World of Warcraft shook up the MMO space back in 2004, but a few years before, a small number of Blizzard Entertainment employees broke off to form Arena Net. Their first title, Guild Wars, released a few months after World of Warcraft with some unique ideas injected into what had largely become the standard format for world structures and monetary subscriptions in MMOs. Now the developers have a sequel nearing completion, and while Guild Wars 2 doesn’t aim to reinvent the wheel, there are a number of changes to the core design governing most MMOs that might even push the genre as a whole in some great new directions.
For reference, these impressions are based on the recent open beta weekend. I tried to go broad and sample as many of the starting areas, classes and gameplay types as I could. My highest level character, a thief, only ended up around level 10 when the beta ended. Obviously being a beta and a stress event certain technical issues were to be expected, and Guild Wars 2 being a rich and detailed MMO I wasn’t able to experience every nuance of the game.
Guild Wars 2 takes place approximately 200 years after events in the original game and its expansions. The world hasn’t exactly improved, many of the races facing issues with great elder dragons awakening and wreaking havoc over the lands; the perfect environment for up-and-coming heroes to make a name for themselves. Players will get to select from five races and eight professions at release. These run your standard fantasy gamut of humans to norn (think barbarians or Cimmerians) and warriors to rangers, but there are plenty of exotic and unique elements like the illusion-based Mesmer profession or bestial Charr race, who were originally antagonists in the first game. You’ll also make a number of choices that further flesh out your character beyond simply race and class. These choices will affect things like your starting equipment and your personal quest story.
The part I enjoyed most during my time with Guild Wars 2 was how it encourages players to actually work together, even outside of typical party mechanics. There is no monster tagging where the first person to attack a NPC gets all the loot and experience for killing it, a feature most MMOs adhere to. Instead, everyone who helped defeat a monster gets rewarded with experience and the chance for items, which encourages players to help each other even if you’re not formally grouped with them. This also ties into questing. Rather than specific goals like “Bring me 10 wolf pelts,” the world questing in Guild Wars 2 has broader area based goals. You might be tasked with assisting a local farmer, but you can help her out in a number of different ways. Defeating bandits, recovering supplies or simply tracking down her lost livestock are all actions that will contribute towards completing the quest. This means that you can spend more time playing and completing your goals with the help of others and less time waiting for that last wolf to respawn.
Another method for breaking up the norm for MMO questing is the inclusion of events. The game world is peppered with these mini-quests that often tie-in with the larger area based quests. You might be clearing out spiders from an orchard when a particularly large one spawns or perhaps you’ll be asked to escort a soldier past waves of centaur to raid an armory in the middle of a larger conflict. These events will dynamically scale with the number of players in the area so they always have just the right feeling of difficulty regardless if 5 or 25 people are there. This is actually where the developers plan to extend a portion of their ongoing content, and the specifics of where and when won’t always be announced. So down the line as you are rolling alternate characters you might be completing the same quests, but you’ll still be discovering new things to see and do along the way.
As you complete these events and quests, you’ll be rewarded with experience and money, but there are a few alternate forms of currency that have interesting effects and usages. Karma is gained when completing events, and can be used to purchase items from the quest givers. For example, the farmer whose orchard you cleared of spiders has special pies that will buff you for a short time. This seems to take the place of more traditional quest rewards, so you can effectively pool them for an expensive item instead of having a whole bunch of random quest items to trash sell to the vendor. There are also PVP and Guild currencies, but the real game changer is Gems, which form the backbone of the Guild Wars 2‘s microtransaction market.
Slightly similar to PLEX in EVE, Gems can only be bought for real money, but they are a tradable item in the game’s economy, allowing players to purchase Gems for real money and turn them into coin and vice versa. The items and services available for Gems run a wide variety from special cosmetic items that can transmute the stats from one item to another to temporary buffs. There are some questionable ones, though, like keys that are the only method for opening special chests dropped or found in the world. The items within are things like fun potions that turn you into an animal or short duration buffs, but I hope the developers will continue to stay on the fun or utility side of the fence rather than providing an indirect way to pay for power. Gems should also have a great side effect of all but eliminating the third party gold market since it’s easy to convert real money into in game currency in a safe and legal manner.
Overall the combat in Guild Wars 2 has a great feeling of mobility and there’s much less emphasis on predefined class roles. Like its predecessor, Guild Wars 2 focuses on a much tighter grouping of skills as you’ll only ever have 10 skills at a time and one or more specific profession-based abilities. The thief, for instance, can steal temporary items to be used against foes whereas the elementalist can change their elemental attunement, which effects what their spells do. Your first five skills are determined by your currently equipped weapon, but you’re given more freedom to pick your healing, elite and utility skills in the later five. In addition to the dedicated healing skills, there are a number of other systems for allowing players to move away from the tank, healer and dps trifecta. Every player has an action bar that can be used to roll and dodge attacks, and reaching 0 hit points does not instantly result in death. Upon running out of life you’ll be knocked into a downed state with a limited selection of skills, but if you can kill a foe you’ll rally back to your feet. This also allows other players to assist and revive you should they be able to get to you in time, removing the requirement for a specific class to be able to resurrect dead players.
While the beta weekend has already drawn to a close, I’m looking forward to more of them and Guild Wars 2‘s eventual release. The emphasis on working together with other players without jumping through hoops is something this genre has really needed.