What follows is a little background on my MMO playing experiences, you can skip direct to the Guild Wars 2 review below if you want 😀
Early in 2005 I remember seeing a game being covered a lot in the gaming magazine press of the time, how it was going to be a multiplayer game of unprecedented scale, giving rebirth to a term that had been used before, but by comparison most assuredly inappropriately until this game’s release; MMORPG. Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game. The game – ofcourse – was World of Warcraft. Now, the game itself and coverage thereof had not been enough to twitch the interest-o-meter for me by much, as whilst I like the fantasy genre, I was not au-fait with the Warcraft universe, so I felt no immediate compulsion to investigate further. However, a friend had already been playing it for quite a while, and offered a 10-day free trial.. so I gave it a go.
This first foray into the (the fortunately now abbreviated) MMO genre proved to be of mixed value. Certainly at the time WoW was gorgeous to behold.. and so startlingly BIG. The players at this time were mostly the typically serious RPG types, which made for a very atmospheric experience, but.. it really wasn’t grabbing me that much.
I felt I needed to join a guild, or better yet my have my gaming friends get on board too, and a couple of them did so (like some sort of tri-pledge.. we shall three buy this game *cackle*) and lo, we began playing proper. Well, suffice to say that the fun really began then, as the three of us played our way through the game solidly for 3-4 months – or I did anyway, my compatriots would continue to play on and off for many years beyond – and it was great. Working together, we ploughed our way through the first 30 levels or so, enjoying the exploration, discovery, and unlocking of various treats. However, my available time to play the game was considerably less than my friends, and I soon fell behind their inexorable levelling-up, though even this didn’t diminish my enjoyment; but my interest did begin to wane, and the £6 per month subscription fee was feeling unjustified and I eventually retired from play. I would return to WoW twice more between then and now, the most recent attempt proved to be quite depressing as the game had changed quite drastically due to spammers, and seemingly illiterate, disinterested brats flocking to its now free-to-play early levels.
Over the course of the intervening years I would try to recapture that exciting feeling of collaborative exploration and story with several would-be WoW usurpers. Lord of the Rings Online, Star Trek Online, Dungeons & Dragons Online, and more than a few Korean sourced free-to-play games. Early on in the investigations, Guild Wars emerged. It was at the time unique since it operated on a subscription-fee free system. You bought the game, you played the game. Sounded like a no-brainer, and I even got the chance to borrow a friend’s copy of the game and try it. It certainly looked lovely, with a less cartoony look than WoW graphically, but a less fluid feeling of movement. Being unable to leave a path because of obstructive grass(!) was a bit of an immersion breaker, so after only a bit of levelling.. I abandoned it.
Much later the first real WoW challenger came along as far as I was concerned; Age of Conan. I really enjoyed my time spent playing it, it looked SOOO nice, and that makes all the difference in terms of wanting to explore a fantasy landscape. However there were some problems, one of the game’s making, the other more of my own. First, the game relied heavily on instancing (essentially a zoning-off of various sections of the map to minimize both server and end-user hardware taxing) with multiple instances per zone, which could have the very odd effect of you and your friends occupying the same zone at the same spot… but not seeing each other because you were in different instances. The other problem was simply that my WoW-cronies weren’t really enamoured with the game, so I didn’t have the camaraderie that I had enjoyed previously, but also somewhat crucially I was no longer a bachelorette, no longer gleefully playing games until 4am – work be damned! – no longer having nor desiring the time to become involved with an MMO so much again, and so…
I abandoned it.
So. That monstrous pre-amble brings me to Guild Wars 2.
I was fairly put off MMO’s by now (a dalliance with a beta of “The Secret World” recently seemed to cement this opinion), but I was keeping a hopeful optimistic eye on GW2’s development. It looked beautiful, it was going to retain the no-subscription-fee model – though that is less noteworthy in this day and age of F2P – and it was making a real pitch at offering something familiar, yet different.
I had been drumming up interest with two of my friends – one was the former WoW alumni, the other a WoW-despiser, but fan of Dungeons & Dragons Online, and toe-dipper of Star Trek:Online.. and lo, once again I had a triumvirate of new-game pioneers. Launch Day MMO play is… an Interesting Time. You either can’t get on in the first place, or you get on and suffer lag, bugs, and all sorts of quirks, not to mention the sheer bedlam of having a massive number of new players all starting in the various start zones all at the same time!
At the time of writing this tome, it has been 11 days since we installed the game. I will describe that period in succinct style, using the world-famous “Facial Expression Mood Modifier Encapsulation System – FEMMES, a homage to the classic 8-bit game review magazine Zzap! 64)
Days 1-3: Installation, updating, and initial impressions:
Longest install ever. 2 disks, followed by a 2.2gb update = “Bored, thinking about stuff I could be doing, should go off to make coffee” face.
Slightly frowny face: Limited body-shape customization options for player avatars.
More frowny face: A Couple of the default female player character outfits:
Positive face at standard intuitive MMO (read: WoW) interface and controls.
Slightly disappointed sadface at graphics on highest settings.
Nonplussed, concentrating face at interchangeable weapon/powers interface and use.
Days 4-7: Settling in.
Zoned-out, nobody home face regarding crafting/skills (by contrast my former DDO chum loves it)
Pondering hopeful face: Create another character of different race and class.
Confused face caused by hearing what I know to be Jennifer “Commander Shepard” Hale’s voice, but not recognizing it in the slightest. That must be ACTING! 😀
Bored-face. Not enough collaboration or teaming with friends… feels like the most Minimally Multiplayer Online Game ever. Lots of people doing things, often the same things as you, but separately.
Days 8-11: Do I really like the game, or is it just not working for me?
New character, new class: Raised-hopeful-eyebrow face, this seems to be better!
Smiley face: New class is much more my thing, and my friends and I are working together again, much more cohesively.
RAWR-face! This is great!
There you go. 11 days in, and I’m really enjoying it, and for a multitude of reasons:
1: So far I’ve discovered I only like one (of eight possible) player classes, the other two I tried felt tedious in the extreme to me – when you find the shoe that fits.. its all good.
2: Once you understand the game’s mechanics – which are similar enough yet different to WoW’s to leave you slightly on an off-footing – you can get together with your friends to explore and progress through the game and its landscape very enjoyably.
3: Friends not around? Progress the character class specific single-player storyline which also gains you experience and levels you up, there seems to be less obvious “grinding” in GW2 – its still there, but not as blatant or boring as “kill 20 rats/goblins/thingmabobs” – there are usually multiple ways to complete a given quest.
4: No subscription-fee means no “must get my money’s worth” requirement to play… your friends may level ahead of you (mine are already 10-20 levels ahead of me) but this is less of an annoyance because of the game’s “level playing field” system, which reduces a high player level to the maximum for the area they’re in at the time, though admittedly this is at the expense of the fun-factor of returning to a low-level area when you are a high-level swaggering Goddess, gleefully swatting formerly troublesome wretches that get in your way. Let them eat cake… and noobs.
5: Combat! Its fun! Its a good mix of WoW’s style of gained powers/skills assigned to hotkeys (usually the number keys and clickable on-screen icons) but also featuring Age of Conan style evasive maneuvering. If you don’t move, you’ll soon be clobbered by higher-level beasties.
6: Quests! They’re.. a bit different. By which I mean how they’re implemented. WoW is famous for its bright yellow “!” over quest givers. GW2 operates something similar yet different. First, they’re heart icons. Empty outlines for incomplete quests, solid for complete. What makes them different is the fact that you don’t have to approach and “talk” to the quest givers in order to participate… merely being in the zone where the quest is relevant is enough to have you participate. Want to help that other player fighting the mob? Do so. Your contribution helps them without compromising how much XP they gain, as well as gaining you the XP and adding to the fulfilment of the given quest in the zone you happen to be standing, regardless of whether or not you are interested in participating! Initially I found this to be a little odd, and distancing from the “story” – but it actually works really well.
Better yet are the dynamic events that occur randomly but regularly throughout the different regions. For example:
You’re ambling around a locale when an “event nearby” notification appears. It could be that bands of marauding centaurs are assaulting an outpost nearby. You can involve yourself to help fight them off, gaining generous XP subject to how much you actually contribute to the battle. Merely being in the place where the event is happening if it’s completed will still gain you XP nonetheless! Where it gets clever is if players fail to fight off the marauders, and the outpost then becomes *their* outpost!
Things I still don’t like:
1: Instancing. Yes, the game has instanced zones. Not Age of Conan style, but not quite WoW style either. Its still a bit of an immersion breaker to have to “portal” between areas beside each other on the map. Something WoW did that was just so fabulous was the ability to pick a direction to walk in, and just walk. Loading was seamless aside from specific crossing areas (e.g. by boat) – alas, not so in GW2, but the areas are still pretty large, and with multiple exits/entrances.
2: Graphics. I admit to being a little disappointed with GW2’s looks. We’ve been seeing lovely videos promising beautiful, atmospheric locales and the like over the last few years, but the actual in-game graphics are a mix of lush, pretty design… on slightly angular polygonal landscapes, with not a huge amount of Bells or Whistles. Don’t get me wrong – graphics do not a great game make – but they certainly help build an atmosphere, and I felt that the final product was not quite what the marketing was promising. Shocker, I know! The design ethic, however, is beautiful. To be fair, I suspect that most attention is spent on key locales, rather than outback wildernesses.
3: Maybe its my getting old, or maybe I’m too accustomed to simplistic control systems, but I found GW2’s interchangeable abilities, weapons, and items quite complex and mind-boggling at first. I *am* getting the hang of it, and enjoy the variety. It’s also nice that you don’t *have* to meddle in the ways of crafting/skills/etc if you don’t want to, for I am unsubtle and quick to boredom…
4: There are less pleasing MMO staples in this game; emotes are a lot of fun (e.g. /laugh /cry ) etc even if you’re not doing the whole serious Role-playing thing. Guild Wars seems to have less than other MMOs I’ve played…
5: Speaking of Role-playing: GW2 seems determined to break atmospheric immersion with lots of bizarre quirks. The Human emote /dance results in a very cheesy pseudo-line dancing affair (though admittedly, I’m somewhat a hypocrite, as I *loved* Guild Wars original moves!) The Trading post (GW2’s both real and virtual money ebay emporium) has amidst its items… Aviator sunglasses? Baseball caps?
6: I miss Murlocs 😦
As for The Trading Post – the jury is still out on it. Something that allows for game items to be bought and sold for game Gold or real £$money has much potential for abuse and game-breaking. Time will tell… but game-servers cost money, and GW2 is not using the traditional F2P game model, and is therefore likely looking to bolster perpetual revenue however possible.
Guild Wars 2 is an enjoyable game, and a fun MMO, that for me at least has brought back almost all the positive vibe I enjoyed in the heyday of my WoW play, largely through allowing me to enjoy the game with my friends *and* with a clear conscience of no monthly cost to absorb.
Its a game that can be played as solo or grouped with friends as you like, though I suspect you are better off going into the game with known comrades, as in-game interactions with other players seem to be a little limited at present. Mostly people complaining of lag, but then hasn’t every online game since the dawn of The Internet had those individuals whose purpose in life seem to be to inform us of this?
My gripes about the graphics should be offset by the fact that a less demanding game means less need for super-powerful PC to play it on, which was always WoW’s greatest strength – it was playable on some of the lowliest laptops, assisting WoW to become one of the biggest selling games for the longest time.
It is likely that GW2’s publishers hope to achieve something similar, and I wish them every success, as it appears to me that – finally – there is a new MMO Queen on the throne, long may she reign.