Guild Wars 2 First Impressions In Depth

The first sort-of-open Beta weekend for Guild Wars 2 is now complete and the MMO blogosphere is flooded with thoughts and recaps. I didn’t take many screenshots, but I did capture an awful lot of video (over 17GB of finished footage,) all of which is imbedded in this post and available on the Ardwulf’s Lair YouTube Channel. It’s also all littered with commentary, and I already posted some initial thoughts here, but now I’ll attempt to get my in-depth impressions here in written form.

What I Played
Five characters, the highest to level 7. Elementalist, Engineer, Ranger, Guardian and Warrior, and I liked them in that order, although I only played the Guardian to level 3. I did try each of the three available starting areas, and liked them in order of Human, Charr and Norn… but bear in mind that I only got to level 3 or so in the Charr area, and by no means came close to finishing any of them (they top out at level 15.)

What I Didn’t Play
I stumbled around in only a very little bit of PvP — two battlegrounds and an attempt to find WvW that may have failed (watch the video.) Cognizant of limited playtime, I did not touch gathering or crafting, both of which I will probably not pick up until launch. Nor did I play much of the personal story, although I did explore my home instances in Divinity’s Reach and Hoelbrak.

Was it Fun?
Yes. It was also very fast-paced and sometimes chaotic. I died a lot but never got frustrated like I did so often with the first game. Guild Wars 2 is going to be a game as deep as its deep predecessor, so the learning curve is pretty high if you expect to jump into, say, WvW upon first hitting level 5. Playing through the PvE content organically should give you lots of time to learn as you go.

Picking the right class for your style of play is going to be important. I found that the Warrior didn’t click for me (just as it never did in the first game,) but the Elementalist, to all appearances a more difficult class, really crackled. The Engineer was just starting to bloom where I left off at level 6. Messing around with a bunch of different classes in the long term is going to be confusing, so I’d say it’s best to stick with one character for the moment.

Is it Revolutionary?
Narrowly I think that it is. Specifically, I think that Guild Wars 2 pushes only a little ahead into the vast space that is the potential of MMORPGs. What it does do, however, is push the execution of the themepark MMO ahead by a whole bunch. It is in this sense evolutionary more than revolutionary in the big picture, but viewed within the dominant paradigm it is both different and a substantial improvement. It delivers the new approach to themepark gameplay that SWTOR failed to bring to the table, while simultaneously including its greatest assets — carefully crafted, fully voiced and cutscened storylines — into its own mix as well, in a more abbreviated form.

Make no mistake, GW2 is pure themepark. Even WvW is a carefully managed affair that doesn’t spill out into the open world. However, the dynamic world events combined with scaling, while a natural evolution of what we have seen before in games like Warhammer Online and Rift, are better and deeper here. The event stages end in a more organic way, offering branching outcomes rather than “the event fails and resets.” In practice it feels organic and does a good job supplying the illusion of nonliearity. That’s all it is, but it’s well done, and it will be enough for many. It’s the themepark that best feels like a sandbox.

The skill challenges (the chevrons) and world tasks (the hearts) are really conventional quests wrapped up in new packaging. But they’re a welcome enhancement of the traditional paradigm, and don’t really feel like traditional quests. Many of them are also non-combat tasks, which is nice and adds verisimilitude, lending the world a sense of life beyond adventurers killing monsters and completing the same linear quest series. Just as often the non-combat tasks are stacked into areas where there is also combat happening, so you can indulge in both if you want.

I admit to being somewhat mystified as to how PvP is supposed to work in Guild Wars 2. I understand the basic setup of WvW and the battleground scenarios are totally conventional, but in about 45 minutes in the Mists I’m not sure if I encountered any opposing players or not — If I did, they weren’t obviously identified as such, with names like “Green Defender” instead. I figure it will work out pretty well once I suss out the details of the maps and mechanics, but all I basically did was stumble around like a noob, thankfully capturing all of it on video for your entertainment.

The “personal story” is basically a combination of SWTOR’s “fourth pillar” thing with player housing, and instead of a house you get your own subzone of your home city that evolves as you progress the personal story. It’s a neat idea and the actual story plays quite well as far as I got into it, which wasn’t all that far. It will certainly not be the only thing you do as you level — you can’t just follow it exclusively up to the cap.

What I Didn’t Like
The day one performance and server stability issues were wearisome. The client is yet optimized, so basically the whole thing runs on the CPU right now. Thankfully, by day two the biggest problems seemed to have been straightened out. That zone congestion was much lower was probably the deciding factor. Let’s hope that these issues don’t reappear on launch day, but even if they do, they should smooth out very quickly as the congestion level in early zones tapers off.

The controls are mostly intuitive, but I was confused in a number of places with things like objective progress. The combat controls are more or less completely transparent. I did find that mouse movement and abilities triggered with the keyboard worked better for me, as it does in most MMOs. You’ll want to find your own hotkey configurations, especially for dodge — and dodging is essential.

The overflow mechanic, too, is an evolution of the zone sharding we have seen previously in games like Age of Conan and EverQuest 2. In Guild Wars 2 it needs some additional work; the overflow can break up groups without giving them a way to re-unite short of waiting out a potentially long queue timer, and that’s not at all cool. It’s not the disaster some are making it out to be, but it definitely needs some tweaking.

What I Liked
The world of Guild Wars 2 is gorgeous without trying to be photorealistic, and it’s probably the first MMO I can say that about. It’s art design is phenomenal and there is great freedom of movement, which separates it from from its predecessor as well as some Asian games that look just about as good. It is different from the MMO mainstream but not enough to feel totally alien, and its promise of delivering a more organic experience is largely achieved.

The primary mode of progression in PvE is exploration. It’s not “follow this linear quest chain, and by the way we have put an easter egg off to one side here.” Exploring is what you do, and there are metrics to let you know how much of it you’ve done. You get XP for unlocking new points in the world as well as for completing the events and hearts you’ve discovered. It’s not a ringing endorsement to say that GW2 is the best explorer’s MMO since Vanguard — which it may surpass in this regard — only because other recent efforts have been really terrible at it.

The cities of Guild Wars 2 that I saw — Divinity’s Reach, Hoelbrak and Lion’s Arch — are all amazing, rich places where you can spend hours wandering around and finding things to do. They are not sterile quest hubs, and GW2 fulfills the WAR promise of having cities that are more than just sterile quest and vendor hubs. GW2 cities are really and truly their own zones, with their own points of interest, events and other stuff. GW2 has the first cities that I think are done better than Age of Conan’s Tortage and Khemi (although the latter will probably always be my personal favorite.)

While the overflow mechanic may be wobbly, there is no need to ever PUG in Guild Wars 2, except possibly in dungeons. If you have a bunch of comrades you can certainly get a group together but if you’re just out in the world leveling there’s simply no need. The event scaling, as far as I have seen, works more or less perfectly. And because GW2 “discards the holy trinity” (which is not exactly what it does, but that’s a topic for another post,) group composition is unimportant. I’m not sure “dynamic grouping” is really the right name for this, but whatever it’s called, it works wonderfully.

How’s the Cash Shop?
Only a bit worrisome. Bearing in mind that this is sure to evolve substantially before launch, you have your vanity items, pets and dye packs, which no one will object to. There are experience boosts, which some people will have a problem with, but I personally see nothing wrong with them, and there’s even an interesting variation available in the form of kill streak boosters. The troubling item is the “Mystic Key,” which lets you unlock “Mystic Chests,” which drop in various places in the world (I did not personally see one, but I topped out at level 7.) When people lament the excesses to which cash shop games have gone, this is the kind of thing they are talking about. Exactly what is in the Mystic Chests is the real question… I’m hearing reports of mostly vanity gear and gimmick items, which isn’t an issue. But Guild Wars 2 gear tops out at some achievable point anyway, after which you’re progressing for appearance. You can also get gems (the cash shop currency,) for nothing more than in-game gold, so there’s that as a mitigating factor. But how the cash shop will impact play is not completely clear to me yet.

I’m not terribly conflicted over this or anything — I think it’s a relatively minor point to the extent that I worry about it — but I mention it because some will have deep reservations about it. For a game with no subscription fee, I have no problem with how the cash shop is implemented as it now stands unless ArenaNet does something dumb and unlikely like putting high-octane gear in the unlockable chests. But I have no reason to think that they will.

Is it Ready For Launch?
Absolutely not — there are a lot of placeholders out in the world, some of the mechanics need some polish, the Sylvari and Asura areas are clearly not yet done, or we’d have seen them already, and anything upstairs from level 30 is still under NDA and thus a wildcard. Plus there’s a load of optimization yet to be done. But what we have seen could be construed to be pretty close, and certainly the parts of the game that we have seen seem to be in better shape than many MMOs are well after launch. I think that the rumored late June release data is not totally out of the question but if that’s what ArenaNet is aiming for it’s going to be very, very tight. Guild Wars 2 will release this year… but maybe not quite that soon.

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3 responses to “Guild Wars 2 First Impressions In Depth

  1. Awesome videos! Always enjoy watching your videos. Thanks for sharing so much with us. Looked like a lot of fun. Was great to be able to take a peek with beta w/o being about to play.

  2. Re: the Mystic Key/Mystic Chest thing – I got a couple of the keys as a quest reward and according to the tooltip on them they can be found as dungeon loot so it’s not as bad as the Star Trek Online set-up. Also, I don’t think the chests bind to you – in which case a player who doesn’t want to buy keys can sell the chest via the trading post to someone who does.