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Guild Wars 2 Hands-On

*Accompanying this preview is an interview with Guild Wars 2’s lead game designer, Eric Flannum, in which he discusses the unique challenges and problems posed by MMO design and development. You can read it here.
**All of the following screenshots were grabbed directly from the gameplay session in question.
The team behind the Guild Wars franchise, ArenaNet, believe that if you don’t like MMOs then Guild Wars 2 is the one for you. That statement is an odd one as it opens up a great deal more questions than it answers. Why should I play it? Is it really an MMO at all? I like MMOs, should I still play it? Who is it aimed at?
I don’t play many MMOs. It’s the curse of a full-time games journalist that you can’t spend too much time playing any single title; new titles come out every week meaning, for better or worse, there are new titles to cover every week.
So, perhaps unsurprisingly, I went into this hands-on session with only a fragile understanding of the first Guild Wars and a mind open enough to either love or immediately dismiss what I was about to play. Well, I didn’t immediately dismiss it. I also didn’t love it but, I did enjoy it a lot.

Here’s the thing, compared to Star Wars: The Old Republic (the last MMO I previewed), Guild Wars 2 is spectacular – it feels fresh, it feels alive and it feels diverse… three adjectives that I’d never use to describe BioWare’s upcoming MMO, at least from what I’ve seen so far. Why am I comparing two games that are not out for many months? Because the only other frames of reference I have are two months of World of Warcraft, one month of Aion and a trial run of EVE Online. Comparing two competitors that are yet to hit the shelves seems like the fairest thing to do.
This particular Guild Wars 2 build we played was split into two distinct parts, a starting area in which we played a low-level character and an area further into the game harnessing the power that a fully kitted out high-level avatar allows. As a low-level player we selected to play as a Human female warrior. When you customise your character you’re asked a series of questions, the answers to which affect your personality and available in-game speech options.
(***As has been pointed out in the comments, our starting level character was in fact a Norn and not a Human. Apologies for the confusion.)

As a Human female we were asked (among other things) whether we won people over with charm, dignity or ferocity, what kind of helmet (if any) we liked to wear and whether a recent fight we had ended in defeat, triumph or us losing some important item. The only glimpse of the consequences of these choices came during a couple of speech segments in which our available responses coincided with our selections.
Supposedly, it’s possible to alter your personality (and available speech options) as the game progresses, presumably in an effort to allow you to express yourself and grow your character in line with your actions. To what degree your responses affect the NPCs perception of you remains to be seen, it’ll also be interesting to see how long their memories are and whether they’ll eventually forget any hostility or wrongdoing you inflict upon them. It may also be the case that speech options do no such thing, only locking/unlocking certain quest threads.
The opening quest involves you trying to gain entry into ‘The Great Hunt.’ After some basic attack training from a helpful NPC you’re sent off to prove your worth by hunting down three of the wildest animals in the area. In true MMO format this involves running around an area and killing stuff until you’ve killed the right stuff the right number of times. Pleasantly however, this most tiresome of mission types was the only such example we witnessed in our demo.

Mission completed and ‘handed in’ your options expand to provide a selection of quests geared towards improving your standing among the areas people. What’s nice about this segment was it’s up to you to decide how far you want to take things. You can win them over by completing only a couple of missions or you can win them over more exhaustively by completing them all.
The same idea expands to many of the missions, one of which involved a shaman transforming you in a snow leopard and you having to play mummy to the pups and/or hunting down prey (something about honouring the spirit of the creature). Here you can complete the bare bones of the mission in a bid to get the XP injection or finish it 100% (represented by a small yellow bar in the mission log on the HUD) to please the shaman further.
Like the conversation options, the long term implications of such a system are as yet unknown.
The low-level section ended with a boss battle against a giant blue land worm (strange how, having played many games, that description seems normal), requiring the combined effort of the gathered journalists and ArenaNet representatives to defeat. ArenaNet have been making a lot of noise about the fact that players are no longer stuck with a very specific skill set, depending on their character class choice.

For example, all characters can revive fallen comrades and most have some form of self-healing ability. These abilities certainly came in handy during our boss fight, removing any frustration that could be potentially caused by a group of players sticking to the same few class types.
Our time in the high-level area was spent partly as a Charr necromancer and partly as a Human elementalist. It was here that the new combat system really came into its own, the strength of the enemies forcing you to strafe, dodge, manually aim area of effect spells and make good use of your attacks while on the verge of death. We’ll be going more in-depth on the combat in our upcoming preview of Guild Wars 2’s Dungeon areas.
The higher level zone also gave us a hands-on taste of underwater combat, mainly against a giant fish that bears more than a passing resemblance to the piranha’s in Alexandre Aja’s  2010 Piranha 3D (great film, don’t care what you say). Other than the fact that things take place in three dimensions, underwater combat is mechanically very similar to land based combat; there’s no breath meter, for example.

What is different is that your movement speed is affected, the enemies are different, weapon aesthetics change (i.e. a sword becomes a spear) and fire balls don’t work. Despite my limited exposure to MMOs, I’ve played enough to know it was horrible in WoW and that it’s not so here. Whereas in other games underwater combat means limiting your abilities in Guild Wars 2 it means changing them, making it appealing rather than dreaded.
The jury is still out on whether or not Guild Wars 2 really can break down the walls that other MMOs have spent years building up, walls that non-MMO gamers cannot penetrate and often don’t even want to. By shunning a subscription fee Guild Wars 2 has already pulled down the biggest barrier to entry, combine that with action focused combat, optional depth to missions and a less claustrophobic take on the standard class system and ArenaNet might just be onto something… again.
Stay tuned for our upcoming preview of Guild Wars 2’s Dungeons.

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