"I was pleasantly surprised by my brief time in the lands of Tyria, and look forward to returning there for more questing and adventuring in the (hopefully!) near future."
"We founded ArenaNet to innovate..."
That's how founder Mike O'Brien begins the MMO manifesto you can easily find on the Guild Wars 2 website. Such language isn't exactly rare in the industry. Everyone talks about creating the next new thing, or delivering on a very specific promise. ArenaNet promised to make Guild Wars 2 fun, immersive, and revolutionary when the title was first announced. Of course, the casual gaming journalist (namely, myself) approaches these promises with a level of cynicism usually reserved for crooked politicians. My own grievances with the MMO genre also played into my lack of enthusiasm for a sequel to a game I never played. Therefore, it was with some trepidation that I flew out to ArenaNet's development studio in Seattle to take part in a weekend play session before the first public beta weekend. I had to start this piece talking about my lack of advance enthusiasm so you would understand just how important this next statement is.
I am super excited for Guild Wars 2.
The desire to innovate clearly shows in ArenaNet's product. The standard questing structure requires a group of adventurers to actually come together towards a common goal. The most common example given in numerous previews – and even the initial trailers – involves a group of raiding Centaurs terrorizing a sleepy village. Players must band together in order to fend off this threat, or else they face real consequences to the world. For example, you won't be able to talk to that friendly merchant about the latest in leather-based trouser fashion if his house is on fire, which means you'll have to fend off those dastardly monsters before the village can return to a sense of normalcy. This action creates a sense of immediacy and connection with the world that seems lost in many games, let alone the vast array of MMO titles available.
This level of play seems impossible to achieve until you first see it in action. While we didn't see a roving gang of Centaurs right away, the first dynamic event we encountered involved a poison outbreak at the local waterhole. Adventurers could stop whatever they were doing and run to help the villagers. A few quick antidotes later, and the people thanked us with a kind word and a metric ton of experience points. Best of all, this all happened in a fluid manner. No one spoke a word on Vent to organize this grand collaboration. But perhaps more important was the fact that no one can quickly swoop in to steal the rewards of your accomplishments. Provided that you contribute in some way to the event (perhaps a little loot gathering, monster slaying or cow herding), you receive the maximum bonus for the quest. Everything about the dynamic events seems poised to create a connection between players without any of the animosity commonly found in the genre.
Of course dynamic events aren't the only types of quests to be found in the world of Tyria. There are instances and tasks to be completed at any time. The story quests are centered around the choices you make during character creation. After choosing one of five different races (we weren't given the opportunity to play the diminutive Asura or fae Sylvari, unfortunately), you give your character a basic background not unlike Dragon Age: Origins. Were you a human raised on the streets or perhaps fortunate to be of noble birth? These decisions and traits affect the opening of your story. The developers promised to enhance the experience with further decisions down the line, but we weren't able to see any of those given our brief time during the weekend.
But these dynamic quests and instances have to remain fun and playable to advanced levels, otherwise you reach a point where the rewards simply don't warrant the time or effort. That's where Guild Wars 2 employs a clever level scaling trick. Zones are set at certain levels of difficulty, and returning to these areas scales your character down to keep the area challenging. However, you'll still have access to all of your skills and traits, making a level fifty character in a level ten zone still feel more powerful and full of options when compared to newer players. ArenaNet hopes that scaling players will help to keep the population from advancing to more difficult terrain, leaving the starting areas barren by comparison. There's also the option to add in new dynamic events and quests to keep older areas interesting, though we weren't privy to any definite plans on the subject.
In addition to a race and backstory, you select a class at the start of your hero's adventure. The eight classes all feel strong and unique, whether you're playing as a burly warrior or an arcane elementalist. These classes are fairly standard for the MMO genre, but their roles in battle are anything but. Guild Wars 2 hopes to end the reign of The Holy Trinity. You don't fall into a tank, dps, or devoted healer all of the time. Each class features plenty of options in terms of healing abilities and damage output. A thief may start up close with dual knives and poison skills, but then jump back to the second line with a pistol and throwing knives. If the battle takes a turn for the worse, that same thief could buff the party or apply damaging conditions to the enemy in order to beat a hasty retreat. The game encourages you to quickly change given the nature of the situation. This applies to skill selection before a long instance even begins. There are a wide range of abilities outside of the standard powers of your armaments, meaning that you can outfit your character for any situation. The flexibility of each class helps to make almost any build feel viable and powerful.
But ArenaNet didn't stop with taking apart the modern party conventions of an MMO. They also created a slightly more action-oriented style of combat that's suited to these basic character creation changes. Though you still have the requisite auto-attack, special abilities and powers all carry a sense of weight and flair, making them feel like more than just the simple representation of numbers ticking off of an enemy's health bar. Powerful magical spells feel like they are actually ripping enemies apart, and the short cool downs on skills means that you aren't waiting for something special to happen. A quick dodge enhances combat even further. Large creatures rear back before a powerful attack, leading the more astute observer to duck out of the way of a devastating attack. This also gives you a chance to quickly leap out of an area of effect attack before you receive too much damage.
Watching the designers participate in an epic PvP fight felt like I was watching the best kind of Team Fortress 2 encounter. Feints and quick ripostes felt carefully timed and measured, giving the game a distinct feel beyond the simple act of dwindling numbers. Large PvP battles proved too difficult for my caveman mind to comprehend. The cacophony on display truly baffled me, but I'm sure many will quickly congregate to the large scale encounters. Massive maps allow for plenty of tactics and strategy. Capturing supply positions or strongholds yield points for your team, resulting in plenty of death and destruction on the battlefield. Level scaling during PvP helps to mitigate the problems typically associated with RPG based competitive play. Every character scales up to level eighty during a PvP match, though you are still bound by the skills unlocked during character progression, similar to the way in which character levels are scaled in the PvE zones.
The combat, questing, and character creation all seem innovative and fun for the MMO, but it still has to take place in an important world brimming with possibilities. So far, Guild Wars 2 seems to have a strikingly realized world with phenomenal art direction. The paint brush approach to the UI and environments screams for immediate attention. Real effort has been spent to make the entire game look and feel unique at every turn. ArenaNet hopes that you'll want to explore every nook and cranny of Tyira, so they want everything to seem carefully sculpted and cared for. The starting cities certainly rival the best of the best in terms of scale and grandeur. Hopefully the rest of the world proves just as enthralling and full of life.
Every MMO developer wants to bring new people into the genre; the hope being to appeal to both neophytes and experienced players. So far, Guild Wars 2 seems like a title to watch carefully over the next few months. ArenaNet obviously feels a great deal of satisfaction and pride towards their product, and you certainly don't have to take my glowing endorsement as the gospel truth. Anyone who preorders GW2 gains access to the beta event weekends, meaning that you'll be able to play the game next weekend and share your thoughts and experiences with the developers. There's still a long way to go towards release, but you should certainly give the beta a try even if you have a casual interest. I was pleasantly surprised by my brief time in the lands of Tyria, and look forward to returning there for more questing and adventuring in the (hopefully!) near future.