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Guild Wars: Rediscovering Tyria – Battle Isles Edition

By Reuben Waters -

Battle Isles

Competitive play has always been an integral part of the Guild Wars experience, though much like the game’s PvE elements, there have been a number of significant changes over the years. In some cases this evolution has been much more gradual, such as the continuing reevaluation of key skills in the PvP meta-game. Yet even some of these seemingly minor adjustments of the key mechanics that have helped set the Guild Wars franchise apart from the fantasy crowd since the very beginning have had a rippling effect. The end result is a shift from the series’ original integration between PvE and PvP to a much more distinct separation between these two primary aspects of gameplay.

Continuing the journeys of my Ritualist, I initially traveled north through the Far Shiverpeaks and into the Verdant Cascades with the intent of conquering one of the more difficult dungeons from the Eye of the North expansion, Slavers’ Exile. Along the way I decided to pay a visit to the Norn at Gunnar’s Hold, mainly to see if any of the skills released with the expansion might be useful for me or one of my heroes, but my attention was quickly diverted by the Norn Fighting Tournament. During the preview event leading up to the expansion’s release, the tournament struck me as the perfect way to test out different builds for use in the Random Arenas, though I never did get around to seeing if my theory had legs since I was more focused on dungeon crawls at the time.

After besting everything that the tournament could throw at me I decided it was finally time for me to get back to my competitive Guild Wars roots, so with a simple click on the world map I found myself at the beating heart of PvP, the Battle Isles.

Origins and Evolution

When Guild Wars first launched in April of 2005, PvP was a much different beast than it is today. The guild I was in back then started out keenly focused on first obtaining a Celestial Sigil to purchase a guild hall, and from there climbing up the Guild vs. Guild (GvG) ladder. At the time, winning a battle in the Hall of Heroes was the only means of obtaining the Sigils which sold for astronomical amounts of platinum considering the age of the game. It wasn’t long before Sigil Traders were added as a means of keeping the economy in check, which was a significant, and somewhat controversial first step in the ultimate separation between the competitive and purely PvE aspects of gameplay.

For guilds to compete on that level, it was initially necessary to ascend – which is fancy Guild Wars terminology for completing the PvE mission arc up to a specific point. Guilds that made it that far believed they’d earned the right to charge whatever price they saw fit for the sigils, noting that guild halls were only of use to those guilds able to hold their own on a competitive level to begin with. In other words, if you weren’t good enough to earn your guild hall, you didn’t deserve to have the option to buy your way in cheaply. On the flip side, many guilds simply wanted a central gathering place for their guild and considered being forced to PvP to earn one a poor design decision. Meanwhile, PvP-centric players countered with the fact that if they had to play through PvE content to unlock core skills and capture elite skills, then there had to be some give in the other direction as well.

An interesting timeline can be drawn all the way back to those initial outcries from different factions within the player base that ultimately leads all the way up to the current state of separation. While some ties still remain, even key elements such as earning the favor of the gods (which unlocks travel to certain areas such as the Underworld and Fissure of Woe that I spent time exploring as chronicled in my first ‘rediscovering Tyria’ article) have been altered so that it’s no longer necessary for a given region to hold a winning streak in PvP for PvE players to have additional zones to explore.

As things currently stand, each aspect of gameplay is wholly self-contained which was ultimately a necessary step in the overall progression of the franchise. A key link in that chain has been making small tweaks to skills which has afforded the development team the freedom to make balance decisions that can keep certain team builds from becoming too dominant in the PvP meta-game while conversely adjusting the way those same skills work in a PvE environment. This keeps specific skills not only viable, but fun enough to justify one of the 8 slots on your skill bar.


Rollerbeetle Racing Rocks

Points of Entry

Diving back into PvP has certainly been an interesting experience so far, and while the competition is as cutthroat as ever, there are also many more points of entry than the original Prophecies campaign shipped with. While I haven’t had the chance to explore each of their current iterations in-depth as of yet, I did manage to spend a solid chunk of time spamming spirits and dropping ashes across a few of the various map types.

First up I travelled to the Team Arenas. In the first few months after Guild Wars’ release, team arenas were an integral part of an aspiring PvP guild’s journey to the top of the leaderboards later on. Many of the key towns and outposts had a unique arena that would pit two groups of 4 players against one another in a gladiator-style competition and served as a nice reprieve from mission running along the way. Some of my former guild mates would spend entire days in these arenas seeing how far they could push their consecutive victories. It wasn’t long before the infamous run between Beacon’s Perch and Droknar’s Forge saw level 3 characters outfitted in level 20 armors however, effectively ruining the team arena experience much to the dismay of many players (including yours truly).

In their current form, the team arenas still see plenty of action now that they’re one-step removed from low level PvE outposts, though this tends to spike quite a bit depending on which Zaishen Combat mission is offered on any given day. Finding groups can otherwise be just as challenging as the matches themselves which ultimately led me to the next stop on my island journeys, the Random Arenas.

Random arenas are pretty similar to the team arenas in the sense that both focus on 4v4 competition. The key difference is that with the random arenas you don’t need to spend time finding a group – as the name suggests you simply hit the ‘Enter Battle’ button and you’ll be randomly placed into a group with 3 other players. While you’ll still come across some pretty hardcore players in the random arena matches, for the most part these tend to be quick, fun events that I think really help you learn quite a bit about how different build types function in competitive play. Organized guilds will obviously spend more time focused on overall team strategy, but for solo players this can be a nice stepping stone into the more complex Hero Battles.

For the casual PvPer, the random arenas are definitely the way to go. Jumping into matches is quick, painless and only beat in the fun department by the awesomeness that is Rollerbeetle Racing. The matchmaking system still has a few bumps that I’m not sure can be ironed out without a fairly major overhaul which is currently the only downside to hopping in for some instant PvP action, a fact that I was reminded of with the very first match I played through with my Ritualist.

Since the system attempts to pair at least one healer with each team, any primary or secondary class with healing capabilities can be selected to fulfill the role regardless of whether or not you currently have a single healing skill on your bar. This tends to pigeonhole a class like Ritualists that have a fairly diverse potential beyond the Restoration attribute. A while back I made the same mistake by forgetting to swap out my Ranger’s secondary Monk profession before hopping into the random arenas. Even though the only Monk skill on my bar was a rez skill, sure enough the system elected me to be the team healer for 4 out of 5 matches. What’s worse is that by being the only /Mo on the map it also made me the primary target of the other team, which is the same situation I faced more recently with my Ritualist.


Fireworks

Hero Battles

My final stop for this leg of my tour of the Battle Isles was at the Hero Battles which have become a primary competitive focus for solo players on par with the GvG ladder matches since the introduction of heroes with the Nightfall campaign. These battles pit two teams consisting of 1 player and 3 heroes each against one another on a rotating set of maps, each designed with a slightly different objective which adds a layer of complexity into selecting the overall build for your team. So not only do you have to step into a leadership role in these matches, but you also have to consider your heroes’ skill bars as an extension of your own, effectively increasing your active skill options to 32 rather than the standard 8 on your own primary bar. This is where your understanding of the game’s core mechanics such as conditions, hexes, interrupts and energy manipulation are truly put to the test, perhaps even more so than in standard team matches.

While I’d never claim to be an expert on the hundreds of available skill, spell and signet options that can comprise a given team build, I can honestly say I wasn’t quite prepared for how competitive these matches truly are regardless of my grasp on the core mechanics. After purchasing a Tournament Token with some of your available Balthazar faction points (which, by the way, can be gained fairly quickly in the above mentioned Random Arenas) you can then register to participate in any of the daily matches for the chance to earn up to 8 qualifier points. The main goal here is to obtain a minimum total of 20 points which then allows you to compete in the Monthly Championship tournament. I did manage to snag a few qualifier points, though suffice it to say I’ll likely need to spend a bit more time tweaking my builds and getting the hang of commanding my heroes in that setting before I’ll make it into the monthly tournament series. But if you thrive on challenges and prefer to walk the solo path rather than focus on competitive team play, the Hero Battles are a shining beacon in the seas of tacked-on MMOG PvP.

Final Thoughts

It’s been stated time and again by developers of all stripes that if you want your game to have PvP it has to be designed that way from the ground up. If you could pin a tail on that particular design dolyak, the Guild Wars logo would surely accompany the definition as an example of how to create meaningful PvP as an integral part of gameplay. The team at ArenaNet has done an excellent job of building on the core foundation of the Prophecies campaign in spite of any initial bumps in the road caused by trying to tie PvP in too directly with PvE gameplay. Since that main separation though, the Battle Isles offer some of the best PvP action your MMOG money can buy.
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