It would be easy to look at the current state of the MMO genre and think that the best piece of advice you could give to a developer looking to get into the market would be: don’t! The Secret World is proving to be a world of hurt for EA, with extremely lacklustre subscriptions, and other relatively new kid on the block, Star Wars: The Old Republic is looking to switch to free-to-play after a similarly disappointing opening six months.
So what, then, can ArenaNet, the makers of Guild Wars 2 hope to bring to the table, where other, bigger companies have failed?
The answer, at its simplest, is two things: one, a new way to sell their game that ditches the tired subscription model, and, two, a game world that is brimming with content from the very first moments of gameplay. And vibrant, thrilling, and often unique content at that.
I do the what with the who, now?
I will, however, get the biggest gripe that I – and a lot of other people I’ve spoken to – out of the way right now. It’s pretty minor, and it really is just a sign of how well ArenaNet’s done in front-loading GW2 with content, but the game is really tough to feel comfortable with at first.
Sure, all games have a learning curve, but there’s simply so much to take in when you first fire up GW2 that it can be overwhelming. ArenaNet’s obviously noticed this, and there’s a handy tutorial video now embedded in the game’s launcher, but even then, it’s easy to feel bewildered by the sheer amount of choice you have even from the first few levels of gameplay.
This, of course, is far better than having no choice at all, and ArenaNet’s claims of flattening the level curve have pretty much held up.
The nature of a good MMO precludes a complete review this close to launch, but between me and a few other people in the office playing, we’ve looked at a range of races and classes. The consensus is that GW2 comes across as part Mass Effect, with its clever use of canned background options to provide customised storylines, part World of Warcraft, in its sheer colourfulness, and even part JRPG with a great many of its visual cues. If you add in a smattering of Warhammer Online (or, at least, the bits that game got right), you’ve got a good idea of the game’s basic DNA.
The lore of GW2’s world is suitably dense and epic, with apocalyptic happenings leaving some races near extinction, and others in the ascendancy, but part of sheer weight of stuff to learn in the game means it’s easy to gloss over all the stuff you should be learning about the world. But man... there’s so much stuff to do!
All about choice
From character creation onward, Guild Wars 2 gives players incredible control over their characters. The character design process is intensely detailed, with some amazing flexibility in crafting your hero. Added to some really interesting takes on classic ‘monstrous’ and ‘elven’ tropes, and the game has a unique and atmospheric look from the get-go. During this process, you also answer a short questionnaire, which further impacts not only your character’s look (like wearing certain religious symbols), but also voice and early plot. A human character, for instance, can choose to have grown up among the nobility; the starting plot, then involves intrigues among those nobles.
But it’s very easy to simply ignore the main plot, and start exploring. After brief intro that inevitably sees you defeat some easy mobs, then take part in a ‘group event’ (more on these later), then a boss fight that leaves you unconscious, you wake up and can get around. Crafting unlocks soon after, and quests are all over the place; a lot of these you don’t even have to do anything to start – a popup will open telling that so-and-so in the area wants something done, and how you can help them. A trader may want their trade-route cleared of threats, and the accompanying quest details feature a progress bar that fills in for every trap you remove, bandit you kill, or creature you run off. You don’t even have to go back to quest givers – they send you any rewards in by mail.
Aside from quests, there are vistas to explore, that when found reward you with points toward area completion bonuses, and a nifty panoramic pan of the area, and the aforementioned group quests; these are rolling quests that anyone can join in, such as clearing an area of undead, or helping a caravan reach its destination. In fact, the idea of actively helping anyone is encouraged; if you help another player out by attacking their target, you both get equal XP.
The real kick in the guts that GW2 delivers to ‘standard’ MMO mechanics is the way weapon and equipment choice directly impacts gameplay. In WoW, for instance, you can arm a Warrior with an axe, sword or mace, and it really doesn’t impact the game; in GW2, however, each weapon comes with its in skills, three for your main hand, and two for your offhand, while two-handed weapons get a full five skills. So that same warrior, depicted in Guild Wars, has completely different skills; even someone with a sword can equip a shield, or a dagger or even a horn in their off-hand, and get two more skills to mix and match. There are other skills to develop, which can be bought with skill points (weapons skills unlock with use), such as healing buffs or burst attacks, and equipment also plays a big part. That said, the real-money aspect of the game, which is what ArenaNet’s using instead of a subscription, comes into play here, but not so much that you can’t play the game for free (after initial purchase, that is).
It really is great to see that the commercial and gameplay elements of the game are so well balanced.
There’s a mess of other great things to like about the game, from the way you can set your character’s colour palette from creation, and then have items drop in that scheme, to wide array of craftable items, to the sheer fun of taking part in huge PVP battles that, even at level 5, you can make a huge impact in. But all that really needs to be said is that ArenaNet have succeeded where a lot of MMO makers have failed, and delivered a fresh, compelling, and above all fun MMO, that is there to be played at your pace, not the pace of your subscription.