Last week we put together a short piece written by myself and Christina Gonzalez about our expectations for the Guild Wars 2 beta event. ArenaNet’s made some lofty claims and endeavored to correct much of the archaic trappings still present in most of today’s MMO games, and I was hoping to spend my time putting their game-changing goals to the test. So, did ArenaNet pull it off?
Guild Wars 2 is an interesting game well worth looking forward to even if you ignore or don’t put any stock into claims ArenaNet has made. The visuals shown in the screenshots and trailers paint you a game and world that I’m sure most would look forward to exploring. And it’s just as beautiful once you actually play it, too. ArenaNet’s painterly art style extends everywhere, from the character and area designs, to the game’s UI. Not only is the game visually beautiful, but the world comes to life with all the ambient dialogue spoken by Guild Wars 2’s many NPC as well as the actions they take. During my first demo with the game in 2010, my jaw dropped as I ran around the last bastion of humanity, Divinity’s Reach, and even two years later, seeing it again evoked just the same response. Guild Wars 2’s art and architecture simply puts every other MMO to shame. It doesn’t matter if you’re traversing the magnificent Divinity’s Reach or the Black Citadel, the clockwork home city of the charr, you’re not likely to believe your eyes.
It’s fortunate then, that ArenaNet has also made good on the claims made over the last couple of years. MMO players are used to developers hyping up their games, and sometimes even when the devs don’t necessarily hype them up as much as you’d think, gamers can end up hyping the game up themselves. In both cases, expectations are often far greater than the actual game can possibly hope to meet. The development process for Guild Wars 2 has featured a bit from both column A and B. I wouldn’t use modesty to describe ArenaNet’s stance on their project over the last couple of years. ArenaNet has made it quite clear they were looking for this project to be a real game changer, to throw out many of the needlessly clung to tropes of the MMO genre and to push it forward with new ideas as well. At the same time, the game has been made available for fans to play at many conventions all throughout, so gamers have gotten to experience Guild Wars 2 themselves and have been driving the hype and expectations off of those experiences.
It may seem premature at this point to declare this, but I honestly feel Guild Wars 2 is the first MMO I’ve ever played where my admittedly great expectations actually lined up with my experience. This is the game I expected to play. I had no moment of deflation as I realized ArenaNet had only met some of their claims by some clever technicality or outright misled me. The principle ways ArenaNet sought out to change the way MMOs play were clearly evident as soon as I started playing the game, and I spent most of my weekend gradually ‘unlearning what I have learned’, to borrow a Star Wars reference. I experienced a certain level of glee at every instance of realization that, ‘No. Things don’t work like this in Guild Wars 2.’ These mainly came about when realizing how effortlessly social and collaborative the game is. It sounds like a simple thing, but removing that sense of trepidation when seeing another player even in a PvE scenario is a really unique thing to accomplish. I learned not to be afraid that someone would be stealing my resource node, or kill/event credit, or skill point unlock. Instead, the implicit grouping design of Guild Wars 2 allowed me to just play with people and work towards common goals without even having to communicate. Sure, communication works, too, but Guild Wars 2 almost felt like I was playing Journey at times.
In one example, I found a narrow (and very dangerous passage) leading up to a skill point unlock in the mountains. I had my ass handed to me attempting it alone and ended up respawning at the base of the mountain only to find another player trying her luck. Without speaking, we simply worked our way up the mountain together, watching each other’s backs out of a mutual understanding towards our common goal. In another game, I might have been inclined to let the other player grab aggro and perhaps even die to one of the mobs so I could make it up the top safely and fight the skill challenge mob by myself in order to ensure I wouldn't have to compete over it and possibly have to wait for it to respawn. Why do this in Guild Wars 2? We both get full XP and loot for helping each other kill our way to the top and this includes credit for the skill point fight as well. We never said a word to each other and were eventually even joined by a third player, but we all fought our way to the top and left happy campers with our extra skill point unlocked. My entire experience with the game was similar to this one snapshot. Everything was collaborative, not competitive. Don’t get me wrong, I love competition, but I’d rather leave that to PvP than adventuring.
The single most important claim ArenaNet made with Guild Wars 2 is that players would find Tyria a world to actually explore in and adventure. This world would be without the traditional quest hubs, a world where the game called you to action via the actual events occurring throughout using visual and audio cues instead of text boxes. While ‘dynamic events’ have been all the rage over the past couple of years, no developer has actually tried replacing the traditional quest hub content backbone with it. Guild Wars 2 throws it all out for an awesome hybrid of themepark-rooted developer created content matched perfectly with a sense of sandbox-esque wanderlust.
And it works. Oh, how it works.
I spent most of my time just testing this and ignoring everything else. Honestly, I didn’t spend much time with the personal story. I didn’t care. I’m sure it was great. I just really wanted to see if ArenaNet could really pull this off. Some people may claim that the heart system used makes the game no different than say Warhammer Online and their marked Public Quests. You’d be missing the point. It’s true, if you need a little bit of direction, Guild Wars 2 will help you out with certain events marked by hearts on the map (though these hearts are only revealed to you if you physically seek out Scout NPCs to do so). But it’s the explorers who are really in for a treat.
Just about anywhere you go, there is something going on. Diving into some random pond may expose a tight underwater passageway that weaves into the center of a mountain base home to bandits and an on-going event to tackle. And this event may even chain off numerous times and in ways you may not have expected when starting it. A similar dive might bring you up in a nearby cave where you’ll have to fight a Bear Shaman to unlock a skill point. Sometimes, you won’t find an event at all, but puzzles of various challenge levels that often lead to a reward. However, the real reward is that the world is so lovingly crafted this way to tempt your curiosity. I didn’t find all the nooks and crannies myself, but many intrepid explorers over the weekend have documented (often via video) some of these great little easter eggs and puzzles. Heck, the PvP focused area of The Mists even features a secret waterfall with an elaborate multi-stage jumping puzzle that frankly just blew my mind.
The design of Guild Wars 2 challenges us to be curious and social, and these tenets even pervade the game’s combat system and classes. Combat in the game isn’t about finding skill rotations and one-size-fits-all play patterns for every situation. No, each class is almost as flexible as you can imagine, replete with numerous weapon options and abilities that are more often situational than anything else. Additionally, players can support each other with various utility abilities if they so choose, but again, everything is a collaboration. No one is going to be chain healing you and keeping you afloat while you do damage.
If that weren’t enough, Guild Wars 2 also features cross profession combos that allow you to take all these personal combat considerations to a whole other level. For example, an Elementalist can create a static field that stuns any enemies that attempt to pass through it, shielding herself and allies within its confines. Alternatively, this field can be placed around a group of enemies to deny them their escape. This offers a lot of versatility for just one skill. But wait, there’s more! Throw a warrior into the mix and he can fire his rifle through the field, charging his bullets and allowing him to stun individually picked targets at range. It’s just a tiny example of how this system works, but the possibilities feel almost endless.
Oh, did I mention this all applies underwater as well? This goes for both the combat and the content, just to be clear. It often feels like there’s a whole underwater world to explore, creatures to fight, and characters to meet.
In any case, I think I’ve breathlessly fawned over the game for long enough. I think I’ll go lay down now. Wake me up when the next beta weekend kicks off, OK?