I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve walked into a room with a monitor and a nervously-smiling man at one end and been told I’m about to see the future of MMOs. I smile back politely, and the same old dance begins. Too often, I feel a numbness, a struggle to reconcile professionally wanting to know what's going on with personally despairing of the idea of giving over dozens of hours of my life to what's so often a mess of cloned features and over-sold, under-realised promises. My most recent sighting of Guild Wars 2 really did break through that numbness, made me sit up straight and pay full attention. I still don’t know how much of what it’s trying to do will be practicable and effective over long-term play, but seeing it took me back to a time before my awful genre ennui, back to when every time I sat down to see a new MMO my mood was excitement, not cynicism. Here’s why.
First up, there’s the interface. For your average or even superior MMO, the main design focus of a UI appears to be how to present an awful lot of information as unfussily and tidily as possible. For Guild Wars 2, there’s a clear interest in it being attractive as well as efficient. The painterly GW2 concept art we’ve been swooining over for the last half-decade has not been shrugged away and consigned to the hollow fate of a special edition art book, but instead folded into the game proper, all over the place. It’s in the cinematics, it’s in the character selection screen –lushly-painted portraits rather than twitching 3D models – and it’s even in the core of the UI. Painted stripes rather than brutalist boxes hold key information, while a boss monster that’s hurling giant rocks at players has the destinations of those rocks paintbrushed onto the ground rather than depicted as the traditional glowing circle.
Even if much of the information is familiar information, those two, usually at-odds arms of an MMO – the fantastical world and the overtly gamey way in which you interact with it – seem that much more merged and of one mind. Honestly, it looks lovely. I have no doubt for many players it be a game of numbers, but for me, and excitingly, there’s that rich chance it might feel that much more like a world too.
Playing a big part of that is how much the game is geared towards ostensibly solo play, for those who wish to play it that way. We’ve seen attempts at this in the past, perhaps most notably Conan’s short-lived destiny quests in its earliest levels, but it’s always seemed to peter out because the world in general reflect the actions of thousands of players, not yours specifically. GW aims to have some degree of tailored persistence, as well as setting your character up as, well, a character, not a mere avatar.
In character creation, on top of picking race and class you come up with a Biography, based on which options you pick relating to your backstory and background. E.g. “I am proud to be… a Blood Legion soldier.” Or maybe, if you’re more technologically inclined, you’d rather join the Iron Legion. You even pick what kind of parents you had. I couldn’t see an option for ‘pathologically-obsessed rambling fanatic’ in there, so I guess it’s not going to be a perfect fit in that regard, but still.
With the demonstration chap I’m watching picking to play as one of the hulking, bestial Charr, another option for him is which member of his Warband is the most important to him, based on picking which one’s characteristics are most personally appealing. All these choices affect how the introductory cinematics and quests (though apparently you’re not supposed to use the Q word in relation to GW2) play out – who survives and who doesn’t. The promise is that you’ll likely end up having a very different story to someone of the same race and class.
Once you’re out of the opening stretch – which ends, portentously, with “this is my story…” and into the game proper, you’ll be able to visit your Home Instance, a section of the game which exists just for you. You can drag other players in for a visit and to nose curiously at how it differs from their own, but really it’s something only you will spend any time in. You’ll see characters who survived the tutorial missions in there, while an NPC you save later in the game might show up as a Vendor in your home instance.
My immediate concern is about the practicality of generating enough content that players feel they’ve had a tailored or at least apparently meaningful experience throughout. Arenanet folk on hand claim to have “a huge team of writers” and understand that stories are key to ensuring longevity: “your Personal story isn’t something that peters out at level 20 for example.” They also estimate that that there are 60 feature films’ worth of voice-over in the game all-told, so hopefully you’re not going to hear the same 12 lines over and over again. Hundreds of hours of content is the promise – and a great deal of it will be solo-able if you want to.
In terms of that content, as Arenanet have said many times already but which bears reiterating, they’re trying to get away from what we would call quests. To some extent, this going to prove a semantic argument, and one that frankly irritates me a little but I understand that the devs want to strike a difference from other games. Quite clearly the game is full of quests – the difference is in how you acquire them. Instead of some bloke hanging around standing on the spot with a large punctuation mark hanging over his head, you’ll simply be informed that you’ve become involved in a an event when you happen to wander through one in your travels. Obviously you don’t have to take part, but it’s the main way to gain precious, precious stuff.
If it sounds a bit like Warhammer Online’s ill-fated public quests, in a way it is. I think, though, only in foundational concept, not in actual practice. Rather than neat little bubbles of action, they're something you'll stumble into regularly and which, crucially, will scale to how many players join – even to the point that some enemies will have new abilities unlocked once a certain number of people are in the fight. So you can tackle most of ‘em solo or in tiny groups, but you won’t resent more players turning up and stealing your kills because the whole damn scrap will become bigger and better-rewarded when they do.
It also doesn’t want to waste your time with meaningless, humiliating nonsense, like killing rats. At level 2, the player I’m watching stumbles into an almighty punch-up with a giant statue possessed by an evil ghost. It really does look great, and high-stakes – partly due to the fact it’s a genuinely threatening enemy, partly because of the painterly rather than overtly electronic UI I talked about earlier, and partly because there’s a lot of emphasis on real-time evasion and reaction rather than hotkeys.
So that’s level 2 – now we jump onto level 59 and one of the incongruously anime, tiny, bunny-like Asura. Essentially fhe gnomes of GW2, they’re a magical race prone to being used for comic effect. I wish they weren’t in the game, every other visual styling of which I really, really dig. But that’s just me. Fortunately, this little Asura is about to be dropped into a series of epic events.
First up, swimming. Infinite swimming, at least if you want it to be. Each and every GW2 character has their own rebreather, so they won’t drown. They even have special underwater weapons and skills – this Asura gets a trident and a harpoon to play with. You can still dodge underwater, and instead of MMOs’ usual X and Y-axis bound action, here you’re fighting along the Z axis too – up and down and around and deeper and down. There’ll even be underwater Qu… uh, Events. Face it, water’s had a rough deal in MMOs for a long time – it’s either fatal, empty or flat-out annoying. In GW2, it’s a ticket to bonus adventures. Also, there are flamingos.
Then, our floppy-eared subject is off to an Elite event, which involves anything from 10 to 100 players. The scene is a coastline siege by an undead army, who happen to have an also undead dragon among their ranks. The thing bursts out of the sea spectacularly, its ribs showing through its rotting flesh and its maw shedding some sort of pestilence all over the place. It takes up residence on top of a nearby mountain range, occasionally swooping in to spread hell.
Fortunately, you have a bank of laser cannons at your disposal: not so clever now eh, Mr rotting dragon? Unfortunately, the undead are well aware of this. So the defenders need to concentrate on keeping these safe from harm, having the Engineers in their ranks concentrate on repairing them, and on resurrecting the Engineers who get nobbled in the process. On top of that, the dragon keeps summoning giant bone walls from the ground, which block the turrets’ line of sight. It’s spectacular, giant-sized stuff and looks straight out of a full-scale RPG, not just one looping vignette of many in a boggo MMO.
It’s been a long time since I’ve been excited about an MMO – I keep a journalistic interest in what’s going on, but personally speaking nothing’s had me salivating for several years. Guild Wars 2 genuinely looks like it’s from a next-generation of this genre, though. I didn’t actually think that next generation would ever arrive. Obviously, there’s an awful lot still to prove, most of all coherency and longevity, but GW2 is absolutely the online world to watch right now.