Review: Guild Wars 2
Platform(s): PC and Mac
Reviewed on: PC
What does it take to succeed as a massively multiplayer game these days? There are just so many now that it's become somewhat unfeasible for the average player to try them all - especially with the paid subscription model game developers are so fond of and that most MMOs employ.
When the number of games that permanently attach themselves to your wallet grows every year, gamers are much more reluctant to invest the time and money to deviate from their chosen game to try something new.
This is often why many MMOs tend to begin haemorrhaging money and players a few months after release in the wake of World of Warcraft's sizeable success. Still, as in any medium, innovation is inevitable and Guild Wars 2 shows us that an intelligent take on classic conventions is all that gamers were clamouring for.
Most massively multiplayer games are heavily influenced by the monumental success of World of Warcraft and are content to emulate the systems that game put in place back in 2004. Admittedly, it's difficult to create a compelling MMO that isn't in some way influenced by WOW, but developers seem hesitant to deviate too much, and without innovation the genre will be well on its way to becoming stagnant.
Never fear because AreaNet, the creator of the hugely influential original Guild Wars MMO, understands that gamers are clamouring for less tedious grinds and more meaningful stories.
The fall-back position for modern MMOs is to send the player on a variety of kill-20-wolves-style missions that fast become repetitive.
The recent release of Guild Wars 2 shows players that MMOs still have life in them and some intelligent redesigns of familiar systems can reinvigorate a tired genre. Guild Wars 2 aims to shake up the formula enough to create new and engaging situations while still acknowledging the successes of WOW. Quests are now more collaborative and the focus is on entertainment rather than grinding to reach the next level.
There are five races to play, and a huge amount of content between them. Whether choosing between the Asura, Charr, Norn, Humans or the Sylvari, the game is so packed full of content for players to explore that even the starting areas will keep them busy for some time.
First I selected an Asura. These bat-like gnomes fill the role of the technological geniuses in Guild Wars mythology. Driven up from their subterranean homes by the relentless advance of the five elder dragons, they make their claim on the surface world by building huge fortresses and universities with a combination of science and magic.
One of the interesting elements that Guild Wars emphasises is how distinct each race is. The Asura's society is preoccupied with intelligence, and missions are based upon your character's obsession with proving his or her worth to the intellectually revered, though later the quests take on a larger focus. This subtle variation means each race's starting area plays very differently. Players will have plenty of wildly different quests to make each species feel unique, which is something that other MMOs have always seemed to struggle with.
After starting in the Asura homeland of Metrica Province, you're immediately faced with marauding, malfunctioning golems. As the Asura are so diminutive, they have made an art out of creating robotic slaves to protect their home. Usually passive and subservient, the creatures have rebelled against their masters and nobody seems to know why. You are asked to take out a few golems as a way of learning the ropes.
As my Asura got more involved with his story, and featured in many fully voiced cut-scenes, I actually started to get attached to the little guy. When your new invention is stolen, and your colleague kidnapped, you really feel justified in hunting down the culprits. Having a personalised story is obviously a priority in Guild Wars 2 and it really helps to make the quests feel less like a grind and more like a journey.
Each of the races has its own specific stories that differentiate it, and choices you make when creating your character (such as which style of school your Asura studied at) affect your dialogue choices and how your character reacts to situations.
The Charr are wholly different from the Asura. Hulking lion-like warmongers that have made an art out of battle. While the Asura value intelligence, the Charr value ferocity and aggression. They begin their life in the midst of a battle and you're immediately given the goal of helping quell an uprising outside the city walls that sees you assisting your Charr brethren against an army of ghosts.
Making the combat of Guild Wars 2 feel different from other MMOs is imperative to distinguishing the game in players' eyes. Because combat is such a large part of any MMO, the developer has obviously thought long and hard about how to make it stand out. While you're still given a task bar with unlockable abilities on it, you are no longer tied down to choices you make at the start of the game.
Playing with an axe will give you better axe-related abilities, but switching weapon won't set your character back. All you have to do is practise with your new weapon to unlock abilities for it. This fluid combat design also extends to your magic. You can line up two ability and weapon sets to switch between during battle, and some magic characters have up to four different mystical styles they can use at any time. It might not sound like much but the ability to change your tactics and equipment at any time allows for a surprisingly deep range of combat choices.
Much of the content in Guild Wars 2 is designed to encourage player collaboration to minimise the solitary questing of many MMOs. Each starting area, after a few training quests, groups you with whoever is also present and asks you to take down a large monster. When starting out as a Norn, huge Viking-like hunters who live by their honour, one of the first tasks is to participate in a traditional hunt and kill a huge ice-worm.
While not too taxing, this gets players into the mindset that they're inhabiting a dynamic and populated world. Throughout each race's story you'll find yourself wittingly and unwittingly participating in localised instances. All players in the vicinity are given the option to join the quest, which could range from stopping an extra large golem, to killing a marauding shark, to helping local shamans protect their shrine from a rival cult.
Everyone gets a rating and individual loot based on their participation, to stop the more powerful players always making off with the best gear. Although the quest will reset eventually, usually the player leaves a tangible mark on the world behind to give you the impression that your questing is actually making a difference. Much of Guild Wars 2 is made up of these experiences and the game benefits drastically from the collaborative design.
Nearly every MMO to date has attempted to put an original spin on the process of player v player combat. After all, what's the point of playing with hundreds of actual humans if you can't take a mace or a firebolt to a stranger's face? Usually though, taking to the battlefields of your favourite MMO is far less grand in practice than in theory. Players who have mastered the game will be laying in wait, eager to get easy experience from your lifeless digital corpse.
Guild Wars 2 has an interesting plan to counteract the disparity between players' skill levels. In short, your PvP character is a separate entity to your PvE (player v environment) character: though they look exactly the same, they gain experience separately. This character already has all of its class abilities unlocked but starts with very basic gear.
As you play more PvP, you unlock gear and other bonuses, but all characters stay at the same general level. So when you come face to face with an enemy, especially if it's one on one, the playing field is far more level. Battles become more about who is using their abilities most effectively and not who has more time to grind for equipment
The experience is not always fresh. Guild Wars 2 still falls into the, seemingly inevitable, trap of MMO fatigue. After a while the repetitive actions do start to feel more like existing MMOs. This might be because I've played more than a few games in this genre, but it's long been known a certain amount of patience and dedication is required to experience the full gamut of gameplay available in an MMO. Still, Guild Wars 2 does an admirable job of counteracting this by offering a good variety of activities other than the ones MMO players know so well.
Finally, Guild Wars 2 has one last large arrow in its quiver. Since MMOs shot into the public sphere, companies have always insisted the only sustainable profit model for massively multiplayer games is subscription-based (though this is starting to change as more companies embrace a free-to-play model with in-game purchases.
Guild Wars 2 aims to subvert this by asking you to buy the game with a one-off payment, like any other retail game. This may be just what it takes to finally topple the supremacy of WOW, but I'm hesitant to make such bold claims before the game has been out for a few months.
Even so, it's obvious Guild Wars 2 offers players an exciting new fantasy world to explore, with some refreshing design ideas and without the continual strain on your bank accounts. Newcomers to, and fans of, MMOs should definitely take a look, but players who are truly tired of the formula story and endless torrent of incrementally better loot won't find anything much here to change their mind.