Guild Wars 2 has been a long time in development, and highly anticipated by fans who loved the first Guild Wars or have been drawn in by developer ArenaNet's MMORPG philosophy. After three well-received Beta Weekend Events for game pre-purchasers, the main event finally arrived on August 25. How has Guild Wars 2 performed so far in its fully released incarnation?
This impression is based on my first week or so of play with Guild Wars 2, in which I raised five characters (thief, ranger, engineer, elementalist, and guardian) to levels 20-25 out of 80. So far I have focused on non-competitive gameplay, and my characters are not yet high enough level to venture into instanced dungeons.
While the game performed admirably during pre-launch betas and stress tests, unfortunately not even the server wizards at ArenaNet could be fully prepared for the massive swarm of players descending upon the game at launch. After a short period of unavailability during the pre-purchase head start on August 25, the game was brought back online, and has been up and largely stable since.
Unfortunately, several aspects of the game such as grouping and joining/running guilds were unreliable until late last week, and a few important features like the trading post remain unreliable. As MMORPG launches go, this one was pretty good, but it certainly wasn't perfect.
With that said, let's get to the meat of the game I've experienced so far: the 1-25 PvE (Person versus Environment) experience. Newly created characters choose one of five races and eight professions, and a number of background and personality-based questions that will help determine a character's path through its personal story.
After a quick "tutorial" area that's more of a scene-setting massive battle, the player is dumped into the big, wide world of Tyria and told to go help the locals out. This is pretty typical for Guild Wars 2, which other than occasional pop-up hints, doesn't do a lot of player hand-holding. On one hand, this works well for a game that encourages experimentation and wants players to take their time. On the other hand, it's easy for newcomers to the game to get lost or miss critical information. Joining a good guild or asking veterans for help is a very useful way to get into the game.
Basic PvE adventuring involves two major activities. The first is completing "hearts," which are areas in which a player can complete a variety of tasks in order to earn favour with a particular person or group. Once completed, a heart vendor will offer the player special items that can be bought with karma, a special currency that's accrued exclusively through hearts and the second kind of PvE activity, dynamic events.
Every zone has a large number of dynamic events that pop up on a regular basis. The player is informed of them via orange symbols on the map, NPC cries, and a pop-up notification that there's an event active in an area. Dynamic events range from simple, repeating one-off activities to major event chains that vary depending on whether the players failed or succeeded at a particular task. Some event chains are actually more interesting if the players fail at some point, and are then tasked with fixing the results of the failure.
Even in the early zones of the game (there are five zones, one per race, at about level 1-15 and four at 15-25 or so) the hearts and dynamic events involve a diverse range of activities. Players will find themselves defeating a huge giant who is rampaging through a town at one moment, then collecting runaway chickens for a rancher the next. This keeps things interesting, especially with the multiple possible ways of completing most hearts.
On top of completing hearts and dynamic events, players are encouraged to explore zones for several reasons. Hidden corners of the world contain treats like tough monsters that guard treasure chests, challenging jumping puzzles that award treasure and achievements, rare dynamic events, "vistas" that reward the player with a sweeping panoramic view of their surroundings, hidden pieces of game lore, and even farms full of rare cooking ingredients. This game is an explorer's dream, and even standing around in town will allow the player to overhear often-hilarious, fully-voiced NPC dialogue.
ArenaNet's focus on co-operative gameplay means that all the game's systems encourage players to work together rather than get in each others' way. Everyone who contributes reasonably to killing a monster gets a reward, crafting resource nodes are individual to a character (nobody can steal anybody else's mine or tree), and dynamic events scale to the number of players in the area. This scaling isn't perfect (and large-group events are not meant to be soloed), but it's improved a fair bit since the beta and generally works pretty well. In general, this kind of design has fostered a nice sense of camaraderie in the player base, and interacting with other players in the world is frequently a positive experience.
Even better for players who want to group with less-experienced friends is the fact that characters are down-leveled to the range of a particular area, but still receive loot scaled to their actual level. This means that high-level characters can adventure with lower-level friends without completely trivializing content, yet can still get worthwhile loot out of the experience. It's a beautiful implementation of "sidekicking" that feels so natural that many players won't even notice it at first.
All these aspects meld together to create a genuinely fun adventuring experience. Jump in solo, run around with friends, go off in any direction you'd like. There's always something to do and something new to discover.
Fight, Fight, Fight
Of course, there's plenty of combat to be had in Guild Wars 2, which takes a traditional hotkey MMORPG and adds a fair bit of action to the mix. Players will need to move around quite a bit in order to succeed in battle, and advanced tactics involve creating combination attacks between characters (or even with yourself).
The eight classes in the game are quite diverse, but none of them fulfill the traditional "holy trinity" role, and most have weapon set choices that involve both melee and ranged possibilities. Fighting at range is generally easier than in melee, but melee is definitely more viable than it was in the betas, and I'm learning how to survive and thrive in melee range with my thief character.
It's not easy to get the full picture of a class at low levels, since elite skills are locked until level 30 and players don't have a large number of trait points to play with. Two classes in particular, the engineer and mesmer, don't come into their own until after level 20, which can make them particularly challenging for new players.
Even at these lower levels, though, the unique flavour of each class is quite evident. Despite the lack of dedicated tank/healer or melee/ranged classes, the classes still feel unique, and each of my five characters plays quite differently.
I generally find combat quite fun, although there are a few frustrating moments. Some areas suffer from too-high respawn rates that make it very easy to pull extra monsters while using mobility-related skills. A few major world bosses are also over-tuned (Metrica Province fire elemental, we're looking at you) and many monsters could use to have more obvious tells before unleashing dangerous attacks. These problems are certainly not intractable, though, and the game's solid combat system feels like one that will stand the test of time.
One of the more unique things about Guild Wars 2 as a MMORPG is the personal story, a series of instanced quests that differ based on choices the player has made during character creation and throughout the game. Personal stories start off centered on the player's race and the local problems it faces. At level 20, things begin to open up, and the player is introduced to the Orders of Tyria, three groups with different approaches toward combating the Elder Dragons that threaten all the races of Tyria.
The stories themselves vary greatly in content and quality. They're at their best when they involve strong characters, a splash of humor, intriguing mysteries, and epic battles. Some storylines involve interesting, tough choices, while others disappoint by forcing the player onto a specific path while offering a choice along that path that hardly seems to matter. With each personal story "chapter" taking place over ten levels, everybody should have a chance to see at least a few stories that really click with them.
In general, the personal stories do a good job of fleshing out the game's world and giving each individual character a feeling of having a place in Tyria. I actually recommend taking a friend along on personal story steps, though. Many of the battles throw a lot of enemies at the player, and the NPC companions the game provides aren't always good at taking the heat. This has improved since beta, but some battles can still be frustrating, especially early on before all classes have strong area-of-effect abilities.
The one area I've encountered that doesn't hold up to the rest of the game's design excellence is the gem shop, in which players use the game's real money-purchased currency, gems. ArenaNet has stocked the shop completely with convenience and vanity items, and to the company's credit, there are a ton of non-gem-related ways to make characters look fabulous.
Still, while there's nothing offensive about the cash shop, there's nothing particularly interesting or innovative about it, either. It looks like any cash shop you've seen, with a few costume items, some experience boots, and random packs of dyes and mini-pets. Probably the most interesting items in the shop are various colorful "finishers" that PvP players can purchase in order to hilariously land the final killing blow on downed enemies. Cow finisher, anybody?
When it's available, the in-game currency Trading Post is far more impressive in terms of design and implementation. The Trading Post is universal, so there is only one overall market for all Guild Wars 2 servers. Players can place buy and sell orders for items, immediately buying or selling something if they find another player's posted offer appealing. That's right, it's not an auction house. There's no bidding here, just mutually agreed-upon monetary exchanges for goods. Refreshing! It looks like ArenaNet is almost at the point of having the Trading Post available on a permanent basis, which will be great news for everyone involved.
The art, music, and animation in Guild Wars 2 is top-notch. Much has been made of the game's painterly style, which looks gorgeous even at lower graphics settings. Most relatively recent rigs should be able to run the game smoothly at medium to high settings. It's not just the technical and artistic excellence that makes the game stand out, though, but the landscape and architecture design. Fans of fantasy art simply cannot miss the chance to explore the world of Guild Wars 2, which is full of breathtaking vistas and impressive small details.
Jeremy Soule's soundtrack is more lyrical than some of his other efforts, which is appreciated. The Sylvari theme song is particularly beautiful. Sound effects are also excellent, although the game is still experiencing occasional volume bugs that cause an effect to play much louder than it should.
I want to give a particular shout-out to ArenaNet's animators, who have done some of the best work I have ever seen in a video game. Go ahead... make your character stand halfway on a fance post or /dance on an uneven ground. The animators have prepared for this. The small details they've added are amazing, from the realistic flight of avian ranger pets to the way the tall grass sways as a character strides through it to the marvelous way every different race of creatures flies through the air after being knocked by a guardian's hammer attack.
The Early Word
Although it adheres to a number of MMORPG traditions, Guild Wars 2 is a breath of fresh air for the genre and represents the next evolution of online worlds. Any gamer who loves to explore massive, well-realized worlds should pick up this game immediately. Tyria is a beautifully modeled, amazingly animated, lore-filled world full of hidden treasures to find.
Top this world with a slew of well-realized classes, a PvE experience that actually has players co-operating with each other, and a combat system that straddles the line between hotkey and action MMOs, and we have a very promising game. Once ArenaNet stabilizes the malfunctioning parts of Guild Wars 2 such as the Trading Post and grouping, it will be fully ready for prime time. Even as it is, the game is an impressive, immersive, community-minded, and fun entry into the MMORPG universe.
I'll be back with a later impression once I've leveled my characters up higher and will discuss the game's dungeons, crafting, and PvP.
All images featured in this article were taken in-game by this article's author. Screens with characters in them were taking during normal gameplay, while scenic pictures were taken during short in-engine cutscenes that the player can view when discovering a vista point.