Release Date: August 28th
Retail: $59.99 (PC)
Platform played on for review: I beat the game on PC
It seems like releasing an MMO these days is almost like asking to be ignored. At best a developer will be praised by critics and see a sharp spike in server populations before an equally sharp drop-off as everyone gets reabsorbed into one of the larger titles. At worst you’ll go free to play in the first six months while desperately trying keep your business together. Either way people are going to reference the elephant in the room: why would I play this game over WoW? Even as the old beast is starting to show it’s age, few titles have ever really stood a chance against its massive user base and pop culture ubiquity. You’d think with so many companies pouring millions of dollars into the genre that there would at least be something that could be improved on. It’s not like there’s a shortage of things to complain about. Many people dislike the idea of grinding in order to stand a chance in PvP, the subscription model is off-putting to many would be customers, and the degree to which the game revolves around long cooldowns and contrived timesinks is absurd. So where does Guild Wars 2 fit into this?
If ArenaNet is anything, they’re a company that knows the business of MMOs. They’ve played a careful waiting game with Guild Wars 2 (allowing their competitors to make mistakes for them) and it clearly shows. While it would be a stretch to call anything in Guild Wars 2 revolutionary, the level of refinement in the core elements of the game is apparent within the first few hours of gameplay. Unfortunately the surface of Guild Wars 2 still carries the feel of its predecessors.
After a character creation menu that is only slightly more involved than your average MMO, you’re dumped into a fairly predictable selection of starting areas. Once you make it to your race’s capital, though, you’re free to enter any of the other starting realms for the purposes of grouping or exploration. In fact, you’re free to play any content that is at your level or lower since the game scales your stats to provide some degree of challenge for most areas. The system isn’t perfect as higher level characters have a wider range of abilities at their disposal and thus an easier time in the low level areas but it’s still a good way to keep friends playing together when that one jerk you know decides to power-level ahead of the group.
Questing is definitely a bit more engaging than most MMOs. While quests are still tied to specific NPCs, your character will pick up the assignment the moment they enter the relevant zone. You don’t even have to return to said NPC when you’ve finished; you’ll get the experience automatically when you’ve finished and gold/rewards will be mailed to you. The quests themselves are an interesting step forward as well. ArenaNet has decided to essentially collapse every generic MMO quest into broader objectives that can be approached in different ways. When your job is to ensure the prosperity of a mining camp, you could do so by disarming traps in the wilderness, killing mobs, reviving fallen NPCs, etc. In addition to personal quests, there are group events that trigger at regular intervals in the game world. These are generally geared around downing a powerful mob or fighting off a large horde, but these are hardly the only group objectives. Much like solo questing, players are given experience and rewards (based off of their overall contributions to the objectives) the moment the event is finished. It’s an interesting choice for a game considering that drastically reduces the amount of time needed for questing. Of course since Guild Wars 2 doesn’t use a subscription model I suppose ArenaNet is hardly interested in tacking on time sinks.
This overall philosophy of reducing dead time is present through out the game but is most obvious in structured PvP. From the very beginning of Guild Wars 2, players are allowed to enter objective-based multiplayer at max level with top-tier gear. No amount of grinding can place a player at an advantage in terms of stats or equipment in structured PvP and honestly that’s how it should be. Instead of rewarding players who commit themselves to a routine of raiding and questing, Guild Wars 2 places emphasis on PvP skill and game sense. You would think that this would ultimately leave structured PvP too simple but there is a staggering level of customization when you factor in different skill builds, items, runes, etc. Successful players are rewarded with cosmetic items instead of upgrades. If this isn’t your cup of tea, you can always play World vs. World PvP where your characters gear and progress in the persistent world make a much stronger impact. World vs. World plays out much more like the large battlegrounds in WoW but with much higher player caps and a much larger map. While many players might get off on taking advantage of gear discrepancies, the entire experience feels a bit too chaotic for me. The game really shines in smaller engagements with coordinated players and up-scaling that same formula seems to magnify what are otherwise minor issues with balance. This may be resolved as the player base grows and becomes more familiar with the title but for right now it feels very disorganized.
So, overall the gameplay is decent but what about the presentation its wrapped in? In addition to the general quests you’ll accrue as you travel through Tyria, there is a personal storyline that carries you through the first half of the game that is based around decisions made in character creation. From what I’ve played so far, the personal storylines can range from some above average fantasy writing to painfully clunky. During the Norn campaign, for instance, I was treated to a debriefing after me and several scholars defended a priory from a dredge attack. After the head scholar briefly recounted the events I had just experienced, I was told to meet him in the capitol city whereupon my character explained to the head scholar exactly what had just happened at the priory. I’m fine with bad writing for MMO’s but if you’re going to put so much effort into making a compelling single-player experience you could at least get rid of ridiculous redundancies like this. There are a few bright spots in the story, but overall I get the sense that the writers put far more effort into the game world rather than the characters in it. It’s a shame really, because given the dynamic nature of solo and group questing, this could have made Guild Wars stand pretty strongly as even a single player title.
A great deal has also gone into the art design of the game. While the primary inspiration for Guild Wars 2 is a fairly generic high fantasy world, the quality of the environments is undeniable. The artists hit all the right beats in the landscapes without seeming too cliche’d. The humans reside in a land of rolling hills and ostentatious castles, Norn players basically get to play a less detailed but more stylized Skyrim, the Charr play through the shattered steppes and plains that surround their steampunkish capitol, the Sylvari hail from your run-of-the-mill psychedelic forest, and the Asura live in a technological wonder-cube in the jungle. The level of detail is pretty impressive until you get into any of the major cities where much of the geometry is simplified for the sake of performance. In addition to the strong showing in the visual department, Jeremy Soule lends his usual magic to the game. It’s always a pleasure to play games he’s scored simply because he almost never phones it in. Soule’s choice to employ memorable themes and elaborate orchestration really sells the high fantasy setting. There’s something refreshing about the big production of it all when the world is full of soundtracks based around ambiguous minimalism, uninspired synth noise, and lazy post-rock.
Overall I would say that I’ve enjoyed my time in Guild Wars 2. As someone who rarely gets caught up in MMO’s, I really appreciate all of the effort that has gone into streamlining the entire experience. It’s really great that I can jump into a friend’s party even if I’ve out-leveled them or go straight to PvP without having to worry about endless grinding for items. By drastically cutting down on time sinks, ArenaNet has essentially decided that instead of making a traditional MMO, they’re going to try to replace most of the games in your library. If only the game wasn’t shackled by the constraints of being an MMO – Even with the great presentation and the strong flow of gameplay, it’s still a skill bar based game. Melee hits never truly connect, you’re often at the mercy of random number generators, and PvP throws far too much information at you at once. If you absolutely can’t stand the mechanics of MMO’s, this game is probably not going to change your mind. If you’re willing to try it though, there’s a lot about this game that makes it worth playing.