I already bought Guild Wars 2 so the question of whether I’ll be playing when it’s officially released next month is moot. I’ve played a number of MMOs in the past, but quit them when I reached the point where I was paying every month but only had time to log in once or twice. With the Guild Wars games I can buy them once and play when I have time, and the lack of a monthly fee means the developers don’t have to create long grind-fests to keep people playing and paying; I’m sure they’ll release expansions that I have to pay for, but the games with monthly fees do as well.
Here are some thoughts on the PvE elements of the last Beta; I didn’t try PvP other than the final Beta event. Screenshots are in stereoscopic 3D. Display them at full size and cross your eyes to see the 3D effect.
There are a number of major differences between GW2 and the other MMOGs I’ve played. One of the most obvious is in the ‘quest’ mechanics. In an older MMOG like Everquest, a typical quest would involve talking to one NPC who says ‘collect a hundred rabbit ears and I’ll give you a rusty sword’. No-one explains why anyone would want a hundred rabbit ears (is he having some kind of ‘Nam flashback?), why they think a rusty sword is a good trade for them or why the game designers think that it’s fun for the player. Nor does the quest affect the world or anyone in it; the next person who speaks to the same NPC will find he’s still looking for a hundred rabbit ears even though a dozen people already collected them that day.
Guild Wars 2 largely replaces quests with ‘events’. These are short, scripted sequences which can be triggered randomly, as a result of a previous event or by talking to a particular NPC, and can follow each other in different ways depending on whether players succeed or fail. If you are travelling nearby at the time, the event will pop up on the game HUD and you can join in or pass by. At the end of the event you receive a rating of bronze, silver or gold depending on how much you influenced the outcome, and receive rewards based on the impact you had. Unlike the old-style quests, part of the reward is given in points you can spend at reward vendors, so if you don’t want a rusty sword you can buy apple pie instead.
Here’s an example; not an actual sequence from the game but based on some events that I played through at the weekend. A supply caravan is waiting at the gates of a town, and the event is to escort it to the abbey down the road. So you walk with it, kill any mobs which attack, destroy road blocks, and eventually you reach the city. That spawns the next event, which is to help the monks as they brew beer from the supplies, by tasting it or killing the creatures that are eating the ingredients. When that is over, the beer is stockpiled outside the city waiting for the caravan to take it to the thirsty soldiers at a nearby fort, and bandits try to steal it. Finally, you escort the caravan to the fort and the whole sequence is done.
But that assumes that all the events succeed. If the bandits do steal the beer then that event fails and you receive a lesser reward. But instead of ending the sequence, the next event might be to follow the monk to the bandit camp and recover the barrels, after which either the sequence ends or you continue to escort it to the fort as before. Whatever happens, the events occur in the main game world, you can join or leave at any time, and nothing prevents you from replaying an event you’ve completed when it spawns again.
Some events involved capturing areas from mobs, or defending those captured areas when the mobs tried to recapture them. One of my favourite moments over the weekend was an attack on a fort where I was standing on the battlements with a rifle shooting attacking mobs five levels higher than me while higher-level players outside the gates fought them hand-to-hand. We won that time, so I don’t know whether they would actually have taken it over if we failed, or just killed a bunch of people and left. Other events are largely non-violent, such as having snowball fights with the kids in a village to entertain them, or tidying up a fort.
Overall I thought the events worked pretty well, and while I did have to collect lost rabbit food and carry it back to an NPC while evading the rabbits that were trying to steal it from me, I never had to cut their ears off. In addition, Everquest, despite the name, had a policy where quests could not give enough experience to make them more efficient for levelling than killing monsters. In Guild Wars 2, events are one of the fastest ways to level up, and if you do all the events and exploration opportunities in a zone you’ll be around the right level for the next one.
Death is an area where the game has more of a single-player RPG feel than traditional MMOGs. When you’re ‘killed’, you’re left in a semi-playable state where you can try to finish off the mob that attacked you using a limited selection of skills and, if you kill it, you return to life; I’ve seen this in at least one other game but can’t remember what it was. If you die, you either have to wait for someone to revive you, which any player can do, or pay to be teleported to a way point and then pay to repair your gear. The best part is that players gain experience from reviving others, so once the fight is over there’ll probably be a queue trying to get some free experience that way.
The one element I really disliked was the repair system, where dying without being revived damages armour. Compulsory repair mechanics always suck, and one of the most popular mods in games which enforce them is usually the one that disables repair. Having to travel half-way across the map and pay money to get your gear working again actively discourages exploration and experimentation and I really hope they remove it from the final release. How many times did Conan the Barbarian turn to his leather bikini-clad sidekick in the middle of a dungeon and say ‘sorry, I have to go back to town to fix my sword’?
Guild Wars gave players hundreds of skills and allowed them to pick eight at a time. Guild Wars 2 has a simplified version of that system where there are a substantial number of skills and a player has ten available. Of those, five are based on the weapon you are using — and, in the case of the Elementalist, on the element you have currently chosen — while the player can select the other five from skills they’ve learned. That initially confused me, because my Elementalist had fire skills and I switched to water, then switched back to fire and my skills were gone; in the meantime I had changed weapon, so a new set of fire skills replaced the old ones. The per-weapon skills must be unlocked, but that seems a little pointless when killing a few dozen mobs is enough to do so. The other five skill slots are unlocked as you level up or gain skill points via the skill point challenges, some of which are as simple as reaching an out of the way spot while others require defeating a boss mob.
Another neat but sometimes painful feature is down-levelling, allowing you to play in any of the lower level areas of the game so you can go back and complete areas that you missed. If, say, you’re level twenty but in a level five area, the game will treat you as though you were level five but you still retain the level twenty skills. Consequently you’re better than a level five newbie, but not totally overpowered. I did find this painful at times in the ‘personal story’ event sequence which you play solo, as my level twelve character was fighting level four mobs but down-levelled to four and nearly dying on several occasions.
Area of effect skills are still important in combat as, like Guild Wars, you’ll often be swarmed by groups of mobs and have to take them down fast. One major change is that the goal of combat now appears to be not getting hit rather than surviving the hits. In Guild Wars, your character automatically followed the mob you were attacking and you had little need or ability to move in combat other than backing away from mobs that attacked you if you were a class with poor defence. In Guild Wars 2, movement is often essential to avoid being wiped out in a few hits, and unlike, say, Everquest, you can cast spells while moving. As with many other games, hitting the move keys twice will dodge an attack, and some skills provide other means of avoiding them; for example, the Elementalist has a skill which rolls away and leaves a trail of fire behind to burn anything that tries to follow.
Since I play on a laptop with a touchpad, this did make combat difficult at times, as did the removal of target auto-facing. I often found myself attacking something I didn’t want to attack, or having to spin the view with the touchpad so I was facing a mob which had run past me. Many times I was instant-killed by a boss mob for no apparent reason because, presumably, I didn’t dodge its AoE attacks. This was worse with my Warrior character as he had to follow the mobs to poke them with a sword while the Elementalist could sit back and nuke; I eventually found that using a rifle worked better for the Warrior than a sword or axe.
With ranged weapons, on a number of occasions a mob was flagged as invulnerable because the game thought that I was exploiting the geometry to attack it when it couldn’t fight back, or it was behind an obstacle when I could clearly see it and see my attacks hitting it. They are also tethered and run back to their spawn point if you move too far way, and the tethers are often short enough that if you outrun them while evading attacks they’ll have walked away and regenerated to nearly 100% before you can catch up, so you have to kill them a second time. Underwater combat seemed difficult because I couldn’t figure out the movement keys; I’m sure they’re in the controls menu, but I didn’t need them often enough to look them up there.
Fortunately combat gives relatively little experience so you don’t need to fight all the time. Guild Wars has rarely been about repetitive grinding to progress, and that remains true in Guild Wars 2. You might have to fight a lot of mobs to reach the next level, but you’ll get there much faster if you don’t just sit in one spot and kill them repeatedly. Most things in the game provide experience rewards to level you up, and grinding provides the least. I don’t understand the rules for how much experience a mob gives, but they seem to vary based on how many types you’ve fought in one day and how many other players are in the same area killing them. Travel gives many times as much experience as killing a mob, events give even more, even crafting gives experience, though I don’t know whether you could level all the way to eighty without killing anything. Completing daily achievements (e.g. ‘kill ten different mob types’) gives a bonus.
Everquest had the ‘holy trinity’, of Tank, Healer and Crowd Control. It varied in importance through the game as expansions and spell changes made some elements of the Trinity more or less important, but through most of its life you needed all three to survive in dungeons. Guild Wars had a similar arrangement where you couldn’t enter a lot of content without a Monk to heal or deflect damage, and many classes could do some kind of crowd control. In Guild Wars 2, every class has its own line of self-healing spells, and every class I played had some kind of ‘heal other’ and crowd control abilities. For example, the Elementalist’s water magic line can heal other players as well as causing damage and their air magic can knock down the bad guys. The Warrior can knock them down with a hammer, or revive dead players by killing bad guys. So there’s no perfect group combination, all characters can work if they’re played right.
Crafting seems to work fairly well but is the only time I had to grind over the weekend, in order to collect the component drops; to be fair, in part that was because I sold a lot of drops I didn’t think I’d need, later discovered that I did, and couldn’t remember where I’d sold them in order to use the buy back feature at the merchant. Crafting armour requires multiple stages with multiple drops, and you get experience for each one. One nice feature, similar to Guild Wars, is that you have separate bank slots for crafting drops so you don’t need to carry a dozen backpacks full of the bits and pieces you require.
Vistas were a new feature for this weekend, locations which give particularly good views of the scenery; when you reach one and select it the game switches to a camera flying around the local area to show it off. Again, they give experience, seemingly more the more out of the way they are. Some are just spots you can walk to inside towns, others are on top of mountains or buildings which can require some ingenuity to climb and jump to the top. Oh yes, you can jump; I presume because so many Guild Wars players complained about being forced to fight around obstacles that they could jump over in real life, they’ve made jumping almost essential in Guild Wars 2.
Overall its a nice progression from MMOGs of the past and maintains much of the Guild Wars feel, with only a few annoying features. I would say the biggest flaw is the ‘tutorial’ area which is different for each race but typically consists of running to talk to one NPC who sends you to a place where you’ll go through two or three events in a sequence and then you’re into the newbie area proper. It left me at least as confused about the game changes as I was when I first logged in, so I would like to have seen it explain the more important features rather than throw you straight into using them.