This past weekend, I had the opportunity to visit ArenaNet in Bellevue, WA and sample its upcoming MMORPG, Guild Wars 2. Unlike the original Guild Wars, which was a heavily-instanced game, Guild Wars 2 features a persistent world in which all players on a server can interact with each other. Taking place in the land of Tyria 250 years after the first game, Guild Wars 2 features five playable races, eight classes, a massive PvE adventure spanning eighty levels, and both small-group and massive world versus world PvP matches.
Our demo of the game began in the human starting area, where I slapped together a cute little red-haired thief and answered several questions that would help to determine my character's personality and the direction of her personal story. After watching a customized introduction based on my answers, I was swept through a quick tutorial adventure during which I defended a keep from a centaur attack. In less than ten minutes, I'd become a local hero and earned the notice of Logan Thackeray, a powerful champion of the human race. With that, I was dumped into Tyria's bread basket with the instruction to assist the locals with any of a myriad of local problems.
Rather than receiving quests from NPCs as in most MMOs, a scout pointed me and my fellow journalists towards areas in which we could help out the populace. Most of us ran towards the nearest field, where gigantic grub worms were causing some issues for the farmer. Before long, the local bandits decided to attack, and we had to both fight them off and douse hay bales that were being set on fire. The spontaneous bandit attack is an example of the game's dynamic event system, which is the heart and soul of PvE gameplay. The dynamic events were quite fun as long as other players were around. The team has done its best to keep players co-operating rather than competing for pulls or loot. Everyone who participates in an event receives awards, and everyone who kills a monster gets experience and loot. Even crafting resource nodes appear individually for players, and don't disappear if another player gathers from them. Because of these efforts, players can work together to tackle events without even being grouped, leading to easy, ad hoc fun in the persistent world.
Although the dynamic events scale according to the number of actively participating players, (the game won't allow players to leech by standing around) most events aren't very fun or are downright impossible for solo players. This shouldn't be a problem for a number of months after the game launches, especially since higher level players are downscaled to the appropriate level for an area while still receiving awards that will be useful for them at their level. Still, the team is aware that life could be tough for new players later in the game's lifetime, and plans to monitor the situation as populations fluctuate.
Catering to solo play is the personal story that every character experiences, which changes greatly depending on player race and various choices. I chose to play a working-class human, so the beginning of my story revolved around the troubles experienced by two of my character's friends, an innkeeper and his daughter. Once I'd gained a couple levels from adventuring in the persistent world, I entered my personal story instance and found myself defending my friends from a gang of drunken toughs, complete with the option of picking up and using bottles in the bar brawl. This and the couple more personal story quests I was able to complete were fairly interesting and set at a good level of challenge, helping me to learn the game's combat system. Each personal story instance has a recommended level clearly marked before entry, and players will need to level up through persistent world gameplay or PvP between personal story quests.
Like the original Guild Wars, Guild Wars 2 features a limited skill bar that forces players to make careful choices about their skill layout. The first five skills on the bar are linked to the weapon set that the player has equipped, changing the basic moves of physical classes and the spells for magic classes. The other skill slots are reserved for a healing skill, elite skill, and three special skills of the player's choice. There are no dedicated tank, healing, or damage-dealing classes, and combat is designed so that players take turns on the front lines, alternately taking heat from the enemy and backing off to recuperate and heal themselves. Each class has the ability to choose a weapon and skill layout that focuses more on damage-dealing, condition application, or support, giving players the flexibility to play the way they want to play. The classes are also flexible, with the ability to switch between weapon sets or other trademark abilities (such as elemental attunements for elementalists and gadget kits for engineers) in the heat of battle.
As a low-level thief, I wasn't able to explore the full potential of this flexible class and combat system, having access to only a few weapons and a couple special skills that I unlocked during gameplay. Still, I could see the beginnings of how it will shake out later in the game. Adventuring with a pistol in my main hand and dagger in my off-hand, (all guardian and adventuring classes can choose to work with melee or ranged weapons, yes, even warriors and rangers) I could dish out a lot of damage in a short period of time, the thief's specialty. I had to be careful not to get the attention of too many foes at once, though, and if I got in trouble I could hit my healing ability, which allowed me to vanish from combat briefly and recover health. Other players would then get the attention of the foes, giving me some breathing space. Basically, the combat system allows players to be more self-sufficient in terms of staying alive, while working together in terms of overall battle strategy. Later in the game, players can even co-operate with cross-class combinations, which I was unfortunately unable to experiment with at these early levels.
After our PvE adventures, the developers took us on a whirlwind tour of world vs. world vs. world, Guild Wars 2's large-scale PvP battlefield. WvWvW is meant to be a bridge between PvE and hardcore small-group PvP, and it seems to do that admirably. It was the most fun I had that day, and I am not much of a PvP player. WvWvW pits three servers against each other in matches that last for two weeks. It's dependent on capturing and holding keeps, but doing both requires players to gather supplies for war machines by completing smaller objectives around the sizeable WvWvW maps. In our case, we only had two groups playing, game journalists and developers versus the QA department. All of us newbie characters were automatically raised to level 80, and despite our limited skill load-outs, we were able to hold our own against the other team's players. This level boost will be a feature in the full game, allowing players to jump into PvP as soon as they create a character. Characters will receive experience, gear, and skill upgrades via PvP just as they do for PvE, so players could level from 1-80 doing nothing but PvP if they like.
I found my first WvWvW match to be a great deal of fun, particularly because we were working with one of the developers, who took a squad leader position (which experienced players will be able to purchase in the game) and led us around the battlefield. We captured supply depots, grabbed supplies, then built siege machines to take keeps from the other team. I was able to operate a catapult and an arrow machine at various points, helping break down doors or provide covering fire for my team. Some of my teammates operated gigantic siege golems, which I found to be useful to hide behind as I shot my pistol at the other guys. As the tides of battle ebbed and flowed, I was able to pull off some fun kills and exciting close escapes, feeling useful despite my relative inexperience with the game. I can only imagine how much fun the matches will be once I'm more experienced and powerful. I won't even have to worry about a major server power imbalance, as every two weeks the WvWvW ladder is re-calculated and servers are pitted against other servers who fared similarly to themselves.
I should take a moment to note the excellent production values behind Guild Wars 2. The entire game, from the world to the interface, has been given a lovely painterly style. The cities are grand and even the outdoor adventuring areas are alive with NPCs going about their daily tasks. The art team's goal was to have a distinctive style without becoming overly stylized and alienating players, and I feel they've walked that line quite well. Character creation is extensive and allows for unique looks, though a bit less so with the bestial charr race. Character outfits are beautifully designed, and collecting different looks (both in-battle and for town outfits) is certain to become a major pastime for players. Spell effects have been toned down from earlier game videos, and now their true beauty shines without creating a blinding light show when a bunch of players are grouped together.
The sound is also quite well-done. The game is fully voice acted, from personal quest scenes to random NPCs in towns to dynamic quest-related NPCs yelling for help. The voice acting is excellent and sounds very natural. The music has once again been composed by Jeremy Soule, and is, well, Jeremy Soule. If you love him, you'll love the music. If you hate him, the game allows you to load your own custom soundtrack in instead, so it's a win-win for everyone.
To wrap up, the completed sections of Guild Wars 2 are looking quite ready for launch, running smoothly with very few bugs. There are still some things that could be improved before launch—for instance, the game doesn't make it obvious to new players that dodging is a very important part of combat, causing the developers to go around to the stations instructing journalists to dodge more often. There's also a bit more tuning to do in terms of the difficulty of various challenges, as some champion-level monsters aren't labeled as such and some players were finding themselves getting one-shot by creatures barely a level above them in some places. These are small issues that are easily corrected, however, and overall the game is looking extremely solid and ready for the big-time once all the content and QA is finished. Guild Wars 2 doesn't have a release date yet, but players who pre-purchase will be able to play in a weekend beta event once a month until release.
I've been excited about Guild Wars 2 for some time, and this preview event only increased my anticipation for the game. The dynamic event system is a breath of fresh air in a genre dominated by static quests, and the game's design makes it fun to simply venture out in the world and help out with whatever is going on out there. ArenaNet has done an amazing job taking the basics of the modern MMORPG and switching them up with versatile classes, a living world, and gameplay that emphasizes co-operation rather than competition for scarce resources. The company began this project with big dreams and promises that it has actually delivered on, unlike most of the ultimately disappointing MMORPG projects that come out these days. Be on the lookout for Guild Wars 2 to storm the world of MMORPGs when it comes out, because in my opinion the folks at ArenaNet have done just about everything right.
Impression written by Becky Cunningham. Thanks to Sam for helping to upload it while my Internet connection was down.