Players gather on the staircase leading down to the Ascalonian catacombs, filling local chat with group requests. A few run about, periodically charging up a nearby hill to repel another assault by harpies on a Durmand Priory dig site. Others dance, or run a sleep emote. A significant number are crammed in underneath the waypoint that links this part of the plains of Ashford to the rest of the world of Tyria.
Within the Catacombs, a norn ranger – Eir Stegalkin – searches for an ancient weapon that could help reforge her old guild, Destiny's Edge. These heroes are the key to defeating Zhaitan, the Elder Dragon threatening the world. They also serve as mentors for each of the game's five races, accompanying you on personal story missions. Another Destiny's Edge member, Rytlock, has followed Eir into the catacombs, angry that she's trespassing on his people's land. We're here to stop them from killing each other.
I'm grouped with an asura warrior, a tiny sword-wielding gremlin in red and gold armour – Pinky and the Brain in platemail. He's telling me about his build. He has stacked an array of slottable utility skills – passive bonuses, in this case – and combined them with an advanced character trait that grants an extra boost for having several abilities of the same type. This is one of many builds that are possible across Guild Wars 2's eight professions and dozens of weapon combinations. He's proud of it: his critical hit chance, he tells me, is very high.
This is what waiting to do a dungeon has looked like since World of Warcraft first placed a swirling portal between five players and the rest of the world. That slight disconnection between theory and heroism, that tension between action and boredom. The moment stands out now because it's the first time in over 30 hours with this character that I've found myself in it.
As a human, I began my journey in Queensdale – rolling farmland ransacked by centaur warbands during a time of political discord, a symptom of a once-dominant race now in decline. If I had been an asura, I would have come from the jungles of the southwest, via a science fiction-fantasy story that drags in everything from mind-controlled golems to time travel. Tyria's youngest race, the sylvari, are plant-people inspired by celtic folklore and Arthurian myth, making their home among the branches of a big tree.
The bestial charr, Guild Wars' former villains, have been reintroduced Klingon style: Ashford is their homeland now, but the fragility of their warrior culture creates tension both within and without their race. The gigantic norn, who spend their early levels working their way down from the frozen mountain where they spend their exile, struggle the most to stand out: their Norse-derived society, which values individual glory above all else, is a pretty on-the-nose metaphor for what most MMORPG players spend their time doing.
Whatever choices you make at character creation, the result is a breathless charge into this new world, and it's only when the game delivers its first instance at level 30 that the brakes are applied.
I'm not disappointed, exactly. MMO downtime produces friendships – even marriages, from time to time. It's just that the journey to this point has been about anything but waiting. I've charged off into the countryside and fought bandits. I've intervened to defend towns from centaurs and disguised myself as a pirate to win a drinking competition. I've painstakingly customised a suit of armour – from stats to colouring – and warped sideways into a wholly different game, a sprawling fantasy conquest mode where whole servers crash into each other in the phenomenal, punch-the-air return of Dark Age of Camelot's much missed factional PvP. Theorycrafting while waiting for groupmate number five is like getting the bus to work on Monday morning after a spectacular lost weekend.
It's easy to make flash judgements at moments like this. Here, ladies and gentlemen, is one of your massively multiplayer online roleplaying games. We queue and talk shop: we sit on the bus and wait patiently for the next fun thing. Look closer, though, and every aspect of this picture has been made strange by ArenaNet's bottom-up recalibration of the genre. Those group requests? They're not class-dependent: Guild Wars 2 has no healers or tanks, and therefore no roles that must be filled before fun can be had. Those players charging up the hill? They range from level eight to eighty, with more powerful characters downscaled to match the encounter, the elite player rubbing winged pauldrons with Jimmy Leatherjerkin. That waypoint? It links to every part of the game I've previously visited, allowing me to instantly go off and do something else if I want to. These are the innovations and conveniences that make the game so enjoyable, that make it a viable prospect for players traditionally unwilling to step onto the MMORPG treadmill.
Fast-forward 25 minutes, and our group is falling apart. We've died multiple times while trying to crack basic enemy encounters. We're making progress, thanks to instant in-dungeon respawns – but it's slow, frustrating, and we're racking up a debilitating repair bill. The asura warrior rushes back into the fray, and allows a hammer-wielding ghost to smash him in the face. Our ranged companions – a necromancer and a ranger – stand still and pour on damage from the sidelines. When one of them is wounded, they're left to bleed out: after all, a wipe is a wipe, right?
The asura starts talking again, this time to complain. These monsters hit too hard, and have too much health. The maths is wrong, and this encounter is impossible. You can't even level up or get better gear, because everyone in the Catacombs is functionally level 30 and there's no core power differential between equipment of a certain level, regardless of rarity. You can't beat this MMORPG encounter by making your numbers bigger: therefore, the logic goes, this encounter is broken.
“Then get out of the way,” I snap, before feeling bad and clarifying. “Dodge or block. Wait for the tell – that hammer attack is slow.”
Guild Wars 2 isn't a game where a melee attack will connect because the server determined that it would three seconds earlier. It's not a game where a fireball will turn in mid-air to hit you. A clever build might save you, but planning isn't enough – you need to react, pay attention, and improvise. It's not even that prior MMORPGs downplayed these things: most actively discourage them. The worst thing a traditional raider can do is disrupt the status quo. Once upon a time, Leeroy Jenkins was the model of the bad groupmate – a view that ignores the fact that he's the most compelling person in that video. He's the one charging in, odds be damned. He's the hero.
Guild Wars 2 isn't Leeroy's MMO – its tougher fights certainly demand coordination – but it is the MMO that figured out that Leeroys have all the fun. Its combat mechanics allow for accidents to be wrestled into victories, be that by heroically intercepting a killing blow in PvP or using a knockback strike to punt an annoying NPC down some stairs in a dungeon. The funny thing about learning these systems is that it's a case of remembering how things would work in any other type of game. It's a case of thinking past tanking and healing and DPS – abstractions that have been piled on by the need for successive MMOs to refine and codify the experience of beating up a ghost. If someone was trying to batter you with a giant hammer in an FPS, you wouldn't just stand there: you'd duck.
How much of a hands-on role you take depends on your profession. Warriors spend a lot of time in the middle of melees, and as such will either learn quickly to counter or avoid damage, or get used to life as a fine paste. Guardians match heavy armour with magic, setting up shields and flinging out bolts of damaging energy. Thieves specialise in quickly disengaging, leaping and vanishing across the battlefield to subdue enemies. Mesmers create duplicates of themselves, necromancers use pets and status effects to manage the flow of battle and elementalists flip between four elemental attunements to reduce foes to ash. Engineers and rangers control battles from the sidelines, using turrets and gadgets or pets and traps to maintain a position of ranged dominance.
Without traditional class roles, you're free to create the character you have in your head – the rifle-wielding warrior, the pistol duellist mesmer, the engineer with a flamethrower – without worrying that you'll lock yourself out of a group further down the line. Best of all, you can jump into eight-on-eight PvP at any time and be instantly levelled up to 80 and handed your entire profession to play with. Completing a linear ten-minute tutorial with any class allows you to try them out at the high end straight away. With a little experimentation, it's very difficult to create a character you won't ultimately like.
ArenaNet have taken MMORPG combat, disassembled it, and put it back together with some of the original promise of having a fantasy adventure with your friends restored. To my mind, it's a resounding success, but one that doesn't play its hand until you've committed time and thought to figuring it out. That process takes longer the more experience you have with other MMORPGs, and it's not until level 30 and beyond that the game forces you to really learn the ways in which it is different. It's substantially innovative, but quietly so, and in trying to keep the game's first few hours quick and painless ArenaNet have set themselves up for a fall in the eyes of players like my asura groupmate, who was playing an entirely different game until the hammer came quite literally crashing down upon him.
This is the model for Guild Wars 2 across the board. It's also true of the events system, where static questing areas known as renown hearts are accompanied by dynamic happenings that act as a breadcrumb trail of adventure to lead players through the world. Chasing these events from place to place is what the game wants you to do, and the large experience bonuses for exploration make rambling the quickest way to level up.
Exploration has other rewards, too: Tyria is a beautifully designed and masterfully executed world. The game's hub, Lion's Arch, is a multi-tiered pirate city made of ships repurposed into bridges and houses. The charr live in a steampunk Death Star built into a crater. Wander south-east in the human area of Kessex Hills and you'll find a village in the shadow of a massive floating fortress patrolled by trained elementals. This isn't an emergent online world, but it does have a tremendous sense of life and it's a wonderful place to level a character.
Chasing down points of interest and panoramic views not only earns you experience but can lead to entire adventures. In one case, I followed a player who had offered to show me the way up to a particular vista: this lead to a precipitous dive down a water-slide built into a cave, a chase through a magic maze, corridors full of traps, and a jumping puzzle that takes place in total darkness before emerging into the throne room of a ghostly pirate. Why is this here? Seemingly, because it can be, because it's fun. The knowledge that these secrets can be stumbled into at any time makes the whole game a more compelling prospect.
ArenaNet have built a cooperative model that superficially reflects what has come before – you're still filling progress bars – but reworked it to support a different psychology of play. More adventure, fewer boxes to tick – and it works! Unfortunately, it isn't enough to stop many players from wanting to stay in one place to tick boxes, and a lack of participation can leave those players feeling underleveled, particularly if they're determined to endlessly rush on to the next step in their ongoing personal story chain.
At this point it usually falls to local chat to point out that you could be crafting, or playing world vs world PvP, or just climbing that hill over there, and that any of these things will earn you the experience you need by the dopamine trigger-load. The game desperately tries to teach these things, but it uses dismissible tool-tips and mouse-over explanations that no one in the history of computers has ever actually read. The experience can be overwhelming, both for players who don't get it and for those who do and don't understand why other players keep complaining. There are features in place to solve these problems, but the game could do more to tackle them.
These issues are defensible because they result from innovations that make the MMORPG fresh and enjoyable in a way that it hasn't been for years. Second, and perhaps more importantly, they come from an attitude to game-making that seems to think more of its players than other games do. Guild Wars 2 expects you to want to charge off and help a villager – or to discover new items in its experimentation-based crafting system, or to leap into player vs player – because it assumes that you've got an active interest in playing and an inherent ability to excel. Its core design casts you in a flattering light, and as such it stands in stark contrast with MMOs that'll crown you God-Emperor of the Universe if that'll get you to shut up and get back into the machine.
This is why the lack of a subscription fee is such a masterstroke. Just as Guild Wars 2 takes apart the mechanical absurdities of its genre, it strikes a killing blow to the old business model. Players have come to expect that you need to pick a pocket or two if you're going to finance a game like this, and Guild Wars 2's rejection of that assumption should be the moment that we finally see the idea for the anachronism it is. By being free beyond an initial purchase – which frankly makes it one of the best value propositions in gaming at the moment – Guild Wars 2 suggests, quietly, that you should rethink your policy vis-à-vis recurring hammer blows to the face.
There have been a few teething problems at launch. The game's overflow server system means you can almost always get into the game, but you may find yourself in a separate shard to your friends, and it can be difficult to group up. Support systems such as guild chat, the auction-house-style trading post, and the in-game store are sometimes down. World vs world PvP queues can be lengthy.
These are the chief frustrations in a game that is otherwise remarkable in its comprehensive attention to the player's urges, and when they're solved then there'll be very little that Guild Wars 2 does not do as well if not better than its contemporaries. PvP on both large and small scales, freeform cooperative roaming and tight, focused group play. Branching storylines for each race that never stray far from the fantasy wheelhouse but manage to be packed with enjoyable characters and variously funny and dramatic set-pieces. It's all here, on day one.
ArenaNet seem to have wilfully ignored the fact that gamers have, over the last decade, segregated themselves into camps: PvPers and PvEers, hardcore and casual. GW2 wants you to be a generalist. Overcommit to a single part and the experience suffers: you'll either burn out on chasing down vistas, grow weary of competing over the same four PvP maps, or lag behind the levelling curve of your personal story. The experience suffers when the pace falters, but it's a solvable problem. You can always do something else.
Whether you consider Guild Wars 2 revolutionary depends and, appropriately, it depends on you. If you'll accept nothing less than the fall of the house of Warcraft, then no. If you'll accept nothing less than EVE's green light, the player-driven persistent world that seems to get further away every year – then no. Guild Wars 2 isn't chasing a single vision. It's pluralistic and the pointed critical thought apparent in each of its component parts belies a whole that is smooth to the touch. Trying to impress upon someone why Guild Wars 2 is important is like trying to stab them with the sharp end of a ball. The temptation is to bludgeon.
It's important, ultimately, because of that pluralism, the collective egoless talent on display. In losing the monthly fee ArenaNet have given themselves the freedom to excise the MMORPG's accreted dross: the subscription-prolonging treadmill, the trickle-down economics of fun that says that only your elites have paid enough to get to see the cool dragon. Then, that spirit of change has passed through every other assumption that MMOs make about themselves and their players and touched each in turn. Nothing is ever so fixed that it shouldn't be broken and remade. It's not perfect, but it is ideologically and structurally sound in a way that few MMORPGs manage at launch, if ever.
Guild Wars 2 is not a revolution, but it is a call to arms. Tomorrow's MMORPGs will be held to account against its standards: generosity, variety, and respect for the player's ability and time. Of course, by that point, it won't be Guild Wars 2 waving the banner. It's not a revolution. It just quietly suggests that we start one.
An accomplished and rewarding online RPG that does a great deal to reclaim the promise of its genre.