Updated Tue, Aug 28, 2012 by Shayalyn
ArenaNet’s MMO magnum opus, Guild Wars 2, has been in the works for five years. It’s been a long time coming, but it’s 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 Hammer’s team stormed Tyria early on via Guild Wars 2’s 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. We’ve seen many sights, played many toons, and talked for hours about GW2’s strengths, its shortcomings, and everything in between.
Guild Wars 2 is a big game, which introduces new mechanics and revamps old ones. Let’s dive in--we’ve got a lot of ground to cover.
From the moment you create your first character and step into Tyria, you’ll know that Guild Wars 2 is not like the MMOs you’ve 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.
After you finish the initial tutorial instance for your race, you’ll find yourself directed to an NPC who’ll 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 you’ve completed their tasks, the heart will fill in, and you’ll have gained just a little more street cred in Tyria--otherwise known as Karma. The Karma Points you’re 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 won’t get you the experience you need to progress through the zone. Although Guild Wars 2’s 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, you’ve 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 they’re a lot of fun, but Guild Wars 2 falls down a bit when it comes to pointing new players in the right direction. It wouldn’t take much to improve on that. Perhaps that first Renown NPC could point you toward a nearby vista you’ll 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 you’re traveling across the lands of Tyria, you’ll 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) don’t help...you’re 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. What’s a little disconcerting to the completionist types is that you just might miss some events as you’re moving through the world. Fortunately, though, Guild Wars 2 makes it possible for you to go back and revisit content you’ve missed. Your level scales dynamically to suit the area that you’re 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 won’t 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.
What’s 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 there’s one drawback to this plethora of things to do it’s 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, he’ll have just one weapon skill and a small healing ability. As he uses that weapon, he’ll quickly learn more skills.
What isn’t 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 profession’s various weapons can lend a quick, down and dirty sense of progression--look how fast you’re mastering that greatsword, Ace! On the other, once you’ve mastered them all you might feel like you don’t have much to look forward to. Although you’ll unlock additional utility skills for your hotbar as you level (and gain Skill Points), they’re a little fewer and further in between.
Still, all in all, the combat system just works. You’ll have one skill that’s an auto attack you’ll never have to worry about once it’s triggered. Then, you’ll 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 monster’s 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 you’ll 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 wouldn’t call Guild Wars 2’s combat twitchy, it is active and engaging--you’ll have to watch what you’re doing most of the time in order to play well. It’s 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, we’d be remiss if we didn’t 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.) You’ll have special weapons and skills for underwater combat, too. (This writer’s favorite happens to be her Ranger’s 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 there’s one thing to add, it’s 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 it’s not quite as intuitive and seems a bit unnecessarily confusing.
At character creation, you’ll choose your character’s 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 sister’s 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 they’re incredibly engaging. Some, we’ve 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 character’s 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 game’s meta-story, that by the time he was able to delve into Guild Wars 2’s first dungeon the story had given him a compelling reason to. Those are indicators of solidly crafted story.
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 Divinity’s 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 they’re 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 they’re jaw dropping. I’ve encountered a couple gamers with aging rigs who’ve 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.
You know how you always turn off in-game musical soundtracks after a while and perhaps substitute your favorite MP3s? You’re 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 you’ll 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 doesn’t mind the tart ones?), overall we’ve 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.