Guild Wars 2 Preview Event Coverage -- by Charles Boucher|
So, you're a human noble, heir to the shrinking, crumbling kingdoms long since overtaken by the elements, and your greatest regret was that you never ran away from home and joined the circus. And now, out of a sense of misguided altruism, you're facing down a band of centaurs and their gigantic earth elemental. Or maybe you're a norn who blacked out at the last moot, blessed by Raven for your cleverness, setting out on a great hunt to prove your heroism to society. Or maybe you're a charr from the blood legion, fighting on the front lines, and shamed by your honorless father. Or maybe you're something else entirely.
No matter what happens, you come out of the first five minutes of the game a local hero. But that starting point might be the only time your Guild Wars 2 character has the same story as someone else. The choices you make in your character's background, along with what you do in play, determine the path your story takes in meaningful ways for the first time ever in any MMORPG.
Really, that's not the only thing that sets Guild Wars 2 apart from pretty much every other game in its genre. While the personal stories go a long way towards adding life to the world, the real bulk of the game is in its events. As you explore the world, you find crises in progress, whether it's sandworms infesting a cow race track, centaurs attacking a trade waystation, guard posts that need to be rebuilt, or sacred shrines that need protection from invaders.
If ignored, these situations can degrade, setting off new chains of events. Maybe the centaurs sack the waystation and it needs to be reclaimed. Maybe the shrine needs to be purified. Even if you succeed, it leads to new events. If you defeat the sandworms, you can train the cows to race, and open the racetrack up for players to place bets. If you drive the centaurs away from the waystation, it can start sending out caravans to different parts of the world that need to be guarded.
This reactive world would be impressive enough on its own. But when you have players on different parts of the map taking different actions that all lock together, Tyria becomes the closest thing to a living, breathing world we've ever seen in a video game. When one player prepares a caravan to be sent out, while another rebuilds the watch tower on its route, and a third comes along to help take the caravan to its destination once it's dispatched, with players able to enter events as they come across them, there's a sense of presence, and even community, that traditional MMORPGs can't even begin to approach.
The feeling of being in a real place is only helped by the amount of craft that went into the world. Guild Wars 2 is nothing short of beautiful, with the world having a painterly sort of style that recalls how fantastic Guild Wars looked when it was released back in 2005. From a sheer logistical perspective, it seems impossible that the game couldn't reuse assets, but as you travel, everything seems unique. It's a triumph of art design and technical execution that everything looks as good as it does.
Of course, if the world was pretty but boring to go around in, that'd be a problem, but Guild Wars 2 manages to reward exploration more than any other MMORPG I've played. Players get significant amounts of experience for finding new waypoints (which also makes travel much easier, since for a small fee you can teleport across the map, making it easy to meet up with friends or help with events in progress), unlocking new merchants by performing their tasks, and finding hidden skill points to unlock more abilities. Dungeons can be hidden in plain sight, where a bit of terrain that just seems to be the gateway to a personal story quest can hide a explorable area with fantastic rewards for exploration. Once the world is more populated, I have to wonder how secret these places will stay, but in our play session, it was always exciting to be the one to find a new hidden place.
Guild Wars 2 isn't all events and exploration and personal story, though. The original game was built around PVP in a big way, and Guild Wars 2 carries on that tradition. There's no open world PVP, but fans of that style of play will almost certainly like World vs. World, a series of two week long events where players from three servers come together to fight over four zones and earn rewards for their servers. Every server will have a place in their World vs. World matches at all times, save for when the ladders are readjusted and new matches are made between the two week periods.
The World vs. World zones are sprawling, with up to 350 players in each. Interconnected by a series of portals, each server gets their own home zone, designed to give them a defensive advantage, with a neutral area for more pitched combat in the center. Players bring their regular characters in the game, complete with their current skills and weapon loadouts. The teams fight over towers, keeps and supply depots. They deploy seize engines, destroy caravans that transport enemy war supplies, and try to bring NPC factions on the map over to their side. It's sprawling, almost seems too large to organize very well, and strikes a strange balance between casual and hardcore.
The names of enemies are hidden to keep things from being too intimidating for people trying to use it as a bridge between PVE and PVP, but at the same time, I was getting flashbacks to my days in Stranglethorn Vale in classic WoW, where if you didn't travel in packs, someone was sure to swoop in and destroy you as you tried to get from place to place and accomplish smaller goals. It seems like the kind of thing that could very well develop its own personality from server to server, depending on whether the local players are PVP hardcores who love the idea of coordinating armies, laying sieges, and having their battles mean something in a larger context, or more casual players looking for a fun break from their normal gameplay.
On the other hand, the more traditional PVP mode seems like it might have broader appeal in the end. Players get access to all their class skills, and can freely swap out weapons and armor before a match, giving more room to experiment with the options available to a given class. The matches are built around point control, with each side competing to lock down parts of the map. However, each map has a mechanic that sets it apart.
One, the Battle of Khylo, took place during the siege of a city, where each time had access to a trebuchet that could punish the enemy team for encroaching on your territory, or else destroy parts of the map, opening up new paths and routes to assault the enemy team. The other, Forests of Niflhel, was in a snowy mountain pass where, in addition to fighting for points, players would fight to see who could kill giant monsters first to earn victory points and a buff for their team. Each, thanks to the properties of the Mists, where PVP takes place, is steeped in Guild Wars lore. While each of these maps is great, it's the potential for more battlegrounds and modes of play later that really has me excited. Structured PVP could help keep the competitive game in Guild Wars 2 fresh for a long time.
But then, the PVE and PVP couldn't stand up at all, if it wasn't for Guild Wars 2's excellent class structure and combat system. I was initially skeptical about the death of the traditional tank/DPS/healer system, and was tremendously curious how it'd work. It turns out, it works very well. Each class has their own specialty, with warriors crippling enemies and dealing heavy damage, guardians supporting their team, mesmers dealing out debuffs, and so forth. But classes can also easily go outside their specialty. If you want to play a melee ranger, or a ranged warrior, not only can you do it, but it's as easy as clicking your weapon swap button and getting a new lists of skills to go with your new weapon. If you want your mesmer to go from buffing and debuffing to creating swarms of illusions, you just need to switch from staff to scepter and sword.
While your options in combat are somewhat limited by the traits they choose, the trait system is designed so you specialize in at least two forms of combat at any given time. There's no reason not to switch things up as needed, so the team's members can quickly change roles in the middle of combat as situations change. The one concept I had difficulty with was the apparent replacement of a typical agro system with other types of battlefield control, but it doesn't seem like it would be a difficult system to get used to.
This system is backed up by Guild Wars 2 having some of the coolest classes in any MMORPG. In addition to the unique ways that each use their weapons to harm enemies and support allies, each has a unique resource that changes the way the game unfolds. Warriors build adrenaline to unlock tiered attacks, guardians have virtues that give passive bonuses or can be burned for a team buff, mesmers can sacrifice their clones and illusions to make them into debuff bombs, necromancers can draw on the pain of their enemies to become an avatar of death. While these options are initially a bit much to keep track of, they quickly become useful tools and help set the classes apart by giving each a distinct tempo in combat and sub goals to accomplish as fights go forward.
We're still an unknown amount of time until Guild Wars 2's release, but we are on the eve of the first beta weekend event. There's a lot we've yet to see, but if the remaining races, and the content for later levels manage to keep up the level of quality we've seen out of the initial release, Guild Wars 2 could be the game that ends up redefining a genre that's been spinning its wheels for the better part of the last decade. I certainly hope so.