Updated Guild Wars 2 Hands-On Impressions

Last week we gave our readers a detailed look at ten things we learned about Guild Wars 2 at PAX East, and we even provided a unique perspective on the overall fan experience at the event. But the burning question we have yet to address is: what was it like to play the latest demo build?

For my updated hands-on impressions of Guild Wars 2, I’ll be taking a slightly different approach than the usual fare of “I saw a moa, I traversed a portion of the map, and then I spoke to some NPCs” that has no doubt clogged up your GW2 RSS feeds for most of the past week.

Instead, I’ve attempted to turn a critical eye towards the most standout elements of the game based on my brief demo session. So if you’re looking for some detailed analysis of combat, character creation, and more, strap yourself in and be ready for a whirlwind tour of the good, the bad, and the charmingly ugly in the latest Guild Wars 2 demo build.

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The GW2 PAX East Demo: Who, When, What and Where

As orginally discussed last week, I managed to snag the last available demo station during the early VIP access at the NCSoft community event...

Kormir Says: It was a blessing because there were no dedicated demo stations for members of the press this time around. Also in the blessing category, due to my original demo PC having an unrecoverable graphical error due to heat issues, I ended up being joined by Global Brand Manager Brian Porter who discussed the game with me as I played.

Grenth Says: It was also a curse as my demo time was nearly halved due to needing to wait for a new demo PC to get hooked up. Likewise, since I spent my demo time talking to Brian that meant I didn’t hear any of the in-game audio which can have a pretty direct impact on the overall experience.

Sardu Says: Unlike my previous demo experiences, I got to play Guild Wars 2 sitting down this time, and without a few hundred fans leaning over my shoulder. This helped me feel like I wasn’t quite so far removed from the natural habitat of my office and made it far easier to turn a critical, analytical eye on the game as I played than these events typically afford you.

What I Experienced During the Demo

  • Norn character creation and starting area (Guardian Profession)
  • Thief combat (level 30ish areas surrounding Nebo Terrace)

It’s no secret that I have a primal instinct as strong as the need to eat, sleep, and drink coffee to play as a necromancer in any game awesome enough to make them an option. But having done so for my previous two GW2 demo outings I opted to resist the urge this time around, and instead decided to focus wholly on the newest reveals in the demo build.

Now that we’ve all shook hands and gotten the formal introductions out of the way, let’s dive right in, shall we?

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Guild Wars 2 In-Game Necromancer Description

Thoughts on Character Creation

Hopefully ArenaNet will do Queen Jennah proud by announcing the Mesmer as one of the two remaining professions. Then again, wouldn't it be crazy if they threw us all a giant curve ball and announced that the 'final two' were actually cylons? If they do I call dibs on the name Gaius Balthazar.

As with previous demos, certain options during character creation have been switched off, such as the ability to tweak your human male’s facial appearance to resemble a 250 year old Prince Rurik. But given the robust and highly unique (at least in the MMO space) character biography options, character creation in Guild Wars 2 still leads you down certain paths that I keep wishing MMOG developers would realized don’t cut it anymore.

The most important decision you will ever make in any MMOG is also one of the first you’ll be asked to make in Guild Wars 2: your profession. And, just like every other game on the market, you’re expected to make that paramount decision based on a single paragraph. What's up with that?

While it may be a given that hardcore fans will have read up on the various professions in the game long before launch, I still consider it a poor judgment call for developers to assume this will be the case for everyone who installs and launches the game. All it would take is a very simple “Advanced Profession Description” button with some examples of core abilities, combat style, or even broad look at what gameplay is like for a mid- to high-level character from that profession.

This would go a long way towards helping players make a more informed decision from the start rather than playing through 10 levels only to decide that they should reroll because the first profession they chose wasn’t what they thought it would be based on that single paragraph approach.

This is something that ArenaNet has plenty of time to expand upon prior to launch, but for now I found it to be a more blatantly obvious omission than the ability to tweak my eyebrow depth in the demo. I’ve seen countless MMOGs lose early adopters due to the onset of altitis because they had to make such a critical yet uninformed decision within the first two minutes of launching the game, so hopefully ArenaNet can plan accordingly to avoid the same fate.

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Continue reading for a closer look at combat and more!

An Updated Look at GW2 Combat

There is something infinitely satisfying about the combat in Guild Wars 2 that I couldn’t quite put a finger on in my previous demo experiences. I kept that thought tucked neatly in my brain pocket this time around, and came to some initial conclusions as to why the combat in GW2 has so far proven to be more engaging than the dozens of MMOGs I’ve played over the years.


Having logged countless hours into the original EverQuest and Guild Wars, I think ArenaNet made the right decision to stick with a set number of active skill slots. While the scope of what ultimately constitutes a build in GW2 is staggering and offers more depth than any game in recent memory, the streamlined active skill set keeps you focused on how to use a given build to achieve victory without necessarily having to have mastered hundreds of skills and mentally prioritizing them in case they might be useful in random situations.

Another benefit of the skill bar is that the dedicated slots give you a base understanding of how or when to use your 10 active skills. For example, without ever looking at tooltip descriptions I know that my 1-5 skills are based on weapon attacks, and that skill 6 is going to be my main healing skill. This is a huge leap forward for MMOG combat accessibility, and all without gimping the min/maxer fun of theorycrafting the zaniest builds you can dream up. I consider that a major checkmark in the “win” column for GW2.

Truly Active Combat

Ever since the idea of “active combat” first crept into MMO gameplay, it has been taken in so many different directions that the concept no longer carries the same meaning it once might have. We’ve seen everything from Age of Conan’s whack-a-mole melee button mashing, to upcoming TERA’s more FPS targeting style approach, and everything in between at this point.

But what does “active combat” mean in Guild Wars 2? It means that positioning matters. It means that the better you are at communicating with teammates to take advantage of cross-profession combos, the more interesting combat becomes. It means that, while you have the option to set a weapon skill as your “auto attack” there is nothing about GW2 combat that leaves you feeling like you’re triggering the phases of a wholly scripted encounter while you go make a sandwich.

Pacing that Makes Sense for the Profession

To go a step further, ArenaNet has done an excellent job of making combat animations fit not only the base concept of each profession, but those animations also create a deeper connection to the actions you’re making your character preform on-screen.

For example, while my guardian was wielding a hammer and shield, his attacks felt powerful and direct, and the combat animations suitably showed my character swinging his weapon in wide, slow arcs. In contrast, the thief was quick footed and agile, making lots of fast strikes that could fell an opponent by filling them with lots of small holes instead of bashing their heads in with brute force.

Likewise, switching the guardian’s main hand weapon to a scepter immediately gave me a tangible sense that my overall combat style had changed, while still being unique when compared to scholar professions like the necro or elementalist.

All of the above said, there were a few aspects of combat that didn't quite hit their mark for me this time around...

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Forging Ahead

Another standout aspect of the demo for me this time around is that I had a greater sense of taking my character’s destiny into my own hands.

In the presentation of the norn starting area (which you can see in this video), ArenaNet highlighted the option to seek assistance from a local tracker to help you find the rare beasts you needed to defeat before being accepted into the Great Hunt. But it’s important to note that seeking assistance from NPCs here is entirely optional, which holds true as you progress further into the game.

I feel that this is going to be another critical element in the success potential of Guild Wars 2. This means a couple of different things depending on whether you’re a seasoned Guild Wars vet, or plan on taking your first virtual steps on Tyrian soil in the sequel.

For players of the original campaigns, there will be an immediate familiarity to the world and you might not need to have someone tell you where to find key landmarks, so there may be a bigger payoff by simply going out in the world and seeing how everything has changed at your own pace.

If GW2 is your first introduction to the world, however, NPCs are there to help guide you on your journey as little or as much as you deem necessary.

I personally consider this a huge leap forward for the genre because it extends personal choice far beyond the character creation screen which is where the major choices in most titles end, and the magnetized gameplay rails immediately power up to largely control your destiny.

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That's a Wrap

I've talked quite a bit about the overall accessiblity of Guild Wars 2 but don't let that fool you into believing that the game doesn't offer more depth than the industry has seen in a long time. But accessibility should never be undersold, especially considering just how vastly different GW2 is from the same tired old MMOG template we've seen for over a decade. Even given the radical departure from the norm that GW2 represents, the fact that I could sit down for 30 minutes and dive directly into the game without feeling lost or like I needed an NPC to tell me what to do speaks volumes about GW2's potential.

Having played the game at three different industry events now, I continue to be impressed even if there are a few random elements that raised red flags for me as mentioned above. There's also a lot of the game that we haven't seen yet, but if the current and previous demo builds are any indication, Guild Wars 2 is going to mark an entirely new chapter in MMOG history once it's finally unleashed on the masses. And for my gaming dollar, that day can't come soon enough.

To read the latest guides, news, and features you can visit our Guild Wars 2 Game Page.

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