This weekend sees the final Guild Wars 2 Beta Weekend, with the big addition of its two remaining races - the ingenious gnome-like Asura, and the flowery Sylvari. You'll be able to play as either... or indeed both, if you like... but what can you expect from the trip? ArenaNet gave me early access to the Sylvari starting area to check out Levels 1-15 in detail.
Will there be awful botanical puns? I suspect we may be facing arborgeddon.
Who are the Sylvari? Thankfully, not quite the hippie themselves-huggers you might expect - though of course, there is a more organic element to their civilisation than the other races. Choose one, and after a tutorial in a dream world plagued by nightmare, you're spat-out into the world fully grown and naked aside from a few strategically placed leaves. Pausing only to get dressed, it's then off into the main world to help vanquish evil on a "Wyld Hunt".
If the sight of those words makes you air-guitar, congratulations. You are Old.
Visually, Sylvari are a cool race - essentially green humans, with a couple of other colours available, and some nice touches. Their hairstyles are made of leaves and petals for instance, while their underwear avoids the bras and underpants of other races in favour of more curled up leaves, because nudity is apparently against nature now. This does however beg some questions, not least how Sylvari poop if they have a big leaf grafted over their anuses. I guess this is one of those things we're not supposed to wonder about too much...
Ah. The art shift. I should explain. While I was given full access to the Sylvari, taking screenshots was prohibited. I'm not sure why, but rules are rules, and there are only a couple of press snaps of them available, so that's as close as I can get to showing you their society. Sorry.
It's weird though, and unfortunate, as Guild Wars 2 has absolutely nothing to be worried about in that department. Throw a rock anywhere in this world and - as well as probably aggroing some zombie who'll try to eat your face - you're going to hit something pretty. The Sylvari area is no exception, from a literally blooming lovely dreamworld opening to the lush terrain around their racial city, The Grove. It's a place of huge fields, layers of fireflies, floating boulders flicking invisible V-signs at the laws of physics, lakes to cross on over-sized lily pads, giant plant bulbs carved into shops and lots more on the theme of 'cool organic stuff'.
It's also a surprisingly welcoming place. Where you'd expect the Sylvari to be elf types, complete with endless arrogance and racial superiority, in practice they're a friendly bunch. Wandering around the Grove you'll see them happily chatting with Charr and discussing their plans to go check out other civilisations. Their leader, The Pale Tree, gladly receives visitors. I didn't even have to sit through a single lecture about the importance of nature, or any hippie crap. They may be jade, but they're not jaded. Or even green with envy, from what I could tell.
Instead, their main concerns are a splinter group of Sylvari called The Nightmare Court, who favour torture and psychological breakdown instead of polite political debate, along with the pesky undead. You spend most of the starting area bouncing between those, along with - sigh - the occasional giant spider cave, and mention of a big evil dragon in need of the old one-two. The people you meet are also a pretty varied bunch, from a few serene types to warriors and daffy researchers. One of them does use the word 'Pollen!' as an expletive, but I guess that's forgivable. They may be a fixed culture, but it's one with plenty of scope for roleplaying.
Early questing is typical Guild Wars 2 - I've already covered the basics, so I won't go into it all again. In a nutshell, you don't really do 'quests', but wander into areas where stuff needs to be done, or take part in events that spring up around you. Many are standard MMO fare, like beating up an elite monster, while others are longer, like defending or capturing a particular town from assorted nasties. It's a really cool system that makes every other MMO feel utterly static, and turns group play into a simple matter of leaping in and hitting some stuff, with no worries about kill-stealing or any of the usual nonsense. Great system. Love it immensely. Even simple events like stopping waves of termites from attacking a tree are made so much more fun when you have twenty green people smashing them over the head with breakable shovels.
With Guild Wars 2, you're also thrown into cool stuff right from the start - being transformed into a dog to help protect the Sylvari hounds, raiding underwater villages to recapture prisoners, an almost tower-defense type system involving plants that turn into turrets and lots of other fun bits and pieces that either give you something cool to do, or at least make it entertaining.
Something I hadn't seen previously are the new landscape markers - Vistas. These are scattered around the map in variously difficult to reach places, unlocking sweeping cinematic views of the area. To turn these into a bonus shows a justified confidence in Guild Wars 2's looks - even if it does feel like the musical accompaniment should be the art team singing:
Gaze upon! Look upon!
Stare at all our ****ing work!
It took so long!
So heed our song!
Don't be an ungrateful jerk!
Probably my favourite bit in the first area though is a bit where you don a disguise to infiltrate and sap the Nightmare Court's efficiency. Mechanically, it's not that exciting - there's no stealth element or anything - but the wrapping makes it work. You've got the obvious sabotage of distracting guards so prisoners can escape. You've also got the adorable version; petting and befriending "Nightmare Pups" (whose attack description simply say "Doesn't Know Any Better") until hearts pour out and it starts wagging its tail. Aw. It's enough to make even the most jaded Sylvari hero feel all warm. Hmm. Unless that's just a misplaced Lava Flow...
Having successfully managed to not burn down Hometree on behalf of Major Quarith, my Sylvari Elementalist's main quest - which like all races offers several narrative choices at character creation - involved an immortal green knight called Bercilak. As a mythology geek, this immediately caught my attention - Bercilak being a name of another green knight; specifically the one that Sir Gawain fought in the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.
In that story, or at least the regular version, he shows up with an unusual challenge for King Arthur and his knights - that any of them may strike him with an axe, on condition that in a year's time, he gets to return the favour. Gawain accepts, chopping his head off and claiming victory in what seems like the world's most one-sided duel. At least until the knight casually puts his head back on and says, in slightly more erudite language, "See you next year, sucker."
There are variations of the story, but the core of it is about honour - Gawain willingly facing certain doom and proving himself worthy, give or take a girdle from what turns out to be the guy's wife, resulting in the Green Knight sparing him, give or take a painful clonk.
The Sylvari area already has a few shout-outs to Arthurian mythology, so this seemed like an interesting set-up. Would this be some secret test of character? Would Guild Wars 2 subvert the entire concept of MMO combat and levelling and survival of the clickiest in favour of something different, like a battle won through submission and accepting a deeper moral lesson?
Nah, turns out he's just a horny douchebag with magic armour that makes him immortal. You sabotage that through guile and trickery - in my case by persuading a girl he has a thing for to make him take his helmet off for a kiss, thus nullifying the magic, and effortlessly kicking his arse in one-on-one combat. Won't lie. Just a teeny-tiny bit of a letdown there...
Let's compensate by handing back to some actual artists to see us out.
The actual story as told though is fine, with some interesting details - the opening battle with Bercilak for instance, where you kill him three times in a row while the game itself calls him out for cheating, or his target being one of two male Sylvari who casually describe each other as "my beloved" without the game so much as batting an eye. The story also branches - not a pun - mid-way through, with the choice of whether to sabotage Bercilak's armour by finding the smith who made it, or finding a way to use the girl he likes against him - something made a little tricker by the fact that she's still grieving for the husband he murdered, and so isn't wild about any plan containing the step "offer to snog him so he has to take his helmet off."
While I didn't have time to check out the other options, you won't necessarily play through the Bercilak story with your Sylvari - at character creation, having dreamed of the Green Knight is merely one of three options. The other two involve a White Stag with the power to trade a magical boon for its freedom, and a slightly vaguer prompt about the power of the moon. The other big biography choices are which of three Sylvari teachings you consider most important (Answer: "Even if you're a vegetable, insist on being paid a proper celery"), and what time of day you woke up. It's like really, really focused astrology, only not a load of balls.
Oh, and during character creation, you can also choose to give your Sylvari a big mushroom for a hat. I don't think this changes anything in the story, but it does look hilarious. I hope that at least one character reacts to it, if only to say "Nice mushroom. You look like a real fungi."
Yes. Went all the way down there. Pun sub-basement level. No, no guilt whatsoever.
So, will I be playing Sylvari when Guild Wars 2 comes out? Probably not - I still lean towards Human, though am looking forward to giving the Asura a test-drive.
They're a much more appealing race than I expected though, not in the green-skinned-babe sense (though if you're into that, fine) but for the surprising amount of warmth and lack of environmental nonsense in the way they're fighting nightmare rather than, say, industrialism. I guess there's still time for the endgame to consist of their leaders pointing at some smoke-belching city and screaming "YOUR FAULT!", but I hope not. That would be much less fun than simply wandering their beautiful, natural world of wonder and whimsy, and occasionally setting parts of it on fire because it's infested with evil monsters.
Guild Wars 2 launches on August 28th. The final beta weekend takes place this week, from Friday to Sunday. All five races will be available, along with a few new areas.