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Guild Wars 2 play diary #1: What’s a Guild Wars when it’s at home?

The first in our series of diary entries tracking Tom Mendelsohn's path through the wilds of Guild Wars 2.

We find Guild Wars 2 at a crossroads in the short but eventful history of the massively multiplayer RPG. For nearly a decade, all but the crummiest MMO was a virtual license to print money, but the last few years have not nearly been so fruitful. Ailing behemoth World of Warcraft continues to shed subscribers, but no successor has arisen to fill the gap. Guild Wars 2 is the latest attempt to fill daddy’s boots.

It’s a beast of game, and like all MMOs, impossible to review fairly in a normal amount of time. These games are designed as beasts, filled with compulsion loops and a scientific drip-drip of tiny rewards to keep repeat-paying customers playing for as long as possible. In light of this, I’ll be writing a series of pieces on the game, in an attempt to evaluate it for what it is: a huge game with months of content to work through.

I’m 25 levels into an 80-level career, and in game terms, I’ve not done much more than piddle about on the nursery slopes, but it still feels like I’m on the foothills of an epic adventure. I’ll attempt to summarise my experience, but it’s necessarily a series of personal snapshots. Hell, I haven’t even tried Player vs. Player, let alone the World vs. World vs. World that has set my chops a-lick.

A lot of gums have been flapped about all the revolution Guild Wars 2 was going to bring to the table to give MMOs the shake-up they so desperately needed, though the game’s design is actually quite traditional – genre tropes haven’t remotely disappeared; instead, they’ve been very smartly refined.

ArenaNet promised to do away with quests, which they have. They’ve replaced them with renown tasks. So instead of forcing the player to bound up to each dribbling yokel with an exclamation mark above his head and ask him for permission to kill 20 naughty squirrels/marauding bandits/monstrous hellbeasts, you simply sidle into the guy’s general vicinity, whereupon you are automatically volunteered to help out in the area, filling out a progress bar with a cash reward at the end.

Of course you still have to kill a set number of bandits, but each task scales with the number of other players in your area, and the way they are presented makes them feel so much more like a collaborative effort, rather than atmosphere-breaking contract killing.

This isn’t the only sensible innovation on offer: the game’s dynamic event system is a subtle but incredibly effective way to make it seem like each map area is an active, functioning world. Regions are tapestries of activity and narrative, and it’s all shaped by the activities of the players. Small vignettes play out all over the place, and as players weigh in and win or lose them, they give rise to new events, all of which lead up to larger and larger confrontations.

A small incursion of centaurs might be beaten back, leading to the arrival of some lieutenants. Once these are dispatched, a caravan can depart, which will need protecting on its way to the next town, and so on and so forth, through dozens of increasingly complex iterations. Eventually, if the turn of events goes that way, perhaps the map will spawn a genuinely awesome mega-boss, or maybe the Seraph Guard (some of the good guys) will besiege the last monster fort in an epic confrontation.

It’s a beautifully elegant system; with many more permutations than my few hours in the game can hope to cover. I particularly like the idea that when the Seraph are in player-aided ascendancy, they show up in all the centaur forts, guarding the gates and protecting command posts with additional merchants, all of this going on whether or not I choose to engage.

The beauty of Guild Wars 2 is how unhurried it feels. There’s a story mode, told in little bursts, which is engaging enough that I can remember what’s going on and why I’m doing what I’m doing – but the game doesn’t pressure me into it. If I don’t want to investigate the death of my sister on patrol, well, I don’t have to. The designers have clearly taken the view that their game is best played with as little prodding as possible, so I’ve made sure to pootle about my starter maps with the utmost thoroughness, dipping in and out of the story only when I’ve been in the right neck of the woods.

Sometimes, this hands-off approach has boggled me a little. I’m a member of a friendly guild, and they’ve had to show me how to craft and how realm portals work, while it’s taken a good bit of time to discover how the skill trees work. Still, it’s hardly hindered my enjoyment; there’s such a bafflingly colossal amount to see and do that you’re hardly stuck if one aspect keeps you scratching your head.

There are bugs, of course, as there are at the launch of every MMO. Occasional log-in problems, certain bugs with guild communications and a massive flaw in the grouping system that has made it very hard for people to make it into an instanced dungeon with all their friends. The mail is also down, as an effort to combat hackers looting people’s accounts, and the servers are all far too full right now. I’m confident ArenaNet will sort most of this out, but it does bear mention.

As you can tell, I’m going to struggle to get it all in. I haven’t covered classes, skills, races, the beauty of the world design, the lore, the competitive play or the crafting system, and I’ve got nowhere near the endgame. I’ll endeavour to cover them in my next diary.