Guild Wars 2 Review
MMORPGs have been in a rut for years, but with dominant games like World of Warcraft running for so long without any core changes to how they play, sometimes it's hard to notice that just how stagnant the genre has been. In some ways, it's simple: when the primary source of profit is monthly fees, developers do what's required, and sometimes little more, to get the largest number of people paying that fee for as long as possible. This means restricting the player in many ways while giving them the illusion of freedom, because that's how you draw out their growth as long as possible, cashing in along the way. Well, ArenaNet apparently got sick of seeing this subscription model get milked repeatedly, and over the course of the five years since they announced Guild Wars 2, they've been working with the aim to change how MMORPGs work. In those last few years, free-to-play games have made a big splash, but they rarely have the depth of a big-budget game. ArenaNet is delivering the same large, densely-packed world you expect out of a full-priced MMORPG, but then they couple it with some key changes to the standard formula that winds up giving players the freedom that, in some cases, they didn't even know had been taken away from them. I had been skeptical that ArenaNet could possibly deliver on the bold promises they made, but they did almost exactly that with an approach to fixing so many problems with the genre, all while bringing us a fantasy world that's unlike any other.
Guild Wars 2 is a true MMORPG with servers that each contain thousands of players, but the game has no monthly subscription fee. You level up like any other game and improve your character with weapons, armor, unlocked abilities and talent points, but unlike other MMOs, you're not forced into progressing a given way since the game uses a down-leveling system to allow you to get levels (and in some cases, even loot) for content your character's level has outgrown. You can group with people if you want, but you don't actually need to, since anyone doing damage to any monster gets their own loot and experience points for the kill. And finally, GW2 has a quest tracker, but you only actually have one quest that's related to your character's ongoing many-step story missions; the rest is done by way of a world event system that promotes true exploration and adventuring over traditional MMO questing where you are told where to go and what specifically to kill in order to complete the objective.
That is a lot of stuff to differentiate Guild Wars 2 from other MMOs, but my review really only scratches the surface on how this game's many little changes add up to what I will eventually call a revolution in the big-budget MMO model. I can't go in-depth into every single unique bit about GW2 without turning this review into a novel, I'll try to hit on as many major points as I can. The most striking difference you'll likely find is the lack of quests. Instead, both static and dynamic world events are going on all the time, and being involved in them nets you money and experience. You might have seen something similar to these events in other games like Warhammer Online or Rift, both of which depend on more on traditional MMO quests than events - but here, they're integrated into the game at such a core level that ArenaNet doesn't actually have real quests at all.
Your personal story is the only "quest" that stays on your little objective tracker, and your progress through it is based on actual choices you make during character creation as well as those you make during the game itself. It means that most players' personal story experience will be unique from other players', even if they choose the same race and profession. In fact, there are quite a few choices that adjust your story even before you're done creating your character. Each new chapter in your story has a required level on it, and the level requirements step up in such a way that can't just plow through it all without going out into the world to do some adventuring. You'll spend some time leveling up in the outside world, then go into the specially instanced areas of the game to do your personal quest - and you can bring friends if you like, but to do those together, you'll need to be in a party.
So how do you level up if there are no quests? Well, you'll learn quickly to find Scouts - characters that are placed along routes to new areas - and they will uncover a chunk of the map for you and then point out where some of the map's static events are taking place. Then the game leaves it up to the player to explore and find that adventure without being told where precisely to go. You'll likely find plenty of extra dynamic, ongoing events, too, and most are part of some kind of chain of events. Some events even overlap on top of each other, so you may wind up contributing to two or even three events at once. But even in the same area, there's a little branching plot that can happen: one day, you'll run through the human newbie zone and come across a farm that needs help feeding their cows and fighting off worm creatures, but another day, you'll come by and another dynamic event that has bandits attacking is layered on top. If the players that happen to be at that event successfully fight off the bandits, then a new event might begin where you go on the offensive against the bandits in their nearby base, but if they had lost, the next event instead will ask players to reclaim the farm from them.
This focus on open-ended events works great, but when you combine it with the ability for everyone to get full loot and experience from any enemy they do even one damage to, then the whole experience of meeting strangers in MMOs gets turned on its head. If you played World of Warcraft or anything like it in the past, you'll surely remember that sinking, annoyed feeling you used to get whenever a stranger would show up in your questing area, because just by innocently working on the same quest you happen to be doing, they're inadvertently taking away from your progress. That whole problem has been completely fixed by ArenaNet's efforts. When people show up, that's actually time to get happy, as everything improves: your experience, the speed at which you make it through the event, and your own combat effectiveness - more on that last one later.
Sure, the game dynamically increases boss health and underling numbers in an event as the number of players participating grows, but having other players around you is vastly more of a help than a hindrance. Not only can you fight your own way back to your feet when you're taken out, but other players can help bring you up, too, and they can stop to do that even when they're still fighting. When you put all of this together, you get a game that not only promotes getting players to work together, but gives them huge incentive to do so, even with complete strangers. It's such a massive change from how previous MMOs played - all the way back to EverQuest - that it's easily the most important gameplay change that has gone into this game. These changes are relatively small from a design or programming perspective, but the entire monster spawning and combat systems had to be balanced around this one little concept, and I'm really happy with how it turned out.
Guild Wars 2 bases combat entirely around the skills you use, with a total of ten skills loaded onto a single action bar once you get to level 30 - and that's ten skills out of a choice of dozens, so unlock and choose carefully. Your first five skills are fixed, but they change depending on which weapon type you have equipped, so your left five attack skills with a shortbow are entirely different from the ones you get with a longbow or greatsword. Then over on the right side of your bar, you'll be unlocking and equipping a set of skills that you configure separately from your weapon. Each of the game's eight professions also has its own little mini-bar, so a Ranger controls his or her pet with it, while an Elementalist switches between the four elements, each with a unique spell set for each weapon type that's equipped. The game has no mana system, so the limited resource becomes just the cooldowns for each of your activated abilities. The end result is that the interface is less cluttered than many MMOs since you only have ten main buttons at a time, the game becomes more about unlocking all your skills once you get far into leveling, and the effectiveness of gear takes a bit of a backseat to your weapon and skill choices. OK, gear is still pretty important, but less so than most of the rest of the genre.
With the ability to use a small stamina bar to dodge out of the way of incoming attacks along with being able to activate most of your abilities while on the move, GW2's combat gets pretty close to what you'd see in a more dedicated action-RPG where you often find yourself moving around a lot, even in a one-on-one fight. The only thing that's missing is an actual crosshair with which to aim your ranged attacks, as you'll still have a targeting system here, but with that ability for characters to dodge, you're never guaranteed to land any one specific ability on your enemy. This is especially true in PvP where you choose which of your opponents' attacks you need to use your stamina to escape from, and which you can afford to take on the chin so you can recover stamina for the next big swing or spell.
Healer, Tank, DPS. This combination of class types has fueled MMORPGs for most of fifteen years, but ArenaNet decided that this system could be thrown out entirely in favor of players being more aware of their surroundings, getting out of the way of damage on their own volition, and making sure everyone is contributing damage and ensuring responsibility for their own healing. To that end, all eight professions have one of several potent self-heals they can choose from, although the cooldown timers on these means that you can't just keep yourself alive indefinitely under concentrated fire from a bunch of enemies or a boss.
The game does make it relatively easy to keep yourself alive once you've got a good handle on movement, as you can dodge out of the action, cast your heal, and get back in. Tougher fights may have one tank, or they may have a few, and while there are ways to cast heals on others - like with the Elementalist's Water-based attunement - doing this usually involves still having to do damage to the enemies simultaneously. The healing that's done like this is usually not enough to keep a friend alive if they're taking a ton of damage, either, so that's when they will either need to get out of the line of fire, letting someone else take some damage. If not, they'll probably get dropped and have to be brought up with the in-combat revive that all players can perform.
One of the biggest philosophies you'll see getting put to work in GW2 is that convenience is king. Waypoints are spread liberally throughout every zone, and as long as you're not in mid-fight, all you've got to do to instantly teleport to any waypoint on the entire world map is click one from your map screen and pay a few copper (later, a few silver). There are no flight paths and no waiting. Additionally, in-game mail arrives quickly and can be accessed directly from the UI anywhere in the world, while the Trading Post includes both standard MMO auction house services as well as an ordering system where you ask for a specific item and quantity, then tell it how much you're willing to pay. If someone else drops by the Trading Post with that item, they can "fill" your order, getting you your items - and them their money - with minimal effort.
There's more, though, and some of this is pretty new stuff to big-budget MMORPGs. You can be a member of multiple guilds and merely choose which one you're representing, switching whenever you want. There are plenty of servers to play on, and at least at the start, the developers are allowing people to switch their "home" server all they want with only a restart of the client stopping them from transferring. (This service may become limited in the future, like maybe only transferring once a week, or might cost something to make it happen.)
GW2 has a full range of crafting professions, and every player has the ability to gather minerals, wood, plants, and hides from the world without using up a tradeskill slot. Progression through those tradeskills is much like that of other MMOs, and while I haven't spent enough time with them to correctly assess just how important they are to the game overall, I will say that I really enjoy how many recipes are based on real-world stuff. You make food with the same basic ingredients you would in real life, and you make rings with loops, settings, and gems - things like that. It's not a big deal, but it's kind of cool making weapons, armor, consumables, and other gear with components that make sense. (Sometimes that means making intermediate "refined" stuff first, which can be annoying, but in general I like it.)
You gain XP from nearly everything in this game, including gathering - wherein several players can get all the resources from a gathering node - and in crafting. The tradeskill interface will even speed up the bar for crafting if you're making a ton of one thing in a row, making repetitive tasks at least a little bit quicker. And yes, the experience from crafting is kind of a big deal; many people gain a level or two just by taking all the tradeskill stuff they collected (which can be stored in a separate bank-like inventory called the Collection, straight from your inventory anywhere in the world) over a night or two's worth of playing and just making everything they can with what they picked up.
With all of this praise, the one big issue I've seen is that Guild Wars 2 doesn't really do a good job explaining in mid-game how it differs from more traditional MMOs like World of Warcraft. For example, you will likely wind up behind the leveling curve in the first zone you're in, failing to fight off monsters four or more levels higher than you and having to work in groups to get anything done. What the game doesn't tell you is that you can pop back to your home city, take the portal to Lion's Arch, then to another race's city, and start that newbie zone. The game will simply temporarily cut your level down to be appropriate for the area so that you still have a reasonable challenge, but the biggest thing is that you get full experience and loot.
But none of this is explained to the player, and I have heard that MMO veterans actually have a tougher time understanding this than those who are new to the genre. That sounds kind of weird since Guild Wars 2 is a pretty complex game, but it actually kind of makes sense, since the usual conventions of MMOs have been consistent for so long that it's tough for some old-school gamers to reprogram their thinking. (That's not intended to be a put-down, of course: I'm one of those people myself that had that same experience, and I know quite a few MMO vets that felt that confusion, too.)
Some MMO players will be quick to point out that GW2's event objectives often clearly mirror those you'd find in quests in other games anyway. You'll kill creatures, collect items to turn in, assault fortresses, and fight bosses in much the same way any other MMORPG will ask you to do the same, but I do feel that the switchover from quests to events, with so many of them starting dynamically, still makes for a much more adventure-oriented, rather than task-oriented, playing experience. And with players naturally coming together to team up during many events, it allows the developers to make larger-scale encounters for everyone to enjoy. It's pretty common to see a couple dozen players in some back corner of a zone, working on taking down a boss whose stats were auto-adjusted by the game to create a challenge for everyone jumping in.
Still, some MMO staples seem curiously missing here. The game does not have any kind of mounts to ride on, even if the waypoints do a lot to make them obsolete, and more bizarrely, there's no actual system for trading with another player directly; for now, you have to use the Trading Post or trust people not to rip you off by mailing them stuff. I'm not sure if the decision not to include a direct trade system was intended to reduce the scamming that can happen in trades, but it seems to me that the better choice would be to change how the trade window works rather than remove it.
From a visual standpoint, Guild Wars 2 does come off as a pretty standard fantasy MMO right at the start, but one look at the Asura home city or nearly any underwater scene, and you'll know why this game has some fairly demanding system requirements. Guild Wars 2 is full of impressive special effects, innovative architecture, excellent textures overall, and a lived-in feel - especially in the cities - that many MMOs lack. The world's quite large, it's got character and charm around every corner, and my favorite part is how the artists managed to integrate their concept art so closely into everything visual: the UI, the world design, even directly into the textures that sometimes look literally painted onto the walls, floors, and ceilings. We've seen a very heartening trend of this happening, where artists' most early, raw and personality-filled drawings for a game are getting put directly into the final products - Borderlands did it, this fall's upcoming Dishonored will do it, and more - but this is the first game I've seen do it on such a grand scale.
Your sixty bucks gets you a copy of Guild Wars 2 and all the time to play that you can handle, and while there is no monthly fee, the developers still need to make money in some way for ongoing support and server costs. To this end, they've created a real money store where you have the option to buy gems with your dollars. You get 800 gems for $10, so it's the same conversion rate as Microsoft Points on Xbox. On their own, the gems don't do anything, nor can you buy weapons or armor directly with them. Instead, you can trade gems for in-game gold on a commodity house with a conversion rate that's set by the players themselves, or you can use gems to directly buy cosmetic-only gear and convenience items like extra inventory, bank, or character slots, or portable bankers and merchants that can be deployed anywhere in the world. Gems can be traded for gold in either direction, but there's no built-in way to take your gold or gems and get any real-money back. Still, the dreaded notion of "Pay to win" does seem possible in GW2 by way of buying gems with money, trading them for gold in the built-in marketplace, then using that gold to buy gear on the Trading Post, but the developers have made loot less potent than you might expect, and they're banking on price fluctuation of gems, specifically built to be an intermediate commodity, to balance things out. I'm not positive it'll work the way they expect it to, though.
Right now, converting ten bucks into gems and then into gold won't exactly net you a virtual fortune for your character, but as people level up, farm up more gold and sell it, that conversion rate will slowly change. It's hard for me to predict the long-term implications of this store over the coming months or even years, but at the very least, the lack of a built-in way for gamers to make real money playing GW2 means that not every bit of loot starts up that internal conflict over whether an item should be equipped or sold so that you can get your taillight fixed on your Honda. That kind of thinking has infected Diablo III with its sales of items for straight cash, and I don't think that's the right move for online games at all.
I should also point out that since you can slowly collect piles of in-game gold and then trade it directly for gems, this means that you can buy anything in Guild Wars 2 without spending any of your hard-earned money, using only the gold you've earned instead. I think it's likely that even in a few months when the value of gold has deflated, stockpiling thousands of gems without finding a nice crafting racket or getting some kind of lucky or ultra-rare drops is going to be unlikely. Either way, the developers do seem to intend on giving serious players the option to build their own little in-game empire and never have to spend a dime if they don't want to, and that's an important foundation when it comes to getting players behind your game in the long term.
The next topic revolves around the entirely optional player vs. player systems in Guild Wars 2, and once again ArenaNet has innovated, both with new and familiar ideas. The arena battles are called Structured PvP and aren't quite like anything WoW offers, as everyone gets access to the same collection of PvP-oriented gear and a full set of unlocked skills. Everyone's on an even playing field in these matches, so while these gametypes' rules (like Capture and Hold) are structured vaguely like WoW's objective-based battlegrounds, this tournament-style PvP mode's insistence on keeping the equipped items and unlocks even on both sides means you'll never be outgeared here. Tactics, communication, and proper execution are the keys to success in this mode, not arena ratings or the overpowered gear that come with them like in WoW.
The other PvP mode is called World vs. World, and it pits all the participating players from one server against those from two other servers in a big, constant three-team game for control of a large outdoor map. Your gear and skill unlocks are a factor here, but any player that is not level 80 gets boosted up to max level along with the appropriate increase in health, base stats, and any properties of equipped gear and skills, but any later skill unlocks are not given, nor are the expanded properties and abilities that high-end gear can bestow. The end result is that a level 30 player joining WvW has a fighting chance, but those who are higher level will have a distinct advantage. The map you fight on is dotted with castles that a server's population must keep a hold on to gain score for their server, and attackers have the option to capture smaller supply camps to build things like siege weapons in order to soften the castle-holders' defenses. The PvP itself is large and chaotic with dozens of players - often more than a hundred - in one area making a push for one point, although the rules are also structured in such a way that one side's best strategy is usually to split up its forces around the map a bit to hit the defenders' weak spots. Then they can use the supply that's gotten from these areas to more effectively take on the big objectives. The three-team structure also makes things more interesting, too, as two servers' players can find themselves teaming up against a stronger third opponent, but since there's no communication between them, it often devolves into chaos, especially since it's easy to accidentally throw area-of-effect damage on the second team that you were trying not to hit.
World vs. World will remind people of the great RvR battles from Dark Age of Camelot, but there are some interesting tweaks here, not the least of which is that each server is ranked on a big list, and the server matchups are re-shuffled after a short period. If your server did well against your two opponents, your rank goes up and their ranks go down, and your server will be paired up with one of a similar rank in the next cycle while they will fight "easier" opponents. This battle is going on 24 hours a day and only stops when the cycle ends and servers are reshuffled according to their ranking changes. It's a fantastic system that, for now, mostly rewards those who outnumber their opponents during key battles, but we're already seeing strategies emerge very quickly where a small, dedicated team of players doing the right things can change the tide of a battle that's otherwise much bigger than themselves. It's interesting, it's fun, and the nice part is that it doesn't promote animosity towards other people on your server. Your whole server unites against others, and even when you're on the battlefield, you won't see opponents' names. This anonymization of the battle makes it all about the tactics and play itself, and so far I'm enjoying this departure from the usual MMO PvP.
There are still many annoying or silly things we've seen in the last decade-plus worth of MMOs that Guild Wars 2 didn't fix, but ArenaNet's efforts so far have delivered a huge range of disruptive changes that should pique the interest of any dedicated player. The focus on freedom and convenience is completely refreshing, while the ability to find challenge across the whole game world, not just what's appropriate for your current character's level, means you get to enjoy more exciting adventures and spend more time fighting alongside friends who are lower level than you. The lack of a subscription means the devs have brought in some untested economic systems that hopefully won't break the game's economy, but at the very least, they're monitoring it very closely. (My hope is that real-world prices of everything stay low enough that we very rarely see $100+ transactions.) Anyway, with great graphics, action-oriented combat, and a huge world that's inviting and fun to explore - all without kill-stealing, quest task lists, or so many annoying MMO rules that we've programmed ourselves to follow - I feel that while Guild Wars 2 is not revolutionary in all aspects, it's revolutionary enough that I can still attach that word onto this game without regret. There's some uncertainty in the future of the game's monetization model, and a few frustrating MMO tropes that still haven't changed, but this game still brings in a new era for big-budget MMOs that I think will change a lot about games to come. If you've gotten this far into this admittedly epic-length review and haven't quit reading yet, then clearly you're interested. Just buy this game and start budgeting out your time, because Guild Wars 2 is going to be taking up quite a bit of it.
Disclaimer: This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.