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Guild Wars 2

 

guild wars 2          guild wars 2

 

A word of warning to Mike Morhaime, Greg Zeshulk, and Ray Muzyka: watch your backs.

For the last few years, Guild Wars 2 has been one of those projects that people know has been in progress but there's been very little word outside of what ArenaNet has put out on their website. They've given us the full slate of character classes and races. They've given us a manifesto video announcing how they're going to change MMOs and how they ought to be made. For all of that, however, there's not a lot that we actually know about the gameplay, the environments, any of it. So far, all we have are the very cool videos showing off the watercolor art style of the cinematics and the highly detailed cutscenes using the game engine. This past weekend, however, ArenaNet decided to rectify the situation and led several members of the press through a tour of their new office and an extended

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tour through Tyria.

The original Guild Wars was unabashedly oriented towards the PvP, but they didn't sacrifice the PvE elements in the process. As time went on, ArenaNet expanded on the game not just by adding content, but by giving players new options for PvE and PvP play.

 

At the time of the last expansion, Eye of The North, the basic idea

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behind choosing eight powers had been expanded to cover scenarios involving dwarven bare-knuckle fighting and faction-specific power sets. The pre-built henchmen that could be hired at one of the game's many quest hubs soon found themselves being dragged along with companion characters, NPCs that could be customized by the player and whose personal storylines were tied into the campaign arc. There is no question that ArenaNet did some truly amazing stuff, and sometimes was the first to put it out there.

For their second outing, rather than retread the well worn paths and the comfortable familiarity which their player base has become accustomed to, ArenaNet decided instead to basically nuke the world and start over. Set two and a half centuries after the climax of Eye of The North, Tyria as it was is gone. The return of the Elder Dragons has redrawn the maps, rewritten the political equations, and forced former enemies to bury the hatchet to focus on the larger fight for survival against what are essentially the fundamental forces of Nature that forged the world. Not that it's going to be easy, of course. Over the course of eighty levels, players will be running, fighting, casting, jumping, swimming, and generally adventuring across the lands of Tyria in order to stop the Elder Dragons from erasing it all.

 

guild wars 2          guild wars 2

 

Now it can be argued, and not without inaccuracy, that a large part of the original Guild Wars consisted of unlocking skills through PvE which were intended in large part to be employed in PvP play. I blew fortunes worth of in-game gold and platinum getting Seals of Capture and hunting down the rare “elite” skills from bosses, and I never did get them all. However, I never really got into the PvP aspect of the game. I tried a couple of matches now and again, but I got very frustrated and turned off by the standard “OMFG! Build Sux! GTFO, n00b!” behavior of PvP players.

 

You needed to have the right gear, the right skill loadout, and the right skill point allocations, or nobody would deal with you.

 

Needless to say, this attitude didn't do much to endear me to PvP. Even more of a superfluous observation, it didn't do much for me in PvE except to be thankful for the companion characters. But after a good ten hours or so with Guild Wars 2, I have no fear of that attitude, because there's literally no place for it in this iteration's structure.

 

guild wars 2          guild wars 2

 

Whereas you had a massive (and thanks to the expansions, occasionally redundant) list of spells, special attacks, buffs, debuffs, and such in the first game, your skill list is considerably trimmed down in GW2.

 

It starts with weapons.

 

Every player has a starting weapon and a starting weapon skill. Successful hits with the weapon slowly build up to unlock new weapon skills. Swap over to a new weapon, you'll start from square one again to unlock a whole new array of skills, but doing so isn't nearly as painful as leveling weapons skills in WoW was back in the early days. One handed or two handed, dual wield or “sword and board,” your first five skills will always be contingent upon your weapon loadout, and most classes have the option to swap weapon sets between skirmishes if a player feels their current equipment is insufficient to the task at hand. Also at level 1, each class has a basic healing skill. Now instead of having to rely a dedicated healer (the Monk class from the original game), everybody can heal themselves.

 

Furthermore, this isn't a single shot “one heal per combat” sort of affair, but there is a cooldown involved. This gives players the chance to survive even prolonged fights. And should you get put down, there's still hope. A special skill bar opens up, giving players the chance to rally back by bandaging wounds or throwing improvised weapons against opponents on the chance that they can make a kill and bounce back.

 

guild wars 2          guild wars 2

 

Even when you're knocked out of the fight, other players can revive you and get back to the battle at hand, though for areas like dungeons there is a death penalty and damage to your equipment.

If the first Guild Wars looked good, its successor looks phenomenal. From the massive architecture of the cities to the fine details on weapons and armor, the word “lavish” suggests itself more than once. While I only had the opportunity to roll up toons from three of the races, the starting areas of each one felt distinctly different from the others. The Norn felt the most familiar, their structures not terribly different from those seen in Eye of The North, while the Charr show a distinct and more evolved aesthetic than they did when they were the early level enemies in the first game. The various creatures that wander the countryside and skitter through dungeons are amazing, from restless ghosts to rampaging centaurs, the most inoffensive critters like racoons and armadillos to massive behemoths vomited up from the darkest pits in Tyria that demand a large group of hardy souls and a modicum of tactical planning to drop.

 

Visual effects aren't just well done --they're force multipliers and battlefield indicators. They're the means to achieve some really nifty combo attacks with other players and the subtle warning of when your character is under threat from a horrific area of effect attack. I think it's best summed up that there isn't anything in Guild Wars 2 that is uselessly pretty.

From what has been demonstrated so far, the sound design in the game is equally well done, though not quite so interactive as the visual effects. Jeremy Soule's score for the game might very well be his best one to date. The music just fades into the background and hangs there right below the level of your consciousness at just the right times. Meanwhile, every roaring fire, every crackling lightning strike, every pistol shot, every sword stroke, all of the foley sounds and special sound effects work to help bring the player into the world.

 

I didn't get much of a chance to really appreciate the whole range of voice acting done for the game, but what I did hear fits in perfectly with the degree of quality that the rest of the game has demanded for the audio.

I touched on the gameplay earlier, as well as the inevitable PvE/PvP dichotomy, but I'd like to go back to it, because the philosophy behind GW2 is considerably different than its forebear. First, the character classes have been rearranged. Most of the original classes from the first game, prior to the expansions, return for the sequel. As mentioned earlier, there isn't a dedicated healer class in the game, so the Monk class has been removed almost entirely, though certain powers that they used in the first game show up in the new Guardian class. The Guardians appear to have elements of Monks, Ritualists (from Factions), and Paragons (from the Nightfall expansion). Meanwhile, the Thief class appears to be a retooling of the Assassin class from the Factions campaign. The Engineer class is all new, seemingly without antecedents from the original game or the expansions. I've toyed with these new classes, and they are a blast to play both in PvE and, surprisingly for me, in PvP. Bear in mind, I hate PvP in MMOs with a pure and burning passion as a general rule. There's been too much bad behavior and too little payoff in my previous experiences. And yet, I found myself genuinely enjoying the PvP in GW2. For small Control-style maps, gameplay was fast, furious, and most importantly well balanced. In the much larger “World vs. World” map, where one's actions will have a persistent effect over the course of a two-week timeframe, possibly the most irritating aspect of PvP has been removed: targeted griefing. In World vs. World, players are anonymized, simply being designated as say “Blue Invader” or whatever color they're fighting under. Moreover, in all PvP, character gear is equalized and players have access to all the skills for their class. No more gear grinds. No more mad quests for an elite skill capture. For PvP, weak players have no more excuses for their lack of skill and strong players can no longer assume they are an “I win” button on the battlefield. Tactics and coordination are vital skills to master if you want to be racking up the points in PvP.

 

guild wars 2          guild wars 2

 

Should PvP grow dull, you can always go the co-op route instead, and Guild Wars 2 provides an almost obscene amount of content for co-operative play. Similar to the Public Quests in Warhammer Online or the rift events from Rift, all manner of events occur on the map as you stroll down country roads or through a town's dusty streets. As more players get involved, the monsters scale up in hit points, powers, and defenses in relation to the players involved, keeping the fight a challenge while allowing for greater rewards. Mob tagging has been eliminated, so you don't have to stand around like a schmuck waiting for an event boss to respawn. Jump in, lay the holy smack down, and get rewarded appropriately for your contribution. But if you're a dedicated soloist, or just a virtual hermit, you can make your way down storyline missions which are distinct to your specific character. Character creation isn't just about picking race, class, and general appearance. You're also charged with building up a backstory, using Dragon Age-style icons throughout an extensive process that wouldn't be out of place in an Elder Scrolls game or Jagged Alliance 2. Even within races, there are factions and rivalries, and the number of ways your character can fit into the overall situation is almost mind-boggling.

Of all the PvE content, more than any of the dynamic events, the dungeon that I went through stands out as some of the most punishing, brutal, soul crushing gameplay I've been through, and I loved it. If it's not Demon's Souls-grade hard, it's awfully close.

 

Five players, a big sprawling map, lots of bosses, and a lot of very tense moments. I will say that a party wipe in Guild Wars 2 isn't nearly so brutal as it would be in a lot of other MMOs. On the other hand, it's very difficult to actually encounter a party wipe, since other party members can revive you and keep things going. It's possible to do, but you've really gotta screw up by the numbers in order to make it happen.

 

If I have any complaint, it would be that there be some means to repair your armor while in the dungeon, since a full defeat incurs death penalty and gear damage. While I can appreciate the visual cues that my armor is destroyed by making my character look half-naked, it's troublesome when you have to borrow armor from other party members in order to keep going. For all of that, though, I felt like King Charr on cocaine when we brought the last boss down.

At the time of this writing, the first open beta weekend is underway. Forget what you know. Disregard what came before. The world is brand new for Guild Wars 2, and there is no reason not to explore it. I know I certainly will be.

- Axel Cushing

(April 30, 2012)

 

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