"I, unsurprisingly, chose to make a Charr engineer named Rufus Flametongue. You can probably guess what my primary weapon is..."
Guild Wars 2 is huge. Seriously, there's just no way that any reviewer can give an an honest assessment of an MMO after only a few short days. In an effort to mitigate this shortcoming of the review process, we've decided to cover ArenaNet's latest in a more journal-like way. This will hopefully highlight the changing landscape of the game, as well as help us to analyze the title in the long-term manner that is necessary for the genre.
Entry 1 – This is My Story!
Guild Wars 2 tasks the player with selecting a starting race and profession. While by no means a revolutionary move for the genre, ArenaNet sets their title apart from the rest by the vast differences between the races as well as the variety in their initial locations. The feline-like Charr take up residence around the Black Citadel in the Plains of Ashford, a decidedly steampunk city heavy on rust-orange hues and gray metal. Better still, the surrounding region features a forest area in the midst of fall colors, helping to accentuate the nature of the warlike race's transition to power. By contrast, massive castles and lush green fields in the human starting zone evoke an eternal spring. This environmental diversity plays into the differences between the denizens of Tyria. These aren't simple palette swaps and color changes, but strong visual cues pointing out the nature of each species.
Surprisingly, each race gets to choose from the eight available professions during character creation. It doesn't matter that the plant-like Sylvari commune with nature, as they can still become flamethrower-wielding engineers and rampage through the local flora and fauna. While this might lessen the uniqueness of each race, it prevents you from feeling pigeonholed into a specific archetype. Those diminutive Asura looking to bash some skulls as a hammer-wielding guardian need only select the requisite option and indulge. I, unsurprisingly, chose to make a Charr engineer named Rufus Flametongue. You can probably guess what my primary weapon is…
After a few quick choices to round out my character (I chose to work for the stealthy Ash Legion, of course), I was off to tell "My Story." The story-based missions all play out in demarcated instance zones, though party members you meet up with online can actively engage in the festivities of jolly cooperation. I've faced several key obstacles and trials, though most amount to the same basic premise: I get an objective, talk a little about the various goings-on of the Charr, and then light some bad dudes on fire. While there is some variability in terms of how I'm committing said arson (perhaps in disguise as a rival legion, for example), the story missions are kind of safe and routine. I'm still fairly early in my story, though, so perhaps things will improve.
But while the main storytelling currently proves a little underwhelming, the key components of questing and player interaction play out far better once you're released onto the fields of Tyria. Watching the sheer number of players on screen during the pre-launch weekend proved awe-inspiring, and quickly removed my preconceived notions that MMOs are rarely massive and/or community driven. Random passersby would assist me when a wild boar proved too much for my puny first level character, and I found myself assisting people in the same way once I found my bearings.
What's surprising, however, is just how little experience is given for a random kill. No, the essence of Guild Wars 2, and the best way to gain EXP, is to engage in the quests and dynamic events littered throughout the world. Quest givers are marked with hearts on the map, and they usually have a list of tasks to complete. Maybe you have to check the cages for a local hunter, or perhaps the nearby bandits have been taking a bit too much liberty with their weekly bribes and must be taught a lesson. These types of jobs can amount to something as droll as killing a certain number of ROUS's, but you never have to talk to the quest giver to receive these tasks. Instead, you enter an area assigned with these objectives and simply perform them to gain experience. It eliminates the need to fill a quest log and gives you the opportunity to leave if you simply don't feel like disarming all of those landmines covering the road. It's a Bethesda-like approach to game design and a welcome addition to a genre riddled with giant quest logs.
But the stars of the show are the dynamic events. These randomly-generated sequences call for immediate player attention, and, boy, do they ever get the local population moving. If you're close enough to the area in question, an indicator on screen describes the current problem and where to find it. It's like a call to arms when those dastardly bandits decide to raid the local farm, and the only way to deal with the problem is to gather the troops and rush into battle. Watching an army of player characters zerg a location for the large experience bonuses proved overwhelming the first few times, but now it's second nature to my level 20 engineer. These dynamic events can actually link to others, meaning that they can change based on the results of your exploits. Failing a dynamic event doesn't mean you're screwed out of experience, either. You may end up with a new dynamic event setup to fix the even greater threat caused by your inaction. The dynamic events are also often placed and linked around the heart quest givers, meaning that you'll often complete both jobs without even realizing it. These events and their ramifications on the world go a long way towards making Tyria feel alive, but they also create a slightly anonymous experience. Everyone will engage in the random event, but they might as well be NPCs for all of the talking and coordination that's going on. It's like playing on PSN when no one has a headset. Thankfully, finding friends and making a party to scour the land proves far more rewarding and exhilarating.
Questing isn't the only way to earn experience in Guild Wars 2. There are numerous vantage points (think Assassin's Creed) and location markers to uncover, each garnering a significant bonus to your experience pool. In addition, skill quests allow you to unlock more points for upgrading your avatar. These additions make Tyria a world worth exploring and discovering at your own pace. Many complain about the grind in typical MMOs, and it seems like ArenaNet wants you to explore rather than kill thousands of birds for pitiful gains. A fast travel system allows for easy access to new areas and new adventures. My advice to new players is to avoid the common trappings of the genre and instead treat Tyria like the multiplayer Elder Scrolls game everyone wants.
Combat may not be the focus of leveling, but it was clearly a design focus for the developers. While not quite as revolutionary as some were maybe hoping, Guild Wars 2 features fun and responsive combat that avoids the constant 1-1-1-1-1-1 we all expect. By limiting the number of available skills to ten (five of which are weapon specific and another designated for healing), ArenaNet clearly wants players to investigate skill combinations in an effort to develop their own unique play style. The only downside to this system is the speed at which skills appear to unlock. I'm fast approaching those elite level thirty skills, and I feel like my character is pretty much set at this point. Oh, sure, I have lots of options, but these permutations may not be able to stem the danger of boredom with such design decisions. I've had my flamethrower for well over eight hours, and I'm not really looking to change it anytime soon. Thankfully, trait points allow you to augment the stats and various bonuses (like damage increases or status effects) given to your character. Whether or not this level of character customization is enough to keep fans happy remains to be seen. Combat, while fun overall, does have some minor issues. Skills often miss for inexplicable reasons and lag spikes plagued some of the early hours of my journey.
I feel like this is a good stopping point. With the initial groundwork and mechanics laid out, I hope to talk about my personal experiences and my feelings towards the game in a more stream of consciousness way in the coming entries. There's still a lot of ground to cover (more story missions, crafting, and the dreaded dungeons), so stay tuned for more updates!