Guild Wars 2 — First Impressions

I haven’t really been playing much in the last three months. I’ve been doing some writing, enjoying our daughter, but nothing much has grabbed my attention. The only MMO really on my radar has been Guild Wars 2, which I pre-purchased so I could get into the beta events, mirroring my pre-purchase of Guild Wars 7 years ago.

So a few impressions of last weekend’s beta event.

First, this is not a standard Diku aka “WoW clone” or “EQ clone”. It has levels and classes and you get xp, but it’s very far from the usual stuff. That’s a good thing in general, particularly as Rift and LOTRO may have been very good games, but offered little other than tiny deviations from the WoW model. In particular, GW2 has only generalist classes and is trying desperately to get away from the “holy trinity” style of gameplay with a tank, healer and either crowd control or DPS depending on which holy trinity you mean.

That’s good in concept, but in the past when we’ve seen games that tried to do this, we ended up with the holy singularity where everyone is a DPS (usually a self-healing tank mage) and the only strategy is really a DPS zerg. I only got to 11th level in GW2, but I have to say this remains a concern for me with the game. There are some healing skills and some control skills and that sort of thing, but they seemed to fade into the background in favor of just doing more DPS. Supposedly as you advance in the game, these become more powerful and synergize with other skills to create even more powerful skills. Unfortunately, I fear this may only end up happening in static groups because the combinations are too complicated for random players to remember all the possibilities. If people in LOTRO, including yours truly, can’t manage to hit “all red” when a big popup appears in the middle of the screen, I don’t think they’re going to see something go off, recognize the animation, and toss in the correct finisher.

There is also a major issue with melee being far too squishy. GW2 wants to bring in some “twitch” to the genre and wants melee to do a lot of movement, positioning, and to use a “dodge” mechanic that gets them out of melee damage range. In return, you get a lot more damage. Unfortunately, none of this is really very effective at the moment. The damage is too low and death comes too easily. It’s hard to anticipate when to dodge. Some of this is that combat moves very very fast, but there are also issues in large fights with physically not being able to see the red circles that mark an incoming AOE because there are too many people in the area. ArenaNet seems to be aware of the problem and hopefully they can fine tune this, but I think it may be more difficult than they expect and it’s going to introduce a large bit of meta-balance between ranged and melee.

Also, really bluntly on the movement thing, I like the idea of move and attack or doing some positioning, but I am not interested in a game where everyone has to circle strafe and bunny hop like a ritalin addled monkey. It’s an idiotic mechanic in FPS games, the last thing MMOs need is to embrace it. Hopefully this is not their intent.

On the ranged and melee issue one bit of good news is that each class has both ranged and melee builds and they can be switched on the fly. The mechanic is that your primary attack skills are based on what weapon(s) you are wielding. So, when I discovered that a hammer and a mace weren’t making it for my guardian because ranged was clearly superior, I simply switched to a staff and scepter. Generally speaking, it seems that everyone has at least four options melee dps, melee support/utility, ranged dps, and ranged support/utility and there’s a lot of diversity within those.

Gameplay is blessedly not solo-quest-grinding. This has always been my least favorite part of WoW and the most copied part of the game. Leveling a character is always a grind in some way. It’s a grind if you’re pull camping in EQ, it’s a grind if you’re solo-quest-grinding in WoW, and it’s even a grind if you’re running random missions in City of Heroes. But of all these grinds, wandering from exclamation point to exclamation point in WoW is my least favorite mainly because it is solitary and I play these games to be social and work with other people. Naturally it became the industry standard and my favorite, random missions with other players such as Anarchy Online and City of Heroes, disappeared completely.

The gameplay of GW2 is less focused. You get into an area and there is work that needs to be done. These areas are marked with a heart on the map and you can get hints from scout NPCs on the borders of regions. These aren’t quest hubs though, you just go into the area and start doing things. If there’s a farm overrun by bandits, you kill them. There may be some wandering sheep and you herd them back. You do these sorts of things until you generate enough good will to get a reward and what you do to get there is up to you. If you don’t like puzzles, then go kill something. If you’re bored with killing, then herd some sheep or pick some flowers. Both work equally well.

But that’s not all. These areas have overlapping events somewhat like the public quests of other games, and these pop up while you’re doing other things. So the bandit champion may arrive to find out why you’re killing the bandits and everyone will need to fight them. These have a good amount of diversity as well, they’re not all combat.

One of the best parts of all this gameplay and most important to me, is that when you are doing all of this, it’s seemlessly public and cooperative. There’s no locked encounters, everyone gets XP and you don’t need to party. Events scale to the number of people in an area. And if that’s not enough, your effective level scales up or down automatically so you are always level appropriate for the area you are in and can group with friends and you still get level appropriate xp and rewards. Yes, you are understanding that correctly, if you’re 80th level and you can go to the level 1 area, meet your friend, adventure with them, and get level 80 xp and drops and you won’t ruin their gameplay by just blowing through stuff. Levels are essentially meaningless, they just exist to progress you through regions in what’s somewhat a coherent narrative.

Other tidbits on the beta. It was highly un-optimized, specifically in that many features are running on the CPU that will eventually be running on your video card. Nevertheless, I had fantastic response from my 3 year old system even in some pretty large (40+) PVP battles. Admittedly, it was top of the ilne when built and it was built specifically for EQ2 so it favors pure CPU.

It did have a large number of pure hardware errors. Character creation would cause my computer to randomly shut down (no it wasn’t heat–making it even more mysterious) and my video drivers were constantly restarting. Both of these seem to be widespread, which is probably a good thing as it means they will get ironed out. Still, I found the number of sheer computer bugs to be quite surprising in what I thought was going to be a glorified publicity beta.

The game seems extremely feature complete and the graphics are beautiful. I didn’t play with crafting, but it’s there. It has a great Auction House with some nice mechanics, including the ability to check and post items from anywhere–though you’ll need to go to the AH to pick up your profits or anything you buy.

My overall verdict? The game is a lot of fun and it’s very innovative. It deserves to succeed. However, I fear they may need to dumb down the gameplay a little bit in order to make it successful. Not just for “n00bz”, but for normal humans. The engine work also seems far less developed than I would have expected. Usually by the time there’s content at all, these are in better shape. Still, this is, I think, the game we have been waiting for.

It also remains to be seen how Generation WoW will adapt to a game that differs from WoW. There’s an entire generation of gamers that never played anything but WoW and they don’t seem to adapt well to change. Rift is a great game, but it was plagued from the start by people complaining that it only matched up 95% with WoW, not 100%.

Oh yes, I changed webhosts and I’m now located on my own domain. So update those dusty old favorites!