Guild Wars 2 review
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.