A Skeptic’s Perspective
ArenaNet held a media open house this week to show off their new location to members of the press, as well as showing off additional gameplay from their upcoming MMO, Guild Wars 2. Committing to an MMO is a full-time hobby, and my focus has admittedly been on other titles.
I’d played the original Guild Wars; I had a mesmer/monk that I played throughout the original campaign and the Factions and Nightfall expansions. I passed on Eye of the North to focus my time on other games, and with the mesmer and monk classes noticeably absent from the Guild Wars 2 professions list, I expected to pass on GW2 as well. So when I got the invitation to the new Bellevue headquarters to try it out, my initial reaction was a less-than-enthusiastic “Sure, why not?”
I arrived at the studio Thursday morning, about half an hour before the start of the tour. The staff members in charge of the event were friendly and accommodating, and briefly quizzed me about my familiarity with Guild Wars 2. Despite having doing some preliminary research on the basic points of the game, I decided to go with the honest approach and admit that I hadn’t really been following the game very closely. The reply I got from one ArenaNet staff member was “We look forward to converting you.”
The morning began with a presentation from Mike O’Brien, founder and head of ArenaNet. Listening to him talk about the history of the company and the design philosophy of the Guild Wars team, it was hard not to be impressed. With over seven million copies sold, three successful expansions, and a competitive PvP scene that has spawned legitimate tournaments, you could make the case that Guild Wars is the second-most successful MMO in history.
Surprisingly, O’Brien didn’t make that claim. More surprisingly, he critiqued his own product, citing heavy instancing as the reason why Guild Wars wasn’t considered a true MMO. He would go on to describe Guild Wars 2 as the game they had wanted to create ever since the beginning: a truly dynamic world, where players could interact with hundreds of other players in the open world and leave a lasting impression on the game world.
He also spoke passionately about experimenting with new ideas; getting rid of the tired old trinity of tanking, healing, and damage-dealing; and doing away with purely stat-based combat. In his words, stat-based combat in other games is a lot like playing a game of chess with someone where they get two queens because they’ve played longer.
After he finished speaking about the history of the company and the design philosophy behind Guild Wars 2, he gave the podium over to the Lead Game Designer Eric Flannum, to talk about the specific game systems. We were told we’d have a few things to look forward to during our playthrough, specifically underwater combat and exploration. Additionally, the engineer profession was available to play for the first time, and we would be able to team up to take part in a dungeon later on.
Once the presentation was finished, we got a tour of the studio. The building itself looks great, with lots of really cool northwest architecture and natural wood, and lots of concept art along the walls (the tour leads had to keep waiting, since everybody kept stopping to look at all the artwork), and open spaces designed to encourage different teams to “mingle.” After the tour, we headed back to the demo room for some hands on time with the game.
Initially, we were told to create a norn character and play through the starting zones. I immediately picked the engineer, and after a few tips from the developers, I was off and running. After playing through a fair amount of the norn starting area, we took a break for lunch, where I shared some of my thoughts and experiences with the developers. I was encouraged to try the elementalist for the underwater content, and did so after we returned from lunch.
For this portion we were told to create human or charr characters, and we began in an area near the shore with level 26 characters. Once we had experimented with underwater combat for a while, we were paired up into groups of five, and given a chance to run a dungeon. Unfortunately, I think everyone was given the advice to create an elementalist, and I ended up in a group with three other elementalists and one developer. Surprisingly, this wasn’t much of an issue; after a few initial wipes, we got the hang of things. Interestingly enough, the three parties running the instance had very different party makeups, but all finished the dungeon within about 30 seconds of each other in a half-hour run.
Once the dungeon was over, I took advantage of the free play period to try out a mid-level thief and engineer, since I tend to gravitate towards roguish classes in the absence of a traditional healer. As a few of us started to get the hang of things, the developers challenged us to run a dungeon in explorable mode – an option for those looking for more of a challenge. What followed was a challenging experience that resulted in more than a few wipes. We were eventually forced to concede defeat on the final boss as the clock wound down, ending the tour for the day. However, I did manage to jot down my initial thoughts on each aspect of the game that I experienced.
While the physical modifications for characters were off-limits today, we did have access to what I’m referring to as the “background creator.” When you select a character, you have a number of different choices you can make – for example, you can choose whether your character is charming, dignified, or intimidating. This actually has an impact later on in the game world; my charming norn engineer engaged in some flirty dialogue with a female NPC when turning in a quest in the starting area.
Other choices include your motivation (such as wanting to recover a lost artifact, or take revenge on a rival), and your patron deity (this varied from race to race; norn characters could choose from bear, wolf, snow leopard, or raven spirits, while human characters had a pantheon of gods), and your background (noble, commoner, etc.). Like your personality, choices like your background will impact how your character interacts with the game world. As an admitted RPG nerd who considers making character sheets to be half the fun, this really feels like a game that takes the MMO genre back to its RPG roots.
As for physical customization, that wasn’t in, but the art team did talk briefly about it in our walkthrough of the studios. Different races will have different customization options, such as tattoos for the norn and different body types were hinted at as well.
This was a bit of a sore spot for me going in; I love support roles, and as someone who’s played a healer for the last decade, I really have no problem with the standard trinity. So when I heard that there would be no “healing class” in this game, it gave me some cause for concern. Ultimately, though, the system feels more inclusionary than exclusionary. The concept of a “soft trinity” of control, damage, and support has been tossed around by some, and it seems to apply here. From what I saw, you certainly can play a character that focuses on healing (my water-attuned elementalist had a group heal on the main skillbar that could be spammed, in addition to the standard heal ability on button number 6), but it’s not required. As demonstrated in the dungeon, any group of five will do, and players can switch up their roles on the fly.
The engineer was the first character I played, and it remains my favorite of the three. For those who aren’t aware, the engineer is the most recently announced class for Guild Wars 2, and it focuses on the use of different guns, gadgets, and explosives to get the job done. I kept discovering new playstyles throughout the day; initially I started with a rifle, which gave me shots that I could use on the move, allowing me to adopt a “run and gun” playstyle that was a lot of fun. I switched to dual pistols later, and that gave me a variety of skills, such as poison darts and explosive shots. Later on, I tried playing a turret-heavy engineer who used a Thumper Turret, Rifle Turret, Healing Turret, and mine fields. This was a very different play style and great for area control. It wasn’t until the end of the day that I discovered the flamethrower, which brought a whole new level of fun to the table. In a pinch, the engineer can even function as a pretty solid healer, through use of medkits or healing turrets. It really is a “Swiss army knife” class – I discovered at least four or five viable ways to play in a few short hours, and somebody who devoted themselves to the class over a period of months or years could certainly find more.
The elementalist was the class that I played during the underwater combat period, and it seems like a very versatile class as well. As the name suggests, the elementalist is a caster profession that can specialize in the use of certain elements: water, air, fire, or earth. Earth wasn’t available to me during the playthrough – I’m not sure whether it’s still in testing, or if it’s just a higher-level skillset. Either way, I had access to the other three, and each filled a distinct role. Initially I activated my water-attunement, which set up my main bar with skills relating to water and ice. This was the closest thing I saw to an old-fashioned “healer”; water-attuned elementalists have a passive mist aura that heals nearby allies, in addition to an AoE ability that damages enemies and heals allies, and a frost armor spell that increases the defense of your allies. That’s not to say they’re not without offensive potential; they also have the ability to pummel their enemies with ice.
Since I was grouped with a few other elementalists, one of whom was water-attuned as well, I clicked on my air-attunement ability and got a whole new set of abilities. This one seemed to be focused more on control, blinding enemies with lightning, or knocking them back with wind. Every profession is a capable damage dealer, and air-attuned elementalists have access to powerful chain lightning and lightning storm abilities. I didn’t get a chance to use the fire-attunement skills quite as much – like I said, I prefer to play a support role, and the fire abilities are very much damage-oriented. You had classic abilities like Fireball and Wall of Fire, which can play off of other abilities; for example, the ranger can shoot his arrows through fire to gain a bonus to damage.
The third profession I played around with was the thief. I didn’t spend very much time on this profession, as it honestly felt a bit awkward to me. My premade thief was wielding a pistol in one hand and a blade in the other, and the result was a class that had access to both melee and ranged attacks, and switched back and forth between the two frequently. There were multiple abilities to close range, and to get range, and ultimately I really wasn’t sure what range I was supposed to be fighting at. In the end I settled for engaging ranged mobs in melee, and melee mobs at range, and that seemed to work a little better for me. Still, the thief felt awfully squishy in comparison to the engineer and the elementalist, though that may have just been my lack of familiarity with the class coming into play. It’s an extremely mobile profession, maybe to a fault.
While I didn’t play a guardian, I did group with one in the final dungeon of the day. In addition to their heavy armor, they have access to some really nice AoE healing/protection abilities, including a bubble/barrier that players can run under to avoid damage. As a support player, I immediately got the feeling that I should have been playing that class all along. The guardian is all about protecting their party, either through drawing attention onto themselves, or protecting their allies through the use of their abilities. The result is something like a cross between control and support, though the mantra of “every class can deal damage” holds true for the guardian, as well. Regrettably my aversion to melee classes got the better of me, and I didn’t take the opportunity to try one.
The group was also unable to get any information on the elusive eighth profession, though it wasn’t for lack of trying. Any mention of the mesmer was likewise met with an unbreakable poker face until the subject was changed, so unfortunately, I can neither confirm nor deny the existence of mesmers.
Questing and Story
I’m lumping these two together because of the interconnected nature of questing and story in Guild Wars 2. From the second you create your character, you get to watch a voiced cutscene (GW2 cinematics use a unique blend of in-game character models and 2-D concept art – more on that later) based on the choices you made when you create your biography. In the case of the norn, they begin as individuals looking to prove themselves in the Great Hunt. My character was tasked with collecting several trophies to prove his worth, and after doing so, was sent to the top of a mountain to fight a giant ice wurm boss. This wasn’t a “named mob” like you’d see in other games, where they’re slightly bigger than a normal mob, and colored slightly differently – it was a real boss. This is done deliberately, so that players can feel like they’re taking on heroic challenges right from level one.
The trend in MMOs seems to be moving towards making the player feel more heroic through an increased focus on story, and I think it’s a good direction for the industry. I immediately felt like a hero of the Norn, and NPCs seemed to be responding differently to me after I’d obtained some notoriety in the Great Hunt. One area of concern for me was the presence of Eir Stegalkin in the Great Hunt, as well as the mid-level dungeon that players took on later. Eir Stegalkin is a norn hero of the Destiny’s Edge adventuring guild, and one of the most legendary figures of the Guild Wars storyline. It appears that much of the story in Guild Wars 2 will involve the players reuniting the Destiny’s Edge adventuring guild and persuading them to help battle the Elder Dragon. My concern is that this direction could have the player characters playing second fiddle to another group of adventurers, though it’s certainly too early to be making any definitive statements about that.
After defeating the ice wurm, the next task was to gain the blessings of the four great spirits of the norn: the raven, the snow leopard, the bear, and the wolf. I only had time to do the raven and snow leopard quest lines, but they both felt very different from each other. To gain the favor of the raven, I had to visit a bunch of raven-shaped shrines and answer a series of riddles. This was an interesting change of pace from questing, and I might have been stumped on a few of them if the answers weren’t in multiple-choice format. For the snow leopard quest line, I was actually transformed into a snow leopard to hunt down predators in the area. This gave me an entirely new set of abilities, which could be used in some interesting ways.
This is probably a good time to talk about how different actions can affect the game world. As a snow leopard, I had a Snarl ability that could be used to startle various predators out of hiding. In other quests, I was able to hunt down mobs either by setting traps, shaking bushes to rattle them out of hiding, or just tracking them down the old-fashioned way. It’s an interesting “multiple choice” way of getting the job done, but ultimately the objective is still the typical “kill 10 cats and bring me their pelts,” regardless of how many ways there are to skin a cat.
As I made my way over to the other quest areas, I ran into another player at the event for the first time, a guardian. One of the things that ArenaNet has done better than any game I’ve seen is make it so that you actually want to quest with other players. Each quest is marked by a progress bar and an objective counter, and the contributions of each player on that quest move that progress bar along. Since both players get credit for a kill or a completed objective, and each mob drops loot for each player, there’s really no reason not to work together. I healed them up as I saw them fighting a pack of mobs, and we headed into a cave to start the first dynamic event.
Dynamic events are a new feature for Guild Wars 2, and they encourage people to come together at certain points in the game world. When a dynamic event begins, players in the region get a message, and the area for the event is marked on their map. They can then choose to come and participate in a task – in this case, fighting through a cave of demonic cultists and returning stolen food to the camp outside. In this case, we successfully completed the dynamic event, but it is possible to fail a dynamic event. Later in the day, when I was playing my human thief, I set off a dynamic event that triggered a pirate invasion of a farm. I received an objective to destroy the cannons, but was unable to do so on my own in the 15-minute time limit. I failed the dynamic event, and the pirates took over the farm.
This came as a bit of a surprise; failure to complete a quest has never really been a big deal in other games. I kept waiting at the edges of the farm, thinking that the farmers would respawn so I could take another crack at it, but no luck. The structure of dynamic events are similar to what you might see from public quests in Warhammer Online or Rift, but their high visibility and the opportunity for different outcomes sets the dynamic event system apart.
Read Part 2 of Eric’s writeup here, where he talks about grouping, combat, and his favorite topic: underwater zones! Before you go, check out one of the new cinematics for the game, which shows off the intro to the Ghosts of Ascalon dungeon: