Epic Storytelling - Guild Wars 2 vs. Its Contenders
From what we saw in the Beta Weekend Event, Guild Wars 2 is a very big, complex game. I come from an Epic PvE background - both Star Wars: the Old Republic and the Lord of the Rings Online center around grand-scale stories with world-changing events and legendary battles. GW2 promises the same thing, but what it delivers is very different from either of these.
The PvE in Guild Wars 2 is centered around the "personal story," which has a rough equivalent in Star Wars: The Old Republic's class stories and the Lord of the Rings Online's epic books. The GW2 personal story is, in some ways, more refined than either of these equivalents because it is tailored to the specific character.
In SWTOR, the class story is a one-size-fits-all narrative. It progresses the same regardless of the character's background, race or advanced class selection - a Cyborg Juggernaut gets the same story as a Pureblood Sith Marauder.
LotRO's epic books are even more generic. Everybody gets the same story, beginning to end, with only minor variations here and there. A Hunter will get a different vision from Galadriel at the conclusion of Volume II Book 6 than, say, a Guardian or Captain, but getting to that particular chapter follows the exact same path regardless of class and race.
In GW2, there is a lot more personalization, based on character background decisions made during character creation. For example, the character I rolled for the beta weekend was a Norn Warrior, a brutish thug who, according to the selections I made during his creation, got black-out drunk at a moot and ended up stealing a siege weapon and taking it for a joyride. And that's the story I played out - a medieval-warrior version of "Dude, Where's My Car?"
Style-wise, GW2 falls somewhere between the brilliant voice-acted cut scene dialogues of SWTOR and the rather archaic "wall of text" quest bestowals and turn-ins of LotRO.
In SWTOR, nearly every mission involves some kind of dialogue, with branching decision trees and multiple possible outcomes. These dialogues are fully voiced and animated. You watch the characters move around and do things just like they would in a movie. This is one of the major selling-points of SWTOR, and it is done very well.
LotRO uses a much older, tried-and-true quest system: talk to the NPC with the ring over his head, read the (sometimes very long) page of motivations for killing ten rats, click Accept. This has been the MMO standard for many years, and though it is now really showing its age, it's still perfectly adequate. Especially for LotRO - it is much easier to keep with the style and tone of the Professor using the written word.
GW2 is kind of a hybrid of these two systems. The personal story is delivered in installments which are fully voiced, but the cut scenes are much, much simpler than those of SWTOR. What you get is two characters facing one another on a painterly background, talking about what's happening. You don't make decisions in these dialogues, you just watch the movie. Occasionally, the cut scene will inform you of a decision you have to make - for example, do you tell the army leader you want to set up an ambush, or that you wish to stage a frontal assault? - but these decisions are made via clicking on text boxes with no animated voice overs.
It's more "current" than LotRO's old-timey text boxes, but not as dynamic as SWTOR's "choose your adventure" type dialogues. And this is only for the personal story - the generic landscape quests are delivered via text boxes... or, in the case of dynamic events, they appear automatically on your tracker when you get near the area in which they are happening, with no associated dialogue of any kind. Dynamic events, however, are not part of the storytelling, and are a topic for another discussion.
The Characters and Tone
What epic Player versus Environment gameplay really boils down to is memorable characters.
LotRO uses iconic characters from Tolkien's universe to tell its stories. The characters that do not come directly from Tolkien often feel as though they do - the Dunedain rangers of the Grey Company are not really given a lot of face-time in the novels, but the LotRO NPC versions really seem to belong in that world. Players rub elbows with some very important people, and the stories they forge feel almost as epic and meaningful as the adventures of the Fellowship of the Ring.
SWTOR draws from a different well: rather than using a set of established, iconic characters (excluding Revan, of course), it uses the iconic setting and builds memorable characters within that framework. The NPCs are occasionally memorable because they are archetypical - Sith Lords are universally despicable tyrants, Jedi are universally compassionate Lawful-Goods. Some NPCs, like my bro Khem Val or my other bro Malavai Quinn, are memorable just because they are so very well-written. The key, really, is that it is all more or less consistent - everything feels like it belongs.
GW2 has no massive Intellectual Property to draw from, and is a kind of gonzo mish-mash of weird. Each of the non-human races can be summed up in 3 words:
Charr - militaristic demon cats
Norn - giant deathmetal dwarves
Sylvari - tree elf furries
Asura - Manga Yoda gnomes
This is further complicated by the addition quasi-steampunk elements to the typical fantasy fare. You have your industry-standard sword-swinging Warriors, magic-flinging Elementalists, bow-stringing Rangers, and gun-slinging Engineers who drop (apparently) steam-powered artillery on the battlefield and huck grenades. Also you can buy cosmetic aviator sunglasses.
And because the Guild Wars 2 universe is already so over-the-top, the NPCs come across as, well, rather bland. I don't mean this as a criticism - the interaction of all these weird elements works in a quirky and entertaining way, but the NPCs need to be a little bit tame in order for the player to have something to relate to.
Of course, part of that is me coming at this setting with essentially zero knowledge of the universe, and only reaching level 21 over the course of the beta event. My character never got to see elder dragons or the other epic high-level stuff, and I never played the original Guild Wars. People who are familiar with the major players in the original Guild Wars, and in the books and such built around that universe, will have a very different perspective.
Apparently, my Norn character met famous heroes of significant importance to the lore, quite early on in his career. They were exactly as over-the-top and ramped-up as everything else in the game - larger than life, twice as ugly, and infinitely more likely to wear spike-covered armor and use a giant sword -Â and failed to make a lasting impression on me. But the same could happen to a player trying out LotRO for the first time who has never read the novels or seen the movies and has no idea who Strider is. Or to a SWTOR player who never played Knights of the Old Republic and has no idea who Revan is.
Ultimately, it's unfair to compare the Guild Wars IP to Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. Star Wars and Lord of the Rings are monolithic and have had decades to build up massive cult followings. Guild Wars has only been around since 2005, and though it is one of the top ten best-selling games of all time, it has nowhere near the cultural saturation of the older, bigger properties.
Going in with basically no expectations, but coming from a tradition of strong storytelling, I found the GW2 system of storytelling to be a bit jarring. The familiar elements combined with the bizarre pastiche of the setting kind of blindsided me at first, but once I started to embrace the craziness and stopped comparing it to the venerable, established IPs I was used to, it got a lot more interesting.