The tank stands in the front. The healer stands at the back. The damage dealers stand in the middle. So it has been for generations. Guild Wars 2 is making the latest and greatest effort to change that, PC Gamer can reveal, following an exclusive interview with game designer Jon Peters and lead designer Eric Flannum of ArenaNet. The biggest changes? Tanks are gone, healers are gone, the Death Penalty is gone, and you can still kick some arse while you're lying on yours.
Those of you who read Tom's Guild Wars 2 preview on page 50 of our latest issue will already know that every class has a dedicated slot for a healing ability. I asked Jon if they still had a dedicated healing class, like in the first game. He said no. I was like, what? He was like, no, totally.
"There are no dedicated healers that do full healing. Every profession has some form of support to a greater or lesser extent, but none of them enough that they aren't also fighters."
'Support' is Guild Wars 2's word for the job a healer does in other MMOs. They're saying that, in Guild Wars 2, any character can specialise in keeping the party alive. "We don't like sitting around spamming 'looking for healer' to global chat," Jon said. "That feels an awful lot like preparing to have fun instead of having fun."
Eric Flannum elaborated: "What we don't have, and what we didn't want to have, was a character who stands at the back of the party and plays the 'party health bar game' – where they just look at an interface, watch health bars go down, click on a skill, click on those health bars, and that's all they do during combat."
It's a revolutionary attitude towards the stale tradition of Tank in front, DPS in the middle, Healer in back. The traditional image of a healer might be a Priest class in World of Warcraft – white robes, low health, lots of mana, and an armada of healing abilities. Guild Wars 2 aims to propagate a new type of healer: a sort of armoured maniac who hefts his shield to intercept projectiles, strengthens his allies, and who isn't useless when he's caught in a quest area by himself.
"You build your character by picking two different weapon sets. Your weapon sets give you the chance to switch roles in combat. A Warrior can have a bow as one weapon and a mace and a shield as the other. When he's got guys on him he switches to his mace and shield, and when they run, he can switch to his bow and be a different kind of character."
Eric went into more depth about how the mace and shield each conferred unique support abilities very different from what a normal tank might do. Rather than holding aggro, Warriors might block incoming projectiles, or interrupt their charges. "If one of your allies is being chased by a creature; you can use the mace to stun the creature. So the mace provides some control where you can protect allies in that way and that was one of the things we wanted from our support characters."
Still, your health will eventually fall below zero. When that happened in the original Guild Wars, you fell on you back and were unable to act – and in most cases, you'd get stuck with a long-lasting penalty that would reduce your maximum health and energy. That was the first thing on the block when ArenaNet approached this part of the game in Guild Wars 2. "We decided to look into what would make dying a more enjoyable and memorable play experience," Jon Peters told me. They added an intermediary stage in between losing your health and dying – you're hurt, you're bleeding out, but you're not going out without a fight.
"In downed mode every character has access to four skills," Eric explained. He told me that all characters will have one skill that calls out to your party for aid. "You audibly hear them call for help, but it also makes you invulnerable for a short period of time. So it's kind of a, 'Hey get over here, help me out!' thing for all the allies who are around you."
He went on, "beyond that, each profession has really unique capabilities when they're down. A Warrior has a skill called 'Vengeance', which causes them to stand back up and then they get to act freely and normally for a period of time and then at the end of that period of time they just fall down and they no longer can use any down skills. They spend their time getting back up for one last burst." Warriors, people: if they wanted to know what 'massive internal bleeding' meant, they'd have become scientists instead.
"The Elementalist has skills like 'Drafting Earth,' which will slow enemies who are running by, or 'Mist Form' which actually allows them to turn into a cloud of mist and move around slowly so they can try and get away from bad situations." Like Dracula, then. These skills are exclusive to your downed state – they're the last inch of your power, they're everything you've got. This impressive range of desperate, last-ditch skills are part of a new plan to give you a chance after you've fallen in combat. The other part is just as cool, and if you've played Borderlands, you'll have experienced this wonderful mechanic before. "If you manage to kill an enemy, you will rally, returning to life to fight again," Jon said. You get up, dust off, and get stuck in.
But what if you can't fight them off? If you're lying there and getting kicked to bits by centaurs, you'll eventually lose consciousness and pass out. You can respawn at a nearby 'way point' for a small amount of gold, but there's no death penalty of any kind. You can also just have an ally help you up, which takes longer to do every time you fall.
At this point, I asked Jon to explain how the shield blocking Eric mentioned earlier would work from moment-to-moment. "It's an ability where you crouch down, you're blocking all attacks on you, but if you get yourself in-between an enemy that uses projectiles and your ally, then they can't shoot through you either because as the arrows or any other projectiles pass through you they get stopped by the block. You aren't shooting at a target, they aren't shooting specifically at a target. Even as a Warrior I can just step in front and take the hit because the projectiles aren't specifically 'aimed' at a person."
ArenaNet have made the decision to put tactical weight on your position and your movement. Moving around is fun, after all, and now you can be a good tank just by getting under your enemies' feet. Jon Peters again: "If you're right up on top of an Elementalist it'd be a lot easier to stay in front of where he's shooting, but if you're halfway between, it's like if you try and intercept a pass in a soccer game – you don't put yourself halfway in-between the two guys to stop it. You either have to cover the guy you're defending or cover the guy that has the ball. So you have to put yourself in the right position."
The football example paints the clearest picture yet of the sort of choices you'll have to make: are you at the back on defence, or pushing forward in front? Do you stay focused on raining down fire, or quickly cast a wind spell to speed up your allies? Charge in with the greatsword, or hold your shield high for the archers? Rapid, tactical, and above all, unconstrained decision-making will be the future of MMO combat, and if the lines between the combat roles are as blurry at release as they seem right now, it's looking like a bright one.