Guild Wars 2

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It’s time to tackle a big one. An MMORPG. Take a deep breath and relax.

To be fair, I’m going to approach Guild Wars 2 as a sequel to Guild Wars 1, even though the gameplay differs quite a lot. I’ve followed the trek of the Guild Wars teams since just after Eye of the North was released, and I racked up ~2k hours in the original before its sequel came out.

As a sequel to Guild Wars 1, the opening of Guild Wars 2 was a trip through story lane; lots of things happened and lots of things changed in the world. Many lands became inaccessible through politics or other means. Some kingdoms isolated themselves. Some races got over their differences (this began in Eye of the North). Some places (like Lion’s Arch) remained in the game for nostalgic/historical purposes. Lore-wise, the intro presented a pretty reasonable and curiosity-raising transition.

A few minutes into the game, it becomes chillingly apparent that you are (apart from the occasional human you bump into) completely alone. This is less troubling in explorable areas, but story gameplay and the very way your skills are designed beg the question: where did all our little AI party buddies go? It was quickly made clear that to survive, we would need to rely on a single, profession-specific self-heal skill. No tanking DPS while a monk tops us up, no making conditions backfire on casters, and very limited capacity for restoring party health. Guild Wars 2 is a lone-wolf design. Sort of. More on that later.

Guild Wars 2 tried, somewhat over-ambitiously, to market the idea that each player could (to paraphrase) have a different story. It’s neat that they thought so, but it simply didn’t happen. The game is an MMO, which logically cannot provide different stories to its players. Not unless a lot more thought is put into the design. Sure, you can branch out and choose which race to play as (this gives you about two hours of slightly disconnected story gameplay) and then the sub-faction you want to follow the main story with. This allows you to hear slightly different conversations, but the gist and the plot remains pretty much identical to every other player’s. Don’t get me wrong – it was a neat idea, and I pick the The Vigil every single time – it just can’t feel as organic as it was marketed, because if your world instance looked different from other people’s, synchronization of the MMO world would be pretty tricky.

Dungeons are strange things. They’re fundamental to the MMO experience, and they’re challenges for the semi-educated gamers to hone their co-ordination and tactics… but I’m not convinced that GW2’s combat system is designed for them. I’ve yet to see a dungeon taken conventionally (okay, I did see it happen once, but I’m not sure if players are supposed to die quite that often in any game except Dark Souls). Dungeons are run using hack-style mechanics, like stacking in tiny corners or pulling single enemies at a time and praying (with crossed fingers) that ArenaNet has not buffed the dungeon mobs yet again. With the recent expansion, dungeons also (for no apparent reason) became unprofitable. When both unsupported by combat mechanics and unprofitable… dungeons became unpopular places. I’m not sure if ArenaNet quite understands that players choose to use hacks simply because the experience isn’t fun to play conventionally. They certainly didn’t realize people were primarily running dungeons for the gold.

To support my concerns regarding dungeon combat in GW2, I ought to discuss the combat system next. Combat changed heaps between GW 1 and 2. Some of the changes made things smoother – combat flows better in GW2, for instance, and combinations such as shooting arrows through walls of fire (which makes fire arrows) are nice features – but a lot of things were made worse or removed. There is less synergy and less customizability in GW2. Skills are determined primarily by our equipped weapon, which generally has a couple of decent skills, a couple of mediocre ones, and the “spam 1” – an attack chain that defaults with auto-attack as it has no cooldown and replaces the basic attack from GW1. Each character can equip three class skills, an elite skill, and a single heal skill. For most classes, this is strictly a self-heal (rangers are an exception). Guardians can strap on a couple of level-based sidegrades to add minor healing to some of their AoE skills, and they have an optional elite skill (more on these shortly) that fully heals themselves and up to four other players. Elite skills are a disappointment. In GW1, elite skills were these fantastic skills you could obtain by defeating an enemy champion (which involved both a hunt and a battle challenge). They weren’t the be-all-and-end-all in battle (they aren’t in GW2 either), but they felt like they made a difference and made your character significantly more useful. They also acted like improved versions of regular skills. In GW2, elite skills are obtained by leveling. They are useful, but generally underwhelming. Most particularly, though (and unlike in GW1), they take a very, very long time to recharge. You won’t be using them twice in a fight. Maybe not even twice in two fights. Your character’s usefulness is shaved by an entire skill slot every four to six minutes. Water combat is still viewed on the whole as something of a joke. It’s a 3D, weightless combat system that generally allows you to spend all your skills without hitting anything due to average visibility and could-be-improved targeting on AoE skills. But as to the feel of combat, it certainly plays smoother in GW2. It’s a pretty nice feeling to be able to cast/attack/use skills while moving. You generally don’t have to stand still unless channeling something big.

When it comes to teamwork, it feels like the ArenaNet chaps groaned and said “if we have to”. Apart from a few combo effects, characters are designed to function on their own. There are very few support skills, and there’s no way to target specific allies with your skills (any skills you have that affect allies will prioritize your squad, so long as they’re within range). Targeting, supporting, buffing, and assisting were all key elements in GW1. If you didn’t work as a team you’d likely fail. This was because mobs in GW1 usually came attached to groups. None of this “one wolf spawns in the middle of nowhere and waits to be killed” stuff; foes came in squads, and generally were capable of buffing/saving each other while your group tried its best to do them in. GW2 comes with a “live alone, fight alone, die alone” feel, which effectively kicks teamwork out the door.

The maps are quite pretty. Ascalon (and north of it, in GW1) was my favorite landscape in the Guild Wars universe until the Charr came along and conquered it and then settled it, but it’s still the most charming biome in the game. It’s the way a fantasy kingdom should look. Big trees with leaves that turn orange and red and purple around harvest, rolling hills, rivers, fields, castles, keeps built into the sides of cliffs. Praise aside, though, I feel like GW2 is small. A lot of the places we had access to in GW1 were removed, and only some were replaced. As an explorer gamer, I really want that space back – and some more places to visit! (Pardon the pun, but one reason I went from GW2 to Elite: Dangerous was to explore more – the game is, quite practically, based in space.)

To showcase the new (and controllable) jumping mechanic in Guild Wars 2, ArenaNet set up jumping puzzles. It’s a little challenge with a souvenir at the end (usually just an achievement and a chest of stuff worth a couple of silver). Nice idea, as they are completely optional minigames. There are a couple of jumping puzzles that take hours and hours to complete because of that one jump you can’t make, but that just makes it all the more worth it when you make it to the end. Pity the rewards don’t scale based on how many times you fell down and died or nearly died.

Crafting is the economy driver. Gather resources, sell them to crafters. Crafters take materials, make junk, sell it cheap, then level up and sell things of more value. Higher level materials are (generally) worth more, so the higher the tier, the more return for gatherers, and so on and so forth. Crafting isn’t foolproof (the workbench does not have the most user-friendly layout), but it’s fine. Average. Nothing worth any special praise.

Guild Wars 2 has an average trade function (I’m pretty impressed by the paid-mail system in Elder Scrolls: Online). Trading in GW2 means either sending things directly to other players and not expecting anything back, or listing on the trading post. This is (amusingly) taxed heavily. In-game money, sure, but what in the world does ArenaNet do with the 10% of in-game money profit they tax on transactions (not to mention the listing fee)? In GW1 you could trade from person to person. Granted, you had to stand next to them, but that’s a small price to pay compared to 10% of a nice fancy 40-gold item.

Guilds are not as big a focus as the game’s title makes them out to be. Emblems are cool, guild halls are damned pricey, tiers are average and (nowadays) grindy, but it is nice to have guilds simply to collect your friends and fellow gamers. Guilds are chiefly hamstrung by one thing, in my opinion: items are one of the following: not bound, account-bound, and soulbound. There’s nothing for guilds specifically. There’s guild halls (kind of), but they don’t appear to be incredibly useful (yet?). Basically, guilds are just friend lists with politics.

World vs World is something I found to be a lot of fun. Ever wanted to play out a 100 vs 100 medieval fantasy battle? I did. And I had a ball doing so. Waves of allies crashing into banks of foes, pulling back, smashing into them again, popping buffs and consumables, crashing into them again, forcing them back, cutting off their retreat, circling and wheeling and crippling and knocking your foes down until the battlefield is littered with foes and little bags of loot (not kidding – WvW player kills actually drop items called bags of loot). Recent updates cut WvW back slightly, by replacing a nice map with an unattractive (well, some like it) and unpathable (I’ve yet to see someone say it’s fun to navigate)  map. Still, WvW is the focal point of guild fights, and almost lives up to the game’s title.

ArenaNet recently (well, last October) released the Heart of Thorns expansion for GW2. It added gliding and it added jungle maps. I’m not a jungle fan, but for the sake of somewhere new to explore I took them on. A lot of minigames were added to the new maps, as well as a lot of map restrictions (removed by progressing huge, map-wide events). It’s pretty tricky to get anywhere unless the map is highly-populated – and that brings us back to combat, which was not designed for teamwork. But gliding was a lot of fun. ArenaNet later added gliding to the vanilla maps as well, which is refreshing when traversing favorite old maps.

 

Pros

  • Good optimization for PC (this was hamstrung by the Heart of Thorns expansion, but hopefully that will be fixed by the time you read this)
  • Living World events and quests
  • Nice musical scores
  • Nostalgic locations reimagined and redesigned
  • Pretty landscapes
  • Solid, consistent, enjoyable setting
  • Smooth combat mechanics

Cons

  • Combat and teamwork hindered by restrictive skill design and capacity
  • Low focus on guild play (other than farming guild hall materials)
  • Poor selection of trade mechanics
  • The world feels small after its prequel
  • Tons of items that don’t need to be soulbound/account-bound
  • WvW has had some poor design choices, even though it is one of GW2’s most unique aspects

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