There’s no gaming genre quite like the MMORPG. If you’ve listened to the Beardcast archive, you’ll know that I’m a huge fan of massively multiplayer online rpgs, and looking back at my nearly two decades with these games, I can definitely say that it’s my favorite genre. That being said, there’s many gamers who haven’t dabbled into MMOs, and don’t quite know where to begin. While there’s a ton of free to play offerings on Steam, Korean grindfests, and other monthly-fee games, I’ve narrowed the genre down to two fantastic offerings that are a great place to start for the sake of this editorial series: Guild Wars 2, and World of Warcraft. While one is an absolute newcomer to the MMO landscape (in both release date and gameplay mechanics), the other is a grizzled veteran, largely responsible for a rebirth of the MMO, and PC gaming in general. Where should you begin? Which of these two games will give you a true sense of what this amazing genre has to offer?
In this first installment of Guild Wars 2 vs. World of Warcraft, we’ll cover the lore of each series, and see how each game approaches storytelling. Don’t worry, there’s not a ton of spoilers, although we do dabble in basic storyline beats between games, and expansions (namely World of Warcraft’s four expansion narrative). Each thing I discuss is common knowledge from trailers, interviews, or gameplay videos, and is geared towards gamers who have never played either title, but want to know what the fuss is about. Without further ado, let’s get this started!
To preface, I’ll give you a small bit of backstory about my MMO history. I’ve played everything from Ultima Online (my first MMO) and Everquest, to Shadowbane and Earth and Beyond, to RIFT and Guild Wars 2, and many games in between. I’ve dabbled in Korean MMOs like Lineage and ROSE Online, and even found my way into games like Auto Assault, Tabula Rasa, and Star Wars Galaxies, all three of which are now no longer in service. As it regards to the games in this article, I purchased World of Warcraft on its launch day in 2004, and have mutliple characters at all level ranges, between which I have about 150 days (3600 hours!) played. I’m only just getting my feet wet in Guild Wars 2 (about 30 hours played), which in MMO time isn’t much to brag about, but the changes in the way Guild Wars 2 plays over something like WoW is apparent enough that I feel comfortable writing this article, and giving feedback to anyone looking for advice on which to choose.
The main reason I play MMO titles are the worlds in which they take place. I’m a huge sucker for lore, and the feeling that I as a player can have an effect on the world around me, is an enticing thought. I love the feeling of ‘escaping’ to a new, uncharted world every time I log in, where I don’t know quite what to expect, or what is waiting to greet me at any given turn. Content is constantly added to these titles, so the feeling of seeing the ‘unknown’ is always there, and no other genre can truly capture that feeling the same way MMOs can. Now, when you get down to which MMO has a ‘better story’, you’re treading on very fragile territory, especially when you talk to nerds like myself who can recite the story of Warcraft’s Arthas by heart, and who recently read the latest Guild Wars 2 books to further enhance my experience of the game. Yeah, it’s true, I went to the store and bought them! With money! That being said, we’ll get started by taking a look at a basic lore primer for both games, and delve into how well each game ‘transports you’ to their fictional universe.
Guild Wars 2 takes place in the land of Tyria 250 years after the ending of Guild Wars 1 (more precisely, the Eye of the North expansion pack). The four Eldar Dragons have decided to wake up from their extended slumber in between the two games: The only problem is, they live under the continent of Tyria. When they awake and emerge, full-blown panic and chaos hits, and they causes not only destructive changes as far as geography, but all-out mayhem between the many races of Tyria. It’s your duty to locate the members of Destiny’s Edge, a council of fighters, mages, and tacticians encompassing each of Tyria’s races, in order to fight off the chaos of the Eldar Dragons, and bring peace back to Tyria.
World of Warcraft primarily takes place in the world of Azeroth, continuing a long-standing conflict between the Alliance and the Horde. This war has lasted generations, and is fueled by a misunderstanding of one another’s goals, agendas, and ideologies. This war branched off, however, seeing the opening of the Dark Portal in Azeroth, which transported any who entered to the broken land of Outlands, which is inhabited by the Burning Legion, in WoW’s first expansion, The Burning Crusade.
While Outland was being conquered by both Alliance and Horde heroes, little did they know that The Lich King, Arthas Menethil, was arranging a campaign from his icy throne in Northrend to conquer the world in WoW’s second expansion: Wrath of the Lich King. While there’s much to be said about Arthas, and the effect he and his undead army had on the World of Warcraft, an even bigger threat was about to be unleashed: the long dormant Deathwing, a corrupted (of course!) Dragon Aspect that previously tried to destroy Azeroth, to no avail. Deathwing’s return in WoW’s third expansion, Cataclysm, caused the single biggest change to the landscape in Warcraft lore since the Sundering, which created Azeroth as it stands today.
Some major places were completely changed, cities were torn in half, some once-massive landmasses became tiny islands, huge craters appeared in the middle of continents, nothing was the way it was before Deathwing’s destruction. Speed up to current day, and we have WoW’s fourth expansion, Mists of Pandaria, which focuses less on death, destruction, and overall chaos, but more on adapting to a peaceful land, with a new race, in order to start anew. Will the Pandaren be able to get through to the cynical, jaded, war-torn factions of Azeroth before it all comes crashing down? Or will the Alliance and Horde further spread their warmongering and hate-filled treachery to this new, peaceful land?
Both of these titles have the blessing (or curse, depending on your stance) of having super rich backstories, both of which span across multiple formats including books, games, comics, and short stories. While it may feel overwhelming to just hop in, both Guild Wars 2 and World of Warcraft make great strides to seperate themselves as their own seperate entities, and do a great job of providing context for past story revelations, that you don’t need to fully devour everything that came before either game in order to enjoy them. Yes, these previous games and books will enrich your experience, some to a great degree, but it’s definitely not necessary.
I’ll personally give World of Warcraft the upper hand in this department, but also know that the Warcraft lore has been established and expanded since 1994, which is quite the head-start considering the first Guild Wars was released in 2005. Warcraft has the RTS series, dozens of books, comics, and even trading card games to build its story upon. That may seem like a daunting task as a newcomer, covering that much backstory, but World of Warcraft is very self-contained, and even sprinkles in lore books and other items in-game to catch you up on important story details. There’s even a full area in the game called the ‘Caverns of Time’, in which you and a group of friends can experience eight major story beats from Warcraft’s history through quests, flashbacks, and dungeons, ranging from the Culling of Stratholme, to the opening of the Dark Portal. It’s a great way to get caught up, but also a great way to fully realize the context (and in some respects, the gravity) of these events on the Warcraft timeline with your personalized Warcraft hero.
Guild Wars, to be fair, isn’t a slouch when it comes to backstory and how it relates to you as a player. Guild Wars first launched in 2005, and through the years, released many expansion packs, all of which tie into the overall lore of Guild Wars as a franchise. While it’s true that Guild Wars 1 took place on Ascalon, while Guild Wars 2 takes place on Tyria, there are many callbacks, sightings, and even items like relics and armor sets, that make their way from the original set of games, to Guild Wars 2. Nearly 250 years have passed between the two games, and you can see the stark differences between politics, economies, even casual fashions and weapon usage have changed, which is a wonderful touch for the Guild Wars faithful. It’s like time has truly passed by, and the same world that you were used to is gone, but definitely not forgotten. There’s even a ‘Hall of Monuments’ program in Guild Wars 1, in which you get trophies for your character for doing deeds and playing PvP, that roll over as a ‘legacy’ of such in Guild Wars 2. Have a high amount of Hall of Monument points from maxing out a few Guild Wars 1 characters? Enjoy your legacy unlocks of armors, pets, weapons, and more in Guild Wars 2. It’s a great way to tie in your work from the first series into the sequel, and I wish more companies would integrate all of their games in such a direct way.
Earlier in the article, I wrote quick lore descriptions, and tried to be as brief as possible. You probably noticed that the World of Warcraft lore was about three times as long as Guild Wars, and in an odd way, that is actually one of the strengths of Guild Wars 2. The game is literally only months old, and tells a stand-alone story from the ground-up. If you’re wanting to get in on the ground floor of an MMO story, and see it naturally evolve and transform with the community of players, now would be the perfect time to jump aboard. Things are still fresh, still new, and still in the prime of their inception. With World of Warcraft, Blizzard had roughly 10 years of backstory to go with for content AT LAUNCH in 2004, and while it definitely led to a meatier experience from the get-go for lorehounds like myself, many newcomers felt that the game wouldn’t appeal to them. Add in the fact that there’s four entire expansion packs for WoW in its current state, and it seems the story just keeps chugging away, building upon the already gargantuan backlog of story content.
It’s personal preference for sure, and you’ll have to pick your poison: Do you want to have a slightly lesser lore experience with Guild Wars 2, with the promise of much more to come? Or do you want a tried-and-true story that’s nearly 20 years in the making, with the sometimes bloated backstories and overbearing story beats from the past that come with it? Whichever you choose, let me assure you, either choice is worth it, and the amount of story-driven content in both games is staggering.
There’s nothing that can quite match the genre from a gaming storytelling standpoint, outside of other long-standing RPG epics like Elder Scrolls or Final Fantasy. If it’s story you want, and story you want to experience as it happens, that’s exactly what you’ll get, and more.
The fact that you’re enjoying this story with thousands of other players, in real-time, as it develops through patches and expansions, is something that must be seen to be believed. It keeps the players guessing, and even if storylines cause certain parts of a game’s population to lose interest (Blizzard’s announcement of Mists of Pandaria was met with hisses and catcalls from a large portion of players), you can’t say that these companies aren’t striving to re-invent themselves, and keep content moving in a forward momentum, and fresh new directions. These games are lovingly crafted, and it’s extremely easy to get swept up in these grand narratives, knowing that there’s always more on the horizon.
I hope you enjoyed this look at the lore, and basic storytelling elements of these two games! In the next installment of Guild Wars 2 vs. World of Warcraft, we’ll take a look at the overall gameplay mechanics of each game, and how they relate to one another. On the surface, they may seem similar, but these two titles in particular are actually very different, not only in baseline mechanics, but in what each game is trying to achieve as a gameplay experience. We’ll dissect the way each game does quests, level progression, discovery and exploration of new areas, player-versus-player combat, player-versus-environment content, and more!
If you have any questions, or comments, feel free to let me know by commenting here, or hitting me up on Twitter! There's two more parts to the Guild Wars 2 vs. World of Warcraft series, so I hope you all stick around and see it through! See you soon!