Guild Wars 2 isn't just the next big MMO on the horizon. It's the one everyone seems to be pinning their hopes on to reinvent the genre and finally kick World of Warcraft off its high perch. But is it really the RPG you're looking for? We sent Richard to Tyria to find out.
Let me tell you what would have happened to you, had you been a monster in my Elementalist's way at a certain point during the Guild Wars 2 beta weekend. First, you'd look up to see a giant dragon's tooth materialise over your head and come smashing down. Lava would explode from under your feet. As you pat down your burning clothes, a screaming phoenix flies through the air into your face, backed up with fireballs that fill the world with pain and fury. Or maybe some ice. Lightning, perhaps. But mostly fire - hard and fast and hotter than Hell.
Got that? Have it all pictured in your mind? Good. Here's the important bit.
That Elementalist who just kicked your arse was only Level 3.
In an epic genre of sword and sorcery, myth and monsters, it says something about Guild Wars 2 that what most stood out about my weekend in it was how refreshing it was to not be drowned in MMO bullshit. I won't say it's a perfect online RPG, but I can't remember the last time I played one that felt like it had gone so far out of its way to challenge the rules that so many others just parrot as a matter of course, or to treat its players with respect instead of as smelly walking subscriptions that must be bled slowly over a matter of months and years.
(Not least of course because there won't be a subscription fee...)
Being awesome from the start, give or take a quick tutorial, was just the beginning. As a Guild Wars 2 Elementalist, you're constantly firing off huge spells from whichever element you want. There's no mana bar to slow you down, only each individual spell's cooldowns - and they're incredibly short. Lightning surge from your fingertips? 10 seconds. Drop huge flaming meteors from the sky? 40 seconds. Your basic elemental attacks would be a 'proper' skill in most other MMOs, and you have four of them depending on what you're attuned to. Many skills alter as a result of this attunement, which you can change whenever you want, including in battle. Just for fun, even the very act of swapping this does something, like a flame blast, seismic wave, or healing splash of water. I don't know if everyone gets it so good, but I can say this: I have never played a more badass mage in an MMO. And I have played many, many mages.
Oh, and later on, I learned the best escaping spell ever. It consists of rolling backwards, leaving a trail of blazing fire in your wake. You're basically pooping defiance.
Even the smallest details are usually innovative. For starters, every class gets a healing spell appropriate to their class. For my Elementalist, the default throws in a free buff depending on your current attunement. By comparison, a Necromancer (another class I tried briefly, but which didn't have the same 'kill stuff with fire' oomph) gets to summon a pet and sacrifice them mid-combat. When you're defeated, you don't simply die. You're knocked to the ground in what's called "Fight For Life", where you get to try and hold on with a whole new set of attacks. It's the same as being downed in Left 4 Dead, only with class-appropriate skills instead of just a pistol. My Elementalist for instance had a couple of weak attacks, but also the ability to shift into gaseous form for a few seconds and get out of the immediate combat zone to somewhere where she could be revived in safety. The Necro could try and Fear attackers and suck the life out of them to stay alive until someone else could break off combat and pull him back up on his feet. Any player can revive anybody too - it's not just a job for support classes any more.
Time after time, Guild Wars 2 impressed me with just how carefully... no, how smartly everything has been thought out. Those things that annoy us in other games are simply banished here. There are no taxis, for example. As you wander around, you unlock waypoints. To travel to one, you just open your world map, pay a nominal fee and teleport to it. There are no cool downs on this ability, and no restriction except that you can't be in combat at the time. Is it more gamey/less immersive than flying across the world on a griffin? Yep, but it's also a hell of a lot faster! And it gets better. The Human capital city of Divinity's Reach.... a place which takes about three minutes to run round in a big circle... has no fewer than seven of these Waypoints.
Sniff. So beautiful. After The Old Republic and its love of flat-out wasting your goddamned time, it's enough to make you fall on the designers and hug them until they burst.
Where Guild Wars 2 really heads into new territory though is with its quest design - or be exact, its lack of quests. There are some, along with dungeons (sadly, most sealed over the weekend, so I haven't seen any myself), but most of your time is spent bouncing more organically around the map and completing two main flavours of activity: Tasks and Events.
Tasks, at least in the early stages of the game, can be thought of like this: you're not so much doing heroic quests as stopping off at places like a farmhouse or a guard post on your travels to see if there's anything they need doing. In the case of a farm, they might say "Sure. I need some potatoes picked, there are giant worms burrowing through my main field, and the cow needs milking." A guard post might be having trouble with some bandits nearby. A fortress might need some weapons recovered, along with the heads of any centaurs you happen to murder.
What separates these from regular MMO quests is that it doesn't matter what you do, as long as you help. Each area has its requests, and you just pitch in along with anyone else who happens to be around. Everything adds a blip to a bar, and when that bar is full, you're done.
This makes a massive difference. You never have to worry about kill-stealing, because Guild Wars 2 happily shares the credit with anyone who helped. You never find yourself standing around waiting for a particular item to respawn because there's always (at least so far) another two things you could be doing instead. In a really clever touch - number 176c on my ever-growing list - while technically your reward for this is a bit of XP and the ability to buy things from the person you just worked for, the currency for these exchanges is karma rather than money. The difference may seem academic, but helps subtly push the idea that you're not buying that slice of pie from an ungrateful farmer's wife, but simply cashing in a favour. They even send you a polite thank-you note for taking the time the time to help them out. How civilised.
(As a side bonus, narratively speaking this also means that the quests you do are for purely altruistic reasons rather than being set up as exchanges per se. You never for instance end in the usual stupid MMO situation of being asked to risk life and limb as a direct swap for a glass of juice, melon bread, and a piece of armour your class can't even bloody equip...)
Not all the Tasks on offer involve are so simple, and there are some fun ones. The exciting stuff though is found in Events, which spring up all the time. That farm you're helping on might be attacked by bandits for instance, with everyone downing tools to fight them off and put out fires. Alternatively, you might leave a town to see a caravan departing and join its escort detail, or bump into a boss monster out in the woods, or be standing in the middle of a monastery when an elder god bursts out of the local swamp and opens portals to hell all around you. New events in your area are flagged up on the map so that you know they're happening, and occasionally you even get NPCs running over to specifically tell you about something going down.
Taking part in Events is as simple as walking into the area and doing your part, with the rewards at the end based on your contribution. You don't need to sign up or join a group, though having lots of bored people around makes the end of an event a great time to say "Hey, who's up for a dungeon run?" Early on at least, they're messy, messy affairs with no real co-ordination needed, but they do mean that absolutely anyone - even a shy mage like myself - can enjoy group play without the pressure of dungeons or raids, and on their own schedule.
There is however a catch to this.
Put simply, it's beyond imperative that Guild Wars 2 maintains a good flow of people through all of its areas, because very, very little of what I've seen would be fun if it was just you and a few NPCs. There are some fun Tasks, but mostly they're chores - literally - at least early on, only really made interesting by their brevity and a certain amount of communal spirit as everyone runs around helping out, reviving each other, and generally being around.
Likewise, Events are for groups and will die without them. Many rely on having lots of sound and fury, and even the simpler ones on having lots of stuff going on. An assault on a vineyard for instance means players silently splitting up into teams, one to harvest grapes and one to beat back the enemy. It's simple, but works. Should the levels become as desolate as they do in most MMOs... and especially factoring in that there are five races and everyone can teleport around on a whim... well, ask Warhammer: Age of Reckoning how a quiet world works out.
Obviously, there's no way in hell that ArenaNet hasn't factored this into its plans, but it's still by far the biggest potential Achilles heel that I saw during my time in the beta.
Conversely, the strangest thing was the Personal Story that follows your character through the levels. It's based on your race rather than your class, with multiple variations depending on decisions made in character creation. My first Human character for instance was a noble, so hers kicked off with a lavish party to celebrate her heroics during
the tutorial the siege of a small village. Restarting as a lowly street-rat, the opening took place in the same district, but a much seedier part of it - returning to threats from a local low-life, before being pressed into an undercover mission on behalf of the local cops. There's a third branch too which I didn't try, between those two, where you start as a commoner who works at a tavern.
And you know what it's like? It's like playing an episodic Dragon Age 2.
No, really. New parts of the quest come every few levels (to be exact, you always know what's next and can try your hand whenever you like, but you're probably going to need to do other stuff before you're tough enough to face it). Each takes place in an instanced area, and they play out like sections of a single-player game, complete with cut-scenes, character dialogue, branching points where you get to pick things like whether to investigate a corrupt minister by going to his house or catching up on gossip at a party. Most involve combat at least part of the time, but at least a handful are purely about talking to NPCs or checking something out. There are even personality stats depending on how much you rely on ferocity, dignity or charm. I don't remember seeing any stat-checks, but I'm assuming they come into play at some point.
Once again, I repeat, I've only seen a tiny fraction of the game. As a Human Noble though, I've found Guild Wars 2 a much better fusion of single-player focused narrative and MMO than The Old Republic. TOR offers cooler premises - being an Imperial Agent has far more clout than just being another orphan or whatever - but this is much more like an actual RPG.
It won't however be one to everyone's taste. For starters, not everyone is going to like that their character has a specific background (right down to specific friends and rivals who show up to help or chat and take an active part in the story) from before the game began, or that you don't usually get a choice in how your character responds in important plot conversations. Still, as far as I can tell, you don't have to play it at all if you'd rather focus on levelling through events, dungeons, PvP or the other activities on offer throughout the huge, huge world.
All of this isn't simply scratching the surface of Guild Wars 2 - it's only scratching the surface of a weekend spent scratching away at it. I'll be honest, I went into the beta feeling fairly flat about the whole thing. I was sure it was going to be good - very good, even - but it just looked like Another Fantasy MMO. It's been a long time since one of those excited me. A couple of hours in, I was buzzing over it. Now that the beta weekend is over, I cannot wait to play more.
Check back later this week for a special rundown on some of the weekend's cleverest and most interesting discoveries, including a look at PvP, more dispatches from the War Against Idiotic MMO Bullshit, one of the strangest character creation decisions I've ever made... and maybe a few little complaints so that all this positivity doesn't make it look like I've gone soft.
Guild Wars 2 is currently in closed beta, preparing for release later this year. No specific date has been announced, and while the code seemed in good shape over the weekend, more than a few bits of content were missing or replaced with placeholders, so it's going to be a while yet. You'll be able to pre-purchase it as of April 10th though, which buys you access to all future beta weekends and some random gubbins for between $60 and $150.