Structured PvP (sPvP) in Guild Wars 2 can be a freeing experience for the veteran MMO player. Compared to ArenaNet's r/evolutionary vision for emergent and events-based gameplay in PvE and World-vs-World (WvW), the sPvP scenarios in Guild Wars 2 follow a more conventional design, which opens up a comfortable but still dynamic diversion for player-vs-player enthusiasts.
On the one hand, ArenaNet has been lauded for its intention to shake up the traditional MMO mold as it relates to quest design and player participation in PvE areas. Rather than approaching Guild Wars 2 with the tried, true, and tired formula of centralized quest hubs and kill X, fetch Y activities, the Bellevue-based studio opted for a gameplay design based on dynamic content, wherein adventuring and advancement depend more upon tiered locational events than static quest givers. ArenaNet's game also highly encourages open grouping, doing away with conventional mob tagging, and incentivizing player collaboration.
At the same time, this new approach to PvE gameplay, along with a myriad of other enhancements to traditional MMO systems like combat and crafting, can require a bit of a learning curve for players who have cut their teeth on the traditional MMORPG model. The basic elements of the game - WASD movement, talking to NPCs, fighting monsters - will be familiar to most, but understanding how ArenaNet wants you to play the game requires a bit of a paradigm shift. If you're continuously trying to find the next NPC questgiver while settling into a static skill rotation as you grind mobs, you're probably not liking the game very much. Guild Wars 2 requires, and in some cases, demands that you put aside your usual method of tackling PvE content and instead participate in regional events and explore Tyria to gain XP and rewards.
I mention the paradigm shift required by Guild Wars 2's PvE because it is a stark counterpoint to the familiarity found in the game's structured PvP. Whereas the PvE areas, and to some extent, WvW combat require you to play the game differently than you would other MMOs, long-time player-vs-player enthusiasts will feel instantly at home in sPvP. In sPvP, you don't have to explore expansive regions in search of points of interest, cinematic vistas, and waypoints while completing tasks for renown NPCs, participating in events, and taking on skill challenges. You just have to learn to play your class, understand the layout and mechanics of the game's five sPvP maps, and coordinate your efforts with that of your team to punch other players in the face and control objectives. It's straightforward, crunchy, rinse-and-repeat PvP, with trappings that will be familiar to most players, but with enough depth and addictiveness to give it that one-more-match appeal.
For those new to the PvP scene in ArenaNet's game, Guild Wars 2 features five different sPvP maps, including Battle of Kyhlo, Forest of Niflhel, Legacy of the Foefire, Raid on the Capricorn, and Temple of the Silent Storm. All of the scenarios are conquest-based, meaning that in addition to earning points for taking out players on the opposing team, your team will find its success by capturing, controlling and defending particular objectives on the map. The scenarios are all also informed by Guild Wars 2's larger fiction and narrative, and each of them incorporates secondary mechanics that mix up the action by adding new gameplay dynamics.
The newest scenario, Temple of the Silent Storm, for example, adds the ability for players to commune with different "meditation" points around the map, earning buffs like Meditation of Ferocity, Meditation of Stillness, and Meditation of Tranquility. Meditation of Ferocity gives a +3 bonus to team points when a player earns a kill, while Meditation of Stillness makes captured objectives grant double points, and Mediation of Tranquility, only appearing once per scenario, captures all objectives simultaneously. Like the other sPvP scenarios, Temple of the Silent Storm offers fast-paced combat with an incentive to work with your teammates to capture objectives, and the map provides for a lot of vertical spaces and nooks and crannies from which to attack or hide from opponents.
Some PvPers will be content with doing just that - fighting other players scenario after scenario ad infinitum, while others will be in it for the rewards. Guild Wars 2 employs a two-tiered reward system that most players will recognize: as you participate in sPvP scenarios, you gain "glory" - basically PvP XP - which is then represented by your "rank" - which you can think of as PvP levels. You can then spend glory to purchase rewards, which are unlocked based on your rank. These rewards include chests that contain random loot, like weapons, dyes, bags, glory buffs, tournament tickets, and other goodies, as well as tokens that you can use at the Mystic Forge to craft items. It's difficult to ascertain exactly how these rewards stack up to other high-level items earned from Guild Wars 2's dungeons and crafting, but at the very least, they seem to be stable for the moment, unlike the game's PvE rewards.
Of course, your sPvP rewards will be a bit more enticing if you choose to participate in Guild Wars 2's organized tournaments, which were introduced post-launch. Instead of just hotjoining scenarios to play along with a bunch of randos, you can put a team together and participate in 5v5 free and paid tournaments for heftier loot and bragging rights. You can jump into 3-round, single-elimination, 8-team tournaments at any time, or, eventually, build up your reputation to qualify for monthly and yearly competitions. Winning a free competition will net you glory, rank points, a tournament chest, and a tournament ticket - the last of which is required to enter paid tournaments (you can also purchase tickets from the in-game Black Lion Trading Company in packs of 5 and 30 for 75 and 360 gems, respectively). Achieving first place in a paid tournament will reward you with glory, rank points, gems, qualifying points, and a tournament chest, although you're sure to get at least one chest for participating, regardless of your team's place in the competition.
One question that might arise in regards to tournaments is the viability of sPvP for eSports, and the quick answer is that the system is simply too young for an adequate assessment. ArenaNet certainly seems like it is checking the right boxes with tournaments and gameplay balancing to satisfy the eSports crowd, but it's going to take more time for that ecosystem to fully develop and demonstrate its feasibility for competitive play.
On the subject of balance, the general consensus seems to be that there is no consensus, which is par for the course for player-vs-player content in any game. Some players are happy with the balancing act that ArenaNet keeps refining between Guild Wars 2's classes, while others attest passionately that their classes are nerfed and the rest are overpowered. Many players are quick to call out Thieves in particular as being overpowered because of their DPS-oriented skills and stealth utility, although these criticisms are usually countered by comments to the effect that the anti-Thieves need to learn to defend against burst DPS.
Playing a Thief myself, I can say that the class does enjoy a certain amount of damage-based prowess on the battlefield, along with excellent escape capabilities, and shares the mobility of all the classes afforded by Guild Wars 2's combat and dodge systems. The Thief can quickly be outmatched, however, by a player that knows how to control the spaces around them and can manage the class' tricks and traps. Anecdotally, I've found the most trouble going up against Mesmers, but others may have had a different experience.
The polarization regarding balance in Guild Wars 2 may be business as usual for PvP in an MMO, but there are several other aspects of sPvP that can engender strong feelings on both sides of contention. First, while accessing the scenarios is easy enough, it requires you to first enter the "Heart of the Mists," the game's PvP lobby, and then speak to the PvP Browser or Tournament Master NPCs to get into the action. While it's nice to have a centralized in-game region that contains all aspects of Guild Wars 2's sPvP, there isn't a clear reason why you can't just hotjoin a scenario from your user interface, such as is possible with WvW. With all of the positive streamlining that ArenaNet has cultivated with Guild Wars 2, this omission seems strange.
Second, while I applaud the developers' foresight in making sPvP a cross-server experience, allowing for larger groups and sustainable PvP irrespective of individual server populations, some people will say that such a feature, like dungeon finders, splits up the player base and blah blah blah whatever. Seriously, the implementation of cross-server functionality is a must-have to ensure that scenarios can be accessed from any server, at any time, and allows for a continually balanced number of players on teams.
Third, I enjoy conquest maps as much as the next person, but some variety would go a long way here. I think most people would welcome a capture-the-flag mode, some arenas, or any other variations on conventional PvP modes. The PvP-oriented maps introduced for Guild Wars 2's recent "Shadow of the Mad King" Halloween event, while consisting of more style than substance, were fun examples of what can be done outside of conquest.
Fourth, and finally, I personally get a kick out of running scenarios for fun and as a supplement to my PvE and WvW activities, but some players question the impact of sPvP on their gameplay experience outside of being a mere diversion. A player in the MMORPG.com guild, for example, voiced the opinion that s/he will log into a few scenarios to obtain the daily achievement for doing so, but doesn't play much of sPvP beyond that. While this example is just one case, and Guild Wars 2's sPvP does seem to be active at all times of the day, it's reasonable to question whether the scenarios and tournaments create the same sense of progression and world-changing impact provided by PvE and WvW.
Keeping all of these various points in mind, if we're to judge Guild Wars 2's sPvP by ArenaNet's own standards of "is it fun," then my opinion is a resounding "yes." It's fast, its furious, and it's thrillingly entertaining. It allows me to temporarily autolevel my characters to 80 and tinker with different builds to learn how they can be used effectively in combat. It achieves the monumental task of informing me about how the downed state can be useful in frantic combat situations, a notion about which I was summarily skeptical when first playing PvE in the betas.
Most importantly, it provides a recognizable refuge from the dynamic approach to content that is represented in Guild Wars 2's PvE and WvW spheres. Even with my love of the game's forward-thinking and emergent gameplay design, and after hours upon hours of playing, I am still getting used to playing Guild Wars 2 the way it's meant to be played, instead of the way I've been trained to play MMOs. With scenarios, I can jump into intricately detailed maps and duke it out with other players for glory and rewards, an activity that for most long-time MMO players is familiar territory. sPvP provides a bit of the familiar in a realm of the mostly new, and it's a welcome respite.