It’s hard to find a place to begin when you’re dealing with something of Guild Wars 2‘s scale. It’s an MMO with huge emphasis on both PvE and PvP, it has no monthly fee, and it does some clever things with standard MMO mechanics. I don’t believe that it’s the Great Saviour of MMOs – it’s more an exquisitely designed example that innovates on the genre’s trops – but maybe that’s just me. Decide for yourself over the course of this review.
So here’s the short version: Guild Wars 2 is a game about playing with other people, and this fundamental idea is emblazoned upon almost every single mechanic I’ve encountered. This is not how things usually work in MMOs.
Before I explain what I mean by that, I’ll point out – yet again – that this is an MMO, and so there is absolutely no sane way for me to have seen all of the content. My highest-level character is in the mid-50s, I’ve spelunked through a few dungeons, and I’ve spent a day or two tooling around in both PvP and WvW. Total disclosure, and all that.
Anyway, I was writing about other people, and for once I wasn’t complaining that they’re the bane of my existence. The standard theory would claim that MMOs are all about playing with other people. You are, after all, in a vast world populated by thousands of other players, so you’re obviously going to bump into other fleshy sacks of opinions on a regular basis.
But “bumping into them” is usually where it ends. If a player isn’t around your level, then they’re probably going to have little impact on your game world as you’re not likely to group up with them to quests. If you want to head into a dungeon and this player isn’t a class that you’re looking for, then they won’t be joining the party. Generally, in MMOs, other players are honestly little more than a collection of pretty characters that move through the background and add a feeling of life to an area. This isn’t true in Guild Wars 2.
Take zones. If you’re a high-level character and you wander back into one of the starting areas, you’ll find that your level has been “dropped” to only two or three higher than the zone itself. You’re still powerful for the area, and you still have any bonuses afforded by your equipment, but you’re not a walking one-hit-kill monster and you can still meaningfully partake in anything going on in the zone.
Those things going on will more than likely involve events, which are dynamic group quests that pop up with a pleasing regularity. If you’re wandering through a zone then you might get an alert that the centaurs are raiding a Seraph camp nearby, and you can pop along to help them out, along with a bunch of other players who got said alert. Further events tend to chain off, too; if you fend off the centaurs, then the Seraph soldiers may counter-attack, leading to the Seraph gaining more ground (which may result in extra vendors and fast-travel waypoints for you) as well as, eventually, a climactic battle at some point… up until the players stop helping out and the Seraph get pushed back, anyway. Some of these events are jaw-droppingly huge; an early one in the Human starting area has you and (hopefully) a few dozen other players facing off against something that’s about fifty times your size. Screenshot above, for reference.
In this sense, there’s always something to be done, and it generally involves other players. This has been taken one step further with the total dissolution of the holy trinity of Tank/Heal/DPS; having players fixed into these roles isn’t necessary even in dungeons, and all classes are capable of performing all three roles to varying extents. About the only time you’re locked out of content is if you’re too low level, and even then lowbies can help out with a bit of healing or some well-timed revives if they’re palling around with higher-level players.
It’s even friendly. Someone tags a mob? Hit it a few times, and you’ll still get credit for the kill. Someone starts whacking a mineral node with a pickaxe? You can do the same; it won’t vanish just because they’ve started mining it.
All of this gives Guild Wars 2‘s open PvE a very unusual sense of community. The other players aren’t just background noise, nor are you competing with them for mobs or resources. You want to help them, and it’s both easy and advantageous to do so because Guild Wars 2 seems to give you experience for literally everything. Mining? Have some XP! Crafting? Have some XP! Revive another player? XP! Found a Point of Interest or a Vista (which are essentially little map markers showing nice views or named locations)? More XP! Stroked a cat? Tonnes of XP! Guild Wars 2 gives XP for so many things that I’m not even certain I made up the last one.
This flows neatly into two more points that need to be made. The first is that exploration actually has some benefits, and it’s even enjoyable – cunningly-placed Vistas may require a bit of careful thought in terms of how the hell you get up that mountain, and will likely involve a bit of light platforming; reaching some Vistas require a fair bit of additional exploring and lateral thinking.
In fact, there are plenty of little bits tucked away in the world that aren’t marked out at all. When wandering off the beaten track on one occasion I fell into a hole, which led to a cave network that was completely unmarked on my map. There wasn’t anything beneficial in there – there were no chests, or unique monsters, or Points of Interest – but falling in there and wandering around actually made me feel like I’d discovered something, which is pretty rare in a game with so many other people floating around. Rather than flicking open my map to teleport out (waypoints are regular, and you can teleport to them at any time) I actually wandered around in glee.
But I digress. The second point is that gaining experience and questing don’t exactly work like you’d expect. You aren’t funnelled from one location to another through chains of missions; instead, you fill “renown hearts” in each area by helping out whoever’s there. If you’re wandering around a farm, then you’ll earn points towards it by feeding cattle or fending off bandits. If you’re at a frontier outpost, then healing the fallen and slaying enemy combatants will be the order of the day. Any such tasks will help fill the bar, and filling said bar pretty much counts as doing the “quests” in that area.
It works well, I suppose, though it does still feel like traditional MMO questing. One downside to the system is that, because everything gives you XP, you can’t level purely through renown quests – you’ll have to potter about, take part in events, and do sundry other bits and bobs before you fill up your little experience bar once more, which can be a bit of an issue if you’re playing late at night when there’s no-one else around to assist with these things.
That’s pretty minor, though. More importantly, I’ve come this far without talking about the combat. That’s a bit shameful because – alongside the exploration and general sense of place – it’s one of the things I think Guild Wars 2 does phenomenally well.
Every class can equip a variety of weapons, with most able to swap weapons out during combat, and these weapons determine what skills are available. It’s very much a case of using the right thing at the right time: a melee-focused class might want to equip a two-handed sword for close-range battles, but have a rifle available for some damage or snaring effects at a distance. Some attacks combo off the attacks of other classes, adding an extra layer of depth to the proceedings: if one player drops a wall of flame and another starts firing arrows through, for instance, those arrows will likely catch fire and set the target on fire. Right now I’m doing this entirely by accident, but I suspect my guild will be planning for this in the weeks to come.
The downside with the weapon system is that you’ll probably have unlocked all weapon skills before you’re even a fifth of the way through the available content. This doesn’t mean you won’t get any more abilities – some, which aren’t reliant on weapons, can be unlocked at a whim with Skill Points earned from PvE challenges and from levelling up – but it does mean that levelling up doesn’t trigger the same thrill-splosion that it does in other MMOs. It also means that you have more time with the skills you have, and the generally lower number means there’s less fodder in there – every single skill has its uses, and you’ll want to learn them.
The combat is action-based: players can move while attacking, and dodges can be employed to completely nullify incoming attacks, which makes it much faster-paced than most MMOs and means that player skill means a whole lot more. In PvE, you can efficiently take on higher-level mobs by yourself if you have a good idea of when to dodge, when to swap weapons, and when to use abilities. All of this comes into play even more heavily when you set foot into the rather tricky dungeons, where you don’t have the benefit of a dedicated tank or healer to keep things off your back. You need to know how to play your class.
But this is taken to a whole new level in PvP, where the combat system starts to resemble a fighting game blown out to a massive scale: to be effective against other players, you need to know the strengths and weaknesses of their classes as well as you do your own.
PvP itself is pretty much an entirely separate game in its own right. You don’t need to touch PvE at all to get into it, as your character is boosted to maximum level and given appropriate gear when you enter. Two games in one chunky download, if you like, which – while sharing some of the same assets and mechanics – feature different balancing and aren’t interdependent in the slightest.
Excluding WvW (which I covered in a previous piece) the PvP matches take place across four Conquest-type maps: two teams try to capture and hold three locations on each map, with the first team to hit 500 points claiming victory.
Each map has quirks of its own, though. One map, set around a coastal area, is partially submerged; controlling the underwater point makes the NPC sharks guarding the area friendly. Another map features trebuchets that can be used to rain down destruction on opponents. Another gives each team a “base” complete with a powerful NPC, which can be slain by the opposing team for a massive score boost. Four maps of the same gametype seems like a slim selection but they’re varied, fast-paced, and – when playing with a close-knit team – they allow for a good amount of strategising.
So, while experimenting with your weapons is fun in open PvE, it’s really just practice for either the gruelling dungeon crawls of instanced PvE, or the structured mayhem of PvP, and these are easily the most enjoyable parts of the package.
Guild Wars 2 doesn’t really get many steps of the MMO dance wrong, and even when it does fluff something, the lack of a monthly fee makes it a bit easier to forgive. I can’t honestly say it’s entirely clicked with me, though, and I’ve spent the past week trying to work out why without any real success.
Part of it, I think, is that many of its individual elements have been done better elsewhere. The Secret World did lore better and had a more interesting world, while The Old Republic made my choices feel more important. The quests on offer here (through the renown hearts system) are faster to get through, but don’t differ a great deal from what you’d be doing in most MMOs. The combat is more of a hybrid between action games and traditional MMO battling than TERA‘s attempt at a fast-paced action scrum.
That’s not knocking Guild Wars 2 at all, though; it’s rare for an MMO to get all of those things this right, and I honestly haven’t seen PvP done this well in a long time. WvW appears to harken back to Dark Age of Camelot (which, sadly, I didn’t play) while the structured PvP strikes me as World of Warcraft‘s Battlegrounds, only, um, much better balanced and much more fun. The current lack of duelling and direct Arena match-ups are a bit of a sore point for me, but the PvP is still more than solid enough to keep the player-killing crowd happy for awhile.
No, after thinking about it, I think that the one thing Guild Wars 2 does much better than most other MMOs – the one thing that really pulls those elements together to make something fantastic – is create a sense of cohesion. The world feels a lot more open than most. Exploring feels like it means something, and the terrain is varied enough that lengthy walks feel like a trek through uncharted territory. Going from questing to wandering off in search of a new Vista feels like part of the same adventure, rather than switching your brain from one mode to another.
It’s a difficult thing to describe, but Guild Wars 2 feels like a whole rather than a set of discrete mechanics lumped together, and that’s something very few MMOs get right. I suspect a lot of it’s down to the dynamic events: there is always something nearby to do. If you go back to an earlier area in search of crafting materials, then you will see dynamic events pop up, and the experience and items you get from them will likely be worth your while.
Which leaves us with the two all-important questions: is it a good MMO, and should you buy it? The answer to both is a simple “yes.” Guild Wars 2 is a very good MMO. It does pretty much everything you’d hope for, and the lack of a monthly surcharge makes it a lot easier to recommend to the more casual playerbase. The combat is excellent; the world is vast; the PvE is well-tuned; the PvP is marvellously designed. I could easily write another 2,000 words on each of the game’s disparate segments, and most of it would be praise. There’s something here for MMO players of every bent, and it’s hard to imagine someone who wouldn’t get their money’s worth from this.