A cat, a polar bear, a plant and Yoda walked into a bar…
Guild Wars 2 is a lot like many other MMOs you have played in the last decade or two. Despite all the hype suggesting it was going to be some kind of revolution, it’s more of a refinement of basic MMO ideas. This doesn’t have to be quite the negative it seems though. This is an MMO that does better than most of its contemporaries in a few key areas, and doesn’t charge a subscription. If you buy Guild Wars 2, that’s it, it’s yours. There is the potential for microtransactions, but I haven’t put a penny into those yet and have found a number of the items from the store for free. So, what’s changed then?
Character creation is very detailed for a game of the genre, and not only do you get the usual choices in class, gender, race, but you also get a set of sliders like in Skyrim to configure your avatar just the way you want. You can also choose the armour colours via a set of dyes (these can be reapplied for free at any time, and you can get new dyes from drops or from the store). There’s even flavour choices like which school you went to and what’s happened in your recent past. These all change dialog in quests, and even entire missions.
The races are much more inventive than the usual Human/Elf/Dwarf/Orc style fantasy fare. There are of course humans, who are predictable and live in human places and compared to the other races are actually fairly small. Then there’s four much more distinctive and creative races. There’s the cat-like Charr which I suppose stand in for Orcs, with an obsession with industry of war; but their running animation has them going on to all fours and they live in a giant death-star style factory. There’s the small Asura who are a race of Yoda-lookalikes who all believe themselves to be utter geniuses. Their animations have them tottering about and while there is definitely an element of comedy (like the gnome in WoW) in their race (you can select an afro in the hairstyles) they have a serious backstory and are definitely not just a joke. There’s the Sylvari who are essentially sentient humanoid plants. Their race is relatively new and they are filled with enthusiasm and energy. Their starting zones are spectacular and colourful, bringing to mind Pandora from the Avatar film. Finally there’s the Norn, giant humanoids who are essentially vikings, live in the snow, and are obsessed with being heroes. Plus they can shape shift into bear, raven and wolf version of themselves (the Raven form is terrifying).
Any race can become any class, and these are a little more conventional with the exception perhaps of the Mesmer. Mesmers rely on trickery, their effects are bright purple and they constantly spawn clones of themselves. Within a few minutes of creating a Mesmer you will see four or five copies of yourself fighting even low level enemies, it’s crazy.
Once you’re past all of the character creation (for reference I originally went with a Norn Ranger, I have since had a go with most of other others) you are kicked out into a world that is very much like World of Warcraft. It’s prettier, but not astoundingly so, there are still profession trainers, shop characters, banks, levelled areas and the odd instance. Nearly all the differences come down to a matter of streamlining. Since ArenaNet don’t need you to stay subscribed, they don’t necessarily need to extend your playing time artificially. So you never have to speak to people to start or finish quests (with some minor exceptions and your story quests which are all instanced) they just appear when you’re in the right area. You never have to group up with players; if you attack enemies they are you’ll both get credit and loot seperately. Sometimes new events will start up that will scale to how many players are in the area. This could be defending a caravan or attacking a miniboss, everyone in the area gets a notification and if you want to take part you’ll get some currency and some XP, sometimes with an item chest spawning to get some decent level-specific loot.
In Guild Wars 2 you can never outlevel content. When you go into an area you are shifted down into the appropriate band. You are never shifted up so you still need to work your way up, but if you want to go help out a friend or finish some areas for the sake of completion (there’s a constant tally of everything you can do in a zone and you get a reward for reaching 100%, too addictive) you will be brought down to the appropriate level. Then if there are any item-based rewards, they will be scaled up to your level. To illustrate this, last night our guild went through an early instance. You have to be level 30 to survive it, and I was 32 while most of the others were in their 40s. I got some ok gear all around the 31-32 level, they got a bunch of gear in the 40-45 level, making their time worth it.
The zones themselves are well thought out but the pacing is a little off. I’ve spent around thirty hours in snowy based zones on my Norn, with a brief foray into a grassy zone and a tropical one. It seems inconsistent and I’m getting seriously fatigued by all of the snow. There’s some spectacular scenery and architecture, with interesting stories, but there’s only so much snow you can look at.
The other big change to the PvE experience is that class roles are much less defined. There are still tank-type characters but everyone has their own healing abilities and when looking for a group it’s not quite so important that you get certain classes. This also has the side effect of making group action much more dynamic. Usually I’m happy doing DPS but often I’ll be needed to interrupt, cure a condition or resurrect someone in battle. Whenever you go down, anyone can help you back up (or you can even get yourself up if you’re not taking too much damage) so every member of the group needs to be aware of the situation.
In PvP the big headliner is WorldvWorldvWorld. Here each server forms a team to fight against other servers i na small cluster for control of large maps with castles and outposts. You regularly see battles with fifty to sixty people taking part and while it can feel like chaos, an organised group can cut through and really make a difference. It’s an interesting an exciting idea, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it develops once people start finishing the PvE content and more turn to PvP seriously.
It’s been a remarkably smooth launch, with only a few hours of downtime, but there are still a lot of problems. Despite the game being called Guild Wars, the guild system doesn’t work particularly well. People don’t recieve invites or randomly can’t see their own guild status. At the time of writing mail is broken (intentionally to stem hacking) too, and I’ve never seen the trading post (auction house) working. I fully expect all of these minor flaws to be fixed within the coming weeks, but if you get in on the action now, expect there to be a few rough edges.
Overall, Guild Wars 2 is a fantastic game. It’s nowhere near as fresh or revolutionary as the developers had made out, but it’s still a lot of fun, and without a subscription, that makes it something quite special.