Guild Wars 2

August 11, 2013

The MMO landscape is littered with the remains of failed MMOs, each one believed to be the next big thing, and each one left to eke out a meagre existence in the shadow of the vast juggernaut that is World of Warcraft. Every year, there’s at least one game that everybody picks up as being “the WoW killer”, and every year, said WoW killer fails, often spectacularly. Examples include Vanguard: Saga of Heroes,Warhammer OnlineAge of Conan and, most recently, Star Wars: The Old Republic.

In this barren world, the best thing an MMO that isn’t World of Warcraft can do is to find a way to differentiate and offer something not offered by Blizzard’s cash cow. The original Guild Wars managed not only to survive in WoW’s shadow, but thrive. Its biggest selling point for most people was the fact it required no ongoing subscription fee. While you did have to pay for content, that was the only barrier to entry. Mixed in with a rich, visually stunning world, a storyline that actively involved the player, and extremely well-balanced and competitive PvP, Guild Wars has managed to survive where others have fallen.

With that kind of success, developer ArenaNet would be foolish not to offer a sequel. Rumblings of Guild Wars 2 date back as far as 2007, and the 2009 Guild Wars: Eye of the North expansion was intended to lead into the game by introducing players to the Norn and Asura races, as well as resolve the Charr storyline from the original campaign. After promises of releases in both 2010 and 2011, the sequel is finally here, and it’s well worth the wait.

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The first thing you’ll notice is the incredible art direction. Guild Wars was, at the time of its release in 2005, the prettiest MMO on the market, and it’s fair to say that the sequel has taken up that mantle. Lush grassy fields, snowbound mountains, dense jungles and even open plains all await your early adventures in the world of Kryta.

Even the player races are beautiful. If you’re used to the low-polygon count of a WoW character, then get ready for a shock, as your character can have detailed faces, a wide variance in body size and shape, and even animated hair. Armour, too, is highly detailed, and with an expanded version of the dye system from the original game, it’s very easy to make a character that looks genuinely unique. Perhaps the most impressive looking race is the Sylvari, a new race who are born of the trees, and retain a tree-like appearance, with a living-wood appearance for their bodies, and a very clever use of leaves for their “hair”.

Even the Charr, the game’s token “monster” race, look incredibly cool. One thing that ArenaNet have chosen not to do with this race is tone down their monstrousness to make them more attractive to players. If you’re familiar with the debacle that became the female Worgen from WoW, then you’re in for a pleasant surprise. Blizzard: This is how you make both genders of a monster race look cool.

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The original Guild Wars featured some of the most spectacular locations ever pumped through a 3D accelerator. Places like pre-Searing Ascalon (and, for that matter, post-Searing Ascalon), Lion’s Arch, the dry barren desert of Elona Reach, and especially the amazing Kaineng City from the Factions campaign are all simply amazing places with that rare I-want-this-to-be-real quality to them. Well, Guild Wars 2 manages to top all of these places. The human capital city of Divinity’s Reach makes Stormwind look like a run-down country town, while the stunning tree-city of The Grove is everything Darnassus wants to be when it grows up.

The most amazing location however, is the new Lion’s Arch, a vast pirate city built around (and I mean, entirely around) a large bay, with a built-up central area, and suburbs that reach around a bay. Sandy beaches, rich dunes and clear water make it all feel like a tropical paradise. Added to this is the fact that the city is populated with merchants, traders, bankers and NPCs to make it feel like a lively, bustling place.

Having fantastic locations and a rich, lively world is one thing. Backing it up with engaging combat and other gameplay elements is another. The good news is that Guild Wars 2 has an impressive combat system. A lot of the combat changes from the original game are about streamlining the interface and making things more interactive. The original game’s skill list worked fine at first, but as each new campaign was released, new skills being added led to an unwieldy list. This setup has been completely redesigned for GW2, and skill points have once again become a useful thing to get. All skills are purchased through these points, and the more skills you have, the more skill points you need to access new skills. Added to this is a new tiered system that unlocks skill tiers after a certain amount of skills from the previous tier are unlocked.

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But skills themselves, in the traditional Guild Wars sense, have been de-emphasised. Guild Wars 2introduces new weapon skills, which are available based on the kind of weapon you have equipped. At first, only one skill is available, however using the weapon type allows you to unlock the remaining skills for that weapon. Combo attacks are now intrinsically linked to each other, so you only have to press the same button multiple times to trigger a combo.

All this leads to a redesigned action bar, with skills rigidly locked in place. The upside to this is that it provides a very clear, very direct instruction on how a class’s primary combat rotations should work. The downside is that the game forces to you play to its idea of how you should play, rather than yours. Overall, this is a better solution: WoW players have long known the frustration of a new player who has somehow managed to create a useless and unworkable rotation because the game offers no direction on how to setup the action bar.

Character stats have been simplified, too. While Guild Wars was never a stat-heavy game, GW2 breaks everything down into four easy-to-understand stats: Power, which is total damage output, Precision, which is critical chance, Vitality, which is health, and Toughness, which is armour. There are also secondary stats that offer boosts to bonuses such as damage-over-time (“condition” in GW2 parlance) and critical damage.

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There are eight classes in Guild Wars 2, and the mix-up is relatively unique. The game avoids the MMO holy trinity of tank-healer-damager by eliminating the healer side altogether. There are no dedicated healing classes in GW2. Even the Monk from GW1 is gone. Instead, every class gets a set of healing skills that can be assigned to a specific healing button and used in combat. These range from strong single-character heals to area-of-effect heals that allow your party to be healed. In essence, keeping yourself alive is your own responsibility.

All the classes also get a dodge ability. By double-tapping a direction key, a player can dodge out of the way of an incoming attack. The ability to do this is restricted by an endurance meter that is drained each time a dodge is performed, however the meter recharges fairly quickly. This ability, alongside the fact that it’s simply possible to move out of the way of an attack anyway, leads to a much more interactive combat experience. Rather than sitting there lobbing projectiles or attacks on an opponent, you can move out of the way and force them to chase you. This works both ways, as well: mobs in the game will employ some pretty advanced combat tactics to take you down. Whereas other MMOs rely on stats and dice rolls to determine whether or not an attack misses, here it’s directly related to a player’s skill and awareness.

Questing in Guild Wars 2 is a completely different experience to almost any other MMO out there. ArenaNet have chosen to abandon the traditional “20 bear arses” model of questing for a more dynamic system, eliminating quest NPCs entirely. Instead, getting near an area will pop up a notification in the top-right of the screen and a map marker showing you a person who is looking after that area. You then have a variety of tasks to perform, and each one moves a progress bar along. Complete enough tasks, and you’ll get XP and karma, which is a currency that can be used to purchase items from these NPCs.

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There are also world events, which usually either involve holding an area off from invading forces, or escorting an NPC through a hostile environment. The beauty of these events is that anyone who involves themselves in them can get rewarded. There’s no need to join a party or otherwise group up. If you’re in the vicinity, you’ll see a map marker and you can run in and join the fray. Once an event completes, you’ll earn a gold, silver or bronze award based on how much you helped out. If you just ran in at the end and shot a few mobs, you’ll get a smaller reward than someone who was there from the beginning.

The downside to this is that it’s harder to tell a story through questing. While you can get some sense of what the story of an area might be just by going there and helping out, you are never directed to new areas by NPCs. Instead its up to you to search the zone for these quest areas and then do them. Of course, this does allow a very organic mode of questing: You might be just exploring an area or travelling from one place to another when an event passes near you. You can then choose to help out for the reward, or keep going and avoid trouble.

Despite this, the game does have a story to tell. As with the original Guild Wars and its campaigns, there is a single, character-based story for you to follow through the game. While it’s not exactly Mass Effect, the story does have branches and is affected by decisions you make at character creation. Each section of the story is told in an instanced version of the zone it takes place in, and each section is also intended to be done alone. The most important thing this story does is drive to you find new areas to quest and and level up in.

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Guild Wars 2’s quest system rewards exploration, and ArenaNet have acknowledged this by adding vistas to the game. These are places you can go to, often out of the way or hard to reach, where finding them will unlock a brief cinematic that shows off the surrounding area and rewards a small amount of XP. Anyone who spent hours finding places in the original Guild Wars, or those who enjoyed getting into WoW’s forbidden zones will appreciate the effort needed to find all of these vistas.

The crafting experience in GW2 is exceptionally polished. If you’re familiar with the first game’s salvaging and crafting system, then prepare yourself for a massively expanded version of that. You can now take up crafting professions to create items for your class. One interesting feature here is that there’s no limit to the number of professions you can have, so its feasible to level all the professions on a single character if you so desire. This also extends to resource collection: mining, herbing and woodcutting nodes are all available for you to access without needing any kind of profession (you only need a limited-use tool to take them). ArenaNet have also intelligently solved the problem of node stealing by making a node accessible to multiple players at the same time.

Crafting also rewards reasonable amounts of XP, which is handy because the biggest flaw in Guild Wars 2 is how long it takes to level. While ArenaNet have smartly eliminated quest grinding and a lot of the other tedium of MMOs, the rate at which you level, coupled with the sheer size of the questing zones means you’ll end up going over the same ground quite a bit until you’re high enough level to move on. Fortunately there’s often more than one zone to level in, so if you get bored of the area you’re in, you can always travel elsewhere.

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Speaking of travelling, ArenaNet have kept the very useful map travel feature from the first game, but added a small twist just to limit it somewhat. It now costs a small amount of money to travel between points on the map, and you must first reach a point to travel back to it. These aren’t huge barriers, but in a game that doesn’t offer any kind of mounted travel, they are noticeable.

As with the first Guild Wars, zones themselves are not seamlessly connected to each other, and you have to go through portals to transfer from one zone to the next. This has some advantages when it comes to server populations: Heavily populated areas will generate overflow versions of themselves that allow you to quest and play while your home server becomes available.

And yes, Guild Wars 2 has servers, but they are not the impenetrable barriers to being with your friends that they are in World of Warcraft. In fact, aside from being the place where your characters are stored, servers only really provide restrictions on the chat system. Guilds, friends lists and parties can all be seamlessly done cross-server, and the end result is an experience much like that of the original game.

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Guilds themselves are interesting. The original game placed a lot of emphasis on guilds and guild development, and that’s here in GW2 as well. This time, though, there’s a new twist: it’s possible to join multiple guilds at the same. This has huge potential, allowing you to hang out in a small “friends” guild while being part of a larger, more serious guild at the same time. It’s an excellent idea, and hopefully one that works out over the life of the game.

Guild Wars 2 offers a complete modernisation of the entire MMO genre. It strips out a lot of the tedium and grinding that weighs down other MMOs and replaces it with an organic, vast adventure that players can enjoy at their own pace. ArenaNet have ensured the game’s success by again going with their pay-for-content model. This has the advantage of making the player feel more committed to the game than they would with a free-to-play model, while at the same time not making them feel like they have to play to justify a monthly subscription.

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If you’re a veteran Guild Wars player, then moving to Guild Wars 2 is going to be a no-brainer. This game improves upon the first in every way, turning it into a “proper” MMO and offering expanded features for just about every aspect of the original. While the “card deck” skill arrangement system is gone, the new system is, overall, an improvement, and players will definitely find ways to make it work in their favour.

On the other hand, if you’re coming to Guild Wars 2 from World of Warcraft, then you’re going to be in for a big surprise. It’s fair to say that GW2 makes even Mists of Pandaria feel dated and tired. Once you experience the questing and events system, you’ll wonder how you ever got by with WoW’s grind-heavy questing. More importantly, the skill system and the stats system are much easier to learn and master, and don’t require the heavy amounts of metagaming that WoW needs for players to do well.

The difficulty with reviewing an MMO is always that the game will evolve and change over time. I can only ever provide a review that is a snapshot of the game at the time of launch. At this time, there are only a handful of maximum level characters, and it remains to be seen whether or not the endgame for Guild Wars 2 is compelling enough to keep players interested. As it stands right now, however, Guild Wars 2 is the most innovative and interesting MMO to come along in years. It offers a genuinely fresh approach to the genre, while staying true to its roots in the original Guild Wars. While it has flaws, they can be overlooked for the areas in which the game succeeds. This is a game with a strong future ahead of it, and I cannot recommend it enough.


Complete re-imagining of the MMO | Gorgeous visuals


Story can be a little weak at first | Slow levelling

Overall Score: