Guild Wars 2’s first Closed Beta event has just come to a close. What follows may seem like a crazy fanboy crush to most of you. But nearly thirty hours in three days playing a game might do that to a person. We knew a few weeks in advance that we’d be getting in to play, and like a good nerd I put everything else on hold so I could have the most possible time to explore ArenaNet’s latest game. What ended up happening is that I started myself down a very dark path of obsession, addiction, and flamethrower usage from which I may never return (I might be exaggerating, but seriously, it’s very fun).
Have you ever wanted something so bad, maybe in your youth, that you felt like it would never arrive? It would never happen? I remember when I wanted Ocarina of Time for Christmas. That was the longest month’s wait of my short life. Well, that’s what the next several months leading up to GW2’s launch are going to feel like for me. I may have more time in the beta if I’m lucky, but now all I want is for the game to come out for my characters to be real. And more than that, I want all of you to see just what makes this game so special with your own eyes.
The Look and Feel
We’ve said it before, but GW2 is a pretty game. Not “oh look, another new title I won’t be able to play” pretty, but stylized and rendered in a way that won’t be a system hog and still be easy on the eyes. Screenshots don’t do it justice. Once you see it in motion, see the animations, watch the NPCs interact and come to life during events, and see how wonderfully cohesive every aspect of the UI fits together, you’ll get it. There’s obviously been a careful amount of attention to this game’s look and feel. While every race is unique, they all feel as though they’re from the same world. While we didn’t have access to the Asura or Sylvari just yet (though we did have access to all 8 professions), there were plenty littered about the landscape. I was worried that these two races would seem ill-fit for the rest of the more gruff peoples of Tyria, but they blended right in and felt a part of the world whenever I happened upon a smarmy little trader or a wandering leaf-hippy.
Everything about the UI seems to have a “painterly” feel. The map is painted, and slowly uncovered in more detail as you explore. The icons for everything are painted in the same style. Your health meter even looks painted, and each UI menu has the same brush-stroked feel. It’s the little touches that make it sing too. Your party members’ typed chat will show up next to their portraits. Your screen’s outline will change colors depending on the effect you’re under (purple haze for confusion, red blood spatter when you’re nearing death). It’s all very well put together, with plenty of easy to understand information around each corner. There are a lot of new ideas in GW2, but the UI won’t be something you have to learn to think differently about. It just works, and it works well.
The World’s a Stage
Make no bones about it; Guild Wars 2 is a theme-park MMO. Now, before you get up in arms, be absolutely sure to read this next bit. It’s absolutely positively redefining what that means. Once you’ve lived a while in this incarnation of Tyria, other games’ approaches to the MMO standards will seem completely outdated and archaic, charming at best. This isn’t a sandbox in the traditional sense, and it’s not a theme-park in the traditional sense either. It’s something new. The world can be affected by you as the player, through the dynamic events system, but the changes aren’t permanent. Similarly, gone is the stale quest system of old, and in its place is the incentive to explore every inch of the large and diverse zones of Tyria, because you never know what you’ll find. No, you won’t make a house in Ashford (but you will have a guild hall if you and yours so desire). And yet, because of the events, I can’t recall a game world that has ever felt so vibrant and alive, even if the events cycle and repeat themselves. Throw in the personal story you follow on each character, based on the choices you make at character creation, and you have the makings of a very large and (pardon the cliché) epic MMORPG.
You will get lost in GW2. You will find yourself wandering to see what’s beyond a hill, or what lies in that cave where the growling is echoing from. You will start off helping a scholar discover what’s causing ice wyrms to behave oddly only to see it lead to a tale of corrupted winter wildlife caused by an evil Svanir shaman. Something simple will turn into a massive event that involves ice demon portals, blizzards, and one of the hairiest boss fights you’ve ever experienced… at level 12. You’ll help the Charr fight back the ghosts of Ascalon deep in the crypts of what used to be the human city, and you’ll take on Duke Barradin himself as he possesses a massive stone statue… at level one.
I mean, these are quests, don’t get me wrong. You’re just not talking to some static NPC and being told to go kill a bunch of this or that. Instead you’re partaking in a large series of scripted events that never get old. As you level, you move on through the terrain and you uncover more events. Each one leads to another, and things accomplished in one area of the map change what’s going on in another for other players. Yes they cycle, and yes they’re not permanent changes. But if a centaur tribe takes over a human village, you won’t be able to use that village’s services until you help take it back. It’s this kind of occurrence that was the seed of greatness in games like Tabula Rasa, and it’s captured wonderfully here. There are small tasks to help people (like getting meat for a single dad with too many mouths to feed) and grand tasks to save cities (driving back a Svanir invasion to protect the Dragon Guard comes to mind). And they all feel worth doing. But it wouldn’t work nearly as well if it weren’t for the stellar improvements made to traditional MMO hotbar combat.
The Heat of Battle
You’ll dodge with the V-key to avoid AOE effects, lay down mines, put up walls of flame (which arrows can be shot through to catch on fire), lay distortion fields to hide you and your allies. You’ll heal yourself, heal your friends, revive NPCs and fight while near death from the ground and try to rally. There are no “tanks, healers, and DPS” classes. Every single class can fill each role depending on their skill lead-out and weapon choice, and every class will have at least one healing spell on their hotbar at all times. Every action can be cast while running, and movement is most certainly encouraged. Staying still will just get you killed faster.
On my Engineer, I’d drop bombs as I ran away from enemies. I’d put up walls of fire with my flamethrower that rangers could shoot arrows through, and I’d plant healing turrets for us all to use while we fought off the evil bastards trying to take our keep. It’s very satisfying, often difficult action. You will die. You will have to repair your armor. You will get used to it. Dying is a setback, but it never feels frustrating. Instead, you keep thinking: “I can do this. I just need to try again and do this differently.” It never feels cheap. It feels challenging, and it’s something I forgot I’d missed in my MMOs. And don’t get me started on underwater combat. What’s cooler than having a torpedo shooting gun and one that scatters three AOE bombs? Nothing, that’s what. I always hated underwater levels in my games, but by getting rid of breath meters and designing a completely different combat system for underwater areas, ArenaNet has made one of my most hated design elements one of my new favorites. Underwater keep sieges in the Eternal Battlegrounds (PVP) will be insane.
But why all this fighting and why all these events? I mean, what are you doing them for? What’s in it for you?
Well friend, prepare yourself: Guild Wars 2 doesn’t lend itself to the skinner box mentality. If your main scope of MMO gaming is the likes of Everquest and World of Warcraft, shake free of the shackles of gear grind and raiding treadmills. The game of GW2 isn’t to get sets of items, or to take your guild and clear dungeons, “starting” the game at the level cap. No, instead ArenaNet sets you into the world of Tyria and says “go play.” This is how it’s most like a sandbox, despite the moving set pieces and event-based directed content. You will gain levels, you will get more gear, and you will get more powerful as you works towards level 80, but it’s not the point. No, instead it’s quite clear that GW2 wants you to simply play in its world, play with other players, and get lost in Tyria while having fun and not focusing on what item you have or when the next “ding” is going to come. In short, this isn’t just another treadmill to run on and it feels so very refreshing.
I’ll end this section with one very important note: exploring is very key to Guild Wars 2. Sick of being too handheld in recent MMOs? Don’t worry. GW2 will give you some very basic areas to look for (provided you ask one of the game’s “scouts”, but beyond that it will be up to you to find adventure, to find people in need of a hand. The scouts (denoted on the map by a spyglass) will give you some of the surrounding area’s major event locations, but as you tend to them you’ll undoubtedly stumble upon others like breadcrumbs leading you to locations that don’t have a label. One such example is the Shaman Rookery in the starting zone for the Norn. It’s a dank and dark cave, filled with extremely difficulty encounters and platforming tasks that will drive you mad as enemies and crows knock you to the base of the cave and force you to start from the beginning. You won’t know what’s at the end of the trial, but you’ll be damned sure to keep trying to defeat the shamans and jump from platform to platform to see what prize awaits you. Areas like this, among so many others, will make explorers’ dreams come true.
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