Following my first diary entry, I’ve been playing the game fairly intensively for two weeks, even managing to meander my way to level 42. An increasingly demented section of my guild, meanwhile, have been streaking their way to 80, the game’s top level. They seem to be enjoying themselves, but I can only wince at how much their mouse hands must by now be hurting.
That’s by the by, of course, because I’m here to talk to you about my more leisurely yomp through the digital hinterlands. It feels as though I’m beginning to get more of a handle on what the game is, and it’s becoming ever clearer that Guild Wars 2 genuinely is the evolution out for which its genre has been crying. It’s full of remedies to the annoyances that have plagued us since World of Warcraft, many small, but some significant. My first trips into one of the game’s eight dungeons are proof positive of the later.
Instanced dungeons, separate levels which you and a party of friends clear in the hopes of scoring loot, are an absolute staple of the genre. Some games make them big, with teams of 25 or 40, while others stick to five or six people. They’re also meant to be difficult, especially at high levels, and everyone has a role they’ll have to play lest the big bosses spank them like naughty children.
The absolute cornerstone of raiding dungeons is the so-called ‘holy trinity’ of character classes – tanks, healers and damage dealers. Tanks are big armoured guys who have to get the bosses to hit them and healers have to keep the big guys alive while everyone else tries to kill them; it’s a formula that MMOs have used since time immemorial (otherwise known as the late 90s). In Guild Wars 2, they don’t exist. Everyone is responsible for their own healing, and it’s no-one’s job to manage baddies’ aggro. It completely changes the way you play.
At first the change is hard to parse, so you die; you die a lot. But after that, fresh strategies start emerging. The game forces you to think, rather than just sending in the big guy and getting the healers to spam their group heal skill. Melee becomes much more hectic, skill choice becomes more important and, combined with another GW2 giant leap forward, your reactions are tested. The second change? You have to learn to dodge.
Most MMOs are built around button presses. Each player has a set of skills which they can fire off as their timers allow, and the skill of the game is in judicious juggling of cooldowns. It’s an interesting mechanic, but it doesn’t really feel like the player is ever truly in the thick of the fight. GW2’s dodge changes that; suddenly, it doesn’t feel like you’re being hit because a remote server in, say, France has decided you are. You’re hit because you didn’t get out of the way – and this simple change makes combat feel far more visceral.
I’ve done two dungeons now. It’s clear that they’ve not been perfectly calibrated, difficulty-wise. The first, Ascalonian Catacombs, is full of supposedly incorporeal ghosts who nevertheless hit with the force of a thousand suns. My very experienced guild has struggled to clear it despite voice-coordination, so for newbies in pick-up groups of randoms it must be an absolute baptism of hellfire. The second dungeon took us about 45 minutes, throughout which I was quite drunk (hey, it was a Friday). We didn’t wipeout once – even though I spent half of the fights lost and away from the group – and now my character has a very nifty pirate overcoat (which fitted my inebriated state perfectly).
Not every change is an overhaul. A lot of what makes the game so pleasurable is the way ArenaNet has clearly considered all the annoyances of MMOs and tried to smooth off the rough edges. A good case in point is the crafting system, which is about as smooth as I’ve seen. It’s complex without being overwhelming, and quite useful.
You’ve got eight professions, ranging from jewellers to leatherworkers, each of whom use a range of materials players find on their journeys, either off monsters, or from nodes of metal and choppable trees. A cynical reviewer could see it for nothing more than a huge time-sink; there are 400 levels, and materials are quite slow to accumulate, meaning that people can’t just power their way to the top, but the smoothness with which it’s presented, the utility of your crafts and the fact that it’s a legitimate means of earning decent experience points are all major plus points.
Yes, it’s a faff to have to keep buying mining picks, herb sickles and chopping axes of increasing quality and expense – and hunting down enough material to have a good session is an occasionally obnoxious task – but they’ve got to make it a bit of a challenge to hit 400. Plus, it keeps the economy going, and because you can only train in two of the eight crafts at any one time, the collaboration has been a great way to build guild camaraderie.
Not that that’s in short supply. This coming week, I hope to get stuck into some team PvP. I lost a year of my life to Warhammer Online, a much misunderstood game of mass pitched battles, ambushes and all-round epic biff, and I have high hopes that once GW2’s server and grouping issues are ironed out, we might be able to ride out in force and carve ourselves a reputation.
By Tom Mendelsohn