Raising the Bar
Guild Wars 2 lives up to its hype. If our reviews were one sentence in length, that would be “all she wrote”. I’ve been tallying my adventures, offering insight to the ups and downs of my time in Tyria for weeks now. Finally, I feel confident that I’ve spent enough time in the game’s myriad of systems to offer my own conclusive thoughts in just how much mustard ArenaNet’s sequel cuts. It won’t be the game for everyone, but it has most definitely proven itself as a compelling next step in the evolution of the theme-park MMORPG. Nearly everything it does, it does with aplomb and swagger. When throughout my weekly logs, I found myself harping on about server queues for World vs. World as the main annoyance; it became apparent to me that my biggest gripe about the game was that a feature was too popular. Guild Wars 2 has and is going to change a lot now that it’s out in the wild and being enjoyed by millions, but as it stands today and after 70+ hours with my characters, this is how I see things. Please read on, and feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.
AESTHETICS – 9
Guild Wars 2’s visuals follow in the foot-steps of many games that have aged well over time: aim for a stylized look that can dazzle now, and in a few years without taxing Joe Gamer’s three year-old PC. And while to get the most out of GW2’s visuals you’ll need a decent rig, it certainly won’t break the bank, and even on medium settings the world of Tyria is gorgeously realized and often breathtaking (especially when you unlock a new vista). The animations are at the top of art-form. I love watching my Asuran nearly bowl over when he stops while carrying his flamethrower, or my Charr’s graceful and fierce animalistic sprint into battle. The characters feel like they have weight to them, the environments are varied and painterly crafted. Each new zone is a new place of wonder to explore, and it looks as good under water as it does on terra firma.
The armor is also incredibly detailed and beautiful in many cases. My only real gripe would be the limited variance outside of the specialized sets. From a gameplay perspective, some of the progression model in GW2 is through different sets of visual upgrades, but I’d still like to have seen my character’s looks change more often with new gear as I leveled. Instead, unless I used a skin or changed the colors they generally looked the same for 5-10 levels or more.
The UI is an absolute dream as well. Both in terms of function and beauty, it does everything I could possibly need it to do, and more. I can move, adjust, resize, re-key, shrink… ArenaNet has given you ever tool you need to enjoy their game without allowing player-made mods, and that’s no small feat. One simple stroke of genius is the ability to send all of my crafting materials directly to my “collection” or bank with the click of my mouse, thereby saving me needless and countless trips to a town. Oh, there are still plenty of reasons to visit towns, but this one small UI addition is enough to remind a player that the guys at ArenaNet have played MMOs for years as well, and have gotten annoyed at the things we get annoyed at as well.
Aurally, Guild Wars 2 is in a league of its own. Every NPC voice, ambient sound, sound-effect, UI sound, bit of music… they’re the kind of sounds that you’ll come to know and love and remember years from now. If there was any qualm with the sounds in GW2, it would be that the NPCs in cities and towns do repeat themselves a bit often. Either give those lads more to say, or make them say it less.
SOCIAL – 8
ArenaNet’s done some great things in general for the “getting people to play together” aspect of the MMO, but at the same time it’s reduced the need to truly communicate with strangers in the game. One of the biggest plusses in GW2’s favor is what I like to call “Open Grouping”. Basically, as if you haven’t played the game before, no matter what you’re doing in the PVE world of Tyria, you can run up and help other players. No need to invite them into a group, sort out who’s doing what, or worry about what quest in a chain someone is on. If you see someone dying, you can help them. Not only that, you’re actually rewarded for doing so with XP. The very nature of the game is participation in group activities, but you never need to look for a group or form one unless you’re looking to run a dungeon. Even then, because the professions don’t mandate a traditional healer/DPS/tank system, parties form much quicker. The only real social tool I’d like to see renovated is the current “flagging” system used for Looking for Group.
Grouping is still more social than merely roving about with a mob during some event, and while it’s easy enough to find people for dungeons or specific content and events, the game could still use a more refined, perhaps feature-rich LFG tool. On the subject of downsides while we’re at it, a common side-effect of being able to make ad-hoc groups so easily in GW2 and then disband or move on to another area of the map means that people spend less time actually talking and getting to know one another in the game. Guild chat does this well, as does zone chat, but I suppose it’s indicative of the way these games are headed that such an openly social system somehow makes people actually socialize less.
POLISH – 9
Guild Wars 2 may be one of the most complete games at launch that I’ve ever seen, but that doesn’t mean it’s not without its troubles. There are (even now) still a decent number of bugged events, exploits in WvW, and broken skill challenges that prevent people from completing content. Still, minus the early hiccups with the Black Lion Trading Post, almost everything in Guild Wars 2 has worked and worked well since day one. Not only that, but when it comes to patching in fixes, the servers are down for a minute, not hours, and with the exception of a head-start downtime I don’t think Tyria’s been shut down for a considerable amount of time once. That would be extraordinary, if it weren’t already true of Guild Wars 1. Simply put, Guild Wars is a very complete game, and the main culprits against this score are annoyances, not fun-preventing nightmares. That’s rare in the MMO world.
INNOVATION – 10
ArenaNet has been saying that they’ve been trying to make Guild Wars 2 the game they’d want to play since it was first announced as simply an idea in 2007. There was nothing to show back then, just the words from the studio that they’re making a sequel to their first game, and that they wanted to make an MMO without the sucky parts we’ve come to accept as inevitable over the years. So much of GW2’s innovative material is derived directly from this “absence of suck”, that it’s hard to pinpoint innovation to whole systems or methods. Instead, I’m going to write about a few things in the Gameplay section that de-suck MMO conventions and make them feel fun again.
Because that’s what ArenaNet has done: they’ve taken the suck out of the MMORPG theme-park and given us a place we can actually just get lost in and enjoy. Everything from the events to the crafting, the underwater combat, the WvW, the overflow servers, the UI additions and inventory management, open grouping, vistas… they’re all just a heap of small innovations that equal up to one the most fresh and unique MMORPGs in ages.
GAMEPLAY – 10
Dynamic Events replace the traditional quest hub, and in doing so they’ve managed to make that leveling process in a theme-park entertaining for truly the first time since 2004. No, they’re not the first to offer us these “public quests”, but they are the first to tie an entire world into the system so that successes and failures work in a massive interweaving chain of events that tells a story to the entire server. Yes you’re still going to kill mobs; you’re still going to collect items. But, the size and scope of the events and implications they have on each zone (however temporary) make for an altogether far more exciting experience.
Gone also are the days of not being able to log into your server on “Popular MMO A” because it’s full. ArenaNet’s notion of Overflow Servers is a brilliant one because it means that whenever your server or a zone on your server is too full to be capable of sustaining suitable play, it will begin putting people onto lesser-filled zones and servers. You can still chat with your buddies (in fact, friends and guilds can span entire servers, which is bloody awesome), and you can still play while you wait for your server to be able to bear the load of your gaming butt. It’s a little creation, but one that means players spend less time waiting and more time playing.
Exploration is another part of Guild Wars 2 that you won’t see plastered on a bullet-list for the game box, but if the game was lacking in this department it would far less the wonderful title it is. For the first time in recent memory, a theme-park MMO gives you a world and tells you to go explore it. It doesn’t hold your hand from area to area, leading you on a linear path. After a brief introductory mission, it tosses you to the wolves and says “fend for yourself”. And along the way, you’ll discover underwater caverns, secret bandit hideouts, lost ruins, all populated with puzzles, loot, treasure, and events. Guild Wars 2 doesn’t wall you in and tell you to do these quests until you level. It says, go play in the world we’ve made for you, and the rest will follow.
Combat is yet another area in which GW2 alters the mold just enough to make the action feel new and different from what we’ve seen in the past few years. Far from having perfectly balanced professions however, Guild Wars 2’s variation between different professions mean that the game’s action is largely replayable where many other games often are left feeling very “same-y” between different classes. The addition of dodge mechanics and the fact that they make such a large impact on survivability means players must learn to move while they fight. Not in and of itself a new phenomenon, but for the most part it’s pulled off excellently here. Though I will say that there are some mobs which can be handled perfectly by merely circle-strafing around them, though this is mostly early on.