I’ve not been a WOW’er, N’Everquested, haven’t G-War’ed before either. In fact previous to my last few weeks, my experience of MMO’ing in general has been strictly limited. In my head they’re dangerous, addictive, and swarming with the kind of characters that run around chopping off ‘Noobs’ heads for giggles, shouting ‘lol, rofl lmao’ as they go. So it was with some trepidation and confusion that I stepped forward to wrestle the latest epic MMORPG (I believe that’s Massively Multiplayer Role-Playing Game) to rise out from the internet’s dark bosom: Guild Wars 2. And you know what, I kinda get it now...
I am a Norn. I tower over puny humans, nine feet tall, great sword slung upon my back, bow in hand. My vicious beast, White Fluffy Claws, stands beside me. His sleek polar bear fur suddenly springs to attention as he senses danger. Suddenly a massive wurm smashes up through the icy floor beneath our feet. Issormir. This snake-like monster has been plaguing the village for too long. His end is near. Quickly I dive backwards out of the reach of his vicious fangs and unleash several arrows from my bow string. They sting him, but it will take more than a few scratches to finish this creature. Spinning around, I notice several other fellow hunters have joined in the battle, elementalist slinging flames, engineers peppering bullets from a distance, and warriors charging in head first. Together we will bring Issormir down. Releasing my hulking sword from its scabbard, I leap into the fray. Unleashing the spirit of the bear, I slam the blade down heavily against the beast’s scales. It crushes straight through. With one last icy breath, Issormir is dead. We have done it. My first quest is complete.
If you let it, Guild Wars 2 contains many epic renditions such as this. Enchanting and magical journeys that rise up right from the introduction. Before you can begin this journey however you must first go through the usual rigmarole of character creation. Reminiscent of other recent RPGs such as Skyrim or Dragon’s Dogma, players select a race (Human, Norn, Charr, Asura or Sylvari), then a class (Warrior, Ranger, Engineer, Thief, Elementalist, Necromancer and Mesmer) then sculpt their features to create the avatar of their choice. Surprisingly flexible and varied it ensures that there will not be too many other characters strutting around looking eerily similar to you. Finally you are posed a short series of seemingly irrelevant questions to judge your character. Be cautious, the responses prove to decide the course of your early journey in the game.
Each character starts their quest fighting a creature of epic proportions, highlighting what this MMORPG has to offer. Issormir is the Norn’s first ‘boss’ but each race faces just as frightening an encounter. They are not particularly challenging of course, the developers want all players to be able to progress beyond the introductory area, but they are impressive nonetheless. Once completed you are dropped into the ‘real’ Guild Wars 2 world. And my, what a world it is! Bringing up the map view greets you with that marvelous feeling of insignificance. After strutting around in the starting area for a good four or five hours, fighting creatures, searching caves and helping innocents you realise that you have barely covered a fortieth of the map. While obviously these are imprecise calculations, that amounts to spending at least hundred hours conquering the world. It is a dizzying prospect and one that showcases the true value of this no subscription fee game.
While the world is huge it manages to maintain an essence of creativity throughout. Eschewing the archetypal fantasy settings and blending it with a more sci-fi feel results in some incredibly interesting, unique and bizarre environments. For example the Charr, massive cat-humanoid creatures with a penchant for engineering, have created what seems to be a tribute to Star Wars in their home city where a giant Death Star looms over an industrial landscape. The art department have gone all out to create settings with a sense of individualism. Since this game was intended to run on low-end, some sacrifices had to be made on the overall quality of the graphics. The result may not be jaw-droppingly beautiful, yet each newly discovered area brings with it a sense of wonder and often amazement.
The basic building blocks and the vast majority of experience gained in the game comes from completing quests. Quests in Guild Wars 2 come in several flavours: firstly the personal missions that make up the story behind the game. Entering these instances sweeps you away from the multiplayer environment and drops you into your own separated small world. Usually after a short conversation, which appears on the screen as two models chatting in front of an animated background, you then march headfirst into battle. There is some variety here, some missions may require elements of stealth or cunning, but more often than not they just dissolve into all out brawls. While your friends and party followers can follow you into an instance, generally these missions are undertaken solo, meaning there is far more danger of being defeated and having to respawn with no-one around to revive you. Conversely, it is the perfect chance to prove how deadly you are without the help of random strangers.
There is something that irks me whenever I enter a story instance however. In my mind my Norn character, despite his giant stature, tattoos and grisly demeanor is a simple, gentle man. Yet, the lack of control over what my character chooses to say in these conversations - and often it is stunningly arrogant and obnoxious - tears a portion of my neatly spun role-playing apart. While I can mould his looks, hair and the colour of his clothes to however I wish, it seems I simply do not have any control over his personality.
For the second form of quest missions, let us zoom swiftly away from my Norn Ranger, and swoop down from the heavens into the soles of my Asuran Engineer. The Asura, strange intellectual gnomish-like creatures, are in the midsts of a what seems to be a rather civilised civil war between their krewes (the clans that make up the structure of their society). One particular krew, the Inquisition, is causing havoc across the homelands. Many of the early world events for the Asura are related to stopping the Inquisition. These events spring up from time to time as you roam across the countryside, with a little icon in the corner of the screen informing you of the task at hand. As every player in the area receives the same notification there is suddenly a huge convergence on the position marked on the map, sometimes resulting in a confusing mess of people attempting to lay their hands on the enemy. When the mission is complete each player is then awarded a medal depending on their overall involvement in finishing (or failing) the task.
These quests can vary wildly in their content, from the tired dog-eared old RPG stereotype of collecting some irrelevant pick-up (though thankfully these are fairly few and far between), to king of the hill style competitions. From bizarre games of trying to catch barrels falling from the sky, to giant brawls with massive bosses. There is often a lot of entertainment to be found stumbling across a new and unique quest and joining fellow adventurers in stopping an impending catastrophe.
One of the unique features of Guild Wars 2, compared to other MMORPGs, are the direct consequences of completing, or indeed failing, a world event. For example, during my journey across the swamps of the Asuran homeland I stumbled across a scientist who was scavenging for raptor eggs. I decided to help him, as had several other adventurers, and we started exterminating the nearby Jurassic Park-esque monsters. I laid a few of my trusty engineering turrets down for protection and ploughed a few bullets into the nearest beasts before scooping up their eggs and returning them to the scientist. Once we had satisfied this bizarre scientist’s egg quotient, he declared to us his intentions of creating a giant raptor that would protect the Asuran swamps. We all eyed him suspiciously, but seeing no alternative options we let him continue his plans. Of course it all went horribly wrong, and before long we were facing a massive fifteen foot dinosaur with teeth that could rip out a tiny Asuran’s heart in seconds. With all our might, and with a lot of help from some delicately placed mines and my machine gun turrets constantly distracting and aggravating it, we felled this beast. Looking back, I cannot help but wonder what would have happened if we had simply left this crazy scientist to get eaten by the raptors in the first place.
And all of this escalates up on a much grander scale as well. Entire towns can be overrun by monsters, the merchants retreat in fear and the teleporters become blocked. Heroes can no longer rest here until they have completed quests to drive back the enemies from their homes. At first, it is very impressive and adds a unique dynamic to the entire world. One cannot simply ignore these quests for fear of the frustrating consequences of failure.
Unfortunately the impressive sheen that makes these events interesting on the first encounter, wears off fairly quickly. After a few hours it becomes rather clear that they repeat ad nauseam and once one reaches that stage of enlightenment it is easy to no longer care whether a town has been taken by hostile forces, or a scientist failed to collect his eggs. Sooner or later these events will reappear in the notifications and you may look up with an apathetic eye and end up simply ignoring them. The issue here is that they seem to be far too common and repetitive. If you have been wandering around an area for an hour or so, generally you will have witnessed all the events it has to offer. The only reason to get involved is to gain valuable extra experience, gold and reputation points.
Reputation missions make the up the final form of quest. These are effectively the grunt work leg of the game. The more inane forms of these involve you simply collecting items and returning them to the place marked on the map, or simply killing X amount of whichever monster type happens to be terrorising the vicinity. In the case of my Asuran engineer, I was made to collect strange coloured ooze from nearby caves or kill a large amount of inquest soldiers. Often it felt like a chore, but sadly a necessary one, since it gives the player direction and seems to be by far the most efficient way of gaining experience. For a game that is trying to fly the banner of originality and revolution in RPG gaming, these missions really drag it down.
Happily repeatedly killing x number of creatures for the sake of experience or completing quests turns out to be actually quite fun. The action element, an area that a majority of RPGs tend to lack, is remarkably well fleshed out. Many similar games resort to combinations of tirelessly hammering the same keys and clicking on monsters. Diablo III for instance feels like a mess of RSI-inducing clicks of the mouse and bashing your head repeatedly on the numberpad, whereas WOW (from what I’ve heard) can be played with one of those drinking duck toys constantly pecking the ‘1’ key. While Guild Wars 2 certainly features a whole lot of number key pressing, it also uses the WASD keys to control the character and double tapping commands to evade attacks, aligning it more with action style games than it’s MMORPG compatriots. On the whole, this makes the experience far more intense and enjoyable.
For a demonstration, let’s slip into the uncomfortably tight leather trousers of my female Human Thief (Guild Wars 2 nobly continues that long held gaming and fantasy tradition of confusing female with whore). Thief in name rather than by nature, since she tends not to steal anything, her abilities are based around agility and stealth. Before our shady looking heroine stands a massive ettin. A brute, five times her size, and wielding a scary looking club, she does not even hesitate as she charges forward. Using a combination of her cat-like abilities and dodges to avoid attacks, this graceful being can take down these monsters without so much as a scratch. It is all a wonderful game of timing.
There is something almost ritualistic or meditative about combining the right actions at the right time to avoid every incoming attack, bringing down creatures levels above your own. Of course, these abilities take their time to recharge, and with the thief’s unique initiative system, which is effectively a glorified mana bar, there's also a large amount of strategy involved in planning the attacks. Adding to the strategy, if you manage to team up with some other players, then there are certain combo attacks that use multiple heroes, such as firing arrows through an elementalist’s flaming wall and setting an enemy ablaze. While the thief is probably the pinnacle of the timing and action element of the game, each class has their own unique style which, if utilised in the right way, can be just as powerful. Sadly, it has to be said that some other classes do not seem to be quite as an exciting to play. My poor Norn ranger has been left on the sidelines recently, as I have found his skills a touch too repetitive. I feel most for poor White Fluffy Claws, he needs his exercise.
One interesting little feature of the Guild Wars 2 world is its auto-level scaling system. Travel anywhere in the world and the game will balance your character’s level to fit to the surrounding area. Effectively this means that a level eighty character can be scaled down to a puny level five if he happens to be wandering around a starting area. The scaling will reduce all your statistics to a reasonable level, but will not have any effect on your skills. The genius of this is that it makes any area a slight challenge no matter how powerful you are and also stops high level players completely ruining the balance of world quests and events. Scaling only works in a downwards direction however, so do not expect to trundle into a den of deadly level fifty trolls with your new character and live.
While this balancing system is definitely a necessary part of the game, it does cause some headache inducing problems at times. There is one particular Norn quest for example that seems to be scaled incorrectly since it pulls down your hero to a point where they are almost incapable of being able to complete the mission. Effectively you are stuck since no matter how far you level up beyond this instance the game will always bring you back down. It is perhaps a minor niggle, and one that is thankfully rare, but it does demonstrate the flaws in this scaling feature.
There is a huge writhing economy built into the game with players able to trade with each other through a fairly efficient market system. Depending on the economic climate, commodities rise and fall in price and in theory it is possible to make a lot of in game money through investment. If one really had the desire. Often it is essential to use this market to further your crafting skills, since certain resources in the world can be scarce. Crafting and professions turn out to be a rather important aspect of the game since not only does it provide valuable experience, but also many items that are crafted can be better than those found randomly strewn in monsters across the world. Similar in some ways to Minecraft, Guild Wars 2 allows players to experiment (particularly in the cookery profession, which has over a hundred ingredients) by combining random constituents to see what you can create, although it tends to guide you by the hand by restricting selections rather than letting you throw anything and everything into the pot. Professions work as a fun and interesting addition to the game, providing yet another drive to mine resources or kill monsters for potential drops.
My major problem with Guild Wars 2 is possibly not even the fault of the game, but rather the characters within. The world is so vibrant and lively, yet heroes that inhabit it all seem lifeless and uninterested. The cities and countryside are teeming with warriors going about the daily grind but everyone is so silent. Players will nearly always rush up to revive a fallen comrade (since it provides a small amount of experience), but they will then inevitably disappear off into the distance without a word. It just does not seem to encapsulate ‘role-playing’ particularly well, unless everyone is role-playing at being an indifferent mute. While it is not the game’s own fault, it certainly does nothing to improve the situation: the focus on levelling and constant events is so intense that it leaves room for little else. Combine this with the fact that the NPCs that line the street are frustratingly soulless and repetitive and you are left with a very empty, but stunningly beautiful, world. If I were to compare Guild Wars 2 to my only other MMO experience, a text based browser game called The Dark Grimoire, I would actually say the latter felt more ‘real’ despite its graphical shortcomings, since most players there simply sit around in the pub chatting. Perhaps this is something that will evolve as the short-term gamers move on and the hardcore settle in, but at present Guild Wars 2 simply needs more life injected into it.
While there is a PvP element (see the break-out box) the entire standard world of Guild Wars 2 is PvE (Player vs Environment), meaning that there is no combat between players at any point within it. Cooperative gaming is certainly the the order of the day. All pickups that are left behind on enemy corpses are exclusive, so it is impossible to steal from each other. Experience is not split but rather the full amount is awarded to all the combatants involved in the kill, meaning that high level heroes can help weak characters without stealing all the awards.
While I find myself on the one hand applauding the developers ArenaNet for removing the frustration involved with PvP entirely, the other hand is somewhat more bemused. Evil is simply one side of the soul and without it the game seems slightly soulless. Maybe I would like to sit inside of a cave, and kill any adventurer daring enough to enter. Maybe I want to be the hated necromancer of the castle Dedd, who sneaks out at night to prey on the weak and feeble. I don’t of course, but being stripped of even the possibility removes some of the spirit that should be associated with an RPG.
I did not know what to expect when I first logged into Guild Wars 2. Now, after spending far too many hours plundering the depths of Tyria, I think I now understand the ridiculous popularity of the MMORPG genre. It all boils down to connecting with that dangerously addictive side of the brain. That constant desire to improve, find better equipment, learn new skills and dish out more damage. Guild Wars 2 certainly helps scratching that ever present itch with a surprisingly exciting, flexible and intelligent combat system, dynamic quests that always give a goal to aim for and all within a massive world, ripe to explore. The only real problem with the game is that it promotes levelling and completing personal and world quests so entirely, that everyone ends up looking like ants constantly working away with no time to simply be the character. Some RPGs, such as the all encompassing Skyrim, allow you to do virtually anything you wish. Kill the king if you must, the game allows it, even if you may not survive. That freedom gives a role-playing game its soul, and Guild Wars 2 simply fails at breathing much life and soul into its exquisitely crafted world. For some this may be an entirely irrelevant point, since the game is still excellent fun, but for me it is what stops it from becoming truly brilliant.