You don't need to hate the way things are to look forward to change. The Guild Wars 2 hype has set it up as a rebuttal to the way things are done in MMOs: a rejection of unchanging worlds, heroism without consequence and epic battles that are more about logistics than bravado.
These expectations have been generated as much by the gaming community as by NCsoft's marketing. Simply by promising to do things differently, Guild Wars 2 has found itself nominated as the saviour of its genre. Lead designer Eric Flannum is more modest. “What we tried to do was take a look at what an MMO could be, and try to make it appeal to not only people who love MMOs but also people who maybe haven't tried an MMO for various reasons.”
As someone who likes MMOs – and who isn't necessarily convinced they need saving – I'm treating my uninterrupted weekend with the game as an opportunity to see how far it can deliver on its big ideas. If it can convince me that we really have been doing everything wrong since World of Warcraft, then ArenaNet could be on to something.
I opt to play a female human warrior. My choice of race is down to the fact that the human starting area – lush farmland under attack by roaming centaur warbands – is the most frequently cited example of GW2's evolving 'events' system, where quests are thrown out in favour of dynamic objectives based on the independent actions of players, monsters and friendly NPCs. I become a mail-clad warrior, meanwhile, because I want my character to put some bloody clothes on. The land of Tyria is populated by clear-faced underwear models, and it's an uphill struggle to make a female character who doesn't look 15 years old. The best I can do is a kind of Disney Joan of Arc, a waif-thin airbrushed beauty wielding a sword bigger than she is. I avoid spellcasters entirely because there's only so much Renaissance-themed fetish gear I can handle.
It's a negative first impression, albeit one that's down to personal preference. The first Guild Wars had a similar look, after all, and it's classier than Aion or Lineage. As with the rest of GW2's art direction there's an obvious investment of thought, detail and style – it just won't be to everyone's taste.
I'm asked a series of questions about my character's life, from the serious – her biggest regret – to the mundane, such as deciding what kind of helmet she wears. These choices are written up as a letter in the first person, describing the kind of person my character is. Signing the letter establishes her name, and we're off. It's a lovely system, and successful in making me feel ownership of my character straight away.
After a hand-painted introduction I'm dropped into the village of Shaemoor during a centaur attack. This is an instanced crisis, the kind that many MMOs begin with – but what's striking is that no one immediately tells me what to do. I rush towards a nearby player and help her take down a spear-wielding centaur. Control-wise, everything is where I expect it to be. I'm equipped with a one-handed sword, and hammering the '1' key makes things die. So far, so MMO.
An NPC shouts at me to get to the inn, and a waypoint appears on my minimap. I start to notice quirks in the combat system: while I can target enemies, I don't need to do so in order to hit them, and pressing the attack key causes my character to swing her sword regardless of whether she's in range. Damage is based on stats, but hitting a foe is partly twitch-based – a fact backed up by the evade system that lets you double-tap a movement key to roll out of the way.
When I reach the inn I enter a brief conversation with an NPC. These sequences are presented as oneon- one dialogues against a painted backdrop. Players are voiced, but you don't have any choice about what they say: it's not The Old Republic. I'm told to help out at a nearby guardhouse, and off I go again.
On the way, I loot a two-handed sword from a centaur warrior. Equipping it, my abilities immediately change. Every weapon in Guild Wars 2 has its own set of special moves, which range from area-of-effect attacks to throwing a greatsword like a four-foot steel boomerang. Moves are unlocked as you rack up kills with the weapon, so you have to work to access the full potential of a given loadout. It's very straightforward in practice, and it's impressive that only a few minutes into the game I'm already playing differently to the hammer-and-shield warrior next to me.
I'm the first player to reach the guardhouse, and as I arrive a message pops up: event started, defend the gate. Centaurs charge in from the hills and, of course, I fight them. I've got no kill-quota to hit, and I don't actually know how long the siege will last. More players join, and the centaur onslaught increases in intensity – I suspect the game is scaling up the encounter to match the amount of defenders, but my focus is on murdering horse-men, not mechanics. I'm paying attention to my goals as a character rather than my goals as a player.
Guild Wars 2's events system is starting to make sense. “Events are very visual,” Flannum says. “They don't require a lot of explanation. You run into a city and there are centaurs attacking everyone – you kind of know what to do, right?”
Eventually the gate opens, and I receive a gold ranking for my contribution to the fight. This grants an experience bonus as well as karma, a currency earned through events that can be traded for loot later on. This is GW2's replacement for traditional quest rewards. The tutorial builds to an encounter on a scale that most MMOs reserve for their late-game, and one I don't want to spoil.
Three days later, my character wakes up in a land still recovering from the attack. Normally, this is where I'd be given a quest line to start on, or at the very least a crowd of NPCs with icons over their heads. Instead, there's only one: a scout, whose icon is a spyglass. Talking to him boots up the map, and he highlights various hotspots. These are places where adventurers are always needed, and form the breadand- butter of GW2's content. Each of these locations has an NPC in need and a range of tasks that can assist them. In the farmlands around Shaemoor, my only objective is simply to help somebody.
A nearby farmer is having trouble with giant worms. I run around stomping their lairs, sometimes whacking the grubs that emerge to defend them. When I can't find a lair, I pick up bundles of feed and tend to the farmer's cattle: all this contributes to a progress bar, which when filled indicates that I've completed that request. Doing so turns the farmer into a friend, earns me a small pile of coins, and allows me to buy items from him in return for karma.
While I'm at it, the 'new event' notification flashes again. The queen worm has surfaced – a gargantuan creature that I work alongside other players to take down. I'm unable to tell whether my grub-stomping is what caused this event to trigger, and in the hours that follow I see the queen frequently whenever I'm passing by – but there's a tangible sense of moment, albeit one that occurs on a reliable cycle.
Helping out in Shaemoor unlocks the next stage in my personal story, a more traditional quest line that is tied to the choices I made at character creation. As I chose the 'commoner' origin, I'm sent to visit friends in a poor area of the city that subsequently becomes my home instance. These are private areas filled with merchants who can't be found anywhere else, which evolve over time as you progress.
The home instance only takes up a small part of Divinity's Reach, the human capital city. It's a huge circular network of plazas, temples and walkways, populated by dozens of wandering NPCs. It feels like a living city in a way that reminds me of older MMOs, particularly EverQuest – and while it provides convenient access to all of the vendors and trainers you'd expect, there are secrets to be found by wandering around. Popping down a back alley, I encounter four familiar NPCs in the middle of an argument: the descendants of Guild Wars 1's NPC henchmen, squabbling over what adventure to go on next.
Outside the city, I roam the wilds helping out wherever I can. Areas are traversed quickly because there's no way to max them out, and therefore no reason to dwell longer than the current situation requires you to. There will always be events going on, however, and it's difficult to fight the temptation to get involved. Also, your level is lowered to match the area you're in, creating a sense of zones never being truly completed, with the exception of the instanced-off areas in your personal story.
These missions operate differently to the class-locked caves and bunkers of The Old Republic. When it needs to, GW2 will teleport you into an instanced version of the area you're currently in so that specific events can take place. Other players and encounters are removed, and straying beyond certain boundaries takes you back to the 'real' world. When I was playing them, these missions often caused the difficulty to spike – but this is likely to be rebalanced before release.
Emerging from one such instance, I found myself in a monastery under attack from shadowy creatures. Joining the fray, I helped a mob of other players to close the portals that had opened in the courtyard. It's impressive how quickly spontaneous adventuring like this becomes par for the course – how oblique and boring waiting for a group suddenly seems when there are battles to be fought everywhere.
ArenaNet aren't worried about throwing players of different skill-levels together and hoping for the best. “I think an MMO needs to accommodate all those different play-styles because it's not like they're different players,” Flannum argues, “it's the same players at different points in time.”
As it turns out, the portal invasion was part of a much longer series of events taking place in a nearby swamp – and one that I almost missed. After the battle I fought solo for a while, killing monsters and rescuing lost explorers. As I was doing this, the group from the monastery were fighting the invasion back to its source. When they did so, an announcement echoed across the zone – “the beast has awakened!”
Off in the distance, I saw something moving through the trees – something big. Emerging in a shallow part of the swamp, I found 20 or so players engaged in a raid-sized fight with the Shadow Behemoth, an enormous half-submerged skeleton that dug its talons into the mud and summoned monster-spewing portals all around us. Without waiting for permission, I waded in. As a melee class, there was little I could do against the monster itself, so I set myself to closing portals and protecting the spellcasters. I had unlocked the ability to place a banner that increased the critical hit chance of my allies, so I used this to boost the damage output of a group of ranged characters who were using guns and bows to attack the beast's head. Eventually we brought its skull crashing to the ground, where I and the other melee warriors were able to smash it to pieces.
We cooperated wordlessly, matching the capabilities of our characters to the present need without any planning or leadership. When the behemoth fell, a cheer went up. It dropped a glimmering treasure chest, from which everyone received a boon of item upgrades and generalpurpose loot. My gold-ranked contribution to the fight earned me half a level and filled me with genuine pride. What was remarkable about this encounter is that it provided toptier thrills with none of the set-up, none of the stress. This is exactly what ArenaNet are aiming for, Eric Flannum says. “One of the things that we really wanted to avoid was this feeling that the game doesn't really start until max level.”
What was remarkable about my time with GW2 as a whole is that situations like this one – impromptu mass cooperation, with a real sense of a collective experience – came about several times. I have questions about how events will operate when zones are either over or under-populated, but if nothing else my time proves one thing: the system works.
As with any other modern MMO, comparisons with World of Warcraft are inevitable. But in this case, not because Blizzard laid the groundwork for all its best ideas. Instead, GW2 is worth comparing to WoW because both games attempt to answer the same question: how do you get the largest amount of people to go on the largest possible adventure? Or more specifically: how do you do EverQuest without the nonsense?
World of Warcraft was revolutionary because it moderated EverQuest's punishing excesses. Instancing removed the need to queue for monsters in dungeons; mob 'tagging' gave ownership of a kill to the first player to land a hit, reducing the potential for kill-stealing. GW2's event system and emphasis on casual co-op are solutions to these same problems. Guild Wars 2 feels less like a successor to WoW and more like a parallel evolution from a common ancestor. It's an exciting new direction for the genre.
It's not, however, without issues. GW2's structure creates a sense of society that WoW – with its emphasis on grouping and private adventure – lacks. Conversely, not needing to find players with particular skill-sets means that in my weekend with the game I hardly spoke to anyone, and made no lasting relationships. The circumstances will have played a role in this, but there was none of the development of trust and respect that goes with knowing, for example, that someone is a great healer. It will be great if players get to become friends without being forced, but it would be nice to see some more robust social incentives on release.
Whether or not GW2 is the saviour some want it to be will be down to the individual. Its big ideas are subtle enough to pass by anyone who isn't attuned to the way MMOs usually operate, yet substantial enough to unsettle players invested in the status quo. It's player-driven both in the sense that its users determine the state of its content, but also in that it doesn't offer the satisfaction of 'finishing' an area before moving on to the next. It's constantly in motion, and as such you're asked to be far more proactive in seeking out your fun.
What's exciting about Guild Wars 2 is that it returns the emphasis of the MMO to having fun on your own terms. Even if the range of events you may encounter is fixed, the array of variables and the possibility of encountering those events with any number of other people creates a huge matrix of potential experiences.
The complexity of ArenaNet's design has resulted in a game that's deceptively simple to play, and one that returns the promise of the MMO to a straightforward question: would you like to go on an adventure?
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