You've already read Richard's experiences with the recent Guild Wars 2 beta. There's much more to say about it though, so here are ten specific things that caught his eye while playing - some big, some small, but all slightly different from the MMO norm.
1. The Elementalist Who Ran Away With The Circus
This is easily the strangest choice I've ever made in MMO character customisation. Every race offers the standard options as far as height, build, face and colours go, but you also have to choose some personality elements. Each race has different ones. The Charr for instance are split into Legions, and you get to choose which one you're in, as well as who your sparring partner is. For Humans, one of your choices is your biggest regret. This can be that you never knew your parents. It can be that you never recovered your sister's body after centaur attack...
...or it can be that you once had the opportunity to perform in the circus, but didn't. I'm not entirely sure that this fits with a Human Noble's general background, but never mind.
All three are obviously Chekhov's Gun plot points for the Personal Story to pick up on, but it was great to see the circus one at least introduced very early. There's bad, brainwashing things afoot behind the big top, and my Elementalist proved squealingly excited at the chance to go undercover. The investigation covers several levels, but proved to offer a fun change from Guild Wars 2's occasionally funny, but generally po-faced approach to high fantasy. Early on, you get to watch some acts, performed... well... exactly as you'd expect for an MMO engine, really. Later, you get quest objectives like making a clown laugh by piecing together a 'A norn, a human and a charr went into a bar' joke via a dialogue tree. Moments like these are what promises to make the Personal Story a bit different from the norm, and while the Circus option was easily the most outlandish of the choices I saw in beta, it's one that made me smile a lot.
(Not however as much as one throwaway quest in the main world, where you have to play three card monte with two chicken-like monsters and a guy who turns into one. This would be much harder in a world without the ability to just click on the guy and target him. Oops.)
2. A Cold Shoulder For The Norn
I absolutely loved my time as a Human, but I heard rumblings from people on my IM list - and subsequently saw in other previews - that not everyone was having as good a time. One common factor seemed to be that people who were underwhelmed seemed to be playing as Norns - a race of warrior types. Maybe that's down to personality; that if you choose the Norn, you're someone with no sense of fun. Alternatively, maybe they're just not much fun.
My own experience with them was limited, largely for that reason. As a Human, you're thrust into an exciting, if very traditional fantasy world - fighting against squads of centaurs, with a huge complicated city. As a Norn, you start off just smacking things and then move to a capital city that, while absolutely fine, didn't capture my interest as much as the human faction's. Like the Charr, the other playable race, their character options lean towards less immediately emotive things than the humans' social choices and regrets, and that could well have an impact. It might also be the nature of their early quests - where Humans start out heroically defending a village, Norns spend their first moments in the game running through a largely empty snowfield in search of specific monsters, before having a much less interesting first boss fight.
There's every chance that the Norn are awesome, and I'm certainly not saying they're bad. Anecdotally though, there definitely seemed to be a correlation between the people picking them, and the people I saw grumbling during and after the beta weekend. YMMV, as they say.
3. It's So Big! (Can I Touch It?)
Guild Wars 2 looks beautiful. Its art direction is amazing. Its locations - while very stock fantasy in origin - are great. What really impresses though is its scale. The human city of Divinity's Reach may not take up a vast amount of space in pure square-foot terms, but it does an amazing job of faking it. The districts feel big and (by MMO standards) bustling, especially your instanced Home part of it. The walls and homes and decorations tower above you, making it easy to imagine thousands of people living and breathing behind the scenes.
The most impressive bit though is when you climb high above it to the palace in the middle - a lush, beautifully designed area in itself - and glance up. Hovering above the whole city is a gigantic orrery with massive celestial bodies in constant motion. Nobody would have noticed if it wasn't there, but it is, and like so much here, it looks absolutely stunning.
The scale is just as impressive wherever you go in the opening areas and capital cities, yet without ever seeming stretched out and padded. There are cliffs, and huge lakes, and sweeping panoramic views everywhere. This is a world you'll want to explore in great detail, especially knowing that there are secret areas and hidden skill points and all manner of other stuff tucked away off the beaten track specifically to be discovered instead of pointed to.
For the five minutes it takes to get everything onto a wiki, anyway.
4. A Whole World of PvP
I'm not much of a PvP player, mostly because I tend to roll mages and mages usually last fractions of a second in the average skirmish. But! I do love how Guild Wars 2 handles it. Essentially, there are two modes. The first is regular PvP, which is round-based and involves a couple of teams fighting it out more or less as you'd expect. There are some unique elements, like maps having monsters to kill for bonuses, but otherwise it seems fairly traditional.
Except for one thing. You can start playing immediately. Guild Wars 2 doesn't just give you a full levelled character, it gives you a full set of class-appropriate PvP equipment. Aside from letting you feel awesome immediately, it means you don't have to kill a single post-tutorial mob if you don't want to, and you'll still be competitive. That's pretty darn neat if you ask me.
The really innovative bit though is World vs World vs World PvP. This takes place in a whole alternate world - not as big as the main one, but still jaw-droppingly huge - and features three whole servers battling it out in rounds that last a week each. You're scaled up to Level 80 for this one too, though don't get the fancy new gear, and can just as well develop your character here as in the main game. There are siege mechanics, battles over key points, monsters out in the wilds and more... and as a really nice touch, success here also bleeds into the main PvE game. If your server's PvPers do well, everyone gets bonuses like a 1% experience boost. Nice.
5. The Music Is Really, Really Bland
That's it, really. I don't just mean that I can't remember it. I mean that while playing, I occasionally became aware of just how boring it was. Hopefully the final game will have some more blood-pumping combat and exploration themes on its side, because after a while I ended up just playing some Skyrim and World of Warcraft music over the top.
(Update: Yes. Yes, I know who the composer is. I just didn't have any other fantasy soundtracks to hand, and trying to have epic fireball battles to some Jesper Kyd or Avenue Q or something didn't seem entirely appropriate. I apologise for my music library being Weak.)
6. Weapons Are Bundles Of Fun...
One of Guild Wars 2's coolest features is that all your weapon skills are embedded into the weapons themselves. A Staff for instance has different attacks to a Dagger, whether you're casting spells or hitting people with it. You'll find lots of other items scattered around the world too, which you can pick up and use appropriately. A bomb might be Planted or Thrown. A bottle can be used to hit someone over the head. In most cases that I saw, there's no real reason to actually grab a length of 2x4 for combat when you already have the ability to SET PEOPLE ON FIRE WITH YOUR MIND, but it promises some fun options later on.
(For weapons, skills have to be unlocked. The good news is that this is done very quickly by simply using previous attacks the weapon offers a few times; the idea obviously being that you at least see them in action, even if you never choose to use them again.)
7. ...But Not As Much As Magic
I already raved about how badass my Elementalist was, but what I didn't mention is how unusual many of the spells are. Take Meteor Storm. At first glance, it's your average AoE attack. Cast it and you get a big targeting circle on the ground. A couple of seconds later, huge rocks smash down to give anyone underneath a very bad day. So far, so regular-magey.
Except for two minor tweaks. First, every meteor is treated as its own projectile, meaning that it's quite possible for someone to be standing in the (wide) target zone and not actually get whacked. Second, while the spell starts off being channelled, like a Blizzard or similar over on WoW, you're cut loose before it ends to continue piling stuff into the mix. That makes for much faster paced, more active combat for mages.
Other classes have equally interesting mechanics, though I only had time to look at a couple. The Mesmer for instance creates clones to fight for them, which can be sacrificed or converted into instant attack damage with assorted debuffs. They also get a really cool ability where they create a clone of themselves at the target, but with the choice of whether to swap places with it or not, keeping even an experienced opponent on their toes during the fight.
I really want to play more with this game's mages.
8. Skill Points Are Skill
Guild Wars doesn't use standard talent trees. Instead, you acquire skill points and spend them on specific talents that you want, be they a new Healing spell or something more interesting, like summoning a giant flaming axe. They're broken into tiers that unlock between 5 and 30, but otherwise you can buy whatever you like. Get lots of little ones. Get a couple of big ones. It's your choice, and that will hopefully lessen (though obviously not remove, as there will be better builds) the obsession many MMO players have with theorycrafting.
You get one skill point per level, but many more are scattered around the map as challenges. These can be anything from getting to a certain place to fighting a particular NPC to praying at a certain shrine. This gives you something to do when you're bored of the regular questing grind, and act as a fun change of pace. It's a really clever system. One of many.
9. Mapping The World
Speaking of clever systems, there's the map. Guild Wars 2 does a great job of highlighting tasks and skill challenges for you, with the majority highlighted by talking to a Scout and having them put markers down where a hero's services are needed. You're also told exactly how many tasks and challenges and other things are there to be found, so you know when you can consider an area finished and move on to something else. It works really, really well, while still allowing for lots of secrets to be scattered around the place for you to find on your own.
10. I Hope Events Get Less Messy
The one downside of Guild Wars 2's "Everybody Pile In" approach to questing is that with all the pyrotechnics and people just running around, it's impossible to see what the hell is going on most of the time, never mind play with tactics. That's great for starting things off with a bang, but I do hope there are some more strategic battles and encounters later on that we can simply walk into, but that will challenge more than just our ability to mash attack buttons. That said, a beta weekend where everyone starts at the same level is obviously going to be much more chaotic than the actual launch game, so it's very likely that things will be a lot calmer post-release.