It’s neither fair nor really accurate to call Guild Wars 2 the game that beats World of Warcraft, but it’s the first MMO since Blizzard’s monster MMO to feel like a real step forwards. On first impressions, the difference might not be easy to see. Guild Wars 2 looks like any other MMO, and even plays a lot like any other MMO. It hasn’t got the action-oriented combat of Age of Conan or the investigative quests of The Secret World. Combat is still a case of clicking on icons or rattling hotkeys, and the fundamental structure, based on quests, levelling and upgrades, is no different from World of Warcraft’s. Guild Wars 2 isn’t a game of radical reinvention or ground-breaking concepts, but a game where hundreds of adjustments, tweaks and ingenious ideas make it more fun and more absorbing than any other MMO has been in years.
You can see the thinking at work during character creation. With five races and eight classes Guild Wars 2 hasn’t got as extensive a set of options as World of Warcraft, but those that are available seem designed to steer you away from the classic fighter/healer/damage-dealing sorcerer trio of the classic MMO, and towards more flexible roles where you can balance fighting prowess with healing skills, or play a thief as a nimble, versatile assassin.
Character creation also hints at the story-led nature of the game, with a series of choices that will set up the personal storyline your character will follow through the world, and the central quests that will bring that storyline together.
The best thing and worst thing about Guild Wars 2 is that you can play it and enjoy it almost like a single-player game. The storyline quests seem to target solo players, and I’ve yet to see much in the game that forces you to join up and adventure with a party. This is a bad thing if you think MMOs should be social experiences, but a good thing if you’d rather just get lost in the game and the world. What’s more, while you might be playing on your own, it’s never lonely. Guild Wars 2 has some very clever ways to get you working and fighting alongside other players, even if it’s just a temporary thing.
For a start, while story quests are still instanced like they were in the original Guild Wars (you leave the main world for an isolated instance where you can battle away on your own) most other quests take place within the wider game world. There’s no need to chase up some guy with a question mark hovering over his head. Just approach an area marked on the map with an empty heart icon and you’ll see a list of tasks that need accomplishing, combined with a meter to show your current progress. For example, one mission might involve beating up centaurs, sabotaging their siege engines and wrecking their supply wagons. You just keep doing whichever bits you fancy until the meter fills, the mission is completed and you’re handed an experience point reward. Of course, other players will be doing the same things at the same time, and you can wade in to help them in a tricky fight or keep your distance as you choose.
Secondly, Guild Wars 2 puts a lot of emphasis on dynamic events. These might involve a garrison being besieged by monsters, recapturing a scientist’s living experiments or simply gathering eggs for an aristocratic gourmand, but players from all around the area will be alerted, and you’ll usually find yourself part of a mob, eager to join in. With so many players fighting on the screen at once, dynamic events can be bewildering affairs, but there’s no question that they give Guild Wars 2 its sense of fun and vitality. What’s more, events guarantee that wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, there’s always something exciting going on, just around the corner. I’ve rarely played a game with so little dead time, let alone an MMO.
Guild Wars 2 works because it has the classic MMO reward cycle, where you slay monsters, get experience and loot, level up and upgrade your weapons and armour then go back into slay even bigger monsters, leading to more experience and loot. The combat system might not be hugely innovative, but it’s easy to pick up and very flexible in play, particularly once you can switch quickly between different weapon sets, each with their own specific attacks. Guild Wars 2 isn’t exactly grind-free, but the grind never feels like a grind.
It also has some good, polished storylines for an MMO, with decent voice acting, detailed close-up graphics and quests that tie nicely together. Sometimes all this good stuff just brings attention to some of the more random or unrealistic things you’ll find elsewhere, including the mystery of how your character can sense quest instructions on entering an area and what that wolf was doing carrying a massive chainmail top, but if that’s the price you pay for so much fun, I’ll gladly pay it.
Most of all, though, Guild Wars 2 works because it ditches almost anything that might interrupt the flow of action. If you don’t fancy backtracking for half an hour just to reach the next story quest, you don’t have to. A system of waypoints allows you to reach most points on the map almost immediately, though usually at the cost of a few copper coins. Unwanted gear can be flogged to merchants or deposited in a bank with ease, and you never have too far to look, while the simple fact that you don’t have to approach and then report back to a quest giver means that there’s less time wasted there, too. You can get stuck into Guild Wars 2 for hours, following along an endless chain of fights, story missions, events and exploration. Once you’ve logged in, it’s very hard to log out.
The presentation is immaculate. Play Guild Wars 2 on a half-decent gaming rig and you’ll see the best visuals of any current MMO, with some impressive water, mist and particle effects, and some stunning open landscapes. Take a trip to one of the big cities and you’ll be dazzled by the grandiose architecture, while every ruin and every village shows the designer’s attention to detail. Not all areas are equal, with some barren-looking spots in the mountains or the wasteland homeground of the bestial Charr, but Guild Wars 2 has what every RPG needs: a world you want to explore and can believe in. You’re even rewarded with XP for finding specific viewpoints.
Admittedly, Guild Wars 2 is not quite perfect. The game is very clever in that it intelligently scales back higher-level characters in lower-level areas so that they can’t overpower monsters or dominate events. The downside of this is that there are some very tricky fights in the storyline missions, and the old MMO trick, where you grind up another level or two to gain an edge, no longer works. Similarly, Guild Wars 2 has avoided the overcrowding that affects other MMOs with a system of overflow servers, where you’re shunted to a clone of an area until space opens up on your normal server. The problem with this is that it disturbs the flow of the gameplay, and makes it hard to join up with other players if you play with a group. ArenaNet believes this problem will fade as players leave the starter areas behind.
Finally, as fun as it all is, you can’t help wishing that quests could be more imaginative. Beyond fighting, fetch quests and collecting there’s not really an awful lot to do. This was one area where The Secret World really pushed things forward, and the ideal next-generation MMO would be one that could integrate a wider variety of activities within the framework of the game. Guild Wars 2 is unquestionably great, but it’s not that massive a leap forwards for the genre.
Guild Wars 2 might not be a truly revolutionary MMO, but none of its rivals have done such an effective job of separating the wheat of the genre from the chaff. It’s slick, dynamic and consistently good fun, with gorgeous visuals, an impressive world, interesting storylines and intelligently thought-out systems.
Best of all, Guild Wars 2 manages to balance epic scale with constant action, yet still sticks to the ‘pay once, play forever’ credo of the original Guild Wars and its expansions. For many gamers this will be the kicker: you get a game you can play for the next year, and no monthly subscription to put you off doing so. If you only play one MMO this year, make it this one.