Edit - the grouping issue has been officially explained as a bug rather than design.
One thing: my three days (and counting) in Guild Wars 2 were comfortably the most gripped I've been by a new MMO since those heady, early days in World Warcraft.
Another thing: it's got the most serious design flaw I believe I've ever seen in any MMO.
I'll get to that second point in a bit: let's talk positives first, for they are very positive. Guild Wars 2's Early Access has devoured much of my bank holiday weekend, which has surprised me given how icy-cold my heart has become to MMOs in recent years. The Skinner Box model bothers me deeply, and as soon as I'm aware of those cynical compulsion loops doing their thing I struggle to derive anything from a game that contains them, other than self-disgust. There's no denying that Guild Wars 2 has them, but it is built to be more than just a dripfeed, and that's a big part of the reason I didn't immediately curl my lip at it as I did within minutes of starting, say, Star Wars: The Old Republic.
It's an obtuse old bastard, is Guild Wars 2. It's quite evidently built more around systems than exploration/discovery, but it also does remarkably little to explain those systems. While this did mean my first couple of hours were beset by confusion - just as my monitor was beset by a whirlwind of UI elements, stats, progress bars and funny-lookin' circles, while the icons on my skillbar seemed to change every time I looked at them - I came to appreciate not having my hand held at all times.
'Oh!' I'd tell the small group of other journos I was playing with (in theory - more on that shortly). 'You have a different skillset for each type of weapon load-out' or 'you can get upgrade stones by mining or salvaging unwanted loot' or 'jute scrap comes from salvaging cloth armour' or ... and so on. At that stage, they didn't respond with 'I KNOW SHUT UP' but instead with 'ohhhhhhh.' We were discovering how the game worked together, rather than being presented with something as self-evident as the trad MMO formula has become.
Of course, almost all of these aspects do lead back to traditional MMO elements. For all the promises, for all that long trek up Mount Hype over the last half-decade, Guild Wars 2 turns out to be a risk-averse take on the old formula. The claimed concept of quest-free adventuring is just bullshit. Sure, you don't have a questlog and you don't have to wander up to dudes with exclamation marks over their heads and you won't be told you need to collect 25 pig noses. Instead, you'll wander into an area, and an objective will appear on your screen, which you can choose to follow or ignore that instruction.
The objective always entails going to a nearby spot, marked with a yellow-orange circle on the map, and killing a certain amount of a type of beastie or collecting a certain amount of a type of object. It's shown as a progress bar rather than a proclaimed number, and it happens at speed and overtly rather than the bad old ways of having to kill 29 pigs before they dropped even one nose, but, by God, it's a quest and and no mistaking. But that's okay, because I do have to say I prefer stumbling into something and feeling as though it's all happening somewhat organically to amassing obviously-declared assignments from stationary goons. Though there are plenty of stationary goons here too, it's just that you tend to chat to them after you've completed the objective rather than beforehand. On top of these more familiar, if ad-hoc elements, I got lost in side-stuff like collecting all the 'vistas' and auto-travel points, a decently meaty crafting system and hunting for hard to find Skill Points that I could then spend on new abilities. Plenty to do, and no fixed order to do it in.
I was never alone during this: quite the opposite. Both these standard quests and the 'heart' quests which are looping, free-for-all mega-fights in the open world are, at this stage of the game, filled with hordes of other players. The heart quests especially are pure carnage, with dozens of characters biffing waves of monsters. I'm lucky if I can even get a hit in on anything, so busy it becomes. At first I laughed in disbelief at the absurdity and the inability to do anything useful, then I got all OCD about doing all the ones I could find because XP, cash etc, and now, at level 15, I understand my preferred character build enough to have actually found a role within the frenzy.
It looks like madness. Anyone watching would think it a parody of a videogame, mindless button-pushing as endless flashing lights go off and a barrage of numbers pummels the monitor. I have found personal method within that madness, and that's part of what makes GW2 more than just A.N. Other MMO. It is a tactical fighter, one you hone and tweak and reshape into the form you most prefer.
For instance: I am a Norn Thief, which means I am a master of stealth and subterfuge despite looking like a brick shithouse (the Norns are the Hulk race, essentially). Initially, I fought with a dagger, using skills and tactics very similar to those I used as a Rogue in World of Warcraft. A little bit of teleporting, a little bit of invsibility, a little bit of backstabbing.
Then I switched to sword and, I eventually realised, this changed my skills. In fact, it opened a whole new tree of skills, which I quickly unlocked over the course of simply stabbing stuff with said sword. No more teleporting and backstabbing, instead a whole lot more open warring and ultra-damage.
Then I found a gun and equipped it in my off-hand, which meant I could do stuff like pistol whip, headshot or fire blinding gas in the midst of my swordplay.
Then I found a better dagger and swapped that for the sword, which opened up a few more skills still, orientated around teleportation and stealth. My favourite skill so far, in fact, is the one that has me fire a quick shot at a distant enemy, then teleport right to them at which point they get a dagger in the guts. Then I can teleport back to where I was and do it all again. Cheeky. Cheery.
Then I decided to put the pistol in my main hand and the dagger in my offhand and, oh boy, a whole new set of skills again, this time all about fighting from a distance but using special tricks to get out of trouble if an enemy got too close.
Then I equipped two pistols, and got more skills still.
Then I equipped a bow. Whole new skill tree. Exploding arrows! Gas arrows!
Then I went underwater, and fought with a harpoon. Whole new skill tree.
Then I found a harpoon gun. Whole new skill tree.
I'd unlocked all these skills by approximately level 8. There are more skills to buy as I continue to level, but already my character is essentially a half-dozen different classes unto himself, which I can switch between at will depending on either the situation or person preference. (So far that that preference is dagger'n'gun most of the time, but gun'n'dagger in the big, open-to-all boss fights where it's unwise to get too close).
Like the questing, I feel like I'm cobbling stuff together my own way, according to my preferences and not according to some Treadmill Of Doom. I don't know how long this will last - I suppose it depends on whether I become inclined to get highly, highly tactical and learned about how the skills combine with each other, which is almost undocumented outside of some faintly bewildering tooltips, but is clearly crucial to the later game and to PvP. Hell, I don't even do dodging yet (double-tap in a direction to evade), but evidently that's vital. There's a lot in there: it's an active, reflexive fighter that requires dedication and education.
Here's the colossal, incredible folly of Guild Wars 2, though: I can't play it with my friends.
This is mainly because the servers are too busy in this first weekend of play, so even though we're all on the same sever whenever we switch zone we get dumped into the 'overflow' area, which is a sharded netherworld with all the same contents (mobs, quests, NPCs, etc - you can play completely as normal) but containing players from assorted servers rather than yours, all queuing to get into the real zone on their own server. So, I'd be there while my chums were in the zone proper. Server loads can't suffer the only blame for this, however: it your game has been designed in such a way that people who want to play it together cannot be in the same place despite being on the same server, you have done something very, very wrong indeed at a fundamental level. This shouldn't happen at all, whether or not it's an alternative to queuing to get onto the server in the first place. Friends cannot play together. Madness.
Eventually, I'd be told there was a space ready for me, but by that point my chums had often moved onto a different area, which entailed their being dumped into another overflow thinger, and so were no longer on the same shard is me. Time and again this happened, this often fruitless attempt for multiple players to play a multiplayer game together. We could be in the exact same spot, we could talk to each other in party chat, but we could not play together. Occasionally, double-sixes would come up and we'd all be reintegrated into the 'real' zone at roughly the same time, but as soon as, for one reason or another, we needed to change area, that was that again.
As seems to be GW2's wont, this is barely documented and poorly explained, so it might be that there is some arcane way for a party to actually play together consistently. Right now, we've given up on even trying - especially as the game won't let us join each other on our 'personal storylines', which is a string of scripted quests, interspersed with flat, tedious cutscenes, tailored to your choices in character creation. We can be in a group, but as soon as one player starts one he disappears into his own instance leaving the rest of us behind. Well, not always. Sometimes it's worked. It makes no sense, and it's become a gamble not worth taking. So right now I guess we're all working on levelling up until such time as we can do high-level stuff together or the servers calm down so we can stick in a pack.
Honestly, I'd have thought any MMO's first and highest priority should be letting people play with their friends. It's crazy that GW2 got this fundamental aspect wrong, especially as it seems to have gotten so many other things so right. It doesn't depart far from the essential MMO template, but it's made that template more compelling by being less prescribed and more flexible. It's definitely massively multiplayer too, as those vast packs of boss-ganking warriors in the 'heart' quests prove, but right now it's lonely multiplayer, giant fights fought silently with people you'll never see again rather than faithful friends.
Hell though, it's got me even though I'm essentially playing it by solo (and not by choice, honestly - I'm not John). There's been no other MMO that's had this pull on me, not since WoW and City of Heroes back in the day. I don't know how long it'll work for - probably not long, knowing both my attention span and my workload - but it sure is great to have some of my deep-baked cynicism towards this genre scrubbed away, at least for a while.