On the seventh day of the month of Horace we are obliged to remember that some people are still at a lower level than we are, and haven't defeated all the bosses that we have. It's important to keep such things in mind as we cast our eyes upon the gilded shores that lie beyond the seventh window of the advent calendar. What could it be?
It's... Guild Wars 2!
Maybe it faded too quickly from my consciousness, like a snowman being urinated on by a direwolf, but for a few weeks of Guild Wars 2 was the most engaged I've been by an MMO in, ooh, years. While this may sound like damning with faint praise, perhaps you need to understand just how great my antipathy towards MMOs had become. I'd been disappointed time and again by worlds that seemed to offer so much promise then turned into the same old round and round and round, and was still licking open wounds from a huge attachment to WoW a few years previously that had violently crumbled upon realising the futility of what I was doing.
The thing about Guild Wars 2 was that it didn't really make grand promises about reinventing the genre, as so many its recent predecessors did then summarily failed to realise. Instead, it focused on improving and remixing what already existed. Acknowledging that this was a mechanical game from the outset, it tried to make those obvious cogs and gears that much satisfying, immediate and reconfigurable.
And so it was I felt myself positively hurtling around GW2's shimmering world, levelling up with an albeit slight sense of choice rather than just jogging on the same treadmill as everyone around me. Crafting, which forever holds an eerie compulsion for me in games, proved to be my major route to experience points, and beast/man slaying became essentially a means of finding crafting parts rather than the primary focus. As a solo endeavor, as GW2's launch-time grouping bugs somewhat necessitated it be, it felt substantial and flexible and not too far short of a decent singleplayer RPG - unlike The Old Republic's hollow progress quest.
As for the personal storylines, I can't say I felt at all invested in the procession of instantly-forgettable NPCs babbling lore at me, but smart, instanced quest design meant there was reliable variety and a steady procession of big, exciting fights. Similarly, the frequency of stumbling into a high-spectacle public quest in the open world and being able to do something useful within the frenzy meant I was truly spared the dull collection of rat livers.
Also, jumping. Thank the god of thigh muscles for jumping.
Guild Wars 2 is a qualified entry in this calendar, however. I haven't stuck with it and there is good reason for that. It feels more like a step (a huge, expensive step) towards rescuing Everquest-descended MMOs from the cynical, grindy doldrums than it does the rescue itself. It's an important step though, and one that, crucially, embraces and expands upon the essential short-term-reward nature of these games rather than tries to pretend it's something else entirely.
I didn't play the first Guild Wars so the excitement about the sequel was shrouded in mystery. When I asked people, 'how is it any different to WOW?' they would often snub their noses at me or make rude gestures in my general direction. Because I was talking to them on the internet, I didn't notice any of that so I'd just carry on, rattling away with a series of inane questions and comments.
"It's very colourful, going off the screenshots, I'll give it that, but isn't it just another big, shiny world built with the express purpose of consuming as much of my time as possible? What's my reward for sacrificing so much of my precious time at its altar of levelling and loot? Aren't those botanical blighters just elves really, except more elvish because instead of just hanging around in trees they've decided to grow a few leaves out of their armpits? And that's a gnome. That's almost definitely some sort of mad reinterpretation of a gnome."
Begrudgingly, I signed up for an account. Might as well see what all the fuss is about, right? My greatest fear wasn't that I'd find the game dull, it was quite the opposite. If I actually found myself caring about the processes that life in Tyria involved, it could only mean trouble. I don't have time for another life, especially one that involves guilds, which sound threateningly like groups of mutually aligned strangers. Would I have to maintain relationships in this new life? Relationships with people that choose to look like this?
As soon as I started playing, my questions and comments changed somewhat.
"When can I go over and look at that floating city? Right now, you say? Even without magical trousers of unsleeping devotion? Intriguing. Why is my map doing things, it's not supposed to do things is it? How can an event be happening when I haven't spoken to a person to make it happen? Is this world not strictly controlled by triggers and prompts? Madness. What about that man over there, is that a shopkeeper or a real person? If shopkeepers aren't real people and the United Kingdom is a nation of shopkeepers, who or what am I?
"I should probably follow this cluster of people because they'll be going to fight in one of these Guild Wars I've heard so much about, surely, but, no, wait, they've all just started dancing in a field and I think it's some sort of mating ritual. I'll just watch for a while until that feels creepy and then go and look at a vista. I like vistas."
I managed to get out before the hooks managed to latch onto my bones, but I could already feel the sinew tearing and the cartilage cracking. When a game relies, to an extent, on the size of its playerbase, I always feel it would do well to provide a variety of play styles. As an expert fisherman has probably never said: "six kinds of bait, a mish mash of fish; one kind of bait, ain't nowt but trout".
Guild Wars 2 doesn't break the mould but it does offer rewards to players, like me, who are content to spend their time wandering, without feeling the pressure of constant self-improvement. That's not only because it offers goals based around exploration, it's because the world does manage to make most horizons feel like invitations and the dynamic events give the world an added semblance of life, which thousands of actual living participants can so often fail to do.
I have a weird dream that involves waiting until all of the expansions are out and the world is absolutely definitely complete, and then taking a month's sabbatical to run around taking screenshots. I'd probably do the odd spot of crafting as well.