Upon playing the Guild Wars 2 beta a week ago I wanted to write up my impressions on it. While at this point the ship has ultimately set sail, I decided to write this up before I had forgotten any other minor details of the beta. I spent my time in the beta leveling both a Charr Engineer to level 15, and a human thief to 20. I would have liked to have played the Nord and some more PvP, but the time was unavailable; however, I feel that enough time was spent to achieve a well developed understanding and impression of the game. As this is only a beta I understandably experienced certain technical issues and bugs, but overall I had a fairly smooth experience in contrast with some others who I spoke with, one of whom was apparently unable to look specifically northwest lest his entire screen turn blue. Of course as this is a beta these technical issues are a part of the testing process and will hopefully be ironed out and all of what I experienced is liable to change. For many of those already extremely familiar with the systems of Guild Wars 2 you'll already know most of the stuff I'm talking about, but I went into the beta fairly unfamiliar with the finer details of the game's systems and felt like I should discuss them. This also seemed like a good way to start practicing my writing.
When the original Guild Wars released in 2005 it was noted for being a different MMO from what has now become a commonly iterated upon standard; the world was almost entirely instanced and notably there was no subscription fee. It was easy to consider the game more the likes of a dungeon crawler with lobbies between zones for one to form groups with either real persons or AI. While its sequel will keep the tradition of no subscription fees, the instanced world has been traded for a more traditional constant one.
For some this might be a positive in providing a world that feels more populated compared to what at times could feel like a wasteland in the original, for others it can easily be marked as a negative change where the instanced world allowed one to never worry about having to compete or queue for a quest objective. However, the systems in Guild Wars 2 prevent this latter issue from occurring. Unlike some MMOs where the first to attack an enemy claims possession, along with his or her party, of that creature, any who participate considerably in a creature’s execution, party or no, make a claim for their own share of loot and experience equal to if it had been take on alone.
The only true formal quests in Guild Wars 2 are the still instanced off story line missions. Instead when exploring in the open world one goes through the process of speaking with a scout who will point out “renown hearts” on the player’s map. These hearts are locales requiring assistance in what are fairly standard quest activities: killing creatures, gathering supplies, helping injured, etc. Performing the tasks all work to completing the heart and once done the character receives some experience, coin, and karma, a currency one can trade with the leader of any renown heart for items such as gear or consumables which act as a sort of quest rewards. These hearts come across as a simple reworking of normal side-quests that are more open in the tasks one can perform for completion.
However, the hearts are also home to what the game simply calls “events.” These events occur in the world and require the assistance of group of players in order to be completed. The events can be ridding a lake of tar beasts, killing a powerful raging monster, escorting a caravan, protecting a village, the list goes on. The completion of these events provides the same rewards as the renown hearts, but are based on participation with three tiers of gold, silver, and bronze. The game notifies all players in the immediate area the event is taking place and being the main source of experience players tend to flock to them fairly rapidly. The events seem to scale to the available number of players in the area by spawning less creatures or adjusting the creature’s strength. This means one might not necessarily fail an event because only five are taking part rather than twenty, and even failing the event provides the player with some rewards for their effort, although less than had the event succeeded.
The proceeding of events is also based upon one another. As an example one event required one to defend a human fort from attacking waves of centaur. If accomplished the fort would remain in the possession of humans and a caravan escort event could then be started. If failed the humans would be forced to rout and the fort would be taken by centaurs. What would follow instead is an event to retake the fort from the centaurs. This causes the events to have actual changing effects on the world, albeit local ones. I feel it wouldn’t be too difficult to create a flow chart of all the events, but they still manage to provide what feels like a living world. As well, at least during the beta, the events happened with extreme frequency. This made them feel rather mechanical, but it is possible their frequency is a result of a desire to demonstrate and test them in the beta. I cannot truly be sure. Of course with the large amount of players in these areas, without events frequently occurring one would be left with slowly grinding off creatures which would be far less exciting.
Events designed for multiple players, and the sharing of loot and experience stresses and awards cooperation. This behaviour of camaraderie is further enforced in death. In the first Guild Wars each character had a resurrection signet that allowed one to resurrect a fallen ally; in the sequel the signet is no longer present. Instead if a player falls in the line of battle they at first will drop to a knee, where the player has four skills. The first three are used to fight and if able to kill an enemy they’ll get back up; the fourth is a beckon that slowly recharges the player’s health if left unassaulted. If one fails to fight for their life then they will fully die, and can travel to a waypoint of choice for a fee, but this is not the only option. As soon as the character drops to one knee a floating marker appears above their body and on the minimap which is visible to any nearby player informing them of the struggle. The other player can then choose to aid in the player’s revival, even if the player has fully died. The other player is motivated to do this by gaining experience upon the character’s revival, and if multiple players take part, the revival proceeds faster and all earn an equal share. While the game has no professions devoted to healing, during a grand battle any player can take it upon themselves to aid fallen players, allowing them to continue fighting.
The only perceivable flaw in the system is the payment to travel to even the nearest waypoint. The waypoints function similar to the first game in allowing instant travel at any point to any unlocked location, but in the sequel one must pay a fee for their use. Later on the few coppers one spends to instantly travel is a pittance, but earlier on the cost can be substantial, and one can be caught in a sort of limbo and is stuck hoping another player comes by to restore them to life. In a beta where everyone is rushing through the same areas this wasn’t too much of an issue; someone was likely to help you out, but in the later hours of the night as player numbers dwindled one could have been stuck in this state long enough that it became intolerable. This same lack of players can fault the world’s events. As the hours turned to early morning and any healthy individuals had gone to bed, the events seemed to cease. It appeared that without the minimum players available to complete an event they simply wouldn’t occur, and if they did one was expected to fail. Again this was an issue limited to what were barren hours, but I am forced to consider what were to happen months after release and the earlier areas became gradually less and less populated.
This has been addressed to a certain extent with level scaling in zones. If a level 20 character were to go back to a starting zone where at maximum one should be level 4, the game will scale them down to the appropriate stats. The character will still be more powerful than a typical level 4, but not so much that they will be able to kill every enemy with a single strike. The scaling works two-fold; although the player has become weaker the experience and loot he or she receives is scaled to their appropriate level, though not to an equal amount. The scaling prevents a high level player from just ruining an event by being able to defeat an event boss in a manner of seconds. The scaling also allows one to be constantly challenged, keeping the combat interesting when I grouped with characters 5 levels lower than me.
Combat in Guild Wars 2 also manages to be lively. Players of the recently released MMO Tera will be familiar when I dub Guild Wars 2’s combat as “active.” Primarily what this means is one is capable of moving around and continuing to use their abilities. In a turn-based system like that of World of Warcraft if one uses an ability with a cast time and moves, with few exceptions, this cancels the ability, whereas in an active combat system the ability continues to charge, allowing one to move away from, toward, or around the enemy. In the case of the thief, the game’s rogue in essence, placement in regards to the enemy can provide more damage via a backstab. In some instances it is in the player’s interest to use up some stamina and dodge a move that would otherwise be rather fatal, such as a basilisk’s petrifying gaze. The active combat can become problematic in instances of latency and one can quickly find themselves at a disadvantage as they become disorientated and are unable navigate appropriately. Large battles can likewise be confusing as the massive amounts of players fighting a single creature in an area becomes fairly chaotic and drastically hamper the framerate, but the provision of a healing skill to each character allows one to take care of themselves fairly easily, and as long one is using their skills correctly or helping other players up, then one is being effective, granted the game is running smoothly.
Each character can have a maximum of ten skills equipped, but can be changed at any time outside of combat. Between all classes their allocation follows a consistent pattern. The first five skills are tied to the weapons one has equipped, the first being what is essentially an auto-attack. If one is wielding a two-handed weapon then all five skills are tied to that weapon, if one is wielding two one-handed weapons the first three skills are tied to the main hand and the fourth and fifth to the offhand. In the case of the thief the third skill was a dual wield skill relying on both the main and off-hand weapon. These first five skills are unlocked fairly early on by use of the varying weapons available to the class, but finding the proper weapons and forcing their use to unlock their related skills can come off as a grind. However, at the same time their procedural unlock allows one to get familiar with each skills function and the play style associated with the weapon. In the case of the thief after reaching a certain level to weapon sets can be equipped allowing a switch between mid-battles from ranged with two pistols, to melee with two daggers. In the case of the engineer only one weapon set could be equipped, but the skills of the pistols and rifle were enough that the other set was always floating in my inventory taking up space, which came off as an inelegant solution.
The sixth skill as mentioned before is a healing skill, which as a character levels up and performs skill challenges they earn skill points which can be used to unlock new skills; something that should be familiar to players of the first game. The next three slots for skills are unlocked as a character levels and are called the utility skills whose functions can vary from the basic damage skills tied to weaponry. For the thief they consisted of sigils, traps, or poisons. The Engineer’s utility skills included turrets, weapon kits which change the engineer’s equipped weapons, and elixirs to provide buffs. For the engineer the healing and three utility skills also provide a related tool belt skill. As an example, the rocket boot skill that allowed one to jump backwards quickly also provided a tool belt skill of a fiery kick. Instead of a tool belt, the thief was able to steal providing a different skill depending on the item stolen. The tenth skill is the elite skill, a skill that suits its name. Easily the most stunning elite skill I witnessed was the necromancer’s ability to turn into a lich, which simply looked awesome.
Graphically, Guild Wars 2 can be a fairly impressive looking game. Upon the initial start of the beta when everyone was rushing out of the tutorial the game ran poorly even at minimum settings, but following a server maintenance I was able to run the game at near max settings with little to no slow down and with the water being the most striking for myself. Combat likewise looked fairly impressive. The thief’s skills were fairly minimalistic, which seemed fitting, and some of the engineer’s skills looked particularly exciting, specifically one rifle skill that allowed me to use the rifle to jump to a target location much like a rocket jump. The elementalists take the cake on visuals though, the majority of their skills just look astounding with phoenixes exploding on enemies and meteors raining down on their enemies. During story instances of conversation characters are presented speaking before a background of concept art. The character models seem rather detailed, but unfortunately I am unable to remember if these character models were the same as those used in the game proper. They certainly matched at least.
The setting for Guild Wars is still a fairly typical high fantasy setting. Being set roughly 250 years after the first Guild Wars the world has changed rather a bit from the first game, and fans of the story would probably be interested in seeing how the world has changed, especially with the races not available in the original game. What I managed to play of the human story felt fairly standard. The first portion has you focus on taking care of some dirty bandits attempting to poison the city’s water supply, and afterwards trying to find a possibly living sibling. What I played of the Charr narrative came off as far more intriguing; the species is situated in an industrial revolution and a battle with two enemies, the rebelling zealots of the Flame Legion and the endless fighting ghosts of the dead Ascalonians. My character’s story as a member of the Iron Legion had him focus on attempting to build a weapon effective against the ghosts. In both Charr and Human narratives there were moments I was required to make what appeared to be rather substantial decisions, but in the case of the Charr narrative it was less clear how this decision impacted the story other than which faction received my weapon. It appears the actual basis for what narrative a character receives is based upon the biography one decides in character creation, but the changes between the ensuing narratives are not exactly apparent.
The final thing I put considerable time into during the beta was crafting, which seemed iterative on the crafting of the prior game. One still gathers loot and breaks it down with salvage kits, but rather than taking the items to a merchant to craft the item one builds it themselves. There are a number of professions better suited for each skill, and one can have two active at a time; however, one can switch to another profession at any time for no cost in skill level or money. The lack of a price for such a switch left me questioning why limit the number of professions at all. I never found a case where only a single crafting master was available and so making a switch seemed like a speech option that stood in my way. The recipes unlocked in crafting are done so via experimentation. One is always provided with the recipes for the base components and parts, but to make better items or ones with different stat bonuses one must piece together the recipe themselves. The discovery of recipes is fairly intuitive and provides plenty of direction as unmixable parts gray out for each part selected. The discovery of a new recipe can be somewhat exciting, but seems faulted in that one could easily look up a recipe list if players were given time to form one.
While I am most certainly not the most avid MMO player, the only other MMOs I have put considerable time in being World of Warcraft and the initial Guild Wars, this sequel seems intent on doing what the first did so well, providing an experience different from others in its genre. The game seems to be building upon some of the systems of the first in skills, crafting, and story, but the greatest and most interesting change I perceive in Guild Wars 2 is the move away from an instanced world. One was capable of arguing that the original Guild Wars was not truly an MMO being so heavily instanced and allowing you to play by one’s self. While in Guild Wars 2one can still certainly level up independently, in respect to the original this sequel seems almost the exact opposite by having a constant world with systems that reward and at times seem to rely on cooperation. It’s a change that some might not find appealing, but I found it to be rather entertaining and I’m terrible about working with other people.