Guild Wars 2 Beta Preview
Written by Omar Elaasar.
It's a gamble.
It was a sentiment that ran through my weekend with Guild Wars 2. I could see the ambition and vision ArenaNet was pushing for and at the same time see both why it could fail.
Slick menus and openings aside, my first impressions with GW2 were not good. Opting for the less obvious path, I spent an hour or two as a Norn thief, a member of a nine foot tall Nordic-like race. Aside from an event that lead me up a spire where I ended up combating a massive ice-worm, there wasn't much that strayed from the typical fantasy template.
Stop me if you've heard this before: a coming of age ritual where you must prove yourself by hunting a creature and offering it to the spirit of your animal gods.
With that said, even in those first two hours Guild Wars managed to astound with some of the changes it has made to the MMO template. As mentioned before, GW2 features an event system, which replaces the typical quests that litter every MMO. You'll still be tasked with killing a number of identikit thugs, beasts, and monsters, but GW2 ties it to an overarching objective that anyone can contribute to.
Here's the rundown: from time to time events will occur in certain areas of the world. Perhaps a caravan will be moving from one place to another and need protection, or bandits will attack a key location. Players will be alerted when within range, and completing various objectives will add to a total progress bar, and when completed players will be given rewards based on their contributions.
It was one of these that led me to my first hunt. After completing a training event with the NPC trainees one of the leaders alerted me that she needed help. I followed her up a spire, where many ice worms had gathered. Defeating them triggered an event that saw a mother ice worm appear. Working with the NPCs and a few other players, we were able to take it down easily.
It's a brilliant system, it feels organic and provides better context and immediate achievable objectives to chase. Events occur in cycles as well, so they can be repeated even if you have completed them. The game will even drop you to an appropriate level to make sure it isn't a pushover if you come back to an area at a later time. While there are the regular combat events, the non-combat events range from solving riddles placed at various statues, to feeding cattle for a farmer. These feel like essential tasks in the world, and add to the illusion of a living world. In addition, they require a good amount of people participating in order to be completed in a timely manner, so the larger events tend to reign in a good amount of passersby.
While this can lead to some impromptu parties running around and tackling various objectives around the world, these events can become chores when lacking enough people. Without a large enough interest or population for these events, I can see them becoming quickly ignored after they have been completed once.
It proved to be a bit underwhelming after the first two hours, at which point I decided that maybe it would be better to try out another race. This time, the obvious choice, the humans.
Starting as a human turned out to be a much better showcase of the game. Starting as an engineer, I fought off centaurs attacking a village and made my way to a stronghold under attack from centaur siege machines and waves of centaur attackers. The battle culminated with the centaur captain summoning a gargantuan elemental. With the help of the other players I managed to help take down the elemental by shooting at various points on its body while dodging its large sweeping attacks. After the battle I passed out and awoke to the aftermath of the battle.
Various events were occurring across the area. Near the siege area players were engaged in fending of the remaining centaur bandits, as well as destroying the remaining siege machines. Slimes monsters had poisoned the water supply, and further down the river caravans were traveling the roads and fishermen were capturing various river life. As dynamic and fresh as it all felt, it revealed another reservation I had about the event system. While some events would have consequences across the world, and cause other events to occur in that same location, they occurred in a reliable cycle. Bandits would continue to attack the waterworks, centaur siege machines would respawn and the cycle continued.
The human starting area was also populated with quite a few waypoints, marked off glowing portals that replace the quick travel systems of traditional MMOs. Each major area had around 15-20 of these and by simply opening up the map and paying a small amount of gold you can instantly teleport to any of them. It's an intelligent solution, and while it may not be the most immersive approach, it embraces the more â€œgameyâ€ elements of the genre and fits well.
Likewise, death proved to be similarly painless. Being struck down caused me to go into a â€œLast Standâ€ state, either channeling allies to buy time for a revival, or throwing out state specific skills in the hope of getting a kill, which gives an instant revival. Failing this, you will simply be knocked out and either have to wait for a revival by an ally, or return to one of the various waypoints. Either way, a temporary penalty is inflicted, which cuts down the amount of health you will gain on your next revive. This prevents players from simply winning battles through sheer attrition.
Another change up in tradition is the way that skill points are distributed. To be short, they aren't. Instead of gaining them as you level up as is traditional, skill points are earned by completing various challenges across the map. These range from simple tasks such as returning to your origin point of your story, or taking out a mini boss character and retrieving a strange potion. It works well for the most part, and there are enough skills for long term goals, with few enough that gaining new ones feels like they actually matter.
Playing as a human also gave me a chance to explore the other side of GW2, the personal story. These are a bit of the single player side of RPGs thrown in to give you a personal and overarching goal. During character creation, not only do you pick personality traits and origins, but you will be tasked to answer certain questions that will lead you to your personal story. These again range widely, from lighthearted ones such as regretting never joining a circus (really), to not being able to save your sister's body from a battle. Whatever the choice, it will have you meeting up with friends and taking on instanced quests. Others can join you as well, but they won't experience the story or motivations for the events, which can make it a bit strange, since they won't understand what they are fighting for.
Wrapping it up, I took the chance to play as a Charr, a beast race. I decided to pick up the Elementalist, who was able to switch between two elemental affinities, changing from more direct attacks to targeted area of effect spells. The world of the Charr is one of war and steel, and their starting area gave me vibes similar to those you would find in the Warhammer 40K universe. Again, while smartly made, and interestingly done, it lacked the polish of the human starting area, leading me to conclude that humans are the race that ArenaNet expects most players to start as.
Overall, I came away from the game feeling that while the game provided a solid structure with many refreshing changes that a seasoned MMO player would appreciate; it didn't do enough to rope in those who typically dislike MMOs. While the combat remains well done and the various abilities of each class are fun to use, battles are still likely to be determined by numbers rather than player skill. Some areas remain totally inaccessible alone, and many of the risks taken in changing the formula are relying on a large player count. While this is almost guaranteed to be a big seller, it will be up to the community to decide whether Guild Wars 2 continues to be a long remembered and celebrated success, or if it simply fades into the background like many once big name MMOs.