Guild Wars 2 is iterative, but it's still great.

A quick note: I wrote a Beginner's Guide to Guild Wars 2 for GamesRadar last week/weekend, which is why I wasn't posting much. (On top of being generally under the weather.) Me being me, I wound up writing way too much about it, so it's being split into three different sections and posting over the end of the week. Hopefully you'll enjoy it, and feel free to check it out if you like! It was the first bit of freelance I've done since the old job, and the first game guide-ish thing I've written in four or five years, so it was interesting to work on. There might be more where that came from if the freelance fairy smiles upon yours truly.

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Anyway, I've had plenty of time to play the game over the last month, between the (many) stress tests that ArenaNet ran and the head-start launch weekend, so I thought I'd put down some impressions. Obviously, this being an MMO (and a surprisingly full-featured one, considering the lack of a subscription model), so it's a bit premature to call this a "review," but I've had plenty of time to fiddle around with all of the basic mechanics, so I doubt my opinions of the game will change very much on the road to max-level. (The main caveat is that I haven't tried out the dungeon feature yet, which I'm looking forward to; I hear they're pretty tough.)

To put it succinctly, though, this feels like the first MMO I've tried in a long time that actually competes with WoW on a sense of world size and relative innovation. (Note that I didn't try Secret World, which I heard good things about.) GW2 feels iterative rather than revolutionary, but those iterations are almost uniformly positive, to the point where I constantly found myself asking "why didn't anyone think of this before?" (I'm sure that someone's going to point out that the features I really like are in another MMO someplace, but they're new to me, so be gentle.)

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Perhaps the most obvious of those is the way the game emphasizes emergent cooperative gameplay by getting rid of the long-standing MMO staples of monster-tagging and resource disappearance. In WoW, for example, the first player to tag or hit a monster will be the only one to get credit for the kill and be able to loot the body, unless they're in a party with other people. In GW2, all kills are shared between everyone who managed to land a blow on an enemy; even if I walk up to the end of your epic fight and send a single arrow into the body of the minotaur you're tackling, I still get full experience and the privelege of looting. (OBAMA SOCIALISM GOOGLE RON PAUL, etc.)

It's entirely possible that this might wind up being exploitable in some instances (although the downwards level scaling in PVE eliminates the worst opportunities for this), but for the most part, it's a wonderful change of pace, since you no longer have to worry about waiting around for a quest monster to spawn or recruiting a bunch of people to help you with a group quest. Since anyone can participate in a group event and get credit for it, it's an entirely common occurance to see dozens of players coming together to take down a particularly tough objective. As a result, the developers felt free to make many of the tougher world bosses pretty damn tough, with some of them taking a few minutes of constant fire from what's effectively a raid group to take down. (There is a bit of an imbalance between ranged classes and melee classes here, as it feels as though the ranged attackers have a much easier time staying alive.)

That's a great change of pace from the usual "I gotta get mine" attitude of your general MMO player. Since it costs neither you nor the other player anything to help them out, and is instead almost always beneficial (leaving aside the chance of death), I find myself assisting almost everyone I see. (As an aside, I think the XP rewards for assisting a fallen player back to their feet should be boosted, as it's often a pretty risky thing to pull off. Heck, throw some karma in there as well; it's thematically pretty appropriate. Although, again: exploitable if people wish to take advantage of it.) I wouldn't necessarily say that I feel any great cameraderie with the mostly anonymous players that I fight alongside (there are too many of them to really get a feel for anyone's identity as you quest, and people often seem to take different routes through the content), but it's usually more fun to feel like you're a part of a living world rather than a lone adventurer off in the wilderness by yourself.

The other reason that that feeling exists is because ArenaNet did away with consumable material nodes. Again, in games like WoW and TOR, a collectible node (for ore or plants or what have you) is first-come-first-serve, with the first person to reach the node and tag it gaining all of the rewards, while anyone else who was fighting through a group of mobs to get there left with their hands in their pockets. Not so in GW2, where everyone can collect from a node; if someone else mines an ore vein before you get there, it'll still be available on your map when you reach the location. That eliminates one of the more frustrating experiences in WoW, where you'd see an ore vein on your minimap and make a beeline, only to see someone else scooting away as the ore vanishes in front of your eyes. (I am curious if multi-botting farmers dominate the economy as time goes on; if you can net together five warriors, you'll be getting five times the resources in the same amount of time. I assume Arenanet will take an anti-multiboxing stance for that reason alone.)

Those two major changes seem to have allowed the developers to pack many more players into one server instance than in any other game I can ever recall, WoW included; at times it feels like I'm on a Japanese subway platform at rush hour. Granted, it is launch week, and the player base will ebb over time (although the game should avoid the first-month player exodus due to the lack of subscriptions), but the world feels chock-full of players, all of which are fighting towards the same goals as you. That is almost always a positive thing, as you never need to spend time plaintively beseeching guildmates to help you with a tough quest; just wait around and someone will surely come along who needs it as well.

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The drawback, so far, is a somewhat ironic lack of a community feeling to the game. Part of the charm of TOR and WoW is precisely the fact that it often made more sense to team up with other players in parties, which in turn made it easier to learn their names, chat with them, see what other quests they had to do that you might share with them, and so on. I've managed around 50 cumulative levels across my four characters in GW2, and I've only been in a party twice, and only one of those was strictly necessary. That makes the game world feel like a true massively-multiplayer experience, but one in which you're often just a cog in a great adventuring machine. That's not necessarily always a bad thing, though (and there's always guild chat to keep you entertained), and to me the benefits far outweigh the negatives.

The list of features that I love could go on and on, but I'd be remiss not to call out the "deposit all collectibles" feature in the inventory, which makes gathering crafting items a painless proposition, and the way the game encourages exploration by giving you a bevy of things to do in every corner of the map. It's a game that just feels extremely well thought-out from a design standpoint, and technically it's performed almost flawlessly as well, with a few hiccups here and there. (Get that auction house up already!)

My main concern for the rest of my time in Tyria is actually varying up the gameplay experience as I climb towards 80. You can unlock all of the weapon skills available to your character fairly early on, and after that the only customization that you can really do are change up your utility skills and invest in traits. Trait bonuses are mostly passive, as far as I can tell, and many of the utility skills have lengthy cooldowns, meaning that they don't really make a huge difference in the blow-by-blow of combat. All of which means that most fights see me using the same two or three skills (not including my autoattack) repeatedly until something dies. You can change weapons, of course, and even switch them in the middle of combat, but I rarely find myself doing so, as I generally go with a combination of a strong single-target weapon and one that's better at AOE fighting, and those elements rarely seem to mix all that much in any given fight.

In other words, I worry a bit about the game getting boring after the thousandth skirmish, and I sometimes wish the utility skills were a bit flashier or could be used more often. Even the class special skills sometimes feel underwhelming; the warrior's special is basically just an extra, more powerful attack, and the thief's stealing ability feels frustratingly random. They sometimes feel as though they were designed for flavor rather than for fun (and they're all thematically pretty spot-on), which is defensible, but I'd rather have a good balance of the two.

Anyway, as I write I keep thinking of things I want to laud in Guild Wars 2. The game, again, isn't a revolution in MMO design, but it does a lot of things better than any MMO that's come before, and really feels like the first one that I've played that can stand up against WoW in the long run. I'd still give WoW the edge in overall fun factor, simply because I like the combat mechanics better (given that you can bind and use dozens of actions in combat, rather than the limited options available to you in GW2), but we'll see what the future holds. For now, it's easily recommendable as a purchase, especially without the monthly fee structure.

What do you guys think of GW2 so far? It seems to have gotten more buzz than any PC game in recent memory, so I'm curious to hear your thoughts.

EDIT: I really wish I could respond to more than two comments in a row. Alas, I can't!