At the core of Guild Wars 2 is this simple concept. Respect for the player's intelligence, respect for the player's time, respect for the player's investment, and respect, even reverence, for the genre. Guild Wars 2 is an MMO, but by tossing away the old models and traditions ArenaNet have managed to do what the aging World of Warcraft did years ago on release: bring a fresh perspective and attitude to a stagnant genre.
Unlike its peers, GW2 doesn't make you wait until it gets good. While many MMOs will have you fight rats and bugs in dull training grounds for the first hour, GW2 takes the same time to have you put through the gauntlet--introducing you to the world of Tyria with a massive spectacle. You'll start you journey where many role playing games begin, at the character creation screen. Here you'll choose your race, class, background story, and customize your appearance. Your race will determine your personal story and starting area, but there are no limits to what class you can play as. Depending on your race, you'll also select attributes or affinities to various deities that exemplify the values of that race. Regardless of which of the multitudes of choices you make, your character will not be a blank slate. The characters of GW2 have histories, friends, and values, and even considering that there are likely hundreds of other characters with the same histories, it still imparts a stronger sense of ownership over your particular character.
From there you'll be given an introduction to world, detailing the current events in progress, narrated by your character. Afterwards, you'll be sent on your way and tasked with certain objectives. The tasks vary by your race, but even if they don't start you in a warzone, they'll culminate in a large battle by the chapter's end--and when I say large, I mean it. By the end of the tutorial you'll be engaged in a twenty to thirty person large battle, the kind which other MMOs don't generally allow you a glimpse of until you've put hours of time into them.
Then you are let loose upon the world. Upon the completion of the tutorial, you are set free to explore the world and grow your character in whatever way you choose. With a few button presses, and a couple of clicks, you are free to immediately jump into other starting areas, compete in Player Vs. Player, or take part in the three server wide World vs. World vs. World struggles. The game even temporarily levels you up to the maximum level for WvW and PvP, and unlocks all skills for PvP as well.
The world of Tyria is an artfully crafted one. While at first glance it may seem to be a familiar fantasy world full of the same archetypes and imagery, a more detailed look reveals a world wrapped in pseudo-scientific magic and steampunk technology, imbued with touches of inspired lore and history. Though technically running on an overhauled version of the engine that powered the previous Guild Wars, GW2's art direction and attention to detail make exploring the world a treat. Knowingly, ArenaNet scattered vista points at various landmarks around the world, markers that when activated give you a panoramic view of the sites around you, and reward you with experience. Additionally, there are also various points of interest scattered across the maps that reward you similarly for reaching an area. It makes exploring the world not only rewarding visually, but mechanically as well. I spent a lot of my own play time simply wandering the world and aiming for various vista points, snapping screenshots, and uncovering the world map. Playing as a part cartographer, part photographer almost feels like a legitimate way to play the game. Almost.
While exploring the world and taking in the sights might be gratifying on its own, the constant feedback loop and numbers game that MMOs are built on demands that you engage in frequent combat. It's a bog standard mechanic for nearly all videogames, as violent conflict is simply the most direct and stimulating way to experience a game world. GW2 doesn't deviate majorly from the tab-targeting, hotbar based combat that drives the majority of the genre, but it does make it feel more dynamic. To start with, projectiles are actually projectiles--the chance for you to hit is not determined by a dice roll, but whether or not the attack makes contact. You also have the ability to dodge roll, which allows you to evade attacks before they hit. It doesn't exactly turn GW2 into an action game: attacks still home in on you, and sometimes the best course of action to counter-intuitively dodge into attacks (due to the brief unhittable state dodging puts you into), and no amount of skill will allow you to survive an attack by a higher level mob. Skills can also be used on the move as well, and ArenaNet have done away with the Holy Trinity of tank, healer, and DPS (damage per second) type classes, and allow more flexibility in roles. Mixed with mechanics such as combos, which allow you to combine certain skills to inflict additional conditions, GW2 brings a sense of dynamism to the combat.
This dynamism flows into other aspects of the game as well. The traditional kill x amount of this quest system has been ditched for a new event system that dynamically creates tasks for players to participate in. Events range from protecting a certain area from bandits or stopping a stampede to taking on a boss character or helping around a farm. Events are open and inclusive, there are no queues to join a group quest, simply jump in and fight. While there are still more static events that ask you to collect so many of a certain item, these are mixed in or sometimes even caused by other events. For example, the town's water supply may become poisoned, and require players to obtain slime samples to create an antidote. In the same location, bandits may attack the water supply and destroy the pipes, require you to then protect the workers as they fix the pipes. These events give the illusion of a living world when compared to the traditional MMO space. However, while the event system strives to provide a sense of impact on the world, the impact is limited by the cyclical nature of the event system. Areas might become temporarily damaged, or contested, but eventually the cycle will cause the events in an area to repeat regularly. Thankfully, GW2 scales down the player level to the area level cap, so participating in an events in lower level areas doesn't feel like a pushover. Additionally, GW2 is supported by a flat level cap that instead of increasing the amount of experience needed exponentially, keeps it at a relatively stable amount as long as you are doing level appropriate content.
If fighting foolish AI mobs isn't your thing, jump into the PvP or World vs. World modes. Player vs. Player focuses on small scale skirmishes between teams of up to eight players. All gear and skills are unlocked, and all players are leveled up to maximum. This breaks it down to only a skill based challenge. New gear can be obtained as you climb the ranks, but it is only cosmetic in function. PvP battles are structured around teams obtaining and controlling various points on the map, with each arena given it's own additional mechanics. Sharks may patrol the waters in one area, mobs might spawn and be able to be killed for additional points, or trebuchets may be available to bombard the enemy with. It's a good way to test out and refine your skills, as well as come to better understand the nuances of the many game mechanics at play that the explosion of particles effects occurring in larger scale battles generally obscures.
World vs. World however, is the exact opposite. While you are still scaled up to the max level while participating, experience points and gear can be earned and brought back to PvE. While it may seem to give an advantage to certain players, in the grand scale of things, and I do mean grand, it has little bearing. WvW takes place in one of four battlegrounds, occurring between three warring servers, and rotating opponents on a bi-weekly basis. Here locations of various importance and point values can be sieged, defended, and captured. Caravans travel from point to point and provide bases with supplies that are used to fortify walls and doors, and to build siege weapons to fire upon the enemy. Battles are decided by massive groups of players, battlegrounds contain hundreds of players at a time, and entrances to fortresses can regularly be seen being sieged by massive groups of players fighting from both sides of the wall. It's a grand sight for sure, but players and attacks become lost in the fray, and as a result a player's contribution feels much smaller than in events or especially PvP.
No matter what way you choose to experience the game, GW2 will likely prove to be an incredible time sink. Thankfully this is due to the incredible amount of content to experience, instead of the archaic mechanics and structures of many other MMOs that exasperate the grind. Make no mistake however, Guild Wars 2 is still about the grind. While ArenaNet have brought plenty of new concepts and ideas to the MMO space, the genre still imposes many constraints upon the mechanics and world of the game. This is felt most strongly when playing through your personal story, a questline built specifically for your character which generally take place inside instanced versions of the game world. Maybe you regret not being able to retrieve your sister's corpse, maybe you want to prove yourself with a grand invention, or maybe you just want to join the damn circus. Whatever the plan, you'll be making decisions, participating in conversations, and fighting off the enemy. Despite the work put into these stories, they are bogged down by the limitations of the genre. The world is an ill fit for the scale of the battles, the characters generally don't feel memorable, and there isn't enough flexibility within the mechanics and engine to create the pacing and personality that a good RPG story requires. It all comes off rather stilted, like a theatre group trying to pull of an impromptu telling of a sprawling epic in random locations around the city.
It's a feeling that extends to the genre as a whole, but at times it feels increasingly prominent in GW2. ArenaNet have given you an expansive world to play in, but there's not much to do aside from slaughter the residents in pursuit of the next level. Sure, you can slaughter them in entertaining and varied ways, but in the end it's all about the grind. The best of MMOs simply do a good job hiding it. You can do every quest in the game, explore every point of the map, and raid high level dungeons, but you'll never achieve that grand sense of completion and closure that single player games allow.
ArenaNet have no doubt created one of the most compelling MMOs ever made, if not the most compelling. They've created a more dynamic system and introduce concepts and mechanics that feel as if they should have been obvious to others working in the genre. Guild Wars 2 is no doubt an incredible package, saturated with layers and layers of mechanics and content that threaten to overwhelm a player--and all without demanding the subscription fee that similar MMOs ask for. Guild Wars 2 is not a revolution of the genre, but an evolution.
For those new to the genre, or veterans who have become jaded with the increasingly familiar MMOs, it's a brilliant example of smart design which continues to put the enjoyment and respect of the player before everything else. It's somewhat blighted by the limits of the genre, but it's ambition and craft are undeniable.
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