This article originally appeared in PC Gamer UK issue 237 .
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?”