This Week in Ardwulf Presents: Guild Wars 2 and Vanguard

This was kind of a rotten week for me as far as getting videos done, but nevertheless I have no less than three new episodes of Ardwulf Presents to show off this week. Enjoy!

First up we have one of two from this past weekend’s Guild Wars 2 beta event. We’re closing in on the end of the human starter zone at this point, and I take a look at Beetletun and the stuff to do there.

The next vid is the last of the GW2 content this time around, the very end of the Queensdale zone and the start of Kessex Hills, the Human 15-25 zone. I also offer up some concluding thoughts for this round of beta. This is likely to be the last of my GW2 “progression” videos, although I do still have some stuff I’d like to show off in future beta events.

Next up is one I’ve been sitting on for a couple of weeks and decided to upload along with the other two since I didn’t have any midweek vids this past week. It’s another return to Vanguard: Saga of Heroes, for a look at the InfoMap UI Mod, pretty much the definitive Vanguard map mod.

Ardwulf Presents plans for the next two or three weeks include returns to Rift and Fallen Earth and the start of a new, dedicated show about EverQuest 2. So be sure to subscribe to the YouTube Channel and take in all the ongoing goodness.

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.

Guild Wars 2 First Impressions Videos, Parts 3 & 4 plus Norn Character Creation

Here’s the last of the day one video (now numbered correctly,) parts 3 and 4 of the Human starter area and Queensdale, plus another video of character creation from the Norn Female side, to replace the failed Human character creation video. Enjoy!

There may be more video coming tomorrow.

Guild Wars 2 First Impressions Videos, Parts 1 & 2

The first two Guild Wars 2 videos are up and are embedded below. Be sure to subscribe to the YouTube channel, as there’s more coming; the next one is 40+ minutes long and will take several more hours to upload; after that there are two more already done and queued, and I plan to take more as we go.

Performance and server stability seem to be an issue right now; I stopped for the day when I got booted and couldn’t get back in quickly. But ironing this stuff out is what this kind of test is supposed to be for, and I know ArenaNet is working on both, probably frantically.

A Look Inside the Guild Wars 2 Beta

My first hour or so of Guild Wars 2’s beta weekend is complete. Here’s what I think so far.

  • This is a deep game. So was Guild Wars 1, but at a glance this seems at least as deep.
  • The pace of the gameplay is very fast, and Guild Wars 2 wastes no time in getting you into the thick of it. To progress in this game is to explore, and you’re shoved out that door almost immediately.
  • Game performance is horrific. And because the game is so fast paced but the controls are so sluggish, this is a real and large problem. I see two reasons: one is that the client isn’t yet graphically optimized so it’s basically running all on your CPU with no help from the graphics card, and the other is that there are a huge number of players in game canvassing everything. Also, 100% of the players are channeled into 60% of the starter areas, which can’t be helping. I expect this to improve, possibly even in the context of this weekend.
  • Even so, it is sensually appealing, from the character models to the scenery to the music to the animations. Everything looks and sounds great.
  • Dynamic events seem to work and are not trivial — unless you drift in at the very end it will take a while to complete a stage.
  • The map is terrific and tracks your progress inside the zone.
  • I am currently taking a break while the hour-plus of video I took renders and uploads. Expect this latter part of the process to take several hours, but when I have working links I will post them.
  • The first video, of character creation, ran into some problems and did not take, so I scrapped it. I’ll try to get another character creation video in.
  • I’m playing a Warrior on the Tarnished Coast server named Ardwulf Hrenson. Currently level 3. Keep an eye out for me if you’re around.

I’ll be playing more throughout the weekend. There will probably be more video but given the performance issue I’m disinclined to dabble in PvP at least today. There will be time for that later.

Guild Wars 2 Beta Weekend Plans

Welcome to April 27th. The Guild Wars 2 experience begins today for many who have been looking forward to it for a long time. The beta is scheduled to begin at 3PM EDT

Just to remind everyone, if all goes according to plan, I will have videos of the event on the Ardwulf’s Lair YouTube channel, hopefully not too long after the event kicks off. I plan to play for about an hour up front, then I will start the video upload and run off to do RL stuff, and will likely be back on later in the evening if anyone wants to say hello. Tarnished Coast server, human starter area, and I’ll Tweet the character name once I’m in.

Most of the rest of the weekend is busy with other stuff but I may find time to log in and fart around.

Ardwulf Presents: Vanguard Today and Guild Wars 2 This Weekend

There’s a lot of things going on right now.

First of all, we have the latest Ardwulf Presents video, episode 3. You might recall that episode 2 was… some time back. But I’m back in business now and plan to do one of these every week or so. They will be short, unscripted and unedited videos featuring about ten minutes or so of gameplay and commentary from a variety of games. This week it’s Vanguard: Saga of Heroes!

Along with the Ardwulf Presents series will be the companion Ardwulf Presents Showcase, more in-depth videos with a closer look at actual gameplay functionality. The first of these will be up this weekend, and will feature (if all goes according to plan) Guild Wars 2. The beta event server list is up; I will be playing on the Tarnished Coast server, in the Human starting area.

I was joking about this earlier in the week, but I think I do want to limit my exposure to GW2 during this event. So I will not be playing it for thirty hours or whatever. But I do plan to put in two hours on Friday and another two or three on Sunday.

Beta Looms

When I had the chance to log into Guild Wars on Sunday, I found that I just didn’t have the will. Maybe I will go back in a couple of days. More likely, I’m playing it as a placebo for Guild Wars 2, much like I did with Oblivion while waiting for Skyrim to release. Which means back to Vanguard.

As GW2 prepurchase guarantees (although I like to not count on this kind of thing,) access to beta events, it’s time to start pondering how best to approach playing in them. The situation is different than it was for Rift or SWTOR; I waffled on the latter multiple times but had basically decided not to buy it by the time I got my peek at the game. I would have been happy to be proven wrong, but I wasn’t. GW2, on the other hand, I will be playing, and that demands a different angle of attack. Do you play the class and race you want to play when the game goes live with the intention of learning them as well as possible? Do you try something you know you don’t intend to play at launch? Or do you ignore any plans and try out everything you can?

For that matter, do you choose to play in the beta at all, knowing that it might sour you on the game or expose you to enough of it that you’ll be tired of it when it launches? Not playing in the beta would keep everything fresh for launch, when it counts. But really, who am I kidding here? Of course I’ll play in the beta.

As to what I’ll play, I’ve been watching class videos on YouTube and the ones I find most attractive seem to be the Elementalist, Guardian, Ranger and Necromancer, more or less in that order. To be honest, though, none of the classes look lame to me, and I may try them all. Since I’m hearing that you’ll get five character slots in the game at launch, I may as well have a crack at the Thief and Engineer first.