I shudder to think of the number of MMO quests I've completed in my lifetime. It's probably one of those stupidly big numbers that don't sound real, like a googolplex. With all these people, towns and entire worlds helped, you'd think a few would stand out. But I'm wracking my brain, and only a measly handful spring to mind, with one exception.
Guild Wars 2's quests continue to bring me so much joy—including the ones designed a decade ago. Even coming from WoW, which does have a few crackers, and Star Wars: The Old Republic, which has those engrossing class quests, Guild Wars 2 feels like a whole different level. Even with its advanced years, it's a revelation. Like, oh shit, I am actually allowed to have a laugh while I watch my XP bar fill up.
A good chunk of that joy comes from the absurd diversity. First you've got your main quest, starting with Guild Wars 2's vanilla personal story. These story chapters are typically on the long side, with a narrative focus that means there's a lot of blethering between the fighting and puzzles. In the base game these are fine, but they play second fiddle to the much more engaging renown hearts and public events.
Renown hearts are essentially Guild Wars 2's version of the generic, workmanlike quests that litter every MMO—but good. Instead of gathering up quests at hubs and then working your way through the list, you encounter hearts organically while out exploring. Every heart has an NPC attached to it who provides some context tying the quest to whatever is going on in the region, but you don't have to chat to them first. The moment you enter an area with a renown heart, you'll receive your objectives and can get started with no fuss.
It's an efficient, hassle-free form of questing, and if that's all it was I'd be happy, but renown hearts are elevated by the range of playful activities they task you with participating in. You might need to get into a bar brawl, cheer up a cow, or just kill a few monsters. One of WoW's best quests, which temporarily turns you into a quest-giver, is just a normal day of adventuring in Guild Wars 2, at least in terms of creativity. Each quest also gives you multiple ways to fill up the heart meter, and if you find you like one more than the others, you can do that exclusively.
Most MMO quests are merely vehicles for XP and gear, and while Guild Wars 2's renown hearts fill this function, they don't stop there. Incredibly, MMOs are a lot less of a slog when the activities you're doing are actually entertaining and engaging. They aren't all winners, but there are few that I'd never want to do again. Even the weakest are brisk, respecting your time and letting you quickly get back to more fun diversions.
And if it's just the rewards you're interested in, they're more than happy to dole out the goodies. There's the XP and cash you get for completion, of course, and the NPC quest-giver also becomes a shop, letting you offload your unwanted junk and buy a new talisman. Renown hearts are also connected to map completion, so you'll want to do them all to get the area's chest.
Between the renown hearts and story quests, Guild Wars 2 seems like it has all the bases covered, but it doesn't leave things there. Public events are where the MMO really flexes its muscles. Oh boy—they're good.
I'm a sucker for a big cooperative quest, and they're typically the highlight of any MMO they're in (RIP Warhammer Online). I still get a buzz whenever I saunter into an area and discover an event-in-progress, with players scurrying around ferrying goods, defending NPCs or charging towards a gargantuan fps-demolishing world boss.
The scale ranges from wee things you could feasibly do on your own or with a tiny group, like defending a caravan as it gets to the next town, to map-wide, multi-stage meta-events that require plenty of coordination. The big ones are an investment, with a pre-event, multiple phases, screen-filling bosses, and there's always the risk that you'll fail. These events can transform the map in subtle and major ways, too, spawning new events, making areas change hands from enemy-controlled to NPC-controlled and all sorts of other things. Whether you succeed or not, the world changes.
Phil, our editor-in-chief and my Guild Wars 2 guildmate, recently detailed his adventures in the latest expansion, End of Dragons—in particular a ridiculous boss brawl:
The boss fight contains multiple phases, occasionally employing Guild Wars 2's favourite meta event trope of having players split between different sub-bosses that they need to take down at roughly the same time. Throughout, players have to prioritise targets—hitting a different part of the body at key moments (I'm being vague here to avoid being too explicit with spoilers)—using crowd control to free players trapped in whirlpools and extend boss damage phases, and, at a couple of points, having an out of body experience in the form of a loose jumping puzzle.
It's so rare to see an MMO really live up to the epic vibe it's putting out. Sure, raids can be big and intense, but there are a significant number of players who'll never get into that side of the game, and even the biggest raids can't compete with the audacious scale of the meta events peppering Guild Wars 2. I was going to say that if you prefer the more structured nature of raids then Guild Wars 2 still features them, but these big events, even if they're taking place in an open world rather than a dungeon, still have a clear framework that ensures you have a good idea of where to go and what to do. You've even got commanders, who essentially do the job of a raid leader but for meta events, organising and guiding the horde of players.
There's something egalitarian about the way you can just happen across them and get stuck in. You don't need anything to join in—though naturally you will have a much harder time if you're below the area's level range—so you get to enjoy some of the game's most memorable and flashiest moments without needing to jump through a million hoops. MMOs have this tendency to make me feel like I need to earn the opportunity to see some cool shit, but while I'm OK with a bit of delayed gratification, it would be nice if the fun could start at level 1.
I don't want to make it seem like it's all about these big, climactic, map-wide events, either. It's actually the countless smaller events constantly popping off all over Tyria that make the world feel as lively and dynamic as it does. It's incredibly reassuring to walk into a really basic event at 2 am and find a couple of players already mucking in. You're not just passing ships in the night, briefly spotting each other before rushing off to your respective adventures—you're temporary allies, watching each other's backs and picking each other up when you get knocked down.
When cooperation is gently encouraged like this, it inspires people to lend a hand even when they don't need to work together. There's an event in Auric Basin that rewards you with a hero point if you can munch on some poisoned bacon and survive for 60 seconds. Other players will sometimes repeatedly mount and dismount their jackal to take advantage of its healing barrier, assisting gourmands on their gastric adventures.
This is what MMOs are meant to be like. A bunch of strangers bumping into each other and having an adventure together. But increasingly the multiplayer part of the MMO equation gets sequestered away. You team up with players in discrete PvP modes or get flung together in a dungeon queue. While you're out just exploring the world, though? You're probably going to do that alone. One of the main reasons is accessibility: developers no longer want to stop people from enjoying a quest just because they can't find someone to join them. But that's why public events are such a boon: you don't need to be in a party to contribute. It takes out the heavy lifting of spamming LFG by just making everyone in the area a participant. Now, you're not always going to find people doing the events you come across, but there are so many that you'll usually have plenty of proper multiplayer encounters whenever you play.
On top of this, you've got dungeons that each come with their own storyline quests and multiple paths, and then the less overt, quest-adjacent activities, like completing achievements for meaty rewards. I'm not going to tell you Guild Wars 2 is this magical MMO that's eliminated grind, but it does offer so many different types of quests and related activities that you just don't have time to get bored.
Despite damning the story quests with faint praise earlier, I do want to add that things pick up considerably once you get into the Living World and expansion territory. Here, the story stuff benefits from stronger writing and a more likeable cast of characters, who importantly feel like an actual party rather than a bunch of randos drifting in and out of dialogue scenes. It's still a bit conventional when compared to the quest design in the rest of the game, but it's much higher quality than the critical path you'll follow in most MMOs.
I took an extremely long break from Guild Wars 2 and only started playing again last year, and I've found myself astonished not by just how well it's held up, but by how much other MMOs could still learn from it. And this goes beyond the quests. Everything from how it handles mounts, giving each type some very different but equally game-changing abilities, to its cosmetic game, which is incredibly strong, reinforces that sense of playfulness and empowerment—the stuff that should be at the core of all good MMOs.
Just over a year ago, I wrote about how I was tired of waiting for the next big MMO. Since then, I've tried and failed to get into a pair of new ones: New World and Lost Ark. The latter is a fun MMOARPG but not what I'm looking for, and the former is just not very good. But Guild Wars 2 fits the bill. It's not new, and I'd played it before, but the transformative impact of the Living World seasons and the trio of expansions make it pretty dang close. But more than that, it's the choices that ArenaNet made right at the start, the foundational stuff, which in comparison to pretty much every other MMO feels incredibly novel. What I was looking for, it turns out, was something that launched in 2012.