Over the past several years, the MMO landscape has changed. A genre once notorious for being highly unwieldy, MMOs have slowly become a kinder affair, both in time commitment and price-of-entry. Many games have gone free-to-play, but a few high-profile titles continue to reap the benefits of monthly charges. It's a crowded market, filled with multi-billion dollar IPs, that arguably already has something for everyone. When a company comes along, then, and starts to make claims of 'We don't believe current MMO game design is okay', you start ruffling feathers, and getting attention. Guild Wars 2 has been called a 'savior for the genre' in many magazines and message boards based on ArenaNet's lofty claims, and this past weekend, I was able to test the game and see if that sentiment holds true.
An exclusive hour-long look at Guild Wars 2's opening moments
Going into this beta build, I didn't know what to expect: While I own Guild Wars 1 (and the expansions), I never clicked with the game's mentality. It was based primarily on small group quest chains, and was a fully instanced experience, meaning that while I'd see other players in main cities and trading hubs, once I adventured out into explorable areas, it'd be a barren wasteland filled with monsters to kill, my party of mercenaries (NPC characters you could hire) or actual friends, and me. No other adventurers, nobody picking herbs, nobody bunny-hopping on their mounts, nobody. The quests followed the very strict MMO structure that's become a cliche ('Mister Fizzlebeef needs 10 boar tusk livers!'), and each area would have a few boss monsters to fight, but that was it. Guild Wars 1's focus on a low level-cap (20), competitive PvP battles, no monthly fees, and mixing spell usage with melee abilities was awesome, but the game felt so empty, I couldn't enjoy the forest for the trees: It always felt like I was missing something. Hearing that Guild Wars 2 had its focus more on a 'truly persistent world' had me excited, but skeptical on how well ArenaNet could pull of the feeling of a living, breathing place.
I'm happy to say, that not only did ArenaNet deliver a living, breathing place, but they may have reinvented the wheel: Never before have I felt more a part of the world I was adventuring in, and I've been playing MMOs for over 15 years. Quite a few design decisions made this possible, and while I'm a huge fan of these changes, I'm sure they'll be downright shocking to a section of the playerbase once the game gets released. First thing's first: Quests? An old concept. Throw it out. Guild Wars 2 has implemented a design philosophy not dependent on quests as they're distributed by random townsfolk: Gone are the days of Mister Fizzlebeef standing in one spot for all eternity, asking for his boar tusk livers. The game's quest system (called 'Dynamic Events') is based entirely on what you see and do, not on who gives you a list of chores.
Let's make a specific example: In a standard MMO, you'll go into town and grab a quest that says the village is being terrorized by bandits, and that you must stop them before it's too late. You hit 'Accept' on your quest log, and off you go into a field to kill 15 bandits. After you're done, you'll return to the original quest-giver, and get your XP/item reward. In Guild Wars 2, the way you'll know that the village is being terrorized by bandits, is when you arrive into the town, it'll be getting terrorized by bandits. You can fend off the bandits, and after the chaos is over, you are approached by NPCs who reward your bravery with a few item donations: It's the same basic principle, but Guild Wars 2 is showing you what's happening and having you react, instead of telling you what should be done. It's akin to solving a puzzle using context clues in Half Life 2, as opposed to the 'Now hit this button to crouch, elite Navy SEAL operative! Good work!' direction of recent Call of Duty titles.
Before we leave this example, though, let's go back to the village as it's being bombarded by bandits: You arrive on the scene, and while you try your best, you actually don't beat the bandits. The villagers abandon their posts, and run for the hills, with you following behind. Your next Dynamic Event chain is to help arm the villagers in order to take their village back. You gear up your ragtag group of peasants, and drive the bandits off once and for all! Or, you actually end up failing your glorious revenge, too, allowing the bandits to strengthen their hold of the village as an outpost. Each of these outcomes are possible, and it goes to show that Guild Wars 2 is introducing something rarely seen in the MMO gamespace: fail states. You can try your hardest, and you can fail, and you know what? That's okay. The world keeps going, your story keeps going, and that's that. Nobody can be a hero all of the time, and to be quite frank, it's pretty jarring. The MMO genre has gone to great strides to make the player feel as if they're the most important person in the universe, and Guild Wars 2 is designed, by its very nature, to defy that notion. If you want fame and glory, you have to earn it, there's no two ways about it.
The Dynamic Event system seems to be an outright cure for alot of stagnant MMO ideas, ideas that many gamers think are permanent fixutres in the genre, part of the lexicon, and 'just the way things are', because it's the way they've been for nearly 20 years. Instead of spamming General Chat for finding party members, the Dynamic Event system brings players together for a common goal. A giant dragon is killing off the farmer's cattle, causing part of the population to go hungry. The dragon is easily six levels higher than any player in the area, and that dragon is causing a big disturbance in the flow of other people's Dynamic Events, so it's a safe bet you'll be temporarily joining forces to get rid of it. This does a number of things, the most important being bringing people together, and breaking the ice of meeting other players. Once a number of you take down the dragon with ease, you realize you have a solid adventuring group on your hands. 'Hey', you think, 'maybe I can hang out with these guys a little while longer, and see what else we can accomplish'. It's smooth, it's seamless, and most importantly, it works. In my hour-long YouTube video at the top of this story, you'll see a very good example of this in action: After going into a kobold cave for some food, there was an outbreak of kobolds, enough-so that nearly 30 other adventurers joined the fray. It was absolute madness, slowed the beta client down to a crawl, and ultimately ended in my death, but you know what? That 10 minute stint was more memorable than my past year with any other MMO, because it happened organically. It was a result of decisions made, and it was something that happened at the spur of the moment.
While there are other drastic design changes in Guild Wars 2, I've spent a majority of my time so far talking about the Dynamic Event system, and for good reason: It's the single best story-progression tool I've ever seen in an MMO. Period. Many people will rightfully call the MMO genre a genre of copycats, as each title has taken one or more gameplay mechanics from games that have come before it, and made it their own: If an MMO made after Guild Wars 2 isn't taking cues from this system of questing, then they're automatically outdated. It's an absolute game-changer.
My time with Guild Wars 2 was limited this weekend, so my focus was mainly on PvE content, and discovering how the story progression worked. Next beta event, I'll focus more on PvP skirmishes to get a feel for how the combat works when another player is the opponent, instead of the fairly automated NPC mobs. That being said, the combat in the game is fairly hands-on, implementing dodging, parrying, and somewhat subtle uses of height, positioning, and casting rotations. As a thief, I had no tooltip telling me that being behind my opponent would give me a damage increase, but as I rolled out of the way of an oncoming attack and lunged my dagger into the back of my enemy, I noticed the damage increase. I also noticed, shortly thereafter, that another opponent just backstabbed me, causing a critical loss of health: It's a two-way street, and much like a game like The Witcher 2 or Dark Souls, you must be aware of your surroundings, or you could pay with your life. I can't imagine how intense PvP is going to be, but we'll see during the next beta weekend.
You've seen the screenshots, and hopefully checked out the 720p video at the top of the article, but it needs to be said: This game is stunning to look at. In my opinion, ArenaNet has the best concept artists in the entertainment industry, and it seems like they're pretty aware of that fact: The entire game is based upon the art, and everything from the UI to the character creation screen is set up as a moving painting. The animated, in-engine cutscenes are a sight to behold, as implementing your character in to the concept art is genius, and makes the game a cohesive, visual knockout. I've been a fan of Kekai Kotaki's work for years, and seeing it come to life in 1080p made me giddy.
More gameplay footage taken from my TwitchTV channel
To close this out, I think it's only fair to re-establish my expectations, and compare them with my experience over the weekend. Going in, I said I was a bit apathethic, as the original Guild Wars didn't strike any chords with me. ArenaNet has talked a big game with Guild Wars 2 thus far, claiming that it'll change the MMO landscape, and people have (with a straight face) called the game the 'savior of the MMO'. Do I think it's worth such a hyperbolic claim? Do I really see this changing the way people percieve MMOs? Given my limited time with the game, and the unfinished state that it's in, it's too early to tell. I'll need to get my hands on the PvP, ArenaNet needs to iron out some server issues (as over the beta weekend, a solid day went by without players being able to log in), and the beta client needs to run a tad more stable, but it's showing a ton of promise.
Actually, scratch that. It's doing more than that. Guild Wars 2 has its heart in the right place, and it's a place that other developers are too timid to go. It's pushing boundaries, it's asking questions, and it's not treating players like cattle waiting for their turn on a Six Flags ride. There's a hell of a game here, and once people realize how trite and tired a majority of MMO conventions are, they'll start asking questions, too.
It's not often that a high-profile title actually goes against the grain, and walks its own path, defying what other products have relied on for years. Guild Wars 2 isn't apologizing for what it is, nor should it. It's demanding you take notice, delivering a hugely personal, persistent world with a truly revolutionary design manifesto, and it's doing so with no monthly fees.
Guild Wars 2 is going to cause some drama.
I can't wait.