So I had full intentions of writing a proper review post-release for GW2, but let's be real here: reviews for MMOs are dumb. As Jeff pointed out in his most recent Jar video, reviews for MMO's, even more so than standard game reviews, become obsolete nearly by the time the "Submit" button is pressed and the review goes live.
However, after reading the very well written blog by one Matthew regarding GW2, and responding to a comment in the thread, it turned out I had quite a lot to say about the game (and not all of it praise). So that brings me here, to my own blog entry, where I'll outline some of what I think makes GW2 special, what it does right, and where things could maybe be tweaked to make the experience more enjoyable for all. This won't be an exhaustive look at everything GW2 has to offer. As was the case with Matt, I have not yet hit max level and seen everything the game has to offer, so this will really only cover the corners of the game I've uncovered during my time in the beta weekend events, stress tests, and first 50 levels of content upon release. Get comfortable. This could be a long one. Also of note: if you read my comment in Rorie's post, some of this will be pulled from that, so don't be surprised if wording is very similar between the two. That comment was what inspired me to write this blog in the first place, after all.
I think Rorie worded it best, so I won't try to reword it and pretend to make it my own: GW2 is iterative, but it's what it does in terms of iteration that helps it to stand apart from the ever growing crowd of MMORPGs out on the market. His question of "why didn't anyone think of this before" was something I also found myself asking around every corner. Just simple things, such as each player having individual loot, no kill tagging, separating PvP (structured PvP in the case of GW2) and PvE balance, along with many other things. Not everything is rainbows and unicorns, however.
The world of GW2 is breathtaking in scope. Everything has a scale unmatched in my MMO history (which is pretty extensive, post-WoW). That said, nothing (with the exception of maybe Hoelbrak) feels unnecessarily large. Some have claimed the cities to be unnecessarily huge, and I feel like that is solely due to expectations set by WoW, and how TOR handled "large" cities. Let's take Divinity's Reach, for example. It is probably the largest city in the game, after all. However, it is such because it is the last remaining city for the human race (as far as I am aware). Therefore, it would make sense that the city would be so sprawling. And it's not just wasted space. There are a ton of NPC's scattered throughout the city, each with their own dialogue and activities that you can happen upon as you pass by. I even caught an NPC lady who was supposed to be new to the city and was discussing it with a guard. Upon the completion of their dialogue, the lady and her child turned to walk away, and I decided to follow to see how far they went before disappearing (something any MMO player comes to expect as a regular occurrence with MMO NPC's). I followed them a quarter of the way around the city before she finally walked up to the steps of what I presume was her house and disappeared inside. Arenanet definitely has taken the effort and gone the extra mile to ensure that the world of Tyria feels alive.
Bioware tried to do the same thing with TOR by populating its massive city streets with NPC's, but due to their NPC system, it never quite felt right. The system would populate the streets with a variable number of NPC's based on the performance of the player's computer. Because this population was done client-side, the NPC's could not be targeted and dialogue was not present, so it made those NPC's feel less like people and more like props on an otherwise empty set.
On the flip side of this breathtaking scenery and "alive" world, one cannot ignore the fact that the world, when it comes down to it, is heavily instanced. Perhaps it is not as much as the original Guild Wars, but anyone expecting the seamless world of WoW, where one could run from the most northern tip of a continent to the southern without hitting a loading screen will at least be mildly disappointed, as I was. Guild Wars 2 is rife with loading screens. Whether traveling around the city using the waypoint system, or moving from one leveling zone to another (or to the city), players are greeted with yet another loading screen. While I enjoy the waypoint system, and feel like it is a much needed feature over the "hearthstone" feature most MMO's use, it does unfortunately exacerbate the loading screen issue, as you'll even be hit with loads when moving from waypoint to waypoint within the same zone. Obviously this is something that is not likely to change, and an annoyance I will be forced to grow tolerant of, instanced worlds have always turned me away from MMO's in the past, making the game feel less like a world and more like a conjoined series of game zones.
That said, the zones that make up Tyria are beautifully crafted with a ludicrous amount of detail, and Arenanet does a great job of encouraging players to explore every square inch of each zone by placing points of interest, vistas, waypoints, and skill point challenges all over the map (not even counting the hidden jumping puzzles scattered all over the world) and rewards the player with bonus experience, karma points, and some form of loot upon 100% completion of zone. The jumping puzzles really are the hidden gems of Guild Wars 2's level design, though. Generally tucked away in a hard to reach place (and amazingly not behind a loading screen in most cases!), players can stumble (or climb, as it were) into any number of jumping puzzles. Sometimes these lead to vistas, but often they lead the player to a hearty chest full of well-earned loot for those brave (or masochistic in some cases) enough to push through the puzzles.
When it comes down to it, though, pushing through jumping puzzles shouldn't be the chore it sometimes is. Character movement in Guild Wars 2 is a bit too on the "floaty" side. The feeling of imprecision in movement is most apparent when attempting one of the many jumping puzzles. Jumps don't feel quite right, air control feels sluggish, and jumping while pressed against an object sometimes results in not jumping at all. Combine that with the equally floaty-feeling, I-want-to-clip-through-everything camera, and jumping puzzles feel less about perfecting the angle and timing of a jump, and more like an exercise in frustration while you wrangle the camera into the correct position and hope the jump actually goes off when you press the button. However, after having recently booted up WoW (I wanted to check out the 5.0.1 update) and jumping around a bit in there, I still prefer Guild Wars 2's jumping over the mechanical, clunky feel of WoW's jumping. Maybe it's less "realistic" (hah, realism in an MMO), but I think the slight air control allotted to the player in Guild Wars 2 is enough to make the jumps just feel better. And let's face it, with WoW's style of jumping, that style of puzzles just wouldn't be very fun, since every jump would basically be the same distance away.
Aside from jumping puzzles, there are a great many things available for players to do for PvE content in Guild Wars 2. The two major methods of PvE progression (excluding personal story) are Renown Hearts and Dynamic Events. This is where Arenanet really shines in how they iterate on known MMO conventions, and make the experience feel better for the player, even though you're essentially doing the same thing as you would in any other MMO out there. Renown Hearts are the player's first introduction to PvE content in Guild Wars 2. These are basically this game's equivalent to "quests" in other MMO's. The big difference, however, is in how the quest is completed. MMO questing generally falls into one of three major categories: kill, gather, and protect (escort can be lumped into protect). In this sense, Guild Wars 2's Renown Hearts are no different. However, instead of having a quest that says "I need you to kill X wolves!" and one that says "Please gather X apples for me," Guild Wars 2's Renown hearts combine these into one activity. An early example of this might be that a farmer wants you to feed hay to his cows, stomp worm mounds scattered around his farm, and kill the worms that come from said mounds. Players then have the option of how to approach the quest. If the player only wants to kill, they can just run around killing worms, and their progress bar will fill accordingly. However, the player can also do a combination of the three (generally the best way to approach renown hearts if you're going for efficiency) and they will all progress the same bar, allowing the player to complete the quest and gather their reward.
Finding out how quest rewards are handled in Guild Wars 2 is also a very "why didn't anyone else think of this?" moment. Instead of a simple 'finish quest, talk to quest giver, pick from 3 rewards that you probably can't use anyway,' players, upon completion of a Renown Heart, are rewarded with karma points (along with the standard experience points and a bit of money). The person who had the Renown Heart over their head now becomes a karma vendor, offering players a small handful of items available for sale for a reasonable amount of karma points. However, if the vendor does not have anything that might be useful to the player, they can simply choose to hold onto their karma points and save them up for a later karma vendor who might sell a really sweet sword that is just perfect for them. It's a simple solution to a problem that's plagued MMO quests for too many years, and it's about time someone got it right. All that said, Renown Hearts are really intended as a sort of transitional 'crutch' for players who are used to the standard MMO questing system.
As they play through the game, players are faced with Dynamic Events, these sort of random events that might happen on a timer, when a certain dialogue option is chosen when speaking to an NPC, or seemingly any number of different ways. In a Dynamic Event, players in the area work together toward completing a common goal. Again, there is nothing revolutionary about what occurs during a dynamic event. It's still the standard 'kill X enemies' or 'protect NPC against waves of enemies while he does something' or 'gather X [insert quest item here],' but it's how these events encourage players to work together, and do away with the issue of kill steals or enemy tagging that makes this form of PvE truly unique feeling. At first, these Dynamic Events are infrequent, generally occurring between Renown Hearts. However, as the game goes on, and players reach higher level content, the Dynamic Events begin to replace Renown Hearts, eventually becoming the sole source of PvE content in the higher level zones. As this transition happens, Dynamic Events change to Dynamic Event Chains, where the completion of one event leads straight into another event, often times moving the player across the zone in the process. In the highest levels of content, those chains give way to Dynamic Event Webs, probably the coolest addition to MMO PvE content. Think a Dynamic Event Chain, except when the event ends, how it ends determines what the next event is, and (probably) where it goes. While some might say that this system of dynamic grouping (since creating a static group is not required to complete dynamic events) discourages grouping, I see that as the pessimistic way of looking at it. If you go the "glass half full" route, you'd say that this system encourages cooperation more than most other MMO's out there, WoW included. Because the system doesn't require grouping to do the Dynamic Events, and because all kills are shared (so long as you've taken a swing at them), the system encourages active cooperation with others around you without the need to first sit in general chat spamming "LFG Golemancy Research Event, PST."
Yet another avenue Arenanet shines in for positive iteration is with their crafting system. In my experiences with past MMO's (of which I have played more than my fair share), crafting has just never quite felt as good and approachable as it did in WoW. Generally they tend to muck it up with convoluted gathering mini-games (yes Final Fantasy XIV, I'm still bitter), or clunky "hit or miss" crafting results that rely as much on luck as they do on having the right materials. TOR got close, and was probably in some ways even better than Guild Wars 2 (being able to access crafting materials from your bank without having to manually pull them out helped a lot). However, Guild Wars definitely takes the cake on making it incredibly easy to gather and store crafting materials, bringing about yet another 'why hasn't anyone else thought of this?' moment. First off, anyone can gather crafting materials. All you have to do is buy the gathering tool for each type (ax for wood, pick for minerals, sickle for plants) and equip them in your gathering tools slots and you're good to go. Gone are the days of armorsmiths cornering their own market on minerals, while tailors had to rely just as much on others as they did on their own pick-ups. Also, any standard crafting material (ore, logs, plants, gems, etc.) can be immediately whisked away to your bank without the need to head back to town. Furthermore, each crafting item, instead of taking up a precious slot in your incredibly small bank space, has its own spot within a "Collections" tab of your bank, with each spot being able to hold up to 250 of said item. This all means that crafting is no longer the cumbersome item management hassle of yore, and allows you to focus on actually playing the game while gathering up all those precious materials.
All that said, the crafting system definitely is not without faults. Though this first bit is more of a minor annoyance only because every other aspect of resource management associated to crafting is so well thought out, it's weird that you are still required to pull the items from your collections tab of your bank (which, admittedly, is accessible from the crafting station) before they become available for use with crafting. Furthermore, for a game that seems to emphasize allowing the player to enjoy being out in the world and does what it can to lessen the trips back to town, it is a bit odd that every profession requires the player to stand in front of a crafting station in order to access their recipes and being creating stuff. I suppose you could argue that their reason for this decision was because without it, there would be no need for players to return to the cities, but with the waypoint system, the only part of the city players see when going back to craft is the point from the waypoint to the crafting station. The last issue I have with the crafting system involves the use of uncommon drops (fangs, blood, bones, etc.) in crafting recipes.
One feature that, as far as I'm aware, is pretty unique to Guild Wars 2 is the crafting discovery. The player tosses 3-4 items into the slots, and so long as the recipe has not been previously discovered, they are rewarded with a new recipe, a fair amount of player experience, and a good chunk of crafting experience as well. This seems to be the best way to level up crafting, as without it, basic recipes stop giving crafting progress very quickly. That said, the number of uncommon items required for each discovery feels incredibly high for the yield the player receives. It feels like either Arenanet has decided to make the crafting progression rely heavily on trading through the Trading Post (which, as of this writing, has not consistently been up since launch), or the crafting progression was set in stone before the leveling curve was, causing players to leave zones long before they could have gathered enough of these materials to keep their crafting up to their level. It's an issue I'm fairly confident Arenanet will fix once the larger issues like dungeon groups and the Trading Post are fixed.
There's so much more to talk about, but I feel like maybe that'll be better suited in another blog post. In the next post, I'll try to discuss dungeons, structured PvP, WvWvW, armor dyes, and horizontal progression vs vertical progression.