You've probably never heard of Guild Wars 2 - a plucky little MMO that's so far failed to draw much attention around the net. You might want to give it a look though. Maybe. They say it does a couple of moderately cool things. And it looks quite nice, if you're into that.
Ahem. How do I even start summing up a game this big, this complex, and with so much on offer? There's little point simply running through a shopping list of features - events, dungeons, PvP and so on - so let's kick off not with what Guild Wars 2 offers, but what it is.
To me, it's what World of Warcraft was back in 2004 - not an eight year old RPG, but a breath of fresh air in an all-too-often stuffy genre. The main difference between them is that while Blizzard primarily polished what came before with money, ArenaNet opted to take a scalpel to its genre's endless mass of time-wasting, subscription fee serving cancer tissue, before betting the farm on its ability to build something more dynamic around its squidgy pink core.
Is it good? Was it worth the long wait? Is it worth buying? For the answers to these oh-so important questions, I refer you to Celebrity Guest Reviewer Meg Ryan.
What follows is, with no apologies at all, mostly going to be gushing.
There are however some things that shouldn't be forgotten amongst all the hype, starting with the fact that for all its ambition, Guild Wars 2 is firmly from the World of Warcraft school of design rather than a brand new breed. It has a dynamic world, yes, but one based on canned, cycling events rather than something like Eve, where players exert real control. Likewise, if you hate standard MMORPG combat and all its hot-keys and levelling curves, you'll find this one more freeform and a hell of a lot more polished than most, but probably not different enough.
Also, a caveat. There is obviously no way in hell that I've seen everything the game has to offer in the last week, even factoring in several betas. That said, even if it turns to shit and gristle in the endgame, I can say I've had enough fun to justify the box price - especially as there's no subscription fee. Consider this firmly a 'is this worth a punt?' review though, not an all-encompassing guide. We'll be back later to take a closer look at the big picture.
Guild Wars 2 has no shortage of things to make it special, but if I had to pick the most important, it would be its general attitude. With no subscription fee to worry about earning, it gets to focus entirely on what it thinks will be the most fun - and get to the point faster than you can say 'dragon in the tutorial area'. True, it's another example of what's often sniffily referred to as a theme park MMO, but it embraces that; even going a step further to create something closer to a world-shaped playground. When most games claim they let you find your own fun, what they really mean is that they're not going to provide it up front. Guild Wars 2 instead lets you choose it from a carefully prepared menu, whether it's traditional adventure or server based PvP or simply exploring and enjoying the scenery and lush vistas wherever you wander.
Just as crucially, almost every barrier between you and having a good time has been knocked down. Does it make sense that every character can teleport to any part of the world whenever they like? No. But it makes much less sense for a social game to try and stop you getting to where your friends are, so there you go. In the eternal fight between lore, game design and player experience, Guild Wars 2 feels like it's on our side. It's almost spooky.
There is of course some structure underlying all this - level-locked areas, items and so on - but within that framework, everything is about as open as this kind of game gets. Want to be a Human, but hate the Human starting area? No problem. You're never more than a couple of minutes from a teleporter that will take you to another race's part of the world, and they're all happy to let you play with their toys instead. Want to do PvP? You're not only one click away, Guild Wars 2 will give you all the starting gear you need to be competitive. Only with dungeons does it make you earn your entry rights, holding them back until Level 30+.
Its single biggest triumph though is that as World of Warcraft opened up questing to the masses, Guild Wars 2 makes playing with other people absolutely effortless. You need set groups for dungeons. In the main world though, you never need to actively join groups, show up with any of those 'friend' things some people have, sit around on chat for hours before getting to kill anything, or ever approach anyone with a nervous excuse me please can i play with you?
Instead, you just go out into the world. Events are constantly kicking off around it, and the only thing you need to do to join one is run into its clearly marked radius and get stuck in. Rescuing villagers from slavers. Scaring rabbits. Taking down some huge boss monster who probably deserves it. Reviving fallen comrades. Protecting a trader as he goes between towns. Defending kids from undead. Whatever heroism needs doing, and you feel like helping with, with no pre-requisites to take part and nobody to kick you out if they don't like your face/class.
The only real catch is that as you'd expect, they're absolutely reliant on having those crowds around. If the zones start emptying post-release, the good times are going to vanish in a hurry - and there isn't any kind of safety mat for Guild Wars 2 to fall back on. It may seem unlikely, but stranger things have happened. Remember when APB was going to be the next big thing? Just to be on the safe side, I'd suggest jumping in sooner rather than later.
What everyone raves about are the events that lead into others - a battle for a camp for instance, which turns into an attempt to recapture the place if you fail, or into an assault on the enemy base if you win. That kind of thing is definitely cool when you stumble across it, even if you know that whatever happens is of no long-term import to you or anyone else.
The events I've most enjoyed though are the ones that simply add movement to the genre, especially when wrapped in little chunks of story. My favourite - which is standard stuff, save that it was the first time it happened in my game - was when I wandered my Elementalist over to the inventor-gremlin Asura starting area to check it out. While in a small village selling some junk, a member of their rivals, the Inquest, showed up to first demand test subjects and then launched a raid on the place. Cue a sudden, spontaneous battle that had taken the time to set up at least some simple stakes and characters, lots of exploding action, and finally a few scraps of dialogue to wrap it all up with a little bow instead of just quietly handing over some XP.
The same kind of thing happens everywhere, and I love it. MMOs have a tendency to be incredibly static, with monsters just standing around waiting for you to beat them up, and NPCs not being much more active. Here, while both of those things is basically true as well, you're also constantly bumping into traders going between towns, or outposts being thrown into chaos, or spooky swamps burping up portals to the underworld and so on - and that's before factoring in things like a boss monster appearing and every player in the area belting running over. You don't even have to find them for yourself. Quite often NPCs will run over and instead of politely waiting to be asked if they have anything they need, openly beg for your heroic assistance.
It should be added that Guild Wars 2 isn't the first to experiment with public events like this. The likes of Warhammer Online, Tabula Rasa and Rift have all given them a shot in various forms. Guild Wars 2 throws itself into them unlike anything we've seen before though, risking everything on their success. Yes, there are dungeons and static 'heart' quests where you do things like disarm traps and pick up litter and lots of other stuff that typically puts the 'mundane' into 'seriously mundane shit', but these events are where the game will live or die.
At the moment though, the enthusiasm is infectious, and constant. Where most MMOs feel like they're under the control of an old miser, reluctantly doling out the odd treat, Guild Wars 2 is a cheery sweetshop owner throwing handfuls of candy out of its window. Good candy, too. Fruit Salads, never Blackjacks. It wants you to enjoy yourself, on the grounds that if you do, you'll want to keep playing rather than simply feeling compelled to, and it wastes no time handing out the kind of power and equipment that most MMOs wait a whole game to unlock.
As a demonstration, before even hitting Level 5, my Elementalist could throw every flavour of magic at will (with no mana bar or between-fight cooldowns, no less), call down meteor showers, carve up the terrain with flames, and much much more - all with pyrotechnics that set the screen on fire, never mind the monsters. My favourite trick is a double-whammy from the Air set - riding a lightning bolt across the map to smash someone in the face, then blasting both of us back out of face-punching range. Regardless of the numbers underscoring all my attacks and how they balance with everyone else, I have never felt like a more badass mage in an MMO.
Badass is of course a relative thing. No matter how many powers or toys you have, this is still a levelocracy at heart, and going out of your comfort zone means pretty much instant death with a single punch. Guild Wars 2 doesn't care how you level though, to the point that it provides a whole second world devoted for PvP and is quite happy for you to spend every minute of your time there if you prefer fighting other people to vanquishing dumb monsters.
Even in the regular world though, while questing is the obvious path to advancement, you get XP for almost everything short of looking at the XP bar - crafting, exploring, gathering, fighting, reviving, whatever. Making it even easier, the focus on group play and keeping everyone happy means that you never have to worry about competing with anyone. Kill-stealing for instance isn't a problem here, ever. If there's any question over who should get credit for something in the world, typically everyone gets it - not that it matters even a little most of the time.
In case it's not obvious, I'm having a blast with Guild Wars 2, to the point that focusing on the negatives does rather feel like complaining about the cleanliness of the spoons at a soup kitchen. It's certainly not perfect though, and there are definite annoyances. Several people I know have complained that the pet system isn't very reliable for instance. By Level 20, I was already bored to tears by the way my Elementalist's armour-changes consisted of switching back and forth between two very similar coats and two slightly different skirts. Things like this might seem minor quibbles, but they're still annoying if they happen to be quibbling you.
More generally, while the event system is overall a great addition, it suffers terribly when it doesn't hit the right sweet spot of players. Too few, and the simplistic nature of what you're doing becomes hard to ignore. Too many, and it's complete chaos where you don't feel like you're making much of a contribution or using any tactics beyond mashing all of the buttons. Boss monsters in particular are awful for this, with the constant explosions and swooshing and fizzes and bangs completely obscuring what's going on, and the battles prolonged to the point of finger-aching insanity by giving it a health-bar long enough to poke Jupiter.
My big concern though is the general flow of the game, which can be just a little bit too slick at times, right up to the point it suddenly isn't. Starting out, it's completely liberating to be in a game that gives you so much up front, has essentially no forced downtime, and lets you jump into everything without even going to get the quests first. After a while though, especially right now, with so many people piling in on every event, the inherent repetition, usual lack of personal challenge, and to some extent not having much to look forward to unlocking once you've gathered all your weapon skills can start to get both repetitive and wearing.
You don't even get to feel yourself particularly getting more powerful, which is a shame - though a necessary trade-off. Every area has a maximum level cap, and stepping into it will take you down to something appropriate for adventuring there. That's overall a good thing, since it stops high-level players ruining events for the rest of the world and means you'll be able to take part in events across the world, but it is a little jarring not to be able to kick back by walking into an early area and effortlessly destroying great beasts with a flick of your fingers.
It's worth repeating that the game has plenty to distract you and prevent this problem, from sight-seeing to PvP, to the much tougher dungeons later on. You do however have to take the initiative to break off and go do some of this now and again, and I suspect players who don't will burn out quite fast. Too many sweeties in one go can make you feel sick, after all.
At the same time though, every now and again you can just hit a wall, usually thanks to Guild Wars 2 falling for the classic MMO trap of assuming players are either psychic or plugged into a wiki. The day this genre finally learns that questions like "Vitality or Toughness?" should be coupled with some actual advice on that will be a glorious one. But that's another rant.
One of the earliest problems is that you can easily get 100% completion in your starter area - even given a reward for it - but still not be ready to walk into the next zone if you've not also done enough events, chopped enough trees and so on. The solution is an easy one - go to another starting area. However, not only is magically travelling across the world to be able to step into the next field frankly dumb, it's not made clear that you can do so in the first place. In another MMO, this would be par for the course. Guild Wars 2 trains you to expect better of it though, making it extra-disappointing when it lets itself down with something silly.
The personal quests tend to suffer the worst from this, since unlike the main world you're not usually with people who can help out. In general, I like these quick trips into something a little closer to a single-player RPG, complete with some clever quest design, proper dialogues, choices to make, and lots more goodness. Some of the specific design can be nasty though, and doesn't always feel tuned for every character class to handle. The end of my Elementalist's first act was especially painful, presenting an enemy who hit far too hard for my poor cloth armour, carefully placed as if to ensure that my NPC backup would die at her feet and thus be impossible to revive without drawing her aggro. Grr. Methinks the designer was a Warrior.
None of these are deal-breakers, of course. It's simply that when the hype around a game is this heavy, it's easy to expect perfection. Guild Wars 2 is not perfect. It is however the most fun I've had with an MMO in a very, very long time, and the first to turn social questing into something even solo-minded misanthropes like myself can do on a whim. That alone makes worth it playing, and this is just the start of its story. I can't wait to see where it goes next...
Guild Wars 2 is available now. It's still suffering from some launch issues though, so you might want to wait a few more days to jump in if you haven't already taken the plunge.