Guild Wars 2 Preview - Final BWE
Now that ArenaNet's final Beta Weekend Event for their MMORPG Guild Wars 2 has ended and we begin the long month-plus wait for the game to be released, I wanted to put down some more thoughts on what the state of the game and talk about how this could be the right way for developers to compromise somewhere in between the "free-to-play" and "premium" MMO models.
First, let's talk about how the game held up under the stress of this beta test. The result I found is that it played surprisingly well with hundreds of players in zones at once, and each server has built-in overflow versions of some zones, naturally creating an instanced version of the game - but only when absolutely necessary. I wasn't always thrilled with Guild Wars 2's balance of eye candy and performance, as the game seemed to be just a bit sluggish during beta compared to the overall detail being shown, but I'm hoping this is just a result of too much debug code during beta. There's really no way to know for sure other than to try the game on August 28th and see.
Beyond that, many gamers were frustrated that the entirety of beta testing was only semi-open and lasted for roughly a week, chopped into little pieces, but ArenaNet did this on purpose. The thing is, the Beta Weekend Events weren't really focused on finding and fixing a bunch of bugs; they were stress tests to see if the servers could handle thousands of players at once - and they don't need weeks' worth of testing data to get their results. Plus, this way, players get hyped on small tidbits, as the weekend events stop most players from getting far into the game before it's even released. The issue with this is that players might see this as ArenaNet trying to hide a lack of an endgame, and that's certainly possible, but it's not really like this company to do something like that.
During this beta event, I tried the two new races ArenaNet just made available - the Asura and Sylvari - to see their starting zones, get the overall vibe for their stories, and maybe try a new class or two while I was at it. I went back to the well when doing the Sylvari, though, choosing Elementalist as my class - just as I had done in previous beta events. Chalk it up to either the desire to go with at least one thing that was familiar to me or the amount I really enjoyed playing as an Elementalist, but I stuck with it. The Sylvari people are a evolved from plants and have become humanoid, and their very nature-oriented starter area matches that theme, with huge skyscraper-size plants in the distance and nearly every bit of technology that the Sylvari have being derived from some kind of plant-based movement. They're a weird race, that's for sure, and they're not exactly attractive, but I did get a kick out of how their hairstyles are actually just plant growths in various ways - leaves to mimic large sections of hair, small roots that resembled cornrows, and a mushroom on top of the head that resembles a conical Asian hat.
Over on the Asura side, these weird little people are something like other fantasy franchises' gnomes, what with their small stature and engineering genius. Asura build golems to do the heavy lifting, and their emergence from deep underground has led them to build all kinds of gravity-defying new technology to help their frail forms succeed. Here, I played a thief, and I was pleasantly surprised at the mobility given to melee classes - where some abilities will flip you around behind your opponent, while others simply make it difficult for the enemy to hit you. For example, when underwater, the thief quickly gets two attack abilities to allow you to avoid incoming damage: a move where you automatically swim around behind the enemy and stab him, dodging any attack that comes in during its movement, and another that waits for an incoming attack, blocks it, then returns fire with a series of stabs.
Both of these races have interesting and fun new starting zones which are structured loosely like the others: just one personal story "quest" is in your log at any one time, and otherwise, you're just exploring the area and looking for things to do. This will surely throw off gamers who are looking for the World of Warcraft model of gaming, where you go to some kind of quest hub, pick up a dozen quests that tell you where to go and what to do, then run off to complete them in some kind of route. Here, the game simply tells you what the next big story-type thing to do is, then lets you find it, see what level you need to be, and gives you a zone full of stuff to do in order to get to that level. Scout NPCs that you meet will uncover a section of the map and brief you on some stuff you can do, marking your map with places to go, but you can also just walk around and quickly find other events to participate in.
Much like the public events systems seen in Rift and Warhammer, Guild Wars 2 lets you jump right in to any event at any time, and the game dynamically alters the scale and scope of an event based on the number of people participating at once. The difference here, though, is that the whole game is built around these events rather than filling up a traditional quest log with tasks to complete. On top of this, there is no "tagging" of enemies and anyone hitting any monster will get full XP and their own loot for that kill, meaning that being around strangers is no longer a bad thing. It fosters a feeling of being in a raid or group with people you simply happen across during an event, since there's absolutely no downside anymore to being around other players - and that's something that no traditional MMORPG has really accomplished.
There are some downsides, though, the biggest of which is that players that haven't read up on Guild Wars 2 don't know about these changes, and they might find themselves a bit confused and possibly annoyed at the game's lack of quest-based structure - and in the lack of communication from the game itself in explaining how it's different from other MMORPGs. What I've found is that the playerbase is not terribly interested in helping people that come from World of Warcraft get accustomed to this, so the developers are going to have to be the ones to do it.
So, how does ArenaNet plan on making money on this game? Guild Wars 2 costs sixty bucks to start, but after that, there's no monthly fee of any kind. What this means is that they don't have any incentive to stretch out the game and make it take months to get to maximum level. And while GW2 isn't so fast that you get to level 80 within the first week, the developers do intend on giving people a true endgame with PvE raids and two major PvP modes. Will that endgame be vastly superior to that of other MMOs? I'm doubtful that it'll be any kind of revolution, but if you're not having to pay a monthly fee, then there's no need to go through with the annoyance and cost of canceling and reinstating a subscription if you want to stop playing for a while and come back later.
ArenaNet does plan on making money post-release with a real money store, but this is not exactly like Diablo 3's real money auction house, as players don't directly sell gear they get. Instead, there's an intermediate item called gems which can be sold for real money by players, and these gems do not have any value other than what the player-run market decides they're worth over in the separate in-game auction house. Basically, players decide how many dollars a gem is worth, and they decide how much in-game cash a gem is worth separately. We still don't know what kind of effect this will have on gameplay or how inflated the value of gems becomes, but at this point, there's only one way to find out if they came up with a better system than Blizzard did with D3.
On the topic of gear: players' success in combat in Guild Wars 2 is much less dependent on the items you have than Blizzard's games are. The PvP arena systems actually have a system of completely unified gear and skill unlocks, making it an entirely even playing field. The World vs World system, however, is not, although everyone does get boosted up to level 80 along with basic 80-ish stats for whatever gear they're wearing - but those actually at level 80 with end-game gear will have an advantage with better unlocked skills, gear, and such. The result here is that if you want a fair game, play the arena-type smaller matches, and if you want to take advantage of having good loot, play in the WvW games.
Otherwise, the skill and ability system - where each weapon you equip has its own set of abilities based on your class - further makes this game just a little more tactical and interesting without dumping three-dozen buttons onto a ton of action bars for you to place all over the screen. You've got five abilities derived from your weapon choice, a self-heal ability, and then a few class-based skills you choose from a selection of a couple dozen that hopefully work with your weapon-based skills. You can't switch weapons while in combat, so it's important to pick the weapon that allows you to put the debuffs and damage on enemies that synergizes with the other people around you. (Yes, there are combo-type things you can do, but the most powerful ones come when you put a specific condition/debuff on an enemy and then another player does some kind of finisher that takes advantage of that state.)
The final thing I want to talk about from a combat perspective is the abolition of the tank-healer-DPS system. While some classes can tank better than others and every class has some kind of way to heal others, each player is expected to get out of danger (there is a dodge system that works very well for this) and heal up on their own. Luckily, things like threat management aren't such a big deal here, so switching tanks on big enemies is pretty easy - plus, enemy behavior is not so that it's constantly chasing around the guy with the most threat on a list. It's more about enemies spreading out damage and dropping additional monsters on everyone, forcing everyone to make some kind of spread-out effort with a little less Ventrilo-powered coordination required in order to win. The other part of this is that when you go down, you can fight your way back to your feet in a Borderlands-style Rally system, but other players can also click on you and help you up, too - this allows for a system that actually encourages the kind of in-combat player resurrection that other MMORPGs have gone to great lengths to stop.
There's a lot of innovation going into Guild Wars 2, and while beta events are fun and all, a lot is left up in the air when it comes to seeing whether all of this works together in the final game. I think people will be less forgiving when they haven't been in beta and are expected to pay sixty bucks to find out if this game's worth jumping into, and those unaccustomed to the sort of free-flowing, exploration-heavy gameplay that GW2 has will be a little discouraged at the start. It's up to ArenaNet to educate people on how this game's different and get them behind some of the small but important changes to the MMO formula that are in this game, but if it does happen, then I predict huge success for Guild Wars 2 when it's released on August 28th.