Guild Wars 2 review as it happens

Chris Thursten

Exploring the human capital of Divinity's Reach reveals some surprises.

Welcome to our Guild Wars 2 review in progress. The three day head start for Guild Wars 2 pre-purchasers began on Saturday morning. Chris has been in the game (well, ish) from the start, and will be recording his impressions here over the course of next few days with a full review to follow. Check out hours 0-6 below, hours 6-17 here , hours 17-24 here , hours 24-30 here , and hours 30-42 here .

The next update will be on Tuesday due to real life bank holiday commitments. Honestly: it's like they don't know there's a war on.

If you'd like to join us in Guild Wars 2, check out last week's community update for all the information you need on our newly-founded guilds.

Hour 1:

It's an hour and a half before early access is officially due to begin, but internet rumblings suggest that ArenaNet have pushed the big red button sooner than they said. Two initial login attempts fail, but then I'm in. I join Gunnar's Hold EU and start creating my first character.

I've known what I wanted to play first for a while - a human warrior, the first GW2 character I played - so I bypass a fair bit of the selection process. It'd be nice to have more fine control over some aspects of character creation. I'm making a female character, and it'd be good to be able to customise make-up (i.e, remove it) separately from face shape. Nonetheless, I make a character that I like. Guild Wars 2 has a thing for corsets and impractical armour, but it is possible to make someone with an athletic build and a tan.

Combat in the human tutorial feels fast and punchy, even if I'm just whacking centaurs. This area is well-paced, particularly the way it bottlenecks new players around the bridge during the defense sequence. As more new players show up, the centaur waves grow - it feels dramatic, and that's important in someone's first thirty minutes.

I won't spoil it, but the human tutorial boss is brilliantly staged. This is (or could be) raid-level stuff, and it's a great big advertisement for the rest of the game. “YOU ARE GOING TO GET TO FIGHT LOTS OF RIDICULOUS MONSTERS”, it cries. It's on the rest of the game to live up to it.

A cutscene, and then I'm in Queensdale, the first human zone. The dialogue sequences seem snappier than I remember - I wonder if they've trimmed them down to improve the pacing. Long dialogues were one of the problems I had with the beta - GW2 doesn't give you choices in voiced conversations, so they need to keep them brief and interesting.

The spawn-in area is hilariously packed, but there's no lag and I'm able to get out into the zone quickly. It's about an hour since I loaded up the launcher, and I've logged in, created a character, and I'm playing: we'll see what happens over the course of the day, but so far that seems like a smooth launch.

Events get larger to accommodate big groups of people. At the moment, Queensdale is being policed by an army.

Hour 3:

...and there we go. Almost immediately after writing my last entry, I'm booted from the game while tooling with armour dyes. We're thirty minutes from official early access start. I'm hoping to get back in before things go crazy.

Twenty minutes later, and I'm back in - just before early access opens up properly. I haven't had any problems since but I understand that there are login issues in Europe. Nonetheless, there are a lot of people in-game and it seems to have been a relatively painless start so far.

I've not decided to blitz any one aspect of the game yet. I've wandered, done some story missions, chatted to the guild and explored the city. I'm level six, and I've unlocked all of the abilities for my first chosen weapon set - sword and shield. What impresses so far is how many individually memorable things have happened. Here are the boxes I ticked:

  • Fought a bandit leader in a pub.
  • Learned to cook and went herb-picking.
  • Wandered down a back-street and found an enormous steampunk trombone the size of a merry-go-round that was farting out carnival music.
  • Failed to stop some bandits from poisoning the water supply, but subsequently completed the event to make a cure.
  • Joined a massive mob of players chasing a rampaging bull across the countryside. It ran through some bee houses. Fought angry bees with the help of many, many wizards.
  • Disguised myself as a bandit and did some quests for them to uncover a conspiracy.
  • Became strangely fixated with dyes and colour coordination. This is likely to become a trend.

I've played a lot of GW2 already over the course of several press and beta events, but there are still aspects of the combat system that are just now starting to click. One of my shield abilities allows me to hunker down and shrug off hits for three seconds, but it's channeled and locks out all of my other abilities as well as movement. Initially I thought that this was designed to keep you alive while your healing skills cool down, but having played with it it's more of an active block: you use it to avoid major incoming attacks without dodge-rolling and getting out of position. I'd been thinking of it solely in terms of numbers - the amount mitigated, when I can use it, etc - rather than twitch skill.

I'm starting to see where the depth is, and how pro players will set themselves apart - but I'm not totally convinced yet that the game does enough to explain this. There's a new tutorial button, and helpful pop-up tooltips appear every time you encounter a new feature - but at the moment it feels like it'll be down to the community to say “hey, you should be dodging more” or “this is how you get the best use out of those abilities.” MMO communities have been great at this in the past, but it'd be a shame if people miss out on the best bits of the combat system simply because they don't ask for help.

I don't know what I'd do without the support of Planky The Smack-Talking Floorboard.

Finally, a tip: go to the options menu and activate auto-looting as soon as possible. This makes it so that the loot window only shows up if your inventory is full: otherwise, you can just run around hammering the F key to pick everything up. It's really useful during hectic events where you might miss drops and crafting materials.

Hour 6:

After another hour of running events, gathering, and crafting, we're all booted from the server again. It's the same login issue as last time.

Ninety minutes later, I manage to get to character select - but I'm promptly booted again, and now the launcher won't load. I guess a whole bunch of Europeans woke up around 11am, and decided to play Guild Wars 2. It didn't end well.

The fact that I've played a couple of hours of the game already puts this launch above Diablo 3's, but it's far from where it should be - particularly as the only people with access are pre-purchasers. That's part of the problem, though: people have paid a premium for this early access, given the cost of the game on the ArenaNet website compared to other outlets. They've got another hour, I reckon, before the collective sighs of every European pre-purchaser puts a dent in the Earth's orbit and sends us all hurtling into the sun. Perhaps that's overstating it: people are likely to be cross, is what I'm trying to say.

This vista in Divinity's Reach is suprisingly easy to get to. Others: not so much.

Hour 14:

Well, I'll say this for downtime: it makes you stop and collect your thoughts. I get back into Guild Wars 2 around four hours later, time I've spent doing laundry and having a few, heart-not-really-in-it games of Dota 2. The next eight hours pass alarmingly quickly. When I next see my desktop, I've hit level 15 and completed every renown heart, vista, waypoint and point of interest in both Divinity's Reach and Queensdale. Probably best to start at the beginning.

First, though, a note on connection problems. Since the unfortunate midday downtime I have not had any more problems getting online and very few instances of lag - though some on general and guild chat have reported latency. More apparent are problems with friends lists, guild registration, the trading post and the in-game store: I suspect these services are hosted separately from the game servers, and as such sometimes individually vanish while the game itself remains playable. I often frequently find myself in 'overflow' versions of zones, separate from your main server. While you're in this limbo state it's hard to party up with friends, and the world vs. world rankings are inaccessible because you're not actually on your server. I'll take a bit of inconvenience over not being able to play the game at all, but ideally all of this should have been sorted by Tuesday.

When I was disconnected I was crafting in Divinity's Reach, the human capital city. Divinity's Reach is laid out with a big wheel with six spokes - one for each of Tyria's human gods - with distinct districts between them. In my time with the game, I've only really wandered the distance between the entrance and the instanced home area where many of my personal story quests take place. On a whim, I decide to explore the whole thing.

Every area in Guild Wars 2 can be 'completed' by ticking all of the following boxes: waypoints, which can be moved freely between when unlocked; points of interest, which draw your attention to notable buildings; and vistas, which trigger Assassin's Creed-style panning camera shots of the surrounding area. In regular zones you'll also encounter renown hearts, which show where NPCs are in need of help. Complete enough static and dynamic events in these areas and you fill the heart, gaining a cash and XP bonus and access to new items. Finally there are skill challenges, which grant bonus skill points.

All of these features show up on the map, so completing a zone isn't really about discovery: but having these points to chase does encourage further exploration, and there's a lot to find. Divinity's Reach is massive and beautiful, and while tracking down each of the fixed points of interest I also encountered easter eggs, tucked-away side missions, and cool architectural features like a temple tucked away inside a plaza laid out like a spiral staircase.

Every time I've decided to wander off without a particular reward in mind I've found something interesting, and that's a very exciting thing to say about an MMO. However, watching general chat, I still don't think the game does enough in its early hours to explain how it is best played, both to those players with prior MMO experience and those without.

Two headshots in one!

A common question is “I've run out of quests, how do I level up?” Normally, this is scoffed at by more experienced Guild Wars 2 players who know that the game gives you XP for almost everything, from WvW PvP to events, crafting and exploring. “There's always something you can do,” is the frequent reply. “Just go do things.”

The problem stems from how personal story missions are structured. Other games have taught us to see 'the story' as the most important thing to finish, the means by which you beat the game. In Guild Wars 2, there's often a gap of several levels between missions which it hopes you'll fill by going and doing other things. Many players don't see it that way: they want to see the next bit of story now , so why aren't there any quests to help them level up? We've been taught that games will hold our hands, and when they let us go, far from being freed, players remain single-minded and goal-orientated: like a child in a supermarket looking for their parents. I don't know what the solution is: I suspect it might be a box that pops up when the game detects that you're grinding out the same thing over and over, yelling “WHY ARE YOU STILL HERE?” and providing a bullet-point list of everything else you could be doing.

When I finish up with Divinity's Reach I head back out into Queensdale. I've unlocked my second weapon slot and equipped a rifle, so I fill out a renown heart fighting centaurs with my new gun. The warrior profession has a three-stage 'adrenaline' bar that builds as you battle and can be cashed in for weapon-specific special attacks. The rifle allows you to pull of huge spikes of burst damage with a full adrenaline bar, so I pick my other skills to suit. I equip a signet in one of my utility skill slots that gives a passive bonus to critical hit chance that can be burned to instantly fill out my adrenaline bar. This provides another cool dimension to tough fights: if I need to, I can perform two headshots in quick succession, ideally after using another ability that reduces an enemy's armour. I'm looking forward to trying this out in WvW.

Also, I went extreme spear fishing for a bit.

Weapon switching feels great, too. You can't spam it, but the cooldown is fast enough that you can - and should - work two separate sets of weapon abilities into your combat rotation. Tanking a group of smaller enemies with sword and shield before dodge-rolling out of the way, switching to rifle, and pulling off a headshot feels great. I like the fact that I feel like I invented this method: other warriors get their kicks with two-handed hammers or dual axes, but this feels like my way .

GW2 does a good job of differentiating players early. The tremendous physical difference between races is part of this, but it's also down to the way that weapon builds diversify the moment players get out of the tutorial. Cheap versions of every weapon can be bought or crafted straight away, so if you can put together the character in your head without having to wait. Dyes are also a substantial part of this: you can swap and change your palette on the fly, helping players to stand out. I've been lucky with random dye drops, and unlocked a shiny steel colour and a dark chrome blue. I use the former for the metal parts of my armour and the latter for the leather, with gold accents. I told you this was going to become a trend.

The most common kind of equipment in GW2 are blues, but there are also green items that come with a few extra stats and set bonuses. There's no difference in core stats between items of the same level - if it's a weapon, the damage range will be roughly the same - and the additional bonuses that greens have don't seem to offer much more than an incremental boost. What greens (and after them, yellows) have going for them is looks. During a doomed spelunking trip to a cave full of spiders I found a green one-handed axe with a blade made out of three, hinged parts. When it's sheathed, it folds up and looks a bit like a sickle: during combat, it snaps out into a full crescent moon. Zooming in, I can see that there are tiny, moving gears on the hilt. In my professional opinion, this axe is sick. I send the item link to friends in order to show it off, which is exactly what loot should make you want to do.

Yes yes you're a very impressive wizard now look at my axe.

My story quest line eventually drags me through Queensdale's remaining areas, including a demon-infested swamp, centaur-infested plains, bandit-infested caves, and a tree spirit-infested forest where the tree spirits are themselves infested by parasites. I'm regularly bumping into mobs of other players and following them for a bit, carrying around a banner that buffs critical hit chance and can also be used to boost movement speed (and hit people). One battle flows into the next, which is the core experience of playing Guild Wars 2: you rarely feel like you've done enough. Just when you're ready to move on to the next area, there's a new event starting - or even an old one running again. The official reward for finishing Queensdale is a box with two green items, some premium item store trinkets, and crafting materials - but the real reward is the catharsis of having finished something.

Wait, hang on a sec. Centaur attack. Back in a bit.

Hour 15:

The following morning I log in and get ready to start the next branch of my personal story quest in a new zone. Before I do, however, I decide to demonstrate my new axe to my housemate by beating up some harmless river drakes. One of them drops a locked box.

Keys are one of the items on sale through GW2's in-game store, but you can also earn them through missions. I happen to have one in the bank, so I use it: inside the box are some item transmutation stones, for swapping the looks of a piece of equipment with the stats are another. There's also an XP booster, and a potion that'll transform me into a random critter for fifteen minutes.

Wait, what?

I take a swig and turn into an enormous and strangely sad-looking robot with no combat abilities to speak of. I run around a little bit. No-one seems to care. Then I notice that while I can't fight, I can gather raw materials. The robot doesn't have an animation for this, so he just stares sadly at trees until they fall over, at copper nodes until they are depleted, at carrots until they vanish.

The game seems very different when you are viewing it through the eyes of a lonely, pacifistic robot. I wander the woods, and think about all the senseless violence. Is life defined by conflict? Am I alive? If a tree falls because a robot is looking at it, does it go into his inventory?

Then, I made a video:

Hour 17:

I manage to enter the next zone - Kessex Hills - by the wrong gate, ending up in a level 20 area. I could teleport directly to a waypoint closer to where I need to be, but I opt to run east instead. I take a beating at the hands of some bandits but after that I make more efficient progress: I'm underleveled, but if I'm smart I can take out one or two enemies at a time. They're not fights I should be volunteering for, really, but it's good that it's not impossible for me to overcome the odds.

One of the bandits I kill drops a green rifle from the same set as my axe. It's sleek, with what looks like a giant silencer on one end and a floating magic scope featuring an orange laser. Everyone on my friends list swiftly gets a private message.

No wait come back seriously this gun's awesome.
This is my rifle. There are many like it.

Hour 23:

The final arc of my personal story ends around level 18. It's closely tied to the biography choices I made at character creation, and it's satisfying to have a narrative thread I picked play out to what (for the moment) looks like a resolution. The next step in the story starts at level 21, so I decide to treat this as a jumping off-point and spend some time in the world.

Guild Wars 2's writing tends to play it safe: there are moments of idiosyncrasy, but it seems more concerned with telling an accessible fantasy story. I'm growing to like many of the recurring characters, but so far I couldn't quote any of the dialogue. I know from beta experience that the Asura have more to offer in that regard, however, and I also really liked the Charr.

I'm getting more and more into the world, however, and it's to the game's credit that it doesn't rely on long cutscenes to tell its story. It's far more about exploring, looking, and listening: most NPCs will explain the area they're in if you talk to them, but you can pick up just as much by paying attention to environmental clues. Later, in the southernmost part of Kessex Hills, I find a Sylvari village under attack by undead. The nearest waypoint is a short walk away, on a hillside where a group of Asura have set up camp. I don't need to be told, in that case, what the scenario is, who these people are or why I should want to help. Two factions cooperating to contain some zombies? Alright, sign me up.

I'm also really pleased with how my character is turning out. Even though I don't get to control what she says in the voiced cutscenes, I like how she's presented as proactive and fearless. When the game needs to lay out mission objectives for the next section, those plans often come from my character rather than an NPC - it's a small thing, but it prevents me from feeling like I'm being led around by the nose and reinforces the idea that the person I'm playing is the person you would want saving the world from dragons.

I've since retired my favourite axe, but I could use a transmutation stone to swap its looks with another item.

I take advantage of the break in the story to jump into world vs. world for the first time. It requires a little coordination to join with a friend: first, we both need to wait until we are out of the overflow areas of our respective zones, then we need to queue for a space in the world vs. world zone. It takes around ten minutes to get in.

We load into our faction's border zone: in our case, an expanse of rocky tundra in the northern part of the world vs. world map. Each server gets their own homeland, with a central area in the middle housing the most valuable territory. Pushing an enemy faction all the way back to their final fortress is the biggest humiliation you can visit on them.

Events run in world vs. world much as they do in regular zones. They're based on the state of the war: if your faction owns two keeps connected by a road, then supply caravans will spawn and move between them. Defending these caravans from attackers will earn you experience, and if they're destroyed then you'll have fewer resources if the enemy choose that moment to attack.

When skirmishes happen they show up on the map as a crossed swords icon, directing the flow of players from one battle to another. You need to pay attention to the chat channel to find out what the nature of these fights are, however: proper reconnaissance and communication will be necessary to tell the group fights from the full-on invasions.

We make our way down the cliff paths into the zone proper, stopping to gape at the sheer scale of GW2's architecture. One of my favourite games ever was Dark Age of Camelot, which had realm vs. realm PvP that set the template for world vs. world - not surprising, given that many of ArenaNet's developers worked on it. DAOC's largest fortresses are dwarfed by GW2's, which feature massive stone walls that channel defenders towards courtyards the size of football pitches. I can't wait to see hundreds of people fighting over these.

For the time being, we don't encounter any sieges. Instead, we intercept an enemy group as they head towards one of our supply depots. Two of them drop quickly, but the third - an Asura guardian - flees across the snow. I chase him, whittling his health down with rifle fire before dropping to one knee and knocking him him down with a burst shot. My first world vs. world kill!

Back in Kessex Hills, I hit an event that doesn't really work. Not in the sense that it's broken, but it's a rare example of an occasion where I'm simply not allowed to do what I want to do. A wandering noble is kidnapped by bandits, but before I can rescue her I have to watch a surprisingly lengthy conversation play out. During this time, the kidnappers are invulnerable. As they gloat and make threats, I'm stood directly in front of their victim, firing shot after shot into their stupid, invulnerable faces. The promise of the events system is that if you see something happening and want to intervene, you can: this is the only situation I've come across where the game strong-arms you into waiting. Eventually, I can wade in and make the rescue: but it's badly staged, and hopefully an isolated incident.

Having a ranged weapon to switch to can be useful during boss battles.

More broadly, Kessex Hills is a great showcase for what the events system can do. Major encampments change hands between the centaur and the human Seraph forces based on the actions of players: if you let the centaur spread too far, then whole waypoints can be cut off. A general status indicator lets you know what state the world is in, and where the fighting is thickest. Given the high player population, the centaur are usually on the back foot.

A clever aspect of the system is that both success and failure have benefits and drawbacks. If the Seraph are losing the war, then there are far more centaur in the field and this makes several renown hearts easier to fill. The centaur have a bridge that give them better access to human lands: destroying it and holding off repair crews helps the war effort, but means you've got to find another way accross a fast-running river if you want to invade centaur territory. This prevents any given set of circumstances from feeling like they're totally in your favour, which should encourage players to pitch in even when their side is losing.

Another friend jumps in from Norn lands to join me in Kessex Hills. Once again it takes a fair amount of fumbling around with overflow servers before we find each other: tolerable at the moment, but if it's not resolved within a week of launch then it will stand against the game. Grouping up allows us to tackle events slightly above our level, earning some pretty swanky rewards. We also pile into boss fights along with the rest of the players in our zone. These can be tough, given that they require the coordinated effort of a group of complete strangers. We find that the best thing to do is to busy ourselves killing minions and reviving strangers: most players make a beeline straight for the chunkiest foe, ignoring all of the smaller enemies that can ultimately overwhelm you. Being willing to play a supporting role can turn the tide in these situations, and you're just as likely to earn a gold ranking.

If I have any complaint, it's that beating these bosses doesn't seem to grant a tangibly better reward than finishing a regular event. It'd be nice to have a loot chest or achievement attached to them: getting an above-average amount of XP and karma is nice, but it doesn't feel like a victory in the same way that a unique prize would.

I'm pretty sure the postman hates this guy.

Hour 24:

I'm getting towards the end of Kessex Hills, and searching for the last few skill points and vistas. I wander south, to a seaside village with no renown heart: as far as I can tell, it's just a place to explore. It's guarded by tame elementals, and I watch a kid in the street making two of them fight. On the map, I notice that there's a huge island off the coast: but I can't actually see it when I look out over the ocean.

Then I look up. There's a colossal floating castle hovering above the bay. I don't know why it's there, what it's for, or what storyline it's attached to: but I don't really care. I just found a giant floating castle. Given that I've been thinking about the ways that games reward active participation, it's a reminder that not everything needs to have numbers attached to it.

Plummet hilariously to your death in sunny Metrica.

Hour 29:

Around level 23, it occurs to me that I've not been back to a crafting table - or Divinity's Reach, for that matter - since my last story quest there, about ten levels ago. The way that Guild Wars 2 does away with the quest hub structure within individual zones seems to apply to the game as a whole. Instead of yo-yoing between the place you want to be and the vendors, quest givers and banks that support your levelling effort, the game is characterised by constant movement outwards. If you're not marching off into the fog of war, you're probably doing it wrong. You're encouraged to follow your nose, and even on the edge of my 30th hour with this character I still find that surprising. I am enjoying being a bumblebee rather than a worker ant. Bees have all the fun.

I've been gathering crafting materials and depositing them in my bank constantly, because it's so easy and painless to do. Gathering grants a chunk of XP equivalent to a few kills, so there's no reason not to pick up everything you see: and the 'deposit all collectibles' button in the inventory automatically files away your raw materials into a dedicated part of your bank. The fact that you get an unlimited capacity to store crafting bits and pieces from the get-go is a classy bit of design. It allows you to use your main bank for fun things - bits of armour you like, weapons you want to transmute later - and belies the fact that selling inventory space is one of the ways that ArenaNet will make money through the gem store. Unshackling available storage space from crafting progression defangs their decision to monetise that part of the game. Classy is the word for it, really: it's a generous bit of thinking, worthy of a hat-tip.

Grabbing all of my crafting materials out of my bank and turning them into (variously) inventory boxes, helmets and soup grants me about half a level's worth of experience, which is a pleasant surprise. I was aware that crafting granted XP but I hadn't seen it as a viable alternate progression route. I now know that it's how the first person to level 80 managed the last twenty levels, and while the average player won't have the support of a whole guild this sense that nothing you do is a waste of time makes you feel free to wander.

One day I'll learn to forge a whole piece of armour.

Wandering is the thing, really. After burning through all my copper and thread I drag three friends into a party so that I can show them a hidden jumping puzzle in a cave far to the south-east of Queensdale. I was originally taken through it by the developers as part of a press event, and I like the idea of playing tour-guide. We could port to a waypoint closer, but someone asks if we can walk from Divinity's Reach instead, because walking allows adventures to happen. I really hope that sentiment becomes a defining element of GW2's community: rather than SWTOR instance-runners demanding that everyone skip the cutscenes, I want to see players asking to take the scenic route.

As it happens, a major centaur assault takes place as we're taking the bridge near Shaemoor. The event scales up to factor in the participation of four geared-up players, and we find ourselves quickly annihilating twenty or so horsemen alongside a load of new characters. It's a cool feeling: we're leveled down to match the area, but our gear and abilities show off our time investment. Rather than watching high-level players float through beginner areas like invincible gods, new players get to fight alongside them. It's a clever way of keeping the community together.

Some people would call this overkill. We call it "killing one bat."

It's necessary to point out that it's still very difficult to get a party of people together in the same version of a zone, and that difficulty increases the more people you add. I'll take overflow servers over queueing any day, but the fact that parties are discouraged from changing zone due to the necessity of waiting for everyone to get into the right one is a problem. Sometimes, the game seems to figure out that moving a party into the same overflow is the right thing to do: but it's inconsistent, and it needs to stop being so as a matter of priority.

Jumping puzzles are one of Guild Wars 2's quirks. They feel like a designed version of the kind of glitchy cliff-jumping that accompanied determined exploration in World of Warcraft: the drive that spurred players to try and worm their way up a boundary hill just because they could. Guild Wars 2 encourages and rewards that kind of play by sticking a vista or a boss monster or a chest of loot at the end of an improbable series of leaps.

If this was a platformer, its basic jumping mechanics would be far from where they need to be. You have a little mid-air control, but it doesn't feel substantially different to hopping around in any other MMO. Nonetheless, these puzzles add a slapstick side to the game that makes bounding around feel novel. It's fun to watch someone tumble off a rock spire and have to fight every spider in the world while their friends provide covering fire (and insults) from above.

After finishing off the Queensdale jumping cave we head to Metrica, the Asura starting area. There's a jumping puzzle here that takes place on a series of floating islands above the cloud layer. It's accessible by a portal in a well-hidden cave, which is also where players respawn if they take a nasty fall. It's very difficult - there are leaps straight down onto unseen platforms, vines where you have to time your movement against gusts of wind, lightning bolts, and bursts of frozen cloud that halve your jump distance.

While we're waiting for the rest of our group to arrive, a few of us do what MMO players do when they're stuck in one place: we dance. Then, we switch over to our casual clothes - an alternate, cosmetic armour set. Then, we agree on a dye colour and coordinate our outfits. Then, myself and the other human player count down from three over Skype and trigger our /dance commands at the same time. Then our Asura starts to dance in front of us. Then a Norn behind us. A Sylvari stranger wanders up and joins in. I tell him what dye we're using, and he changes his clothes to match. An entirely unplanned and genuinely hilarious dance troupe forms in front of the portal, pieced together bit by bit from mechanics - dye and casual clothes - that I'd not really seen a use for. That use looks something like this:

I'm not writing a caption for this. Look at the gif.
Click here for the animated version.

Games, everybody. Actually, no, wait: human beings , everybody.

Hour 30:

I'm currently level 26, and I've just entered the third human zone with a near-full set of green top quality equipment. I've made some changes to my build - I'm back to sword and shield after a long stint with dual axes - and as a result combat has had life injected back into it. Not that it had become a drag, per se - more that I'd gotten comfortable, and finding a new weapon shook me out of my complacency. The game is able to do this because it makes shifting skills around so painless. Even the traits system, where decisions are more permanent, supports this: decisions are based around styles of play rather than specific pieces of equipment. Whether I'm going for axe-based damage spikes or stacking damage over time with my sword, my investment in critical hit chance and condition duration is rewarded.

I've written thousands of words so far on instances where I've been surprised by the sense of freedom that Guild Wars 2 encourages, or by the feeling that it respects my time and my right to have fun regardless of the hours I'm capable of pouring into it. The great big unspoken truth here is that these things are notable because other games in its genre do not feature them or give them up reluctantly. That, I think, is why this game is going to be important. I'm still not sure if it's going to convince every jaded ex-MMORPG player that they could love again - though some of my most cynical gamer friends have been overwhelmingly positive about it - but because it encourages people to ask tougher questions about what is and isn't a respectful use of the player's time and money.

Hour 42:

My thoughts on Guild Wars 2 have shifted about as I've approached and exceeded level 30. Not in a negative way, far from it, but hitting 30 seems to be a watershed moment. It's the point that you're officially introduced to Lion's Arch, the pirate city that acts as a hub for the rest of the game. It's when you choose the faction that will determine the next 50 levels of your personal story. It's when you gain access to your final skill slot and the elite abilities that occupy it. It's when - after more than 30 hours with the game - it finally delivers its first proper instance, and its first real PvE challenge.

For all of these reasons I've been determined to get a single character to thirty as fast as possible - which is why I've not been rolling alts over the course of this review. That's the next step. The last dozen hours on my warrior have been about getting to thirty and then attempting to take a full measure of the game.

I spend levels 26 to 30 in Gendarran Fields, the third human area and the final part of the trade route between Divinity's Reach and Lion's Arch. As such, it mixes the themes and conflicts of the previous areas (the ongoing war with the centaur and swamp-dwelling undead) with the pirates and sea monsters of the game's coastal areas. Having a fixed levelling goal in mind means, for the first time, that I start actively seeking particular events and figuring out which areas are best for experience. I haunt a centaur cave in the west where, periodically, their leaders gather to plan the next part of their attack. When this happens an event notification is broadcast nearby, and this usually drags a lot of players in.

I don't feel like I'm grinding, but I am becoming more aware of the most efficient ways of using my time. That's satisfying in its own right, and there's still a substantial amount to be discovered and a lot of movement involved. Eventually I cross the top of the map, far from the major roads, and encounter a series of pirate camps from what I assume is the wrong direction - starting with the hardest. Being the stranger who arrives from nowhere in the middle of a pitched battle is a persistent part of the Guild Wars 2 experience, and it's something I enjoy: it gives the world life, and I like knowing that somewhere, on someone else's screen, they're watching a sword and shield-carrying warrior lady barrel in to heroically block an incoming blow.

I also gain a level or two by burning through more of my crafting materials. Resources are divided into tiers - from 0-75 armorsmithing skill, for example, you'll use bronze: from 75-125, iron. Resource types are determined by the level of the area you're in, much like other MMOs. The amount of time I've spent gathering at each level has matched the rate at which my crafting skills have increased, with one exception: goddamn jute cloth. Unlike metal and wood, cloth can't be gathered in the wild: it has to be looted or salvaged from dropped equipment. It's needed for almost everything I make, and I'm constantly short of it. Annoyingly, I have plenty of wool - the next tier - but in order to use it I always need that little bit more jute.

Ignore the man: attack the horse.

This is the first time I've found myself farming in low-level areas, and it does feel like graft. Nonetheless, it's good that I'm getting XP for doing it. When the trading post (read: auction house) is live, this'll be less of an issue: for the time being, I'll be seeing jute cloth in my nightmares. I did eventually find an interim solution - buying low-level cloth armour from vendors and salvaging it - but this was expensive, and only possible because I was playing catch-up a dozen levels ahead of the kind of kit I was making.

I also level up my cooking, which requires far more exploration. Ingredients come from far and wide, and in one case I end up helping out a scientist in the asura starting area simply so that she'll sell me lemons. The XP bonus from crafting something decreases the more of it you make, but I'm making new kinds of food with such frequency that I'm constantly earning huge amounts. The 'discovery' panel allows you to combine ingredients to find new recipes. My character progresses from 32 to 33 by accidentally inventing toast - a far cry from 31 to 32, which she achieved by killing a glowing centaur war-beast the size of a transit van. Everything counts, I guess.

I've now chosen the multi-racial faction that'll determine how I go about challenging Zhaitan, Guild Wars 2's first Elder Dragon. I'm a member of the Order of Whispers, a secret society derived from a group introduced during Guild Wars 1's Nightfall campaign. My other choices were the Vigil (militaristic warriors) and the Priory (researchers and mages). You're introduced to these factions over the course of your second story arc, picking and choosing between them as they offer you different ways to approach missions. Ultimately, you're asked make a permanent commitment.

It was a surprisingly hard decision, and it succeeded in making me care about my character. Guild Wars 2's writing isn't edgy in the slightest - though it can be sharply funny when it wants to be - but it's friendly , and it's full of characters that I want to hang out with. I chose the Whispers for two reasons: one, they're Elonian, and a previous choice in the human arc established that my character is Elonian too. Two, their agent was not a douchebag. I liked the Vigil commander, but didn't fancy being a member of the rank-and-file. The Priory scholar sent to meet me seemed to mean well but had all the worst ideas. At one point, I was asked to choose how I'd go about gathering information that had been lost with the death of a particular pirate. The Whispers suggested infiltrating her old group and asking questions: the Priory solution was to use an ancient relic to resurrect the dead guy. Dude, we're fighting undead. We're fighting undead lead by a guy who was corrupted by an ancient relic. Your idea is bad.

I wrote previously that Guild Wars 2's writing is accessible, and I think that's the key to its successes and failures. The biography system at character creation, which is intended to allow players to shape the tone of their experience, is clever. The Elder Dragon threat is a way to bury lots of secrets in the environment, and environmental storytelling is what MMOs do well.

More than anything else, though, it's earnest . Whether or not you get on with it will depend on your relationship with sincere fantasy nonsense. Me, I can't hold a smirk for two hundred hours for fear that the wind will change and my face will get stuck that way, so I appreciate its sense of fun. I am willing to grant disproportionate weight to a whole bunch of new proper nouns: Whispers, Seraph, Priory, Eternal Alchemy. I do think that there's such a thing as an ironic dragon, but ultimately I don't think they're as good - or as long-lasting - as a dragon wholly committed to. SWTOR's storytelling was sometimes excellent, but across-the-board unsustainable. The Secret World's best moments had nothing to do with online gaming. Guild Wars 2's story suits the strengths of its genre and understands that players are going to spend just as much time doing their own thing as listening to it, and that's commendable. It's chunky and fun and without ego.

GW2's concept art team get to take a bow during cutscenes.

The stories attached to each race collide in a meeting between all of the mentors in Lion's Arch. Each of these characters - Logan for the humans, Rytlock for the charr, Caithe for the sylvari, Zojja for the asura, and Eir for the norn - were once members of a guild, but have since fractured. Your job is to be the agent of change that turns their third-act-of-a-romantic-comedy crisis back towards a happy resolution.

This is the story that plays out in the game's dungeons, instances that appear every ten levels from 30. I played the first, Ascalonian Catacombs, with the developers back in March. At that time, they told me that story mode was intended to be blasted through by pick-up groups, while explorable mode - which allows you to go back to completed instances to fight new bosses - would be much tougher. Having now failed to beat the Catacombs with strangers several times, I think they may have overestimated the abilities of their playerbase.

Ascalonian Catacombs is hard . Enemies have huge health bars, hit like field artillery, and have complex, layered special abilities. Environmental traps litter its corridors and need to be disabled by finding triggers. My prior experience with the dungeon has made me a semi-capable guide, but I'm mostly just typing “NO STOP DON'T GO IN THERE OH CHRIST” over and over again. In one case I had to abandon a group that was simply hell-bent on dying in a fire: for me, the repair costs outweighed the fun of burning to death.

The fascinating thing about this is that it's impossible to be underleveled (you're levelled down to 30) and very difficult to be undergeared. We're not failing because we haven't bothered to grind out fifteen hundred fire resistance potions in the wilderness. We're failing because many players reach Ascalonian Catacombs without ever having to learn Guild Wars 2's combat system. If you don't know how to block or dodge, or how important it is to revive your teammates, you fail. In a way, the more MMOs you've played, the more difficult this is likely to be. There's very little use in tanking. You're fighting a fifteen foot ghost with a glowing magic hammer. When that thing comes down, get the hell out of the way.

I'm starting to wonder if players used to action games and brawlers will find GW2's high-end PvE easier to pick up. You need to see threats as threats to be avoided, not maths to be mitigated. There are still aspects of that, of course - fiddling with your gear to emphasise vitality will make you last longer in fights - but there's also a substantial need for twitch skill and lateral thinking. At one point, my group's taking fire from a ghostly ranger raining poison arrows from further down the corridor. They're busy with another enemy, so I leap in close, switch to my rifle, and use a hilt-smash ability to punt the ranger clean into the next room, totally blocking its line of sight. It's not an elegant solution, but we gain twenty seconds of poison-arrow-free fighting. Most excitingly, it's a solution that results from a few different mechanics - knockback, line of sight, and level design - rather than one hard rule outweighing another. That's something sorely missing from most MMOs.

Hey, our skirts and ridiculous metal halter tops match.

Nonetheless, I've still not beaten Ascalonian Catacombs on this character. Perhaps that's down to luck, but the game could do a better job of teaching the necessary skills. It tries - there are renown hearts in most race's starting areas that teach blocking and dodging - but until they get to this point most players won't have had to apply that knowledge. There are bigger and bigger bosses waiting at the end of pre-30 event chains, but more often than not these are swarmed by players and there's no importance placed on brilliant blocks or well-timed rolls. Eventually, I hope, the community will learn to teach how the game is best played: but there really should have been a safer environment in which to learn.

Structured PvP actually does a better job of this. The first time you teleport in, you're taken to an open field where there are allies to revive, fallen enemies to deathblow, and capture points to seize: all concepts that you need to know before heading into competitive play.

I've only played a few SPvP matches so far, but I'm really enjoying it. Each is a team-based race to 500 points, earned through killing enemies, capturing territory, and fulfilling map-based objectives. Unlike world vs. world, where your stats are simply boosted to level 80, here you have all of your profession's options unlocked. Default builds are available for those wanting to jump in, but I've enjoyed remaking my rifle warrior for PvP. I'm having fun with her: until now, I didn't know how enjoyable it was to interrupt a wizard by shooting him in the kneecaps. Now I do.

Teamwork, communication and individual skill all seem to be important, and that bodes well for the game's competitive side. It does feel like an entirely separate part of the game - re-emerging back into PvE is a little like running out of the boundary of a Battlefield 3 map and starting a new life as a baker - but it's to Guild Wars 2's credit that there's this whole other experience and additional advancement structure available with no barrier to entry. It'd be a disaster if you had to play a hundred hours of PvE to get to this point. It also feels dangerous, in a way: instead of taking a break from Guild Wars 2 to play something else, I'm finding myself taking a break from Guild Wars 2 to play a different Guild Wars 2. My Dota 2 mojo is suffering.

This is the last that I'll write in this review in progress. The next step is to push through the Catacombs, get a firmer grip on world vs. world, and play as much as I can of every other profession and race before writing up my final thoughts on the game.

I am very impressed with it. It's the first MMO in a long time that I can see myself playing (or at least visiting) on a long term basis, and it's the first I'd consider recommending to someone who wasn't inoculated against the particular vagaries of this genre. I am however reading as much as I can on Reddit, on this comments thread and on our guild forums: if you've bounced off the game, let us know. It's all valid.

Finally, Junkie, to answer your question: when doesn't a PC Gamer editor make their character a girl? That depends entirely on the number of cool female characters floating around. I don't know if you heard: we've been running a deficit for a little while .

About the Author
Chris Thursten

Chris is the editor of PC Gamer Pro. After many years spent turning beautiful trees into magazines, he now oversees our online coverage of competitive gaming and esports. To date he has written more than sixty articles about Dota 2 and does not know how this became his life.

Around the web