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Aaron N. Tubbs

Dragon chaser.

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Whoops, I’m playing an MMO again…

After successfully quitting World of Warcraft in early 2008, I wasn’t planning on ever playing an MMO again. After all, I wanted to play games to have fun and forget about the real world, and competitive raiding was pretty job-like.

Everything that came after WoW competed with WoW, either explicitly or implicitly. Many expensive MMOs launched, a few stuck around, and some have even been viable. While there has been near-constant innovation in the last few years, things haven’t changed that much, at the end of the day.

That brings us to Guild Wars 2. I’m not going to proclaim anything about it killing or even impacting WoW. To wit, I’ve been out of the genre for almost half a decade, so I’m not particularly qualified to talk anymore. But, there were an awful lot of people excited about this game, and I couldn’t resist. The original Guild Wars was well-loved by its players, but I have no experience with it.

This isn’t a review and is far from exhaustive, but these are my initial thoughts after a few weeks of playing as an ex-WoW player.

Slow Takeoff

When I first started the game, the only word I had to describe it was overwhelming. A few weeks later, I still feel that way. When one first starts, it’s not really clear what’s going on. There are no well-structured quests, and about the only thing that’s introduced gradually are individual skill slots and talents. Otherwise, more or less the entire game is available to the character on day one. The game is so rich, epic, and comprehensive that it’s really difficult to figure out what to do at all. This choice is good in principle, just do whatever is interesting at any given time and that’s fine.

And, this quickly gets us to the core philosophy, as I’ve encountered it. While there are plenty of opportunities for min/maxing, the game doesn’t really reward that sort of behavior that much. There’s a level cap, but racing to get to 80 isn’t really that interesting. If anything, the game rewards the player that takes their time getting to the “end.”

In any event, there are a few things that are pretty confusing when starting out. It’s not entirely obvious without some digging whether there is any difference between races except for appearances. As far as I can tell the only real difference is a few race-specific skills. This is somewhat neat, if a bit unintuitive.

Then, a story has to be picked to define a character, and there are various trade-offs made throughout the main story. The only real impact is on NPC behavior, but it’s not clear that this is the case either. Along with the previous point, the lesson to learn here is “don’t fret it, you can’t really screw up in any meaningful lasting way.”

On that point, there is a main story quest that continues as one’s character levels up, offering a quest objective for every couple (ish?) of levels. This helps drive the character to new areas, and provides one means of guiding progress, but then the main story quest can also just be entirely ignored with no ill effect.

Finally, there are professions. Some are relatively familiar to extant concepts, and some are a bit off the beaten path. Of particular note, there are theoretically no tanking and no healing professions; all professions are meant to be able to survive and support. The means to achieve this vary a bit, as some classes may need to survive by avoidance more than traditional “tanking” but it works out. The game doesn’t really work well if one tries to map tank + heal + dps to an encounter, leading to frustration for people not willing to try something a little different.

From day one there’s a wide-open world to explore, creatures to kill, encounters to tackle (ranging from solo to group efforts of various varieties), people to help (granting various forms of currency and experience), resources to gather, things to craft, and so forth. As the game progresses, some dungeons show up, one gets exposed to various forms of PVP, and so forth, but the end is a lot like the beginning – there isn’t as fierce a notion of an endgame as in many other games.

Innovations

I’m not going to suggest that GW2 is the first game to have these things, but I’ve found these approaches very useful to both making the game compelling and to making the game rewarding for the casual player.

The most obvious departure I ran into was the level-adjustment. A huge problem in WoW was dungeons that were built with a lot of effort, only to level past the gear and the encounter and never go back again. Similarly, running a dungeon with somebody many levels higher was sort of effortless and silly, and took no skill for the level-appropriate and was a yawn-fest for the helper. GW2 fixes this by scaling characters. If in a level 40 zone or a level 30 dungeon, the game lowers the effective level of the player so that it’s still a challenge. There are still naturally advantages for the higher-level player that’s been scaled down, but it’s not a case of being stupidly overpowered. Even better? Real-level loot drops for a scaled character, so it’s not even a complete waste of time.

This works in the other way too: If an under-level (i.e. not 80) player goes to play in PVP, they automatically get made a level 80. In more structured PVP, they even have normalized armor and skills. Crazy! Becomes a matter of skill and talent of the player, with skill and talent selection of the character being largely secondary.

This is so cool; what’s been achieved is allowing people the joy of leveling up and so forth while also removing the frustrations that come with leveling.

This too seems to be a theme in the game: Find the things people like and fix the things that cause irritations. This brings us to loot. It’s per-person. Easy. Done. So simple, but so great.

It gets better. Resource nodes? Present on everybody’s map and somewhat random what’s available at a given time (I think?), but everybody gets a full pull. Players aren’t competing for resource nodes, and that’s pretty damn fantastic. Some quest items are less egalitarian, but that makes more sense from a thematic standpoint.

Transmutations allow maintaining visual styles between armor while preserving a desired sets of stats/enchantments. That’s pretty cool. It also means an expensive upgrade to a now-worthless piece of armor doesn’t lose its value.

Sets are composed via sockets, and not armor pieces. This more or less completely fixes the problems of set armor. Just brilliant, and it works great.

Finally, there are tons of skills and trait combinations, but player UI is simple, and they only have access to about 15 buttons to push at any given time. Pretty crazy compared to, say, Diablo, but pretty simple compared to an MMO with row upon row of things to mash.

Oh wait, there’s one more. Overflow servers. This caused some problems with parties and guilds, but the whole idea is to let the player play while they’re sitting in a queue, rather than having them stare at a progress bar. It’s sort of stupidly obvious, but it works great. I’ve more or less been able to play the game within a few seconds, whenever I wanted, since launch. I can’t even get that out of single-player games with online DRM these days.

PVP

More than any other MMO (ostensibly), GW2 seems to be about PVP. I haven’t done much of it yet, but it seems pretty elegant. Structured PVP gear is unique to Structured PVP, and world PVP scales the player up to 80 but leaves things as they are otherwise.

So I can’t say much intelligently, but it seems pretty neat.

Room for Improvement

It’s not all roses. The market is a bit of a mess; virtually no crafting is actually profitable. Market prices for gear is virtually nothing save a few key items (might and magic find buffs, say) and stuff at the very highest levels (either high enough that DE can return valuable things or level 80 exotic gear). Making money isn’t entirely straightforward – there’s not something that can just be done mechanically to much profit.

The game is full of jumping puzzles, and some are super-duper irritating. Like anything, these can be ignored, but ignoring them means not being able to complete a given map’s exploration (and thus missing out on a bunch of valuable loot, experience, and so forth). Ugh.

Certain decisions that were made in game design seem somewhat arbitrary. For example, engineers can’t switch weapons in combat, while most (all?) other classes can. This is justified by their skills (which have a lot of weapon-replacement behavior), but it seems like a silly limit – moreso since there are gems for weapons that only have a behavior that applies after weapon swapping.

Healing seems to be pretty universal, but there still seems to be a tendency to evolve tanking characters.

Jumping puzzles. Let’s repeat that.

All Said and Done

So this is all pretty incoherent, but I think my point here is that I’m a Guild Wars 2 fanboy now. I enjoy that it rewards relatively casual play and think it’s worth a look.