The fantasy based MMO has always been plagued by a subtle irony. The genre is trying to live up to some grandiose ideals, to both immerse players in Tolkien-inspired high fantasy and deliver living gaming worlds for hundreds of players, but all too often their rigid mechanics, based around prolonging the experience to justify a subscription, rob them of that magic, especially for anyone outside the MMO community. Its tends to divide gamers into either MMO fans or those who won’t go near them, but in Guild Wars 2 ArenaNet has tried to evolve its non-subscription MMO to better appeal to everyone. While Guild Wars 2 isn’t perfect, a fusing of generous content and greater accessibility has resulted in one of the most welcoming and absorbing games in years, especially for newcomers to the genre.
Unlike most MMOs, which stack ‘premium’ content like massive monster fights in their endgame, Guild Wars 2 sprinkles it liberally throughout the world of Tyria. For starters, each of GW2’s five races – the struggling Humans, Viking-like Norn, diminutive but technically brilliant Asura, warlike feline Charr and graceful sentient plant race the Sylvari – have starting quests sporting impressive large-scale confrontations of the sort you’d only expect at high levels in most MMOs. It’s isn’t the only difference, as GW2’s quest system eschews quest logs or givers; missions are represented by hearts on the vast map and triggered simply by approaching them, with a progress bar keeping you appraised as to completion. It works because of the huge variety of quests with multiple objectives on offer, from fighting bandits to exploring undersea villages or gathering special items – one of our quirky favourites saw us transformed into a pig and searching for truffles.
The grind isn’t entirely gone, but it’s been effectively hidden. Rather than slowly dribbling out content, GW2 encourages exploration by a waypoint system allowing fast travel to any areas you’re uncovered for quests, and XP is given for everything, including exploration. Even better, you’re never lone-wolf questing, with players all around doing the same tasks and helping in combat. GW2’s open design means XP is shared, and while they’re fairly traditional, a generous mix of objectives and how you organically co-operate makes them far more engaging. It’s huge fun simply exploring, and while areas have ranked quests, a clever scaling system means that you’re always appropriately levelled but get worthwhile XP, so high-level players are de-levelled to quest with novice friends. You’re equally driven by your character’s individual quest, based on their class, race and questions asked during their creation, which play out in individual instances. These admittedly vary in narrative quality but provide solid goals right up to the highest levels.
But nothing defines this living world quite like dynamic events that randomly spring up on the map. Anyone can simply join in, and few things are as joyous as being part of a huge cave troll attack, helping to escort a vulnerable convoy, or battling centaur legions as crowds of enthusiastic players flood into battle. They can often be chaotic, cacophonous affairs, with spell-casters like Elementalists and Mesmers filling the air with pyrotechnics as Warriors dive into melee, while Engineers, Rangers and Thieves attack with bows or guns. These dynamic events do repeat, but it’s forgivable given the life they bring to the world.
That dynamism is echoed in GW2’s class system and combat. Members of any race can be any class, and they’re extremely flexible. All classes can self-heal, and combat skills are tied to weapons, with the ability to switch out between two sets. All too often MMO combat entails simply spamming rote hotkey combinations while a virtual d20 determines combat. GW2 is more action-based; while those unseen numbers are still churning, you can manually evade attacks and even block, albeit with an energy meter limiting your acrobatics. Knowing which abilities to use when is equally crucial in battle. All that combined with a very flexible skills/traits system means it’s easy to tailor your character to your play style. To be fair, it’s only once you reach GW2’s dungeons, like the Ascalonian Catacombs unlocked at level 30, that most players will find themselves really pressed in combat, but by that time most will have joined a guild or have regular friends to play with, which as with any MMO takes the experience to a whole new level as you co-operate and raid in a more focused manner and gain the benefits of membership. But, as ever, if you want to play solo, GW2’s inherently social framework means you’re never without aid from nearby players.
Of course the next natural step for many will be PvP, and ArenaNet has provided ‘the Mists’, a separate area that features both smaller team-based objectives and large-scale PvE battles. With all players bumped up to level 80 in PvP, it’s both a great preview of what’s in store and effective training in your skills. PvP is accessible from the start and can initially be overwhelming; PvE dynamic events are chaos, but it’s a Sunday school picnic compared to PvP. Mastery of your class, teamwork and serious keyboard co-ordination are required, and it’s here that many MMO veterans are likely to end up spending their time. That said, the objective nature of PvP maps, as well as additions like cannons, catapults and other fortifications, mean that any players can make themselves useful.
While GW2’s overall design is extremely accessible, it isn’t as good as it should be at introducing players to concepts like its very useful crafting system or weapons upgrades through gameplay; it simply pops up HUD notes telling you. Given how most players will miss those instructions, they can often be left asking for aid. The story quests can also be ‘stop/start’, as you often aren’t high enough rank to go from one to the other, and with level-scaling you can’t just use the old MMO trick of grinding in lower areas to boost stats.
These niggles aside, ArenaNet’s ongoing rejection of the MMO subscription model and the concept of an endgame has allowed it to create a landmark game that, like World Of Warcraft, which brought greater polish to the genre, is going to redefine what people expect from MMOs going forward. It’s very slick, enormous fun, continually dynamic, and more than any other MMO it brings the genre closer to the ideal of a fantasy world filled with hundreds of players in which just about anyone can lose themselves. That sentiment, as much as anything else, makes it well worth playing.