When ArenaNet announced this as one of their main problems to eliminate during development, I was skeptical. How do you prevent people being arseholes, especially online, especially with the reputation gamers have for trolling and general twattery?
As it turns out, by making everyone useful. This is the first MMO I’ve played where the sight of another player is truly blessed and wonderful, as it should be. Teamwork feels natural, and you really feel the effect of another person joining up with you. I remember one encounter with a bandit lieutenant in the deep reaches of a scoundrel’s cave; there were four of us who had stumbled upon him at around the same time, and taken together, unplanned, we were wiped a couple of times. We started to notice that the bandit lieutenant fired a net shot to immobilise an enemy, then took aim and fired a heavy damage shot. At the same time, bandits were respawning from behind us. We had to deal with both issues at the same time.
How do you prevent people being arseholes?… As it turns out, by making everyone useful.
These problems presented themselves naturally, and the four of us responded. My Ranger had a knockback skill which interrupted as a side-effect; I would prevent the net shot, and my thief friend would jump in and blind the lieutenant. At the same time, our Elementalist was clearing out the spawns behind us, and our Warrior was bearing down on the Lieutenant and keeping up damage. It’s hard to put into words, but this teamwork was almost non-verbal; we mentioned the net shot perhaps once in chat, and after that it was clear how we could “aid.”
Dynamic events, the occurrences which spawn encounters all over the world, worked similarly. I didn’t have to take a quest, but rather stumbled upon it; the objectives flashed up on my screen, and I went to work – easy. Every person who showed up was extra help, but the event scaled at the same time – if we had ten people instead of five, we had double the centaurs to deal with. What quickly became apparent, however, was that two people are worth much more than just two people–- professions work together so intuitively that I was always advantaged by having a friend around. I’ve always found the social element of MMOs to be lacking and haven’t enjoyed playing with others. Guild Wars 2 fixes that to an astonishing degree.
Feeling like a boss
Guild Wars 2’s combat system takes a little getting used to. You have five skills determined by your weapon set up (either two handed weapons of five skills or main hand weapons of three skills combined with off-hand weapons of two skills), three utility skill slots, an elite skill slot and a heal skill slot – every profession has a heal skill, and needs it. The whole system is designed to make any combination of professions viable; there’s no healer, you’ll never need a certain profession. This, at least in PvE, was pretty much always the case. I played the Ranger, and I never felt like I needed to find an Elementalist or a Warrior to get something done.
There’s an undeniable sense of fluidity and motion to the combat.
The big achievement for me from the beta’s combat system was the sense of power over your skills and ultimate fate that you got. Guild Wars 2’s system emphasises dodging and evading large monster attacks, and it takes mastering (I sometimes forgot I needed to keep myself topped up on health), but once you get the hang of it, there’s an undeniable sense of fluidity and motion to the system which I found greatly enjoyable. I died a lot, you guys. This is a difficult game. But it’s a difficulty that derives from needing to master a style of combat, rather than needing to have the best equipment or shiny weapons, and once I started to get comfortable with dodging, weapon swapping (most professions equip two sets which they cycle between) and crowd control, my deaths plummeted very quickly.
This is a game which rewards getting better at the system. By the last day of the beta, I and a random elementalist I happened to wander across took on a giant rampaging boar and a Wasp Queen in very close proximity to one another, both champion opponents designed for groups. We understood how the other was playing, kept track of one another, dodged a LOT, used our skills much more cleverly than at the beginning of the beta, and downed both enemies. It was incredibly satisfying. I’m not so sure if “IT WAS REALLY FUN” is an appropriate review for a game’s system, but I found myself – me, the risk-averse gamer of the century – seeing giant hordes and running towards them just to see if I could survive on my own skill; that’s a system that is succeeding at making combat fun.
Making all the choices
My final point, and possibly most significant from my perspective, is the sense of openness Guild Wars 2’s game world offers you. There’s very little defined direction beyond your personal story, which takes place in instances separate from the open world, and even there, the personal story offers branching and complex storytelling, beginning from character creation. There was a point maybe three hours into the story where I went “OK, where do I go next?” and realised that if I wanted, I could take my Human Ranger to the Norn (big native-american/viking/celt inspired giants who kill shit and kill it good) starting area, and they would be scaled down to an appropriate level with my skills. I could just…go there. And it would work. Experience in Guild Wars 2 doesn’t scale with level – you take the same time to level from lv76 to Lv78 as you do from Lv 14-16 – so I could backtrack, go to that old event I really liked, and there was no feeling that I was ‘wasting time’.
Tyria feels like a massive living world.
Also, the maps. They’re MASSIVE. Taking the Queensdale area alone and transposing it onto World of Warcraft, it was at least the size of three of the WoW human zones, and it’s one of three or four (I’m not sure, I didn’t count) human racial zones. To give an idea, I noticed that after I’d completed all the “hearts” in Queensdale (little areas with tasks to increase your standing) that I had spent eight hours playing and done maybe five to seven of two hundred and thirty. There are loads of points of interest on every map, loads of little stories, and due to the dynamic event system, everything feels like it has a reason to be there – trading yaks take supplies from a mine to a town, and a dynamic event spawns to defend the dolyak, soldiers go on patrol and you aid them, centaurs raid villages and take towns which you then take back through other dynamic events; and all of this happens with you there or not there, with you stumbling across it or running past it.
Tyria feels like a world, a massive living world with storylines you’ve yet to uncover. It’s a huge achievement, and even I, the quintessential explorer in MMOs, found myself stopping, spending ages in the same place just exploring all the content. One of my favourite kinds of dynamic events were those spawned only by the kind of players who are too curious for their own good – I was talking to a lady in the middle of a swamp who was studying a journal; she reads it, then asks me if she should do the ritual in it to see what will happen.
Of course I say yes, and it spawns a giant portal through which a demon of the underworld spurts forth to destroy me and all of my kin. This event wouldn’t have spawned if I hadn’t been in the mood for a bit of dialogue, and it wouldn’t have spawned if I hadn’t talked to that specific NPC. This sense of the tiniest actions having reactions made the world I played in feel truly alive.
Random stuff I liked, in list form.
1. The dye system. Each piece of armour has multiple channels which dye different parts of the armour. I wish I’d remembered to take a screenshot of my super-fly purple, clay and silver Ranger, but suffice it to say, he was badass.
2. Background chatter. There’s loads of it, and it does a lot to make the world feel like a home.
3. Event variety – the Dynamic events are not at all “kill X things” – one of my favourite areas had me clearing an Ettin (sort of a dumb ogre thing) roadblock with a mixture of death from above and explosives, then collapsing an ettin’s cave with said explosives, then helping close a fissure caused by rampaging fire beasts of hell.
4. Rangers can have bird pets. And pigs. I killed an ogre with a pig. Awesome.
5. Have you seen the art direction in this game? Divinity’s Reach, the human capital, is breathtaking, varying from the look of a medieval Mediterranean town to a giant astronomical model overlooking a royal park. Hoelbrek, the Norn capital, is this wonderful massive collection of lodges. The Black Citadel, capital of the Charr, is basically the Death Star. Awesome.
6. Our beta ending event had us slaying a monstrously powerful white rabbit, then being assaulted by the tiny critters we’d seen around providing flavour who were suddenly four levels our senior. Double Awesome.
7. This game will have no subscription fee. Pay once and you play forever.
This is the MMO that other MMOs should have been, but weren’t. ArenaNet claimed early on in development that this was a game for those who normally hate MMOs, and they’re right – it’s the MMORPG cut lean and nutritious, devoid of drudgery and grinding. Is there any higher praise than “I was never bored”? There were negatives – I found the crafting difficult to get into, and balancing is by no means finished between professions, but they were by and large eclipsed by the rip-roaring time I had battling my way through Tyria. If you like MMOs, if you don’t like MMOs, whatever, give Guild Wars 2 a try. It’s a game well worth the effort.