Review: Guild Wars 2 borders spectacular and addicting

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For many, including myself, the release of Guild Wars 2 marks the end of five long years of waiting. It was also the beginning of a week of hectic keyboard tapping, trade-post-cursing, mouse clicking adventure that made going to work just that much more difficult each morning. The game launched with numerous problems, just like any game. Error 37; all I gotta say. Two weeks into Guild Wars 2 and there’s still a constant supply of status updates on different things that aren’t quite the way they want.

I didn’t personally have any trouble connecting, but the few issues I had connecting with a party and using the trading post made me wonder what made them switch off of “when it’s ready” when they did? I understand that even the most patient of publishers eventually requires a release date, and more than 90 percent of the game was ready. I still got the idea in my head that “when its ready” was, in fact, “when NCsoft starts getting pushy.”

 

That sort of spin is what I like to call “developer-speak”. Having standard list of answers to common questions is unavoidable, necessary, and wholly not evil. In my selfish grief, I decided to go back and look at ArenaNet’s MMO Manifesto and pick away at little things to decide if I think the developers lived up to what they were saying would happen in their new game.

Lets start things off with ArenaNet founder Mike O’Brien who briefly appears at the beginning:

“Guild Wars 2 takes everything you love about Guild Wars 1 and puts it into a persistent world. It’s got more active combat; a fully branching, personalized storyline; a new event system to get people playing together; and still no monthly fees.”

I’ll pass over splitting hairs on everything we love about Guild Wars 1, as much of that existed exactly because it worked as individual and group instances rather than a persistent world. Also healers, some people loved healers. To the point though, yes it is now a persistent world that continues on and changes without you. The combat is more active in that you can and quite frankly need to attack on the move. The story does branch, and is personalized. The event system draws people into the same area, and I’ve continued on around a zone with someone I met in an event. Also there is no monthly fee. Good job there, Mr. O’Brien.

ArenaNet’s art director Daniel Dociu has probably one of the most badass voices for a video game designer advertising his game:

“The look of Guild Wars 2 is stylized. We’re going for a painterly, illustrated aesthetic. Everything in our world feels handcrafted and artisanal. We treat our environments as if they are characters themselves.”

I absolutely applaud the art style of this game. Moving around the world really feels like I’m inside a painting, even with pretty low video quality settings. There is a lot of detail in the environments, which to me suggests that yes they did receive attention much in the way a fully fleshed out character might. The Guild Wars 1 fanbase can enjoy the attention given to making them remember the world as it was, especially when you see the ruins of famous landmarks. By the way, how does Temple of the Ages become a swamp when it was on a giant hill?  Anyway, the world looks like it was made by artists who genuinely care. I’ve visited all five of the starting areas and they each feel unique, from marshland and forests to sloping hills and a wide plain. My norn’s homeland appeals to me because I really am a fan of mountains and countryside. Quite simply, it looks right. I also really love the “vistas” scattered around that pull your camera out and take it on a quick ride around the area to give you a wider view of the countryside. I just wish some of them didn’t require a 10 minute jumping puzzle.

Lead Content Designer Colin Johanson speaks next, but he also speaks the most so I’m saving him for last. Game designer and author Ree Soesbee is the first person I’ll give some actual criticism to for her comments:

“As a structure the MMO has lost the ability to make the player feel like a hero, everybody around you is doing the same thing you’re doing. The boss you just killed respawns 10 minutes later, [the game] doesn’t care that I’m there. We do not want to build the same MMO that everyone else is building, and in Guild Wars 2 it’s your world, its your story you affect things around you in a very permanent way.”

I absolutely agree that I haven’t felt like a hero in an MMO for quite some time. When I first stepped into the genre with Ultima Online ten years ago I had that feeling, but even then (and since) it hasn’t compared to what a single player RPG makes you feel in terms of heroism. The difference, in my opinion, is the story that a single player game provides. Now, Guild Wars 2 certainly brings that story aspect in, but it’s almost like a separate part of the game.

The developers will tell you the game is split into three aspects. World vs World large scale PvP, Structured small scale PvP, and PvE. I think the PvE aspect is split itself into its sandbox, event driven world and the story. The story is integrated to the extent that you need to move around the world to get to the next chapter, but otherwise they don’t mesh. I can run around a cave and kill all the bats inside, but then when I step on the green dot to enter the story I run back into that cave which is full of bandits who’ve clearly been there for some time. I wouldn’t propose doing it a different way. It actually works quite well, but it doesn’t match up with the idea that the world is affected by my decisions.

The story  meets the standard of a world that’s built on what I am doing, what decision I make and makes me feel heroic, but the PvE world has that same old MMO feel. Everyone around me is still doing the same thing, the creatures I kill spawn before I’ve finished the next, and the world goes on with or without me. Even in the cases of dynamic events that happen rarely, they still repeat. The point is, that’s an element of an MMO that can’t be taken away, and still be called an MMO. If you want to have a popular game world that can be shared, it needs to be cyclical so that everyone can come along at some point to enjoy it.

I’m hoping that, as the game continues, in the next few months we start to see some truly rare events, seasonal events or events with truly long term consequences. Seeing a frozen lake in my norn’s home town get hit by a meteor and thawed for multiple weeks of real time would blow my mind, and blow this argument out of the water. Please let that happen, please, oh please.

And now, my favorite line ever spoken by a game designer:

“I swung a sword. I swung a sword again. Hey! I swung it again, thats great! We just don’t want players to grind in Guild Wars 2”

I have had to do some grinding in Guild Wars 2, but I’ll tell you that it isn’t all necessary. Guild Wars 2 actually has what I think is a good system for getting you to level quickly. Each area you can explore has a certain set of “heart missions” spread around that give you a good measure of progress for the area. Combined in with this are set markers that guide you to walk around the entire area. Each mission you finish and each marker you touch gives extra bits of experience. If you complete each heart mission and touch each marker and you get a big chunk of experience and coin for completing the area. In some areas this works well, while in others it doesn’t because of one critical difference: pacing and directions.

When I say pacing I mean a couple of things. First, the amount of time spent on each heart mission, which relates to the number of times you have to do something to progress. Also the amount of experience given, and the level required to keep moving just a few yards forward. Directions refers to the way the area guides you around itself, whether its subtly or a slap in the face. I found the human starter area to have good pacing, for the most part. I could finish the heart quest, level up and move on to the next area before I was feeling the drag of repetition. I didn’t wander into an area that was outside my level too often. The direction was also taken care of nicely, I could always see where the next heart was, and didn’t have to run 10 minutes to find anything new.

The Norn area was a bit more spread out, and I spent too long picking up eggs and placing them back on nests before I realized I could just kill the creatures nearby and pick up eggs as I went. After I got through the very low level part of it, I ran all the way back across it to find I wasn’t quite leveled up enough to go into the higher leveled part of the starting area.

The Charr starting area I have trouble motivating myself to finish. With the Charr character I made I actually went and finished the human area again to make sure I was leveled up appropriately for any other part of my home area. Perhaps I’ve just spent enough time in Queensdale, the human area, to know when to be where, but that just means that grind is still present, but avoidable. I don’t want my game to be figuring out how to dodge grind. I’d rather the grind had just been something I had to seek out if I really really wanted it.

Knowing where to go next is great, and seeing how far I’ve progressed is good, but I don’t want to spend 20 minutes as a slow moving tree stomping on grub holes and healing wilted plants for a barely noticeable advance in my heart quest progress. Getting the pacing and direction to flow smoothly throughout an entire game has to be incredibly difficult, without a doubt, but I was promised a lack of monotonous sword swinging here!

Two weeks in is far too soon to give any kind of grade for a game this size. So far it goes something like “this game is ruining my chance at social interaction with the real world.” or “oh my god its 2 a.m. I hope my dog is still alive…” While I’m going to give the game a four star rating, I’ve essentially tried one plate at an all you can eat buffet. The game has a long life ahead of it, and much of it is going to change as it continues. Guild Wars 1 is barely the same game it was when it first released, and I imagine Guild Wars 2 will grow and evolve similarly. That’s because there’s a large team there that I think really wants to live up to their promises.

 

John Stockemer is a connoisseur of electronic media, spending way too much money on movies and games. Most of his time is spent working at a bank, the natural use of his degree in psychology and playing with his puppy, Sonja; also beer, he really likes beer. John’s earliest gaming consisted of Duck Hunt and that Olympics game where you smash the Power Pad with your fists, but with age came more addicting games like Counter Strike and Ultima Online.

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