A beautiful mess by any other name.
Ah, Guild Wars 2. It's finally here.
Sadly, I wish it wasn't.
First off, let me just say I think it is a good game. Hell, it's great in some spots. Though, as good as it may be, it's plagued by an endless stream of weird design decisions and, surprisingly, what feels like a general lack of ambition in key areas.
When cranked up to it's highest settings, Guild Wars 2 looks amazing. Parts of the world are bright and colorful and often contain tons of variation. From the top of a snow-covered mountain to the bottom of a vast ocean, there's plenty of beautiful sights to be seen. Cities and towns are also rich with detail and have a very nice sense of 'life' to them. Some of the key enemy designs, such as the Shatterer (a dragon that is essentially made out of lightning), look downright stunning. When it comes to graphics, this game is no slouch.
However, like many other parts of this game, it has it's downside. First and foremost, when compared to other games in the genre, it ranks somewhere in the middle. It looks good, but it doesn't look 'the best.' Not by a long shot. And although a lot of the world looks beautiful, there is plenty of it that just feels barren and void of...well...anything. Mountain after mountain where the only difference is the type of enemy that decides to call it home. Forest after forest filled with an alarming number of deer. Caves that, unless you put them side by side, are far too often indistinguishable from each other. For every beautiful vista you stumble upon, there's a thousand more lackluster ones to take it's place.
Same thing goes for a lot of other graphics-related topics. Nearly every enemy, save for some occasional world-bosses, have absolutely zero memorable qualities to them whatsoever. This is pretty common for most MMOs, but most MMOs also often have at least a few 'throwaway' enemies that actually stick with you in your memory even though you many never run across them again. And, for your sake, I hope your memory stinks because enemies are recycled to an absurd degree. I don't just mean re-skins either. No, the same enemies you see in one spot, you'll see in 10 different other places in 10 different zones.
Armor design is another severely lacking area. Out of three types: light, medium, and heavy, only one, light armor, feels like it had any thought put into it at all. Medium armor, aside from a few dungeon and cultural sets, virtually looks the same across the board. Heavy armor, while not quite as bad as medium, feels fairly 'standard.' It feels almost as if the artists opened up a book containing a variety of realistic mail and plate armor and said, "this looks good" and that was that.
Thankfully, weapons seem to have a bit more variety to them. Sadly, that doesn't count for much when you'll constantly run into the same designs over and over and over. Weapons, and armor for that matter, are constantly recycled throughout PvE unless you specifically seek out crafted and dungeon-related gear. So, remember that same sword you started out with at level one? I hope you enjoy seeing it again multiple times. There's nothing quite like being hailed as the hero of the entire land and looking like a sub par, medieval peasant while you do it.
There is 'town clothing' you can choose to wear only when you're inside a city, but, as of today, there are only two sets (one of which is locked inside the cash shop) and literally no reason to wear them. It should go without saying that this is an odd decision. I appreciate the extra work, but it doesn't make any as to why anyone would bother even thinking about town clothing when the game itself doesn't even acknowledge it except to tell you it exists. Hell, 99% of the NPCs in town are wearing regular armor and gear so, if anything, switching to your town clothes would make you stand out and in a bad way.
Sound design is also met with mixed feelings. Everything from weapon attacks and spells to creatures, of every shape and size, roaring in your face sound crisp and fit damn near perfectly. The music in the game is good. However, it contains nothing in the way of something even remotely memorable, but, to it's credit, it does fit each location and activity fairly well and, if anything, it's a far cry from being terrible.
Though, what is terrible is the voice acting. Ah, yes. The plague of many a modern video game. OK, well in all fairness, it's not all terrible, but Guild Wars 2 seems to take hold of the mediocrity flag and run with it. Cutscenes, aside from the fact they are completely boring and lazy, often feel like they intended it to play out one way with one character, but shortly after that dialog was recorded, decided to play it out a different way with another character. It leads to some really awkward line readings that completely kill any mood the scene was supposed to invoke in the first place.
The voices of some characters sound downright ridiculous and, in rare cases, horrendous to the point of almost making me mute the game. One cutscene involved my character talking to an ogre. They both shared the same voice actress and, obviously, she tried to differentiate her voice for the ogre. Too bad for her she could have not possibly missed the mark any more than she did and ultimately just sounds like she's talking to herself except one version of herself has a cold. This wouldn't be so bad if there was a decent story to make up for it.
But the game lacks even that. The entire story pretty much boils down to "dragons are evil. Kill them." There are a few twists and turns, but there is absolutely nothing memorable about the story. The game allows you to make decisions such as which story-related group to join and how to tackle certain tasks, but they all ultimately lead to the same conclusion. Playing through the story more than once instantly kills any illusion of choice you think you may have had as picking between option 1, 2, or 3 all, rather quickly, lead to point A. Thankfully, they don't shove the story down your face, but, once again, it feels so mediocre and uninspired that I would have much preferred they didn't even worry about it at all.
The game's character creation system does offer you a bit more than the norm. Different races have different features such as norn and their tattoos, charr and their fur patterns, and so on. There are also sliders that allow for further customization such as adjusting the nose, eye, mouth etc. The real meat and potatoes, however, are the different biography choices you can make. They establish key events of your past and even decide key events in your future. Where these choices fall flat though is that only some of them are even remotely related to the story, which, if you recall, isn't very good. The rest of the choices don't tie into the story at all and, if they're related to gameplay at all, are never explained to you which seems to be a common theme in this game.
Yes, Guild Wars 2 has a tutorial, but it so completely useless and bare-bones that you'll be scratching your head as seemingly key gameplay components, like dodging, are required learning, but never properly explained.
Character customization beyond the initial process is pretty deep. Since characters are not shoehorned into roles, you can essentially have a ranged a warrior or melee elementalist and be just as viable as any other class in most situations. Still, certain builds do suit certain situations better than others. Thankfully, these specific instances are few and far between.
Enough of all that though. You want to know about the gameplay. Is it fun? Is it boring? Does it break new ground or play it safe? Well, I feel I confidently describe Guild War 2's core game as okay. That's right. Just okay.
At first, combat is fast, furious, and flat-out fun. Unlocking new weapon kills is simple and exciting. Underwater combat feels fresh. Taking on hordes of enemies is challenging in ways some MMOs can only dream about.
However, notice I started all that off with "at first."
The way weapons, traits, and skills work is executed upon nicely. Each class is given access to a specific selection of weapons and instead of going to a trainer for skills, you gain skills by using the weapon. The more you use it, the more skills you get for it. Two-handed weapons have five skills, main hand weapons have three, and off-hand weapons have two.
Sadly, by the time you reach level five, if not earlier, you'll have unlocked all the weapon skills for all your class' available weapons and that will be that. To the game's credit though, there are plenty of tricks to learn considering the fact each class uses each weapon in a different way. On top of that, each class has it's own special mechanic. Rangers have pets, mesmers have their clones, elementalists can switch between elements on the fly, and so on. All these thing help to further differentiate each class a lot more and it's just one more thing this game does really, really well.
I feel I should add in this special note about the elementalist. Not only can they use multiple weapons and elements. Depending on which element you are using at the moment, your weapon skills change entirely. In other words, an elementalist using fire and dual daggers will play differently than another elementalist with dual daggers and water. This is one small decision I feel ArenaNet deserves some big props on. They could have gotten away without this and no one would have cared, but I find touches like this are amazing. It's not exactly a complicated concept when you think about it, but I still love they went ahead and did this.
Underwater combat, while not new to the genre, has never been handled as well as it's handled here. It has it's specific weapons and skills, no air meter, and you can literally take the fight in any direction. However, even though this is the best underwater combat in the genre, it's not very good. Even though you are rarely forced to deal with it, it quickly loses it's allure and can become extremely frustrating as you fumble around looking for the enemy that's hitting you or whatever else.
Fighting (on land, not underwater) in an of itself often times does feel like a fresh take on things until you realize it isn't. I do applaud the developers for limiting the total amount of active skills to 10 (although you can swap them out). It is a welcome change that helps one stay focused on the action rather than on screen full of icons and cooldowns. Other than that, combat is more or less your standard MMO combat. You stand there and attack.
Although "just standing there" doesn't always provide the best results, it's useful enough to get through most of the content. The game does try to get you to move around and use the dodge mechanic, but unless you're fighting a boss or a large group of enemies, you'll most likely be perfectly fine without it.
While we're on the subject of bosses and groups, which one of these two things is fun and which isn't? Trick question, they both stink. Remember 'the Shatterer' I mentioned earlier? The cool lightning dragon? His entire fight, like almost all other bosses, consists of "running up and punching him in the face until he does that one move at which point you should hide. After he's done said move, come out of cover and fight him again." Rinse and repeat. In the cases of bosses like this one though, it doesn't help that he just stands there. That's right, he just stands there. Oh, okay, well he does hover over the same exact spot, but c'mon. Really? I'm fighting this supposed godlike dragon and that's the best he can do? Wow. Quite literally, the best part of these dragon boss fights is watching the dragon land when the battle starts and attempt, but fail, to fly away when they are defeated. Let's just say that there's a ton of NES and SNES games with more engaging boss fights.
And while boss fights are often boring, fighting groups of enemies is downright annoying. See, Guild Wars 2 will often, much to your chagrin, throw hordes of enemies at you both on purpose and on accident. Sometimes, story missions will require you to fight an invading army. Other times, such as doing a quest, you will be fighting one enemy only to aggro another one in the process...and another...and another. This leads to a list of fundamental problems, in the game design, that feed into each other.
Every class has a form crowd control, but far too often areas are packed so full of monsters that you'll quickly be outnumbered. Normally this problem would be easily solvable by gaining some levels and coming back, but due to the dynamic level scaling, you'll be a level 80 whatever fighting as a level 50 in the level 50 zone because that's how they designed the game. It's a neat idea in concept, but in practice, you don't ever feel like you're getting more powerful.
It feels like they tried to turn it into some sort of action game where you're always challenged because enemies are technically always on par with you. The problem is, this game could not possibly be further an action game. Unlike a Nnija Gaiden or Devil May Cry where the tool to handle each situation is player skill, in many situations in this game, it feels like you are unequipped, no matter how much skill you have, to handle the task at hand even though to progress, you need to complete that task. Ultimately, it feels like an MMO trying to absorb aspects of a character action game without ever letting go of any aspect of 'normal, cliche MMO combat.' It's frustrating more than anything else.
More than the combat, however, questing in this game is easily the biggest letdown. What was marketed as 'dynamic with no static quest npcs' is simply a system in which the same exact quests pop up in the same exact locations at varying intervals. In some ways, sure, it is dynamic, but you will most likely end up doing many, if not all, of these events multiple times in an attempt to gain either experience or karma points, which are used to buy certain things from special vendors all across the world. Oh, and there's totally static quest npcs, but instead of getting a bunch of quests from them, you get one and only one quest from them and you never deal with them again. But rejoice! There's no kill X of these things. Nope. Instead you kill those things until a meter fills up and there you're done.
Truthfully, the only thing even remotely interesting about the quests are that they sometimes scale to the number of players in a certain radius. It's another great idea in concept, but if the number of people get to high, quests could take 4-5 times as long than if you just came back when no one was around and did them by yourself.
Dungeons are easily the best part of the PvE experience. They can be a bit too long, but they're different and fun. They can be challenging, but they rarely feel cheap. The bosses in the dungeons aren't terribly more complex than they're world boss brethren, but they add enough mechanics to the fight that give it that extra spark it needs to take it from mundane to captivating.
The only thing that can potentially ruin the fun of dungeons is the gear grind. Unlike most MMOs that save all the raiding and gear treadmill for the endgame, Guild Wars 2, more or less, inserts it by giving you a new dungeon every ten levels starting at 30. Gear that is gathered from dungeons is in no way required to progress through the PvE content and is mostly for cosmetic use. However, many may find this task too much considering it can take upwards of 40 or more runs through a dungeon to obtain a full set. See, by doing dungeons, you don't actually get gear as much as you actually get tokens to buy the gear. Again, this is not an uncommon practice for other games in the genre, but when you're looking at such a large number of runs, it often kills any motivation to even worry about it.
And this is an issue that is found in much of Guild Wars 2. The grind doesn't just plague dungeon gear. It's in every aspect of the game. You have to grind events to level up. You have to grind karma for cool weapons and gear. You have to grind glory points for PvP rank and gear. You have to grind for legendaries. You have to grind for cultural armor. It's one grind after another. The game gives you goals to work towards but hides each and every single one behind a completely absurd grind. It's baffling. In the end, I feel this "grind, grind, grind" mentality is going to hurt this game more than it helps it. It seems like a system that will lead many players to burnout and possibly never return.If you hated the grind in WoW or any other MMO, then the one in this game will send you running back, praying you can participate in one of those grinds instead.
But enough negativity for now. I can't believe I almost forgot to write about one of the best parts of the game: grouping. If there is one thing this game does flawlessly, it's the grouping mechanic. Grouping is encouraged, but it is encouraged in a way that is so simple, yet no other MMO I can think of has yet to master. For example, a quest pops up on the map. You have to take down one very strong, very angry enemy, but it looks like it may be too much for you to handle. Good news! Everyone close by can see the quest on their map too. So, suddenly one person shows up to help then another and another. Pretty soon, there's a horde of players descending upon this task. They can heal, buff, and revive each other. They've never met, but now they're working together towards one common goal. And how did they do that? They just showed up.
No longer are you fighting with other players over kills, gear, or crafting material. As long as you do enough damage to a given enemy, you are awarded just as much as anyone else. Instead of a single pile of loot dropping, everyone gets their own batch of loot to enjoy. No longer do you have to rush to that mining node because, now, you each get to use it.
Every player is able to revive and every player has their own healing spells. The game 'promotes' self-sufficiency first, but simultaneously fully supports grouping. It's something very few MMOs strive for and one even fewer get right. Bravo, ANet, bravo.
Exploration is another great aspect of PvE. There's plenty to discover such as skill challenges, points of interest, and vistas. Discovering these things serves no real purpose to the overall game, but they do provide a nice distraction to kill some time. They're challenging enough that hardcore achievement hunters could have some fun with it, but easy enough that, with some time, the most casual of casual players will be able to find them all too. The jumping puzzles are easily the best part of exploring, however , the fact characters don't have the precise control they do in a platforming game, it can often lead to you making mistakes that feel like the game's fault rather than you own. A huge annoyance in an otherwise great aspect. Those of you who do decide to take on the challenge will be pleased to know you get a tiny bit of exp for each discovery and you get a lot of exp as well as a chest full of goodies for finishing all the discoveries in an entire area. Honestly, it's not the best incentive to explore every area, but it's better than nothing.
Just like the PvE, the PvP has it's share of ups and downs. WvWvW is undoubtedly the best PvP this game has to offer. Three of the game's servers are thrown into a giant battlefield and forced to duke it out with each player fighting for their own server. There's objectives to complete such as capturing points and destroying key enemy structures. The better your server performs, the more rewards, such as experience and crafting buffs, your server will receive. With hundreds of players roaming around, skirmishes are bountiful and there is rarely a dull moment. However, thanks to the nature of the game, 'zerging' is also very common with hordes of players roaming around together destroying everything in their path.
Structured and tournament PvP, or sPvP and tPvP, are fun, but feel more lacking than anything else. As of this moment, there's only one game mode and 4 maps, none of which are very good. Each map, has it's own special mechanic, but none are really that interesting and, unless you're playing in a tournament or a competent team, lead to completely one-sided matches. While we're on the subject, tournament PvP is by far the better of the two choices simply because it has a lower player count than structured (or pickup and play) PvP. Although the one game mode is an objective-based mode, zerging around the map and getting kills is rewarded so much more than capturing points. It leads to players completely forsaking the idea of winning simply because you can get so many more points provided you can get enough kills. And since you need points to rank up and buy better looking gear, most people will do the things that get hem the easiest points.
On top of that, due to the design of the maps and the game in general and much like WvWvW, fights are very common. However, with so many spells and abilities, fights can quickly degrade into a AoE spamfest which makes it hard to figure out what's going on.
The downed mechanic, which allows a defeated player to be revived by a teammate, is a welcome addition to PvE, but a nightmare in PvP. Certain classes with certain builds can be very difficult to take down and it's extremely annoying to 'kill' them once only to have a teammate revive them before you can finish them off.
Thankfully, one saving grace of PvP is that everyone starts and stays at level 80 and has all skills and traits unlocked. Unlike most MMOs, you can jump right in and play with the best of them right away. Unfortunately, this saving grace is also somewhat of a downfall. Like mentioned earlier, there are ranks, but the grind becomes so astronomically huge, that most players will never be able to reach the top. There is a reward system that consists solely of cosmetic gear, but, once again, thanks to this system being completely void of any explanation whatsoever, it ends up feeling like a convoluted mess more than anything else.
Guild Wars 2 is by no means a bad game. It's just not a very good one. It does some things great, but when it takes a wrong turn, it often ends up crashing down the road. If you're new to the genre or you don't play a lot of MMOs, then I absolutely recommend this game. If you're an MMO vet and looking for a vastly different MMO or just a really good one to keep you entertained for months, my personal recommendation is to look elsewhere. Either way, the fact this game has no sub means you get an unbeatable amount of value for your money if you do end up enjoying it.
I truly feel like this game would've benefited from another year or 2 in development. It just feels like for everything it does right, something else was done horribly wrong.
So, ultimately, I walk away rather disappointed with this game and with ArenaNet as a whole. Personally, I feel like it could and should have been the game to flip the genre on it's head. Sadly, that's not the case and I resume my seemingly endless wait for an MMO that will once again sweep me off my feet like a certain one did years ago.