Looking At Guild Wars 2 With Fresh Eyes

With all of the MMORPGs that exist on the market, it can be hard to muster up enthusiasm for yet another entry into the genre.  The rise and fall of an MMO has turned into a predictable cycle: internet fans build up a hype machine, the game is released and can’t live up to the expectations, and then the death march begins.  However, there are some games that have managed to escape this pattern.  Of course, there’s World of Warcraft which has become the most successful MMORPG of all time.  In addition, some smaller games have eked out an existence under the radar. The Lord of the Rings Online and City of Heroes are two games which have survived the tyrannical rule of World of Warcraft and the onslaught of competition. Guild Wars 2 concluded their second weekend beta test and, after exploring the game, I am optimistic that this might be another success.

Guild Wars 2 gets off to a great start with its character creation system.  The character options are varied and distinct; it was very easy to make an attractive, unique looking avatar.  Each of the classes has an aesthetic that suits them and is easy to distinguish.  Guild Wars 2 eclipses World of Warcraft and The Old Republic’s character creation systems by a mile, where you can change nearly every physical feature to your liking as opposed to choosing from a range of premade options. Unlike City of Heroes, you aren’t tasked with choosing the armor you’ll be wearing until the end of the game; each class has armor that suits the themes of their class, allowing you to choose the colour and pieces that you want to appear on your character.  The character creation system is capped at a reasonable spot so that the player is not paralysed by choice but has a range of selection to make the character just how they imagined.

The most exciting part about character selection was the fact that I had to make decisions that went beyond surface depth.  I was asked to select my Necromancer’s temperament, her back story, and her upbringing.  This system is not too different from Mass Effect’s options of Earthborn, Spacer, Colonist or War Hero, Sole Survivor, and Ruthless, but the extent that it affects the story of the game is much greater.  I was pleased to be able to make these choices, as it meant that I had a decent grasp of who my character was as I entered the world.  This was a great start for a role playing game, and something I’d like to see replicated by other developers.

Once I was in the world, my Necromancer was immediately introduced to combat.  Guild Wars 2 is very similar to the generic MMO formula with the exception of less clutter and redundancy and more interesting tricks.  From level one, I found myself with an alternate form that could be toggled on and off, a custom class bar that contained life energy, and a pet. New skills were unlocked by using the preceding skills on enemies until you reach 100% progress.  I found this to be an interesting twist that had me anticipating my new abilities without having to run back to town every level or two.

There are many quality of life improvements to Guild Wars 2 that the player might take for granted; these features aren’t flashy or memorable, but they make for a smooth and relaxing gaming experience as opposed to struggling against the game.  There are waypoint systems all around the map that the player can instantly travel between.  After having spent hours of my life on World of Warcraft’s winding gryphons, this was a massive relief.  When the character enters story areas that are zoned off from the rest of the world, there are checkpoints along the way so that the player doesn’t need to start from scratch upon death.  If a character does die, he/she is first given the opportunity to fight for his/her life before kicking the bucket.  Death turned from a major annoyance into a frantic adrenaline rush of trying to use my abilities to survive.  The game just feels fast and smooth to navigate, and it’s a welcoming change compared to plodding through the first few levels of The Old Republic.

One thing that Guild Wars 2 may want to consider learning from The Old Republic, however, is storytelling.  If you are coming straight from Star Wars into Guild Wars 2, you may find yourself disappointed.  The story that I worked through was decent enough; me and my buddy Quinn-from-the-streets found ourselves in the middle of a criminal plot perpetrated by Two-Blade Pete.  However, most of the story was conveyed through JRPG style cutscenes where the characters stood and talked next to each other. This (we are assuming) was a placeholder for the cinematic cutscenes that the game will have, and the dynamic nature of cutscenes will suit the voice acting work well.

I rarely had to make choices, and conversation options were similar to City of Heroes’s non-Praetoria content; there were branching conversations, but not many game-changing choices.  If you are unfamiliar to the Guild Wars universe, you may be confused when certain classes such as Necromancers prove to be just as good natured as the Paladin-esque Defender. This is a theme of the Guild Wars universe that sets it apart from World of Warcraft, where you will always feel like a hero.  When I was faced with a choice, however, it was not a matter of good versus evil or dark versus light, but rather self-interest against the greater good.  There was no morality meter judging me, nor did I gain any points in my profile.  Players may find the brevity, clarity, and scale of Guild Wars 2 to be perfectly suited for their needs.

Just running from main questline to main questline is not easy, though.  In order to keep pace with your character’s tale, you have to go out into the world and grind experience in a slew of ‘events’.  The event system builds off of Warhammer Online’s public quests.  In Warhammer Online, you would find an area that had a running event with objectives for players in the area.  The players would complete these objectives and then retrieve a randomly distributed piece of loot.  Guild Wars 2‘s events blow public quests out of the water.  Events are fun, fast, encourage teamwork, and there are no hard feelings at the end when the loot  is distributed.

Outside of events, your character will also find him-/herself helping out local townsfolk with their problems, which is surprisingly fun.  The key feature that makes events and playing in the open world enjoyable is that Guild Wars 2 is fanatical about cooperation.  In World of Warcraft, I found it enraging when a mage or hunter would land a hit on the boar you needed for a quest, making it so that they would get all of the loot and experience.  Guild Wars 2 allows you to share mobs, help people fight monsters, and get rewarded for your cooperative efforts.  It is the only MMORPG where I felt that the multiplayer aspect really applied outside of raids and dungeons.

Navigating the world is a pleasure as well.  Guild Wars 2’s world seems alive, populated, diverse, and colorful.  To me, Divinity’s Reach felt more like a city than in any other MMORPG. World of Warcraft’s Stormwind is flat and dull by comparison, Altdorf in Warhammer Online has similar characteristics but not enough scale or variety, and Kaas City in The Old Republic achieves its sense of size through visual trickery in the background.  Divinity’s Reach, on the other hand, is absolutely sprawling and filled with NPCs that are dynamic and interesting to watch.  As a total newbie to the Guild Wars universe, I was delighted when I came across a collection of mages having a voice-acted conversation about their potions and spells.  A mighty Charr plowed through them without a word of apology, and as soon as he left earshot range, the mages began to passive-aggressively complain about how they wouldn’t let ‘those Charr’ take over Divinity’s Reach.  I found this to be a step-up on World of Warcraft’s scripted events, and it is a great example of how a game can show, not tell.

Ultimately, I feel that Guild Wars 2 is one of the first MMORPGs to step out from under World of Warcraft’s shadow.  A huge swath of players will enjoy this game, from roleplayers to achievement seekers.  While it’s impossible to predict the future, I can see Guild Wars 2 achieving a healthy, successful audience based off my time in the beta.  I just scratched the surface but when the game releases I will be first in line to further explore this fascinating world.

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June 19, 2012 - 8:01 am