After painful ramifications to both my wallet and social life, I swore off MMO’s along with their obligatory subscription fees. Needing to play a minimum number of hours just to feel like I got my money’s worth each month along with an end-game based on the backwards concept of acquiring gear in order to pursue even better gear left me feeling confused as to why I would engage in such a masochistic activity, let alone pay for it. So I lived a life of voluntary exile from the genre for many years without giving a second glance as titles hyped as the latest-and-greatest passed me by. That all changed when a little game called Guild Wars 2 stepped onto the scene and made a believer out of me.
The guys over at AreaNet have crafted something truly special; this is a game dripping with polish that stands out as a labor of love by the developers. Guild Wars 2 delivers a profoundly refreshing experience that is greater than the sum of its parts while blazing the trail with a new philosophical approach in the stagnant MMO space.
I was thoroughly impressed by the hand painted art style. Character creation is a gratifying process with a healthy selection of unique classes to choose from and even options for your own custom tailored back story. While the races all fit neatly into their respective fantasy archetypes, everything makes an intriguing departure from its established heritage in surprising ways.
While every piece of art in Guild Wars 2 (GW2) has been painstakingly detailed, character animations are hit or miss. It’s especially strange considering how elegant and fluid the idle animations are that others visibly suffer so badly. Depending on the race being played, running can appear stiff (I’m looking at you, male Norn) and I felt a couple attack animations were pushed too far. One particular debacle stands out in my mind as an attempt at some sort of running-dropkick-sword-slash amalgamation that looked absolutely ridiculous while standing still. Considering it was part of the standard attack rotation associated with a much beloved weapon type of mine, I actually re-rolled a different race because it bothered me so much.
The aesthetic pedigree of the world on the other hand is nothing short of breathtaking. After arriving at the human capital city known as Divinity’s Reach for the first time I must have spent a good fifteen minutes just wandering around soaking up the wonderfully realized environments with my jaw on the desk. Normally the map is clearly marked and easy to read but it can get cluttered in the immense cities, at times I had trouble with navigation and got turned around more than once while trying to locate vendor. But the illusion of a living, breathing world is an impressive one. NPC’s interact with one another, children scamper down the streets playing tag and merchants loudly advertise their wares. A multitude of diversions await players if they feel like taking a break from adventuring to hang out around town. I could go on for several pages about the stylized realism of the character models or the gorgeous vistas that beckon to be explored but the bottom line is GW2 exudes a caliber of artistry rarely seen in most games, let alone an MMO.
It certainly seems like Guild Wars 2 is off to a strong start in leading the charge for the MMO revolution, blue war paint smeared across its face as it cries out, “freedom!” But it’s important to note that it hasn’t reinvented the wheel so much as managing to make it rounder. This is definitely a title built on the bones of those that came before it with all the pillars we have come to expect still present and intact. Crafting and the collection of resource nodes, player inventory, action bars and combat systems all operate much like its predecessors. The key difference is its approach to how everything has been streamlined and reimagined. A lot of careful thought and consideration has been put into hundreds of little improvements and the result equates to the greater good of the big picture.
The nonsense and frustrations of old have been given the axe in favor of ease and accessibility. The user interface is lean and minimalistic, fast travel for a modest fee comes in the form of instant teleportation to a number of conveniently located checkpoints and queuing up a batch of items to be crafted now incrementally speeds up so it finishes in a snap. There is no such thing as wasted time in . Everything from reviving fallen allies and gathering resources to crafting items or exploring new areas earns you legitimate experience. This isn’t a game that’s shy about urging players to see it all and reward them for doing so. Everything in the game functions as a shared instance, which means all resource nodes or quest items you come across can be gathered by each player independently of one another. Gone are the days of meticulously clearing your way to a rare ore vein through a group of baddies only to look on in horror as some naked elf named pwnzorsauce swoops in to take it instead.
Working together with other players in the world happens naturally, sans the tedium of having to find a group in order to share the spoils. However if you are looking to link up with friends in its current state, the prospect of grouping can get a little difficult. Upon entering a new area players are placed in a server division called an overflow instance. There they wait in queue for the ‘main’ server space while still being able to essentially engage in all the activities they normally would; think of it like multiple plains of existence. In theory it sounds like a great solution to crowded regions and latency issues, but when faced with either getting everyone on the same overflow or waiting until you’ve all made it onto the main server can become a serious hassle. AreaNet has said they are still working the kinks out of this system and given its still in the first month of launch I’m inclined to give them a free pass on this issue for now.
If you’re in the mood to do the lone wolf thing there’s a chain of single player content dubbed as the personal story campaign. With voiced cut scenes and course-altering decisions to be made along the way, it certainly assists with immersion and getting players a bit more invested in the lore of Tyria. The stories I got a taste of weren’t anything to write home about but were mostly well executed, avoiding the campy pitfalls and cheesy plot arcs we’ve come to expect from all but the best in video game writing. The gameplay in these sequences can get pretty exciting as well, making it all a greater shame that an option wasn’t added to bring a buddy along to experience the content with you.
Probably most touted of its new features is the dynamic events and questing system; large area-specific events and objectives in constant ebb and flow across the map that players can take part in as impromptu groups. Some are simple one-offs while others can evolve into more complex, segmented objectives that take you for a romp across the countryside. One in particular involved fending off a centaur raid before systematically driving them back to their stronghold, freeing captured slaves from imprisonment and defeating their war chieftain in a mini-boss fight. Although battles can get crowded and end up feeling like a giant fur-ball of player characters and particle effects, this type of open quest structure lends itself to a more engaging experience and offers higher variation in pacing. It’s an overall improvement to the standard archaic setup and while it doesn’t eliminate the grind entirely, this new approach to adventuring succeeds in breaking the shackles of monotony left behind by other systems intended to drag out player progression.
At first glance combat seems like the progeny of its stationary auto-attacking forefathers, but a few hours with its mechanics reveals a deep and complex system under the hood. It strikes a good balance between being easy to pick up and hard to master, leaving plenty of room for experimentation with the massive array of weapon abilities and skill combinations at your disposal. Equipping a different weapon opens up a new set of class-specific abilities that vary depending on which hand you hold it in. Additionally, players can swap between two weapon sets on the fly allowing for even greater flexibility. I often find myself in a constant improvisational flow during battles. Rather than being boiled down to a formulaic rotation of abilities with the express goal of maximizing damage, here the variables of enemy behavior and composition are in constant flux with the name of the game being adapt or die.
When health depletes you’ll be knocked to the ground to make a last stand with a small bar of abilities to continue attacking with. Landing a kill while in this state brings you back to life for a second chance to thwart your foes, albeit with a minimal amount of health to work with. Executing well timed directional rolls, blocks and counters to evade attacks while making crucial offensive decisions is paramount to success. There’s definitely the occasional moment of calling bull**** when I take damage from an attack I clearly rolled away from in time and other small hiccups of the sort, but combat ultimately stays rewarding and keeps you hungry for more.
Whereas other games have you avoiding significantly higher level creatures due to raw attribute numbers, GW2 encourages taking on tougher challenges and wants you thinking on your feet during battle. You can legitimately square-off against much stronger enemies so long as you know what you’re doing; this can make for some great moments of triumphant close calls or anguished defeats if you don’t play your cards right. It seems AreaNet intends to nurture an ecosystem where player skill trumps gear and stats. Unfortunately due to time constraints I wasn’t able to crack open the robust PVP system promoted as one of its finest features, but my understanding is that the same guidelines carry over with everyone raised to level cap and receiving equally scaled gear to even the playing field.
If you’re a grizzled veteran of the MMO space looking to be reinvigorated or someone looking to dip their toe in for the first time, I highly recommend giving Guild Wars 2 a try. Whether looking to group up with some friends to quest across the lands, craving the thrill of player versus player warfare or just after a little casual solo play, GW2 can scratch that itch. I couldn’t shake that distinct feeling of interacting with an MMO during my time with it, so those who find the category repellant are probably safe to take a pass on this one. But a few nitpicks aside, the intuitive action-oriented combat and visually stunning art style paired with a pay-once play forever revenue model makes a very strong case for this evolutionary title. Guild Wars 2 stands tall as a sterling representation of what the genre is capable of achieving.