I hate MMOs. Or at least, I hate what we think of of when we think of MMOs. The original Guild Wars drew me in because it was essentially a Collectible Card Game (CCG, like Magic: The Gathering) and eventually left me feeling cold as it became bloated and unbalanced and picked up more of the typical MMO trappings.
So it might come as a surprise to hear that Guild Wars 2, which is technically a MMO in the way that the heavily instanced Guild Wars was not, is pretty much my favorite thing - at least from what I've played of the beta. There are tons of things to talk about, but I'll just pick the few biggest winners and losers here and save more detailed item-specific analysis for other posts (or the ensuing flame wars in the comments).
What I did: Over the two "Beta Weekend Events" (BWEs), I tried out 5 of the 8 available classes. I tried 2 of the 5 races (Human and Norn) but didn't spend much time outside of the human zones because I didn't want to see everything before release. I spent a vast majority of my time in PvE, though I did play some team PvP and the server showdown "World vs. World vs. World" large-scale PvP (we'll call it WvW for short).
1. You actually want to see other players. Loot, experience, resource nodes, you name it - you sacrifice none of it when you run across other players out in the world. This has had a huge effect on the social dynmanic in-game: players frequently call out for help or to point out a new event happening that they want other people to experience. If a typicall PvE experience in an MMO is "dog eat dog," Guild Wars 2 is "dog help dog." It was actually relaxing. Is that possible?
2. The scaling. You never really feel out of place in Guild Wars 2. For example, in a typical MMO, a level 20 character is going to steamroll a level 5 area, but in GW2, you're scaled down to an area's level if you're way above it. Sure, you'll have the added bonus of your better equipment and skills, but you will not be a god amongst insects. The effect is twofold: first, you can always return to (or explore other) low-level areas and still find a challenge and second, you won't see any super-high level characters griefing you in the starter areas. Also, Dynamic Events (think "quests") scale depending on the number of players involved, and while the extra firepower you get definitely makes things slightly easier, you don't have to worry about an event becoming trivial just because a lot of people are working on it.
3. The feel of combat. Simply put, it's active and fast-paced. This is not a "hit your skill bar and trade hits" type of game. You'll need to dodge and maneuver to make it through the day, and if you're anything like me, you'll feel like a champ when your skills (usually reserved for paying the bills) allow you to take down higher-level enemies. Skills feel general enough to be consistently useful but complex enough that you'll be rewarded for using them smartly.
4. Versatility. Arenanet has long talked about how they hope to break the "tank-heal-DPS" model for MMOs (and really, any team-based RPG), and I have to say, they've done it and then some. Every class can do a little of everything, but more importantly, they do it all differently. For example, my Engineer survives by using Blinding attacks and an AoE slow, whereas my Thief uses Interrupts, Stealth, and skills with built-in Evasion, and my Warrior uses thick armor and some tactical skills (or a shield if I'm feeling like it). For damage, it's the same idea: my Engineer prefers damage over time, my Thief goes for big spikes, and my Warrior likes to start off with a rifle before swapping to a greatsword to charge in for the kill. The ability of most classes to quickly swap between two weapon sets and use a variety of ranged and melee weapons just drives home the fact that you can make any class do just about anything, but without making the various classes feel any less unique.
1) Lots of buttons. You'll end up with 10 skills in your bar (5 weapon skills, a healing skill, 3 utility skill, and and "Elite" skill) as well as up to 4 "class" skills that live ABOVE the skill bar and are accessed using the F1-F4 keys. Trying to access the right skill at the right time while dodging about and keep the camera where you want it can be an iffy and sometimes painful proposition. I found using Shift+1-5 to use skills 6-10 helped a bit, but my left hand still felt a bit overworked.
2) Bigger isn't better. I think that GW2 has been at its best in groups of 4-6 people (EDIT: 4-6 for boss events, 2-4 for most everything else). At that scale, everything feels social and active without being a clusterfuck. A lot of it has to do with the visual style of the game, which is very active and as a result can quickly feel very busy. It's why the 5v5 PvP feels far messier than the original Guild Wars' 4v4, even though it's only an extra 2 players. In the massive WvW events where it's typical to see 40-man battles, you really just spam your skills and hope for the best. The thing is that GW2 eschews a traditional resource system (skills don't cost anything to use, they just have a cooldown), and while it really works on a small scale where the nuances of the combat system feel present and important, that system loses its precision when things get big. As a result I found myself spending a lot more time in PvE than PvP.
I'm On The Fence About:
1) WvW. The scale and grand strategy of it are pretty impressive, but the combat is just too unsatisfying to do it justice. It's like watching a brilliantly written and directed movie with terrible actors. Sure, it's a great movie, but it's not always that much fun to watch because at the end of the day, it's the actors you have to live with. WvW is an incredible setting for a meal that isn't that satisfying. It's an awesome spaceship but it's made out of toothpicks. It's [metaphor or simile of your choice].
EDIT: I also had massive framerate hits in WvW, which certainly killed the sense of precision. Hopefully I'll have some new hardware in before the next BWE, and we'll see if that helps.
2) Dynamic Events. When the events connect to other events or make some sort of tangible (but fleeting) impact on the world, they really work. Like this one event where you have to clear out a cave full of troublesome Grawl and then, if you succeed, you have to gather resources to build an ice sculpture in their cave? That was cool! Or the one where bandits try to poison a reservoir and if they fail to stop them, it triggers a new event where you need to run around killing blobs of toxic ooze and collecting samples? That was nice because the result felt immediate. However, too many of the events are boring escort affairs or glorified (and usually overly drawn-out) variations on "Kill Ten Rats" for the whole thing to get a solid stamp of approval.
I have other minor quibbles with Guild Wars 2 as it is right now, but I think we've covered all the love/hate/maybe in the game's fundamental systems. In short, it's absolutely brilliant. Much like Skyrim, it feels like there is really no wrong way to play it - you just jump in and start doing whatever works for you and you'll have a good time with it. This might not work for hardcore MMOers who misinterpret the flexibility as simplicity, but it's perfect for anyone looking for some solid mechanics in a world that would rather reward you for your victories than punish you for your shortcomings. What's even more incredible is that in my time with the beta, I've not once said to myself "man, I wish this other player would just leave me alone." It's too soon to tell if that's the result of a good community or of sharp design that supports collaboration over confrontation, but whatever it is, it has to be a first for games like this.
Or maybe there aren't games like this, and that's the problem.