The war for your free time is won
Guild Wars 2 is the third massively multiplayer online role-playing game I’ve reviewed in the last year—and, without a doubt, it’s the one I’ll still be playing a year from now. While not perfect, it makes a greater effort to innovate and stand apart than any game since World of Warcraft hit eight years ago.
Like most MMORPGs, Guild Wars 2 starts with character creation, a deep and involved (yet completely intuitive) system that brings your avatar to life. You’ll choose from five races and eight professions, along with the usual appearance tweaks, assuring plenty of diversity in the population. I chose to play as a Norn Ranger. The Norn are a human-looking race but are large—standing about nine feet tall—and muscular. Typical fantasy rules dictate that Rangers be lithe and lanky, frequently Elven. Not my Ranger. He’s massive, with rippling muscles and silver-white hair that makes him stand out. And he has a bear for a pet. Not exactly subtle, but the game indulges my inner 12-year-old, letting me play how I want—and I want to be able to kill things from a distance. I’ve never been one for up-close blood spatter. This is where Guild Wars 2 excels; you can play how you want, even if your whims change day to day.
There are no traditional MMORPG classes here—you don’t have to be a tank or a healer, but you can instead keep several buildouts for your character, allowing him or her to step into whatever role is needed for the situation. With so many possibilities, I actually took the time to create multiple buildouts for my ranger. Thought I generally stuck with the damage dealer role I’m most comfortable with, it was nice to be able to switch when a friend’s party needed a healer.
I must point out that despite the flexibility, certain professions carry with them built-in limitations. My Ranger, being able to only equip medium armor, would never make much of a tank, even with all of the buffs I could think of piled on.
Guild Wars 2 also handles skill differently. Your ability to use a certain weapon type is determined by your profession, and the combination of weapon type and profession determine the skills you have access to.
Instead of a traditional skill tree, these weapon-dependent skills change as you change weapons. So, my Ranger has different skills when I equip my bow—which I use for heavy damage at a distance—than when I use my dagger/ax combo.
Even the same weapon is used differently by different professions. Warriors, for instance, use axes for dealing damage up close and personal, while Rangers use them as throwing weapons. It’s a complex but well-executed system that simplifies play and keeps your options open.
Once I got the hang of the game’s real-time combat, and for swapping weapons quickly (most professions can switch between two weapon sets at any time), I was able to dig in and enjoy my character’s story. Guild Wars 2’s PvE game allows each player to experience their own story, where decisions make a difference and can even affect the player’s version of the world. That’s right—every player has their own world, and while you can invite other players into your instance, they won’t be able to make decisions that affect how your world changes.
This level of personalization is unprecedented for an MMO and makes the game feel more like a polished single-player RPG. It can, at times, make it difficult to find help for a quest, as frequently, other players are worried about their own stories, but it never marred the experience or kept me waiting too long for help.
One way the game entices players to help others, though, is the way it handles leveling. It takes the same amount of experience to go from level 1 to 2 as it does to go from level 79 to 80. Additionally, mobs in high-level areas aren’t worth appreciably more than those in a low-level area.
To keep things fair, the game employs dynamic leveling, a system that adjusts player stats to match the maximum level in any area they visit. So, if a level-50 player goes to an area with a max level of 10, he’ll receive an effective level of 11 (the max level plus one). There might be some advantage because his buildout’s more refined, but it won’t be anything appreciable.
This not only evens the playing field, but it also means you can step into any area of the game and enjoy yourself. You’ll still gain experience and loot appropriate to your level, but you won’t be able to squash enemies like bugs and blaze through quests quickly. This dynamic leveling’s also used in both the PvP and World vs. World sections of the game.
In PvP, all players are effectively leveled to 80 and given level-80 gear to fight with. Obviously, those who have spent the most time in the game will have a slight advantage, but Guild Wars 2 more effectively measures player skill than any other MMO before it. And while I’m generally not someone who spends any more time with PvP than is necessary to write a review, I’ve found myself going back to the PvP here just because it’s that much fun.
World vs. World, however, plays a bit too chaotically for my tastes. Again, the game sets all players at level 80, but it doesn’t provide high-level equipment to fight with, so higher-level players will be better equipped to handle the challenges that await. While it’s not my favorite way to pass time, I appreciate the sheer scope of the World vs. World instances. Each of the mode’s four areas accommodate up to 500 players, making for 2,000 players hacking and slashing each other to win glory and loot for their world.
If all of the various game types and quests aren’t enough to keep you busy, Guild Wars 2 features a deep crafting system. Thus far, I’ve concentrated on Huntsman crafts, making new bows and guns. I’ve just crossed level 200, which means I’m still an apprentice (each craft has 400 levels). You can have two crafting skills active at any one time and can pay to switch between them. There’s even a special title for those who max out all eight crafting disciplines. For that kind of dedication, they should send you a real medal made of real gold, but that’s just my opinion.
From a technical standpoint, the game’s graphics and sound are both top shelf. The voice acting’s particularly impressive, adding a nice level of depth to the stories.
As with any new MMORPG, Guild Wars 2 contains its share of bugs. A few times, I found myself unable to complete a quest. Once, I got stuck behind a building and had to restart the game twice to get out of the mess. But those issues were minor and didn’t occur frequently enough to frustrate.
One thing that did bother me—sometimes to the point of moving to a new area—were the Dynamic Events. These events pop up, and you receive notice that the event—say, a Minotaur stampede—is taking place and help is needed. You can then jump into the event and help out as you see fit. Once the event’s over, you’re given a vague idea of your level of participation and gain money and experience that corresponds to that level.
Unfortunately, these events are usually too chaotic, with people running around having no idea what anyone else is doing. It’s difficult to gauge what impact you’re having on the event, and the rewards are rarely good enough to warrant stopping what you’re doing to run and join the fray. The Dynamic Events do make the world feel more alive, but they need to be refined to match the quality of the rest of the game and make them more significant.
It’s impossible to cover every aspect of Guild Wars 2 in a review, even a long one like this. Things like underwater combat (yes, you read that correctly—I loves me my harpoon!) keep the game intriguing even after dozens of hours of gameplay. Dungeons keep the gameplay fresh as well, though I would have liked to get to them earlier than level 30, where the first dungeons appear.
Best of all, it’s possible to enjoy Guild Wars 2 for months without ever paying more than the original game cost. The original Guild Wars was one of the first A-level MMORPGS to eschew monthly subscription fees, and while there are plenty of things to spend money on (microtransactions galore), none of them are necessary to see or do everything the game has to offer.
I can unequivocally recommend Guild Wars 2 to anyone looking for a fresh, exciting take on the fantasy MMORPG (or if you just want something to do outside the upcoming Kung Fu Panda expansion for World of Warcraft). But be warned: You may lose whatever free time you have.
SUMMARY: Guild Wars 2 fine-tunes much of what we’ve come to expect from an MMORPG (crafting) while turning other aspects on their head (dynamic level adjustment), resulting in possibly the most refined, enjoyable game the genre’s ever seen. The graphics are stunning, especially if you have a rig capable of running the game with the highest settings turned on, and both the sound and the voice acting enhance an already impressive presentation. With five races and eight professions to choose from, replayability goes through the roof. Though developer ArenaNet still needs to squash some early bugs and even out a few rough spots, these issues aren’t nearly bad enough to wait even one day before picking this one up if you’re an MMORPG fan.
- THE GOOD: The dynamic level adjustment might be the most significant addition to the MMORPG genre since the first MUDs allowed players to connect online.
- THE BAD: World vs. World conflicts, while entertaining, are too rough to really be enjoyable.
- THE UGLY: Losing yourself in a crowd, be it during a dynamic event or a dungeon, will screw with your head. “Wait! I thought I was fighting a monster! What am I doing hitting this wall?”
Guild Wars 2 is a PC exclusive.