To understand how Guild Wars 2's high-end PvE feels it's necessary to understand how all the ideas behind the game fit together. Without fixed class roles, the emphasis is on player skill and as such encounters have been designed to be more flexible than most modern MMOs. World of Warcraft's boss fights are usually constrained to a particular location because it's by controlling the environment that Blizzard are able to add variety to the traditional tank and spank model. Guild Wars 2 is far less restrained: if your party is able to pull a boss out of their comfort zone, the game won't stop you.
During our run through the Ascalonian Catacombs instance, my party was faced with a pair of bosses who become stronger the closer together they were. The designer accompanying us advised that we try to separate them within the open arena where they spawned, but we quickly found ourselves fought back the way we came, into a narrow corridor that we'd opened by placing a rock on a pressure plate to open a secret door. At this point, a player moved the rock, causing the door to shut and trapping one of the bosses on the other side. After dealing with the first boss, we then re-opened the door and dealt with the other much more easily.
Because player progression isn't tied to specific loot drops, Guild Wars 2 can encourage playstyles that would be considered exploits in other MMOs. This gives players much more freedom to experiment, and with that freedom comes a greater sense of improvisation and teamwork. It can feel very chaotic, but the penalty for death is low enough that it's easy to recover from mistakes quickly. Players who enjoy meticulously planning their pulls will be disappointed - at least on the lower difficulties - but the pace of the action and feeling of freedom is, to my mind, worth the tradeoff.
Creating room for both disaster and valour is one thing: keeping players going back to the same dungeons once they've figured them out is another. ArenaNet's answer, as ever, is to add more variability to the mix. Every dungeon also includes random events, similar to the open world. During a run, it's possible that a wall will collapse revealing an angry troll, or burrowing monsters will break through to the surface and need to be beaten back. These encounters are designed to keep players on their toes: having a plan is great, but you also need to be ready to fight a boss at any time. “We're going for a sense of exploration” explains game designer Colin Johanson. “You don't repeat the pattern to defeat it over and over again. The moment when traditional MMOs get a lot of fun is when a couple of people in your party die that you didn't expect to die, or when something goes wrong. That's when the game gets exciting - that's when you have to think and react. I think those are the best moments in games, when you're reacting to things you didn't expect, or when you have to change on the fly.”
ArenaNet don't want players to get into a situation where they wipe on purpose because there's no way for them to win, nor do they want people to datamine and document every encounter in the game. Hopefully, this'll mean that Guild Wars 2's set piece battles retain a sense of mystery far longer than those of its rivals. “Our bosses will very rarely use an exact pattern that you have to do to defeat it,” Johanson says. “Instead they're changing their tactics and doing things that you have to react to.”
There'll be eight story mode dungeons when the game ships, and these are instances in the traditional sense - a fixed series of bosses designed for a five-man group and bound together by a narrative. There are still random events, but story mode is about as close to a regular MMO dungeon as Guild Wars 2 gets. They're hard, but they've been designed for groups of strangers and it's fully possible to beat them on your first try.
Once you've finished the story mode of a given dungeon, you can re-enter it in exploration mode. This jumps time forward a notch, and in the case of the Ascalonian Catacombs this means a friendly NPC camp has been set up and there are new problems to deal with. The vengeful spirits that you dealt with the first time are still lurking in the further reaches of the dungeon, and other forces are moving in to stake their claim. Exploration mode is repeatable, but having the narrative move ahead is a nice touch and adds a bit of weight to your achievements in story mode.
Once you reach the friendly camp, you'll be presented with three different problems, such as a boss threatening to collapse part of the dungeon or a treasure to recover. Each of these is advocated by a different NPC and your group then votes on who you're going to support, and that dictates the course you'll take for the rest of your time in the dungeon. This effectively splits every story mode instance into three distinct 'hard modes' - GW2 will have eight maps, but 32 ways to work through them.
Had we been higher level, we would have had a slightly easier time - but as players are levelled down to match the area they're in, this would have simply provided a boost to our versatility. The emphasis really is on player skill, and instead of frustration at our lack of preparation I felt the spike of energy that I get when a game is difficult and the responsibility is on me to improve myself. That's a personal impression, of course, but I suspect it'll be exactly what some players are looking for. “Some people will say 'this is just way too hard for me'”, Johanson says, “and we have 95% of the game available for them. What we're trying to do is create encounters in the sense that these are things where you can beat it, but when you lose you have a sense of 'I didn't play well enough to overcome this, I want to come back and play better.'”
By minimising the amount of min/maxing you need to do, ArenaNet are making a game where you can't fail a dungeon before you've even started. Johanson is candid about the fact that this is something Guild Wars 1 struggled with. “We would build a dungeon and what would end up happening - and part of this is a symptom of the way Guild Wars 1 worked - there was a certain build that people needed to beat that dungeon. That's a problem - there can't be any one way to do things or that's the only way people will do it.”
ArenaNet's rejection of the 'trinity' of healer, damage and tank classes is part of that effort to add more variety to group play. Every day, according to Johanson, Guild Wars 2's QA team takes on a dungeon with a different group composition. “We'll play them with five thieves, and we'll play them with five engineers, and then we'll play them with three thieves and two rangers. We bounce the group composition around constantly. What we found, over and over again, is that it's the skill of the players, and the professions make almost no difference. It's how good you are playing that profession.”
Every time you take on a dungeon in exploration mode you're given a certain quantity of tokens which can be traded for equipment with unique appearances. These sets of weapons and armour are top-tier, for their level, but no better than equipment that can be found easier elsewhere. The idea is give players a way of showing off their skill, rather than making equipment an essential part of the path to success. “You don't feel like you have to do it” says Johanson, with regards to the equipment grind. “It's something you can choose to do and you get rewarded for it as well. I think that that's a huge difference in mindset.” Then, finally, there are puzzle and jumping dungeons. These have been added to the game relatively recently, and serve as the reward for dedicated exploration. They're completely optional, and found in the open world - often in hidden parts of caves or on top of seemingly inaccessible ruins. Jumping puzzles might lead you to the top of the old walls of Ascalon, or through the depths of a cave system to a unique boss, rare crafting resource, or bonus skill point. The feature developed organically, when the content team built a tough series of jumps into a particular story quest. It was deemed too difficult to be a compulsory part of play, but the idea caught on and since then it's caused something of an arms race in ArenaNet's art department. “One of our environment artists kind of went bananas,” Johanson told me. “They're all competing now, trying to one-up each other and put these insane jumping puzzles in different hidden parts of the world where we didn't have anything there before.”
Puzzle dungeons, which also take place in the open world, task you with solving a series of riddles and environmental puzzles to progress. You might need to find the missing pieces of a statue or interpret clues to figure out how to disarm a trap. The one I was shown took place entirely underwater, and we had to release freezing bubbles of air from caskets and attack them to release a burst of ice in order to extinguish magical flames. Solving a series of these problems, we were promptly wiped out by the ultra-tough boss guarding the loot chest at the end. I'm honestly not sure how far we'd have gotten without the help of the designers who created the dungeon, but the purpose of the content is to provide the most dedicated players with a problem to solve. Riddle solutions will likely become well-known fairly quickly, but pulling them off while still doing everything else that a dungeon requires will require a lot of skill.
I was shown a comprehensive slice of Guild Wars 2's toughest content, and came away impressed. While puzzle and exploration dungeons were too hard for my party to deal with, I could see that they'll give talented players a chance to shine. As someone with a limited amount of patience for raiding, I'm excited to give Guild Wars 2's alternate take on endgame content another go. Fans of raiding will, I think, find it a tougher sell - but hopefully the personal rewards of mastering a class will compensate for the lack of purple drops. For better or worse, it's been too long since we've seen genuine innovation in MMO group play.