One of the primary problems that exists for a professional games writer is being able to genuinely appraise games when you’ve experienced almost all of them. Over the past five years that I’ve been a paid critic, I have either reviewed or evaluated every single major MMO, from WoW to TERA, WAR to Aion. Every single one of those titles had promised a plethora of various expectations, and in the end, failed to realise what makes a game in this genre appealing for longer than a few months, let alone years.
It’s not that any of these games are particularly bad, although many were, but the reasoning behind their existence was questionable. People did not want to leave the neighbourhoods they liked, the people they trusted and the schools their kids were used to for something that was almost identical to what they already had in almost every way. Sure, there was a new amenity on offer (public quests, political systems, action-oriented combat) but that feature just wasn’t enough to justify ongoing payment or guild upheaval.
So as time went on, every MMO had something more to prove as people grew tired of the process. It wasn’t enough to build each class their own incredible story and omit a living world with social elements, or develop an incredible, visceral, combat system but make every single quest and area so bland and generic that it was rendered practically useless. I never found myself sticking around after 30 days, even when developers would throw free game time and items at me, hoping for some follow up press.
Guild Wars 2 didn’t impress me very much when I played it during the beta. As I’ve mentioned previously, being forced to squish myself into a weekend every few weeks didn’t allow enough time to get a feel for anything more than a bit of mucking around with combat and questing. So when the time came to jump into the final product, I found myself reluctantly updating the beta client, expecting another period of time to be impressed with the game but unwilling to carry on past a point.
I’m willing to admit that not only was I wrong, but that I’m happy to say I’ve finally found the Golden Ticket. Guild Wars 2 is one of the most meticulously planned, beautifully polished, and perfectly executed examples of the genre since, well, World Of Warcraft. It not only manages to strip itself away from the decade-long curse of awful tropes and single feature improvements, but elevate itself to the top of the pack, buoyed by the benefit of having absolutely zero subscription fees.
It manages this feat by putting together a list of the things you absolutely hate about MMOs - such as the endless stacks of staggered quests that force you to hunt aimlessly for mobs, being ninja’d by other players, fighting for crafting mats and server queues - and solving almost every one of them. ArenaNet has obviously played the same games we all have before, and figured that the best way to stand above the pack would be to introduce a flow to a traditionally static and stodgy model.
This enormous feat is centred by a feature the developer calls “Renown Hearts” - questing fields that are essentially open mission areas with a central goal, such as helping a farmer with his chores or disarming a small battlefield of mines and rebels. There are no quests as such here, you enter the area and work at the objectives until your NPC is happy. Experience is granted, and you move on. Occasionally, public events will occur in and around the areas you are, and these events not only provide their own systems of reward (that I will cover in more detail later) but actually also contribute to the field you were originally working in.
What separates these areas from traditional “kill X, move Y” are the unusual ways you can go about completing the tasks. In one example, you are asked by a trader to collect trinkets scattered around an area to trade away valuable rune stones from the local savages. Most of the time, it’s trial and error, but a clever player will notice that there are certain NPCs that prefer a certain type of item and will trade a higher value for it, or that if one already has too many of an item, they may refuse it.
Not only that, but quests begin to increase in difficulty and complexity as time goes on. Not every area is hard or offers a challenge, but every now and again you will stumble across a clever shortcut or a subtle puzzle to simply grind out the obvious option for little gain. ArenaNet has even introduced platform and third-person shooter style elements to some renown areas. Once completed, “full heart” NPCs will offer exclusive items to players in return for Karma that is earnt by completing events and other game modes, such as PvP and WvW.
Progression is provided by a traditional level system with a current cap of 80, and via a unique system of point-based talents and “traits”. Points are allocated every level or after seeking out and competing challenges, and can be funnelled into non-weapon specific skill sets, such as traps, minions, healing abilities and so on. Traits allow players to focus on certain elements of their class’s’ abilities, such as pet strength or magic defense/offense. Not only does this system remove an onus and focus on obvious cookie cutter builds, it’s almost been designed in a way that everything is available, since skills can be changed on the fly.
Dynamic events aren’t new, and many players will recognise Rift as a standout for improving on the model that was originally introduced in WAR. Where GW2 improves even further on this is by adding an element of intrinsic urgency into these tasks by spawning events inside or immediately next to renown fields or even inside towns and cities, forcing players to defend themselves within traditional “safe zones”. It’s also worth noting that nowhere is safe in this game, as enemies will set up roadblocks on roads or ambush players as they walk past.
The rewards from completing events are so high that it becomes worthwhile to do them more than once, which makes it less likely you will find yourself in situations where you’re the only one taking on some ridiculous giant or army of elite mobs. Many players will usually heed the call for help, especially when the victory might fill ⅕ of their experience bar or drop a few hundred Karma in their pocket. It’s this fluidity and ease of play that almost revolutionises how players interact with one another.
Every action is counted, such as helping another toon take out an enemy, or killing a sub boss for precious skill points. Someone got to that mining node before you? No problems, it will be there for you once it’s done. Since rewards can exist in areas where quests aren’t, you are rewarded for wandering all over the map, whether seeking out those completion Achievements or just checking out what that interesting section on the corner of the map holds. People will even randomly follow one another, in an unspoken sense of comradery, to see what’s going on.
Additionally, people who game with friends who are either well ahead of them or behind them will not be punished, as Anet has introduced a system of level scaling. Regardless of how powerful you are, if you’re feeling charitable enough to help a friend out, you will scale down to their level so they won’t lose any XP, while you still continue to gain. Every player will also scale up to 80 when in WvW or PvP, removing much of the balance issues that plague this system of combat in other titles.
Combat, which is easily one of the best parts of GW2, consists of a hybrid system combining the dodging and context sensitive movements of DC Universe and Tera, with the strategic combo system of Aion. Unlike Tera, however, choosing a class does not determine your fate. Almost every profession has an available array of different weapons, which unlock their own sets of skills when equipped. This system almost revolutionises the fight, particularly when your enemy gets too close for a bow and requires a bit of a slap in the face with your blade.
Dodging and evading attacks have also become imperative parts of combat, especially once you leave the starting areas, since certain enemies can pound you for standing in one place. Choosing the right weapon and attacks for certain enemies make noticeable differences, and also remove the issues relating to traditional healing classes when levelling solo, since every class can heal to a reasonable extent and even magic heavy classes can fall back to melee weaponry.
Navigation has also been overhauled, with the well overdue removal of mounts and “flight points” with a symbol quick travel system of waypoints. Once a waypoint has been activated, you can quickly jump back to that point from anywhere in the game (for a small fee) with a simple click. No more waiting for players to run to an area, or needing to navigate an overly complex system of flight points and blimps. Every waypoint is less than a few minutes apart, and certain areas, like large cities, have multiple to avoid that tedious run back and forth between trainers and your bank, for example.
Many players may read that and think it’s removing an enduring tradition, I can testify that it makes for a significantly streamlined experience. Most of us have significantly less time to play games than when we were younger, thus the removal of that 30 minute wait while people get their shit together to meet or finding places to meet for questing is greatly appreciated. Let’s face it - mounts existed because this system didn’t.
There are two types of PVP in GW2, one that relies on the individual and the other on your servermates. The traditional model of individual PVP finds you joining smaller matches with other players to earn “Glory” points which can be used to buy equipment (to be used only within PVP) as well as other random PVP awards. It’s fun, especially in tournament mode where both organised and unorganised teams can compete in knock out rounds to win points, bragging rights and even the title of “Player of the Year”. The system in place is extraordinarily complex and structured, and since all players are automatically offered all skills, items and full levels, skill and gear are the only factors that separate players.
But it’s WvW where you can find yourself lost for hours at a time. Considered a viable alternative to a traditional PVE levelling experience, players can play the game entirely in this mode, earning experience towards their skills, traits, karma and level. It’s also the mode that offers the highest level of reward, since all gains can be used within PVE. In this mode, players compete in teams of up to 2000 players across four different maps in battles that run 24/7, competing to hold bases and structures with the help of friendly NPCs.
Sound epic? It is. A real-time map and internal system of waypoints and warp gates allow players to move where they are needed, with base captures generating points that are updated on a real-time basis and accessible to all players by pressing “B”. These points are then converted into a series of fluctuating boosters to crafting and combat in PVE that affect the entire server. Any player can jump in at any time to help, and it’s this ease of access that means that most servers always generally have enough players competing to be competitive.
But it’s this demand on the player-base that is Guild Wars 2’s Achilles heel. No game before it has put such a demand on server population being not only high, but evenly spread across the entire level spectrum. Without significant numbers of players active at all times, WvW becomes completely irrelevant and many zones may find themselves significantly understaffed with players available to take on the more demanding dynamic events. Particularly, ones that can take down towns without intervention.
The lack of subscription should be a large factor in stemming the post-30 curve that usually takes down most titles, as players won’t need to make a choice to invest in the game after the first month. As it goes, all players have lifetime subscriptions, and it’s been the example of the original GW’s success with ongoing player numbers that probably lead them to continue this model now, especially since the count on launch has been significantly higher than its predecessor, and growth should increase as many players tire of other games, including WoW.
The fact is, there really is little to complain about in GW2 that would seem petty in the face of all the places where it succeeds. The camera placement is sticky to the extent of being pretty bad, especially when players find themselves moving backward or into the environment. The game looks gorgeous, but it’s stuck running DX9 code meaning that it could be utilising a lot more of the resources that exist in higher spec’d machines than it currently is. The launch was not without its problems, including a non-functioning trading post, broken guild management, disconnection problems and other balance issues that continue to exist up until time of writing.
But I could follow this up with a list of other improvements that I have simply run out of space to write about; that server transfers are instantaneous, the cash store is completely unassuming and unobtrusive, the in-game map is extraordinarily detailed and useful, there is no race to endgame since questing is fun, the trading post is miles ahead of the auction house and that there is so much to discover about the game that people are still figuring out Easter Eggs and undocumented game features. Not only that, but they’ve found a way to bring casual gamers back and in a way that complements hardcore play. And that is an amazing achievement.
I would be reasonably loathe to consider Guild Wars 2 a “revolution” in MMO mechanics, since at its core there is still a theme park here, albeit an extraordinarily well-designed one. But it’s obvious that its creators took on and smashed existing tropes with an aim to significantly improve on that experience that many millions of players currently fork out money for every month. So on that basis, I will just go ahead and say it; GW2 is the first genuine competitor with any chance of success to compete on the same turf as World of Warcraft since its inception. Blizzard would be wise to take notes.