Okay, so you know Ascalon? Noble, quaint kingdom, lovely people, delightful taste in continent-spanning walls? Crushed by the Charr at the beginning of Guild Wars, and so forth? Population massacred, people scattered, a last stand frozen in time by the desperate actions of King Adelbarn? Hmm, yes, them. Tragic story. Sad.
Did you ever think that they may have been the baddies?
Guild Wars 2 certainly thinks they were. Adelbarn’s victory at all cost may have obliterated the attacking Charr (giant cat people, don’t ever call them furries) army, but it turned his people into deluded deadly ghosts; it's also worth remembering that Ascalon was actually built on conquered Charr land, so the Charr were justified in wanting it back.
We’re plunging into the depths of the ruined city to stop an ignorant Norn heroine from foolhardily unleashing all the spirits trapped therein; very similar to the plot of the official novel by lead writer Jeff Grubb. We are a brave (read; hugely imbalanced) party of brash young fools consisting of me (Cheery, the Charr Engineer), a couple of mages (necromancer and elementalist), a human thief, and an AI Charr leader who spends most of his time lying down, whimpering. We’re playing through the easy story first, so we can unlock the harder exploration mode for a challenge later.
HA. Did I say easy? I mean MFing difficult. On the face of this mid-game instance, Exploration is going to be tougher than John’s iron skin that allows all those jokes about poor healing to just *bounce* off it.
We almost wipe immediately, after a ten-minute stalemate with three ghostly defenders of Ascalan. It takes us that long to realise that the ghosts are class-based just like us (indeed, they're the classes from the first game!) and are better at playing together than us. Their monk keeps healing their warrior, who keeps drawing our attention (aggro) by hitting us, whilst their Mesmer distracts us with his projectile-reflecting shield every time the warrior needs to heal himself. We’re all just looking after ourselves and we drop one by one until I'm the only one left, backing off, dropping turrets and health packs. When the ghosts back off, I inch forward and ressurrect the party, one by one.
The reason it takes so long for us to succeed against these (admittedly veteran) ghosts is that each class in Guild Wars is actually pretty self-sufficient. For example, I’ve been playing as the engineer for most of the afternoon, and he can drop a healing turret and medkits to keep himself and team members alive; anyone can resurrect anyone else as well, but if they die again with a given time frame they have to respawn at the beginning of the instance. At least in story mode, this doesn't spawn any more enemies and isn't far away, so progress is a straightforward task of just keeping yourselves alive, slowly resurrecting as people fall, and hoping that no-one drops in a area surrounded by bads.
Slowly pushing on through the fairly linear dungeon, we make it through several more packs of ghosts (though the dungeon gives you room to breath, unlike many WoW instances), before catching up with Mrs Norn. My only problem with these fights, exciting as they are, is that I can't really tell what's going on; there's so many super-powered flashes and bangs from all my teammates, it's hard to know what everyone's doing; for example, I never actually noticed if anyone was healing me or not, and my healing turret proved to be bugged, only healing me once and no-one else.
Mrs Norn is after King Adelbarn's sword, Magdaer, a great old lump of magic, which he used to raise all the ghosts and is at the top of the ruined tower we're fighting through; she manages to persuade us that grabbing it is a Good Idea. Heading up there, we clear out a mass of ghosts and lay hands on the sword... and up pops Adelbarn. Before we can deal with him though, we need to go off and diddle his mini-bosses, who are all archetypes of high classes from the first game. Once we've nobbled them, we head back and do for Adelbarn too.
I have to say, just from this play session, the engineer’s proved to be one of my favourite quirky MMO classes, up there with LOTRO's burgular and WAR's Squig Herder. Unlike most actual engineers I know, he isn’t concerned with minimising measurement errors, but rather with using one of his many gadget sets to alter his role. Basically, most Guild Wars 2 characters have two weapon sets that they can swap between in-combat; the engineer has one, a kind of rifle-shotgun combination, with five attacks, all solid (especially the one that knocks both him and the enemy back a huge distance), but not particularly special.
However, he also has alternate tool kits; a flamethrower, a pack of mines, a pack of medkits, a pack of bombs... all of which also have five special powers. He also has other gadgets that he has to slot in somewhere; a range of three turrets (healing, rifle and a thumper), rocket-boots that fling him far, far away from the enemy, and more gadgets as he climbs the levels. Of course, he can only have three equipped at any time, plus his basic gun, but he can swap between them outside of combat, and that still gives him around 25 hugely distinctive and different moves to try; the playstyle change between the flamethrower and the bombs is just great.
As with all the classes, he also has an additional weapon set for underwater combat (a trident and a basic aqualung) and a weapon set for when he's downed - consisting of a nice selection of his powers, including a mine field, a bomb, the ability to throw junk, and the ability to borrow a random downed power from an ally.
I also tried him out in a wider roaming area of the game (around level 30) which included open quests, which worked as well as Rift's do - a bit confused but perfectly enjoyable and nicely fluid.
Finally, we had a go at the Norn intro area which, like all intro areas, feels a bit like the suburbs; once you’ve picked your heroic backstory and created your character, you’re straight into tutorials. You're suitably high-powered from the off, killing a giant worm-thing called Isilmir but there's that weightless feeling of Rift's beginning - if I'm so amazing, how come I can only use this single power? There are a nice variety of challenges in this area, based around the four Norn spirit animals, with the Snow Leopard letting you shapechange into one, the Bear asking you to protect its young and the Raven asking you hundreds of riddles. Also, very simple open quests like defend the beer delivery, just to introduce you to the world.
In that area, I also had a very limited go at underwater combat - there was only one pond that really allowed it. It's fluid (haw) and the alternate weapon sets are a nice touch, but it had that Descent problem of directional confusion, especially in underwater caves. We’ll be intrigued to see how it’s handled in instances and with large parties - and how players and the engine will cope with multiple enemies moving quickly in three dimensions.
So did I enjoy Guild Wars 2? Mechanics-wise, it’s not a great leap forward, despite everything; there are so many standards expected of an MMO that the freedom of movement is very limited. That said, the general design is second to none, the stories are presented quickly and compellingly, and the combat is flexible and enjoyable. It's going to be quite the contender come that beta test later this year.
Guild Wars 2 does not yet have a release date.