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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.