Guild Wars 2 Media Day Wrap-Up, Part 2

You can read part one of Eric’s writeup here.

Combat and Skills

Much has been made of the innovative combat system of Guild Wars 2, and this was another area where I had reservations coming in. Other MMOs have experimented with “action game”-style combat in the past, usually with fairly disastrous results. However, I feel like ArenaNet has struck a pretty good balance with Guild Wars 2. It’s still a strategy-based RPG at its heart, but there are definitely some action moves thrown in there.

I’d recommend the engineer for anyone looking to try out the active combat system of Guild Wars 2; due to their skillset, you’re moving around and range a lot and firing on the move with the blunderbuss, so if you’ve done any kiting in previous games you’ll pick it up pretty much instinctively. I quickly discovered that double-tapping any of the directional or strafe keys resulted in my character rolling out of the way. This allowed me to kite most enemies fairly effectively. It’s also important to note that aiming and targeting is automatic in Guild Wars 2; they haven’t taken the full leap to action-game combat, and I think that’s probably a good thing. That’s not to say that projectiles attacks can’t miss – there’s a travel time in which a skilled player could roll or strafe out of the way.

As for the skills themselves, I found the skillbar system to be a substantial improvement over the original Guild Wars. To critics who say that 10 skills is too limiting, I’ll simply say that I ended up gaining access to about 20-30 skills before I even left the starting area, due to the “swapping” nature of the skillbar. When I switched from the rifle to dual pistols, I got a new bar of skills. When I was transformed into a snow leopard, I got a new bar of skills. When I picked up an item on the ground, I got a new bar of skills. This was especially evident when I was playing the elementalist and the engineer during dungeon play. The elementalist can flip between four “attunements” with the click of a button, allowing them to switch between a damage-oriented role like fire and a support-oriented role like water. One of the more engaging moments I had was during a boss fight; I was playing my elementalist like a healer, staying in my water attunement, but every few seconds I’d have to pop air attunement to get access to my knockdown ability to interrupt the boss’s self-heal. It’s a dynamic system that encourages players to take on multiple roles, and lets them switch between roles (and skills) midfight.

Another interesting feature is that you can right-click a skill to set it as your “auto attack” skill. This was good for me, as I found myself using my slot one ability repeatedly. My one complaint with the combat was that there seemed to be a bit of a “skill queue” system, and the timing felt a bit awkward for me. I’m a bit of a button-masher when it comes to spamming my main nuke, and there were times after I stopped giving input that my character seemed to go ahead and fire a few more shots, even after my target was dead. This could have been a lag issue, and probably would have been avoided if I had made better use of the “auto attack” functionality.

Underwater Combat

This was one of the main features ArenaNet showed off yesterday, so I felt like it deserved its own section. When I first saw “underwater combat” on the agenda, I cringed a little. Once again, I was put at ease when ArenaNet brought up the problems of underwater combat in other games: it’s slow, you can drown, it doesn’t make sense to cast fireballs underwater, etc. As someone who hates underwater content with a fiery passion, I’m not going to go overboard and say I loved it in Guild Wars 2, but I did find it very tolerable. That’s about as much praise as I can give underwater content.

I can’t speak for the other classes, but I will say that the amount of underwater skills for the Elementalist is pretty impressive. As a fire-attuned elementalist, your fire attacks are replaced with things like bursts of scalding hot steam, and as a water-attuned elementalist your water skills are replaced with ice attacks, etc. Part of me wishes I had tried a less-obvious class for underwater combat, like the Guardian, since I’m really curious how they managed to pull something like that off.

One interesting thing about underwater combat is the existence of a z-axis. This means that instead of crowd control attacks that simply knock an enemy away or pull them towards you, you can actually drag them down to the bottom, or force them towards the surface by trapping them in an air bubble.

Most importantly, I didn’t notice any loss in movement speed while underwater, and I was able to breathe. That should take a lot of the headache out of underwater combat, and the diverse set of underwater skills will keep things interesting when players venture off shore.

Dungeons and Group Combat

The other big feature of the day was dungeons. For the most part, these follow the basic formula people are familiar with; get a group of five, fight your way through a dungeon, kill some bosses, kill the big boss, get loot. Obviously this is somewhat different because of the Guild Wars philosophy on combat. As stated before, any group of five characters will do. I was in a group with four elementalists, another group had three engineers, and another group was fairly balanced, but we all finished around the same time.

If this sounds too easy, it’s also important to note that dungeons come in two modes: story mode and explorable mode. Story mode is essentially the casual player’s dungeon, and it’s the endgame content that the developers want everyone to have a chance to experience. We still died a few times in the dungeon while we were getting our bearings, but by the second boss fight we had it down to a science. The story of the dungeon involved an ancient tomb, which was home to a sword guarded by a ghost king and former members of his kingdom. To beat the dungeon, players must battle through these ghosts before facing the king, and ultimately defeating him to gain his sword.

One interesting thing about group combat was the death feature. When players drop to zero hit points, they fall to the ground, and can use a few weak abilities to continue fighting while they wait for an ally to revive them. Players can revive a fallen player by running over to them and right-clicking them. The ability takes several seconds to channel, and it goes faster if multiple people are trying to revive the same target. If you’re familiar with the death system in Left 4 Dead, this system is pretty similar. Again, it’s taking mechanics from action-based games, and incorporating them seamlessly into an RPG style. It didn’t feel overpowered or tedious, and all the encounters felt fairly balanced. The story mode might have been a little too easy (all of our wipes were on trash early on), but most of the people in the room cover MMOs for a living, so a certain degree of comfort is to be expected.

Explorable mode is a different story entirely. Explorable mode is essentially “hard mode,” but the name comes from the fact that you can repeat it as many times as you like, and there are multiple ways to do each instance. At the end of the day, the developers challenged the room to try an explorable mode dungeon, and I stepped up to the plate along with a few others. The story for the explorable mode of the dungeon is completely different, and appears to take place after the ghosts have been cleared out.

Our group (my engineer, along with two other engineers, a guardian, an elementalist, and a necromancer – yes, you counted right, the devs let us cheat and bring a sixth member) entered the dungeon and spoke to three NPCs, who were arguing about how to proceed into the tomb. Each had a plan, and our party got to vote on which plan to go with. I was ultimately overruled by the group, and we chose to do an encounter which involved harvesting soul essence from two tombs. After fighting our way through several rooms full of spiders, we reached the room with the tombs, and began the boss fight.

Despite our best efforts, and a developer playing as the illegal “sixth man,” we were unable to make it any further than 75% on the progress bar after nearly a dozen wipes. The encounter involves guarding the two harvesters on opposite sides of the room, while destroying the tunnels which spawn from the ground and continuously spew out enemies. It was certainly a challenge, one that I felt was roughly comparable to the challenge found in heroic-mode dungeons in other games. It certainly proved that you can design complex encounters without trinity-based gameplay, something that I was admittedly skeptical of.

Art and Sound

This is the final area that I wanted to touch on, just because I think that the visuals in this game are pretty noteworthy. Guild Wars has always had some of the best-looking characters and environments I’ve ever seen in a game, so that’s never really been in question for me. The models and scenery in Guild Wars 2 look just as good, and the art team has really stepped up their game in terms of skill effects. I rarely had to check the debuff bar on my enemies; if they were burning, it was very obvious that they were on fire. If they were frozen, slowed, or poisoned, that was also obvious. I found myself looking at the game world more than the UI, which is always a big plus for design in my book.

The sound in this game is a huge improvement over the original Guild Wars, due to the inclusion of voice for the cutscenes and a few major NPCs. It’s not 100% voiced, but it’s definitely noticeable, and it adds a lot to the game during questing. I also feel the need to inform everyone that the ArenaNet sound department works down in a dungeon, apart from the rest of the staff. There are literally chains hanging from the ceiling. Felt a bit bad for them there, but their efforts seem to be paying off.

Final Thoughts

Coming to a gathering of hardcore Guild Wars fans as somebody who primarily covers Star Wars: The Old Republic, I felt a bit like a Red Sox fan in the middle of Yankee Stadium. However, I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw, and pretty much all of my concerns about the game were addressed. Guild Wars 2 improves on the original in nearly every way, and fans of the franchise will be very pleased with the results. For people like me, who weren’t initially huge Guild Wars fans, let me just say this:

I was concerned about the heavy instancing in Guild WarsGuild Wars 2 is an open, dynamic world where you’ll constantly be running into other players. I was concerned about the lack of any visible support/healing roles. Those roles are available if you wish to play that way. I was concerned about the lack of jumping and movement in Guild WarsGuild Wars 2 is probably the most mobile, engaging combat that I’ve played.

To the skeptics who say that the original Guild Wars wasn’t a true MMO, I agree with you. I’m a big fan of traditional MMORPGs, too. But when I came home and flipped through my notes, I found that one word on the presentation was underlined and written in all caps: INNOVATIVE. ArenaNet prides itself on doing things differently. They’ve had an enormous amount of success, without ever trying to be World of Warcraft. They may not do things the way everyone else does, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

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