In the ever-expanding world of massive multiplayer online titles, there are few that try to break the mold of how this type of game works. However, chief among those is the Guild Wars series, which surprised gamers by promising a persistent online world, all without the added costs of a monthly fee involved. Now that the second game has become available to gamers who pre-purchased it (and everyone else, starting on the 28th), it’s time to take a look at Guild Wars 2 and see how it measures up against the competition.
It’s always difficult to really rate an MMORPG; it’s something that takes time, after all. You’re not going to get the definitive experience of the game by just playing it one time and moving on to the next game, and it can take a good amount of time to even get a feel for how the endgame looks. As such, our Guild Wars 2 review is going to take place on a day by day format, where the various ups and downs of the game get reported. So, without further ado, let’s begin!
I started out on the overnight launch of the servers, and immediately plunged in with the Elementalist class; I had played this in the beta, and I wanted to see how it changed and improved since then. Starting off, the game did experience some of the “usual suspects” where MMORPGs are concerned: server lag, slight rubber banding, and buggy features. The biggest example was definitely the trading post, which seemed to have a lot of trouble working consistently at any given time. That said, as it was an optional feature, that wasn’t so much of an issue to deal with throughout the early gameplay (though look for it to be fixed quickly, if ArenaNet wants to impress).
The core mechanics of the game are different than just about any other MMORPG that’s come beforehand: there is no designated tank, DPS, or healer class, as every class has the potential to do some of each (while putting some more focus into one area or another). As an Elementalist, I gained some pretty good kiting techniques for use when I grabbed aggro from an enemy, some powerful damage attacks, and some good healing techniques as well, rounding things out. Skills in Guild Wars 2 are earned through use: by using a specific weapon, or weapon combination, more skills are unlocked. Using a 2-handed staff, I eventually gained access to four elemental school (earth, air, fire, and water), and by killing enemies, I began to unlock all five skills for each school. I also have the option of using a scepter and focus combination, or daggers, or even a trident to unlock different skills; the trident also operates as my under water default weapon, making it important to learn.
Combat involves more than simply running around as well, with active dodges playing an important role in survival. Basic kiting techniques can help you to survive at times, but knowing how and when to execute a dodge can make the difference between survival and defeat. The mechanic here is not quite as versatile and dynamic as what was seen in the newly-released TERA, but it does add some extra strategy to the combat that isn’t seen in many other games. My class has the added advantage of being able to cast every spell on the move, so I don’t have to stop running just to land a powerful attack, and getting used to that will be one of the more important tasks for every player to learn.
In addition to unlocking skills per combat (5 per weapon or combination), players also unlock specialized “trait skills” as they level up. The first one (a self heal) is unlocked at level 1, a second very early on, the third at level 10, then another at level 20 and 30. These skills are different in a very important way in that you spend skill points (earned through play) to purchase them in whatever order of importance you deem necessary. The effects of some skills are varied, including adding debuffs to your attacks, generating powerful area abilities, and more. The level 30 unlocked skill grants access to “elite” skills, such as turning your character into a tornado, or (for those who ordered the deluxe or collectors editions) summoning a pack of wolves to your aid. How you use these skills can determine the difference between life and death, so choosing appropriate combinations is important (and increasingly possible to do wrong, based on your play style).
As far as the game itself goes, there have clearly been some tweaks to the difficulty. I ran into an event enemy early on in the Plains of Ashford that had been an absolute horror during the beta, yet in the live game he had been effectively neutered. Instead of demolishing entire groups of attackers, he failed to kill even a single opponent, so things in the early game have become a bit easier to deal with. The game itself runs beautifully, with great graphics and sound along with a smooth server launch – despite the lag, the server itself remained very stable. This could be in part due to the “realm queue” which appears in each area, if one spot or another is too full, players are placed in overflow realms where there may be fewer players. This helps avoid having players piled up in a specific area, while also reducing lag in any given spot, though even the overflow area can get crowded. This, however, is not unexpected for a new release, as everyone is starting off in the same handful of areas.
After one day, the game itself seems to be off to a strong start; server stability is always the top question when it comes to an online-only title, and the avoidance of an “Error 37″ type of problem is a good indication that ArenaNet was prepared for the vast influx of characters on launch day. Another large influx is guaranteed to happen in a few days when the game goes fully “live”, so time will tell if the stability stays constant. However, for now, Guild Wars 2 is looking like a powerful competitor on the market, with millions of players just waiting to sink their teeth in.
As more play time gets to be put in, I took the time to examine some of the “extra-curricular” experiences available to players during their Guild Wars experience. In addition to tracking the ongoing leveling experience, it’s time to take a look at the world itself, and the way it changes around players.
Every zone features a tried-and-true method of ensuring that those of us who are more obsessive about our gaming are going to be spending time wandering everywhere: map completion points. Each zone contains a mixture of tasks, points of interest, “vistas”, and more that players must visit in order to reach 100% completion of a map. There is a distinct reward for doing so: cash, experience, and powerful items all show up as rewards to those who are willing to put in the time to get them. The most difficult ones tend to be the points of interest, which are sometimes difficult to locate (despite being on the map, the exact path to some can be obscure) and the vistas, which are often found by climbing up strange pathways through the hills.
Another design choice is that of the random events, most of which fill in the gap caused by the lack of the traditional MMORPG quest grind. With the exception of the main storyline quests (which, by the way, are quite interesting), there are no real quests in the traditional sense. Instead, players will encounter tasks (where doing certain things in an area will affect a progress bar, which gives an experience bonus and map completion point at 100%), and occasionally a random occurrence in a specific area. The latter style of event can take a number of different forms: fighting off waves of enemies, looting specific items and returning them to an NPC, escorting a group of friendly NPCs, and more. These events tend to break up the minutiae of “normal activities”, keeping players interested. They also occur fairly often, and can be repeated by players, who receive greater rewards based on their contribution in each event.
In many ways, both of these major features are reminiscent of Rift, though on a generally smaller scale than the style seen in that game. The map completion grind, in many ways, is similar to finding the hidden spots on Rift maps, while the events play out like the small-scale invasions seen in that game. The joyful thing here is that the events themselves are completable on the individual scale, yet players are not punished if they are part of a large pack of players all fighting the same event. Meanwhile, unlike another similar MMORPG Warhammer Online, players don’t have to compete directly with each other to eke out the top reward for a specific event: only your own contribution is noted, and not against the contribution of the other players. Getting a gold rating, as opposed to a bronze, is fairly easy in most cases as long as you are present for long enough.
This gets to the core of what Guild Wars 2 manages to accomplish: many aspects of the game may appear similar to titles that have already hit the market, yet they have been streamlined and refined into a greater form. The mixture of world events, exploration, combat, and storytelling all have aspects that may be comparable, yet combined to form a greater result as a whole. As the game progresses into the mid-level range, there was the risk that the game could become stale, however the game itself begins to evolve the type of situations that the players will encounter to keep things interesting.
With my continued explorations of the world progressing, it was beyond time to take a look at the Player vs. Player systems present in this title. Now, there are two types of PVP: Structured PVP (SPVP) and World vs. World vs. World (WvWvW), a more open and persistent experience. See, since every world has a full alliance of all the races, you can’t really get a World of Warcraft style fight along racial lines going; the solution was to pit each server against two others, and initiate a hard-fought three way battle. More on that in a moment, however.
To begin the experience, I decided to try out the SPVP arenas first; fans of more recent MMORPGs will recognize the “battleground” style format that these use. All players are set to level 80 stats, with all of their skills available, so they can duke it out without having to worry that other players have unlocked more than them. Playing in SPVP earns you glory, which is used to buy new PVP items and such (though most of them appear to simply be reskinned items), and there isn’t much to win or lose in terms of overall game progression. While the SPVP isn’t bad, it suffers from many of the things that made PVP not work in other games, being the more restricted option. Additionally, since many (if not all) of the rewards can only be used in SPVP areas, the incentive to really go out and dominate in those arenas is far smaller than it could have been, which was a bit disappointing.
Guild Wars 2 makes up for this in spades, however, with the WvWvW system, a far more dynamic entry into the PVP gameplay than any game has had since Dark Age of Camelot came out over a decade ago. Combat in that arena becomes far reaching: four large battlefields (one for each of the three servers, and a central battleground) are in constant contention with keeps, towers, supply camps, and a castle all available as capture points. Additionally, players can also capture and control (via certain keeps) three Orbs of Power, which provide strong benefits to their server when owned. The style of these battles is such that single players cannot provide massive benefits, thus players will have to rely on attacks made with large groups to succeed. Beyond their own sets of skills, players can also use siege weaponry to attack and defend throughout the battlegrounds, making controlling a point that much harder.
Control points have a server-wide purpose as well, as a tally is done every few minutes that awards points based on how many areas and orbs are controlled by each side. As these points tally up, each server begins getting several bonuses: better crafting critical chance, more endurance regeneration, better defense against monsters, and so on. For each Orb of Power owned by a server, a 5% bonus to each area is given, making control of them crucial in most cases. This gives the WvWvW PVP some uses on live servers (although the stats and scores reset every so often), but there are some definite drawbacks, in that ArenaNet does not seem to have grouped all of the servers together by their particular region. For instance, on my server, we have two North American servers (Eastern Time Zone), and one Oceanic server. The Oceanic server has a large western population, so they hold their own during the day, but while our servers are asleep, their prime time is in full swing; the end result is that their server takes 100% of the capture points every night, and receives so many bonuses in that time that they become nearly unbeatable (boasting around 20% more health and better healing).
This, more than anything, is the biggest downfall to the WvWvW system; the classes are exactly the same, so balance issues there are cast into the background, but the advantages given to the server on the “off” time zone allow them to utterly dominate at this time. Sadly, without a rearrangement of server groupings done by ArenaNet, it will continue to be a massive problem, though having servers ally with one another to try and dominate over the winner may result in a reversal of their fortunes. The problem there is that, even allied, each of the other sides would likely end up splitting points, then losing them all over again at night, ending up with fewer points in the long run. Overall, the PVP experience in WvWvW is extremely fun, and fans of Dark Age of Camelot will feel a very similar structure to the environment in the way those border areas are set up, which is a massive compliment. It simply needs some tweaks to put each server in a similar time zone, so that each of them has an equal chance of winning.
A few days have passed, and it’s time for another update with some new impressions. I will admit to a weakness that I have: the halfway point of leveling up is always one of the most troublesome to me during an MMORPG. For some reason, the grind always seems worst at that middle point (level 40, in this case), so it felt pertinent to describe how this game felt at that time. The largest culprit when it comes to this difficulty is that the leveling has begun to slow down noticeably, though not to such a degree that the game feels like it’s going to be stagnating. Where it is most noticeable is the story quests, which often will jump 2-3 levels higher with each successive step; unlike other, similar titles, the quests are there more as an interruption to the exploration, PVP, and event style of the game. This means I may go a day or more without actually playing through a story quest, merely so I can level up multiple times, and complete them all in one go.
In a way, I both like and dislike the system; it does allow me to grow my character at my own pace, but the downside is that it tends to fragment the story too much at times, and I don’t always remember every detail about the last quest step after a break. However, the main story does have a habit into feeding players into new levels, which opens up the perfect excuse to engage in completing another map and exploring everywhere. This, in turn, is usually worth at least a level or two. Players can also supplement their progress by stopping to craft with all of the materials they’ve amassed. The “discovery” system of crafting allows players to craft the basic parts, then combine them to learn the actual recipes, each of which grants a massive amount of experience the first time it’s made.
Then, of course, there is the WvWvW system, which has improved itself in my eyes the most over the past few days. Previously, it was noted that servers had a chance to be matched up against other servers that were not part of their time zone (North American vs. European or Oceanic, for instance), which resulted in heavy imbalances. Thankfully, due to a ladder system of sorts, servers are shuffled to be placed against other servers that had ranked similarly over time. The first such switch for my server resulted in us keeping one of our former opponents, but gaining a second enemy that was part of our time zone, resulting in an infinitely more balanced playing field. That alone has raised the bar for how PVP can be done in a game of this type, and Guild Wars 2 has the perfect, ongoing, ever-changing system for keeping players interested who enjoy that sort of thing. It’s not perfect though…our second server switch put us right back against an overseas server, with the same results as before.
As I play through this game more and more, I find myself continually comparing it to other titles…but only when I recall how much better ArenaNet accomplished the gameplay this time around. The combination of a persistent PVP arena, complete with massive battles and conquerable areas, along with the richly detailed world was good enough, but throwing in the story quests and an utterly unique class system into the mix changed things up. There are some things that I wished could have been done here and there that would have improved the game, but to ask for such things above and beyond what Guild Wars 2 has already done seems greedy and frivolous. The important thing here is that the game is just plain good, and with the lack of any subscription fee, it also allows casual players to enjoy the game at their own pace without feeling like they are wasting money each month.
For fans of MMORPG type games, there are not many reasons I could list for you not to pick up this title: the gameplay is strong with a lot of unique touches that differentiate it from other games. Each area feels natural as you progress through, searching through zones to find every nook, cranny, and vista. Even the crafting takes a format similar to what can be found in other titles, but speeds it up and makes the leveling system far easier (for those who do it right). The only problem I can find with the game is that it’s too hard to get bored, and I find myself playing it far longer than I probably should without taking a break.
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