Guild Wars 2 is a remarkable game, the first highly visible launch in some time of a Western MMO that genuinely progresses the genre and consistently feels like it’s offering a new experience. From its quest system to the way it respects players’ time, it doesn’t so much break the mold as it condenses it down to its best parts. In many ways it presents you with something that fits the traditional expectations, but constantly manipulates them into something better than what you’ve seen before.
The easiest thing to say about Guild Wars 2 is that it succeeds because of the little things. There are no quest hubs that you run back and forth to; quests just happen in the world dynamically. The auction house is available everywhere; just bring it up and plug in the item(s) you want to sell. Your mailbox is accessible everywhere. Once you’ve been to a waypoint anywhere on the world map, you can fast-travel there instantaneously. You can deposit crafting materials into your personal bank at any time from anywhere. Your alt characters automatically can join guilds your other characters are in, so you don’t have to get invited every time you want to try a new class. If you are too high level for the environment you are in, you are levelled down but still gain experience and rewards, meaning that a level 79 character could go to a starting zone and still get some benefit.
The better thing to say about Guild Wars 2, however, is that it succeeds because of the big things. It succeeds because it encourages an environment where exploration and adventuring are rewarded. It succeeds because it is consistently grand and meaningful as much at level 8 as level 80. It succeeds because it has no subscription fee, and it acts like it. It succeeds because it is an MMO that asks how can we make you have fun right now, not how can we keep you on the hook for another month.
A Guild Wars 2 play session goes something like this for me. I identify a thing I want to go do, so I begin to head in its direction. Let’s say there is a quest I know I want to complete in a nearby village. On the way, the game alerts me that something is happening nearby, and I turn to see a dozen people fighting a giant troll. “Ah,” I think. “I want to kill that troll too!” So, I divert, if only briefly, to murder a giant troll, and, huzzah, we topple the mighty beast and a chunk of experience is doled out. But now there is a nearby passing caravan that is being attack by bandits and needs an escort to a different town. Well, I can’t pass up helping some hardworking farmers, and besides, there isn’t much better than killing a bunch of lousy bandits. We succeed over the next ten minutes or so — more experience, more gold, more loot. But here I am in this different town, and it is under siege by Centaurs … and so on.
At some point maybe I make it to my original destination. Maybe I don’t. It doesn’t really matter, because the game keeps throwing things at me for me to do. And should I get bored doing those things, then I can go do some World v. World, or I can visit points of interest and vistas (you get significant benefits for that as well), or I can track down dynamic events, or I can go to a lower-level area in some place I haven’t explored before and get benefits for that, or I can do PvP, or countless other things. Heck, even just exploring the world is worthwhile, where the game is constantly urging you to its coolest points.
Most interestingly, though, is how the game encourages and rewards good behavior. People have incentives to work together — they have incentives to heal and res one another. The game manages a living community and population in ways that seem simultaneously obvious and unique. It doesn’t pit players against one another unless they specifically want to be so pitted. For example, resource nodes are instanced, meaning that just because you’ve mined out some ore outcropping, other players will still have their versions of that node waiting for them. It’s not a competition. And, if you suddenly jump in and help someone take down a creature, it’s not a question of which one of you get experience and access to loot. You both do, so suddenly having someone running around with you in an area killing things isn’t griefing, it’s helping.
Again, the argument can be made that the reason they can make these choices is because they aren’t financially dependent on having to drag out your time. Sure, Guild Wars 2 developer ArenaNet wants you to still be playing their game next month, but they aren’t out a subscription fee if you don’t, so they have the flexibility to be more generous with rewards and to provide players more flexibility. Unlike those operating under subscription-based models, ArenaNet is not discouraged from making your time meaningful. And while there are microtransactions in the game, even those are not heavy handed.
That said, the launch has not been flawless. There is no authentication device, and so because everyone uses their email address to login, and that email address is pretty easily accessible, there have been a number of problems. Frankly, the security of the game and people’s accounts leaves something to be desired. Additionally, while you can access the auction house from anywhere, it has not been very dependably online, and most of the times I checked it was down. There have also been some challenges around grouping up between overflow servers and the main servers when populations have been high. Queues for getting technical support, should you have a problem, are more likely to be measured in days rather than hours right now.
While not to be diminished, problems like these are par for the course in MMO launches, and ArenaNet has been taking steps to correct them.
What has not been a problem has been the core engine running the game. Guild Wars 2 is, simply put, the most beautiful game I’ve ever played. I am constantly running across places and scenes that make me pause and appreciate the world. And then the game asks me to look even closer, to climb up to a high point and get a bird’s eye view, and I do it, because it will turn out to be a thing worth seeing. This game is a rare blend of both a very powerful graphics engine and an art style crafted with an eye for detail and elegance. It sometimes feels, quite intentionally I think, like you are moving within a world that’s been painted. Each race has its own aesthetic, each zone its defining characteristics. And over each rise, it seems, there is something new to see.
There are echoes everywhere in Guild Wars 2. The scope and feel of Dark Age of Camelot’s Realm v. Realm combat. The sense of wonder and epic scale of the original Evequest. World of WarCraft’s understanding of how valuable artistic style is to putting a player into an environment. The Old Republic’s individually complex storyline. Guild Wars 2 offers the best ideas that had come before and fills in the gaps with countless new ideas that manage to enhance and encourage. This should be the game that future MMOs look to.