ArenaNets MMO magnum opus, Guild Wars 2, has been in the works for five years. Its been a long time coming, but its finally here, promising to revolutionize the gaming industry by eliminating some time-worn MMO standards such as the holy trinity of tank/healer/DPS, static questing, and auto-attack-and-walk-away combat. Above all, it moved to eradicate the last vestige of the triple-A MMOG--subscription fees.
Did ArenaNet succeed? Ten Ton Hammers team stormed Tyria early on via Guild Wars 2s press beta, and then spent many a sleepless, caffeine-fueled night making the most of the Beta Weekend Events, followed by headstart and now launch. Weve seen many sights, played many toons, and talked for hours about GW2s strengths, its shortcomings, and everything in between.
Guild Wars 2 is a big game, which introduces new mechanics and revamps old ones. Lets dive in--weve got a lot of ground to cover.
Its an MMO--expect violence, because youre going to have to beat things up. Beyond that, the storyline, sounds, and visuals in Guild Wars 2 are family friendly. You likely wouldnt have a problem letting your 10-year-old roll a character just for kicks. (Although, if the kid masters the game faster than you do he or she is totally going to have to go.)
Gameplay - 90 / 100
From the moment you create your first character and step into Tyria, youll know that Guild Wars 2 is not like the MMOs youve become accustomed to over the last decade or so. Although there are enough features designed to invoke a sense of familiarity, there are also plenty that feel new. First and foremost would be the lack of static quest hubs.
A System of Renown
After you finish the initial tutorial instance for your race, youll find yourself directed to an NPC wholl give you the lay of the land, and instruct you to follow your map to some folks who need your assistance. The NPCs offering tasks to do will have gold hearts outlined over their heads, which explains why the system is called Renown Hearts. When youve completed their tasks, the heart will fill in, and youll have gained just a little more street cred in Tyria--otherwise known as Karma. The Karma Points youre awarded for completing Renown tasks will allow you to purchase special items from Karma Vendors.
While the Renown Hearts system itself is a solid one, completing Renown tasks alone wont get you the experience you need to progress through the zone. Although Guild Wars 2s aversion to static questing is refreshing, the Renown Heart system in itself can give the illusion of static questing, which is confusing for the uninitiated. So, youve helped the poor moa rancher drive the bandits out of the bushes and protect his flock of flightless birds, but...what next? What if the next Renown Heart is in an area outside your level ability? How will you fill in the gaps?
The lack of direction beyond the initial introduction of Renown Hearts can leave some players feeling lost. There are plentiful ways to progress besides Renown Hearts, and theyre a lot of fun, but Guild Wars 2 falls down a bit when it comes to pointing new players in the right direction. It wouldnt take much to improve on that. Perhaps that first Renown NPC could point you toward a nearby vista youll want to explore (and thus gain experience for.) Or maybe he could suggest that you explore the strife-ridden lands and look out for opportunities to protect Tyria and its citizens from harm, thus pointing you toward Dynamic Events. He could send you to talk to another NPC who can teach you about the wonders of harvesting and crafting (both means of xp gain.)
Those who love discovery and seeking out information on their own will adore Guild Wars 2. Those who find themselves outside their comfort zones might initially find the game a bit confusing at first, and may take longer to engage.
Dynamic Events are, more or less, the bread and butter of the Guild Wars 2 PvE experience. As youre traveling across the lands of Tyria, youll encounter all manner of struggles that bid you to intervene. The most engaging thing about Dynamic Events is the way they unfold organically as you explore. You might be harvesting some resources, intent on honing your crafting skills, when some frantic villager runs up begging you to help because the outpost is under siege by centaurs. And sure enough, if you (and others like you) dont help...youre going to find that outpost (and often its associated travel waypoint), contested and inaccessible until the invading force is driven off.
Dynamic Events have an amazing effect on Guild Wars 2--they make the game feel vibrant and alive. Whats a little disconcerting to the completionist types is that you just might miss some events as youre moving through the world. Fortunately, though, Guild Wars 2 makes it possible for you to go back and revisit content youve missed. Your level scales dynamically to suit the area that youre in, so the creature that attacked you in the newbie zone is going to yield experience when you kill him.
The only other drawback to Dynamic Events is that their scaling mechanism (they get bigger as more players engage) means that your enjoyment of them can depend a lot on how many people are playing at any given time. During launch, of course, finding other players to wreak havoc with wont be a problem. Later, however, it might be more of a challenge to find either events that a player can complete solo (although they often are) or to spawn the truly massive events that make this game a thrill to play.
Other Means of PvE Progression
Whats great and innovative about Guild Wars 2 is that just about everything grants experience to the player, from helping a Renown NPC to participating in dynamic events to exploring a new area to gathering and crafting.
If theres one drawback to this plethora of things to do its that, again, Guild Wars 2 needs to do a better job of making players aware of the available options. Veteran MMO players should figure things out in fairly short order (although it can be difficult to break out of the quest hub mindset.) New players will likely stumble around for a while, and hopefully not become too frustrated as they go.
Your character begins his experience in Guild Wars 2 with a single weapon, although depending on his profession (the Guild Wars 2 term for class) he can yield anything from several to a rather vast array of them. Initially, hell have just one weapon skill and a small healing ability. As he uses that weapon, hell quickly learn more skills.
What isnt immediately apparent to the uninitiated is that each weapon must be unlocked individually. If your Ranger wields an axe at the beginning of his adventure in Tyria, and then acquires a bow later when it drops off some defeated foe, he'll have one basic skill for the new weapon and will need to unlock the rest. On one hand, unlocking your professions various weapons can lend a quick, down and dirty sense of progression--look how fast youre mastering that greatsword, Ace! On the other, once youve mastered them all you might feel like you dont have much to look forward to. Although youll unlock additional utility skills for your hotbar as you level (and gain Skill Points), theyre a little fewer and further in between.
Still, all in all, the combat system just works. Youll have one skill thats an auto attack youll never have to worry about once its triggered. Then, youll trigger other abilities that range in scope from the utilitarian to the truly badass. Once you watch a staff-wielding Elementalist fire a flame bolt at a monsters head (the auto attack), trigger bubbling lava below its feet (a ground-based AoE), then evade back leaving a trail of flames before raining down a hail of flaming meteorites youll have a true sense of the flavor each profession brings to the table in Guild Wars 2. (And watching a skilled Elementalist shift elemental attunements on the fly and invoke Fire, Water, Air and Earth is, well...magical to behold.)
While we wouldnt call Guild Wars 2s combat twitchy, it is active and engaging--youll have to watch what youre doing most of the time in order to play well. Its going to be necessary for you to dodge (just double-tap a movement key to dodge in that direction) and use strategic tactics, especially as you gain levels and the bad guys become more intelligent and evasive themselves.
And finally, wed be remiss if we didnt mention underwater combat in Guild Wars 2. Quite simply, everything about it makes for an amazing experience, from the way it looks to the way it sounds to the way it plays. Moving underwater is intuitive and fluid (pun intended.) Youll have special weapons and skills for underwater combat, too. (This writers favorite happens to be her Rangers ability to call on a school of flesh-rending piranhas.)
We touched a bit on character progression already by discussing the way skills are unlocked. If theres one thing to add, its that Guild Wars 2 could do a better job of introducing players to its unique naming conventions. MMO gamers who are used to stats like Intelligence and Wisdom might not know how stats like Power and Precision relate to their build. There are tool tips to help you out, but its not quite as intuitive and seems a bit unnecessarily confusing.
At character creation, youll choose your characters biography options. Is she charming, dignified or fierce? Does she regret passing up a chance to perform with the circus, or does she really wish she would have recovered her sisters body? The choices you make create your personal story, with a vast array of combinations that unfold as you go.
Personal stories not only yield fantastic experience, but theyre incredibly engaging. Some, weve found, are better than others depending on your biography choices and the choices you make as you move through the quest, but all of them seem to have the potential to open up into a bigger and bigger story as events unfold. It may take a while for the consequences of your actions (when the bandits were plotting attacks, did you save the hospital first or the orphanage?) to become apparent, but they will be revealed. And all roads lead to the big, over arching story of the Elder Dragons.
One of us loved her beta characters personal stories so much that when Guild Wars 2 went live she created a character using the exact same biographical options so that she could see how the story played out. Another found himself so engrossed in his personal story, and the way it hooked back into the games meta-story, that by the time he was able to delve into Guild Wars 2s first dungeon the story had given him a compelling reason to. Those are indicators of solidly crafted story.
Graphics - 97 / 100
Astonishing! Next topic.
But seriously, there seems to be a unanimous consensus among Guild Wars 2 players--the graphics are some of the best we've seen. The art style is distinctive and should withstand the test of time. Each racial city has its own architectural look and feels vibrant and alive. Character models are gorgeous. (Almost too gorgeous. Are all humans and nords potential underwear models?) The attention to detail ArenaNet put into building the worlds of Tyria is second to none. Each time you see the feathery tuft of a dandelion seed pod floating by, or observe the silvery shadows on the wall as you pass through the glass underwater tunnel in Divinitys Reach, you'll experience another one of many "Oh, wow..." moments while playing Guild Wars 2.
Animations are incredibly realistic. The little asura will run and then skid to a halt rather than simply stopping dead. (A body in motion tends to stay in...oh, never mind.) Enemy centaurs spin and wheel on you like a horse and rider running a barrel race. They also succumb gloriously to knockbacks, skidding across the ground on their sides, legs flailing. What's not to love?
What makes the graphics all the better is that theyre not demanding. Guild Wars 2 provides all this with DX 9 technology and a minimal 15 gig footprint. On lower graphic settings, the game looks good; on higher settings theyre jaw dropping. Ive encountered a couple gamers with aging rigs whove encountered some lag, especially during dynamic events, but my own 2 year old box has never had an issue rendering dozens of players and spell effects on screen at once.
Sound - 97 / 100
You know how you always turn off in-game musical soundtracks after a while and perhaps substitute your favorite MP3s? Youre far less likely to do that while playing Guild Wars 2 and listening to the scores composed by video game music legend, Jeremy Soule. Soule, the man behind the Elder Scrolls scores you know and love, makes Tyria come alive, from the sweeping opening theme to the driving combat music right down to the atmospheric, mood-invoking tunes youll hear while wandering an area.
Ambient sound is also impressive. While a few NPC vocalizations and other related sounds can get a bit repetitive if you linger in the same area (do you really care that the guy in the apple orchard hates bruised apples but doesnt mind the tart ones?), overall weve found that the sounds in this game seem so real that we're repeatedly blown away. You might venture up behind a large structure and hear the loud and authentic whir of heavy machinery coming from within. The sound will even seem to modulate itself depending on your proximity to the building. Circle around and you'll discover that you've come upon the Monastery Brewery.
Multiplayer - 95 / 100
In essence, even when youre soloing through Tyria, Guild Wars 2 is a truly multiplayer game. Youll participate in dynamic events with multitudes of players. Not only that, youll encounter others on your journeys and find that the social feel of Guild Wars 2 truly enhances your experience, even if you dont group or interact in chat. Someone may come along and revive you in a time of need (everyone can revive, and everyone gets experience for doing it.) You may find yourself in over your head in a fight, and another soul will charge in to help. In that sense, GW2 feels like a uniquely social experience.
Dungeons in Guild Wars 2 are a shining example of how much attention to detail has been put into the game overall. As group content, dungeons provide a thoroughly engaging experience that works on a number of different levels. Story mode not only further envelopes players in the overarching storyline of the game, but offers some of the best instanced group content the genre has to offer. Replayability through explorable mode extends the experience exceptionally well by offering a unique challenge and varying paths each time you enter the instance.
Structured PvP (sPvP)
ArenaNet has made a number of brilliant design decisions with Guild Wars 2, many of which can be found in the structured PvP (sPvP) system. As a wholly separate gameplay mode, many of the usual concerns about preserving balance in competitive play have been neatly removed from the equation. And in terms of the bigger picture of competitive MMO gameplay, sPvP is easily a new benchmark that other developers should strive to achieve.
Structured PvP also comes neatly packaged with a wholly separate form of character advancement, so even though sPvP wins wont necessarily help you level in PvE, you can still feel like youre making some form of meaningful progress in both hot-join and tournament modes. Not only can you gain ranks over time, but youll also be able to unlock a massive amount of cosmetic options that mirror the most intricately designed armors and weapons found elsewhere in the game.
In terms of the fun factor, weve collectively played through hundreds (possibly even thousands) of matches, and can conclusively say that Guild Wars 2 offers the most fun weve had in a competitive MMOG setting, period. The only current fly in the sPvP ointment is the inability to quickly save and swap builds between matches. Fortunately, a system for doing so is currently in the works. All things considered though, thats a very minor quibble, not a deal breaker.
World PvP (WvWvW)
In many ways, World PvP is PvP for the masses, especially if you enjoy the ebb and flow of territory control, truly massive (500 vs. 500 vs. 500) combat, and are into competitive play but perhaps aren't hardcore enough to dive too deep into structured PvP builds and group politics.
In the World PvP borderlands, players are automatically advanced to 80 (the level cap), and opportunities scale for the number of players you have working with you at any given time. If youre playing solo, you can work to gain the loyalty of the mercenary camps scattered around the map by doing standard dynamic event fare or breaking their morale to join your forces. These mercs will randomly seek out keeps and towers to protect and defend. If have just a few followers, take out a dolyak to deprive your enemy of supply (needed to construct siege equipment and trebuchets). Or if you want to glob onto an invading horde, remember to pick up some supply and take out a tower, resource depot, or keep.
Guild Wars 2 provides a Commander mechanic (available for a steep price) for greater communication and organization on the battlefield, but barring that, global chat is serviceable, as are the crossed swords which appear on the map to indicate hotspots. The map is cozy enough that you can usually arrive in time to help turn back an assault, but large enough to prevent the short runs from the spawn point that make death irrelevant.
World PvP can, however, devolve into a numbers game, and if no skilled leaders rise up you might have to give the system some time to accommodate your server. Given that ArenaNet is in the process of intensely balancing server pairings over the first few weeks after launch, your first experience with World PvP may vary. If your server gets steamrolled, be sure to give World PvP another shot when the current match ends (match length is daily now, but will slowly lengthen to two weeks after things settle down). You owe it to yourself: few experiences in gaming can rival the feeling of ripping through a tower gate with 50 of your closest server mates and taking down a champion tower lord for the glory of your server, and for that reason alone, Guild Wars 2 World PvP is, in our opinion, alone worth the price of the game.
Value - 95 / 100
For your gaming dollar, you won't find a better value than Guild Wars 2. The box or digital download price is the industry standard $60, but Guild Wars 2 (like Guild Wars pioneered before it) does away with one tired convention--subscription fees. Given the quality and entertainment value players get for purchasing only the game client, we dare say that future triple-A MMOGs are going to be hard pressed to convince players that their game is worthy of a monthly fee.
That said, some players may find it necessary to use the cash shop to purchase Gems and enhance their experience using real-world cash. Things such as bank space upgrades, while not essential to the gameplay experience, are definitely handy. Fortunately, bank space upgrades are account wide rather than character-based, making the upgrade purchase a better value.
Lasting Appeal - 95 / 100
No game is perfect, and no game can hold all players indefinitely, but Guild Wars 2 seems to have a better chance than most. It's difficult to run out of things to do in this game, and there's very little sense of "been there, done that." Above and beyond all of the things there are to do in PvE, there are entire World PvP and structured PvP experiences that, in themselves, could virtually be stand-alone games. All of this rolled into one massive MMOG title makes Guild Wars 2 a standout.
Pros and Cons
- Guild Wars 2 does away with the on-rails, static questing system
- Many diverse ways to progress your character
- Eliminates kill stealing--if you hurt it, you get xp and loot
- Combat is fun, dynamic, and changes up depending on what weapon you're holding
- Other games could learn a lot from GW2's structured PvP and World PvP
- Graphics and sound are outstanding
- All this for no monthly subscription fee
- Needs a better tutorial.
- New players may find they don't quite know how to progress through the content or fill in perceived content gaps..
- Dynamic events scale. While this is generally a good thing, it can mean that when there are less players in the area to spawn bigger event chains they can become a little dull
- At launch, structured PvP lacks a mechanic for saving and swapping builds
- At press time, the Trading Post feature wasn't yet live and, in fact, wasn't live through most of the headstart event
The MMO gaming community has seen some disappointing MMOG launches in the past. Many games have taken the tried and true route, following in the footsteps of their predecessors, only to find that familiarity really does breed contempt. Others have tried to stretch their wings and embrace innovation in an attempt to spark a revolution, only to find that revolution seems to breed smaller, niche communities rather than genre-bending success stories.
When ArenaNet first released its MMO Manifesto we knew they were aiming for something revolutionary with Guild Wars 2. What we got is the first worthy successor to World of Warcraft.
Overall 94/100 - Outstanding
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