Review: Guild Wars 2 changes the MMO landscape
Forget your frustrations with previous online RPGs - this one delivers
With more than 2 million copies sold after its Aug. 28 launch, Guild Wars 2 (GW2) has certainly captured the imagination of massively multiplayer online (MMO) gamers worldwide. NCSoft, publisher of the game, also announced that the game has served 400,000 players concurrently during peak periods – it was so popular, in fact, that the company had to briefly suspend sales of the game to ensure that it could handle the massive amounts of traffic from gamers trying to play the game.
I’ve had the game for a few weeks, and after some initial glitches where I couldn’t access certain game features (the trading post, where you can buy and sell goods with other players, was down for several days before the team enabled it for all players), I feel the game has settled down enough to provide a full review of the game.
Here are the basics – like any good MMO role-playing game, GW2 takes place in a massive world inhabited by many different races of creatures. As a player, you can choose from one of these races, and then choose from several different classes, including warrior, magic user, thief, etc. In the game, you can play with other people together, or you can accomplish quests on your own.
The first HUGE difference between GW2 and other MMOs is its pricing structure. You pay for the game once and get to experience everything. There are no monthly subscription fees to shell out. While GW2 does have an in-game purchasing system (at the trading post, you can purchase gems with real money), the items offered are stylistic items, temporary boosts, additional storage slots, etc. The developer insists that “you cannot buy better gear with gems, nor is there any additional content locked away for purchase.” In addition, items in the Gem Store can be purchased via in-game currency, and you can trade gold for gems, and vice versa. The company also said it plans to supply regular free updates to the game, which includes new content, store items and events. Some former subscription-based games that have adopted a free-to-play model still require subscriptions for exclusive content – not so with GW2. If you’ve been waiting to try an MMO but were turned off by the monthly fee, the wait is over with GW2.
The next frustrating thing experienced in a traditional MMO is the existence of missions that require a group of people. Depending on the quest, this could vary from a 5-person mission all the way up to 20-or-more character raids that require a specific set of character types (usually broken into terms like “tank”, damage-per-second, aka DPS, and healers). If your group doesn’t have the right mix, most of the time you’re sitting around waiting for people to join the mission, or you start spamming the chat boards in-game with messages like “Need tank for LB3 dungeon”, etc.
While GW2 does have some dungeons like that (later in the game), for the most part larger group quests are handled as “events” within the structure of the game. When you’re roaming around the world, a pop-up alert notifies you that a “new event is nearby”, at which you can check your map and run over to an area indicated by an orange circle. Once you’re there, you discover a task that a group needs to complete, whether that’s defeating a large “boss” monster, or preventing a group of centaurs from stealing supplies from a local monastery, for example. In these events, group participation is usually required (there are too many foes that would prevent one character from stopping them solo), but you don’t need to wait around for more people – as more people join the event, the game sends more mobs/foes to take on, or makes things a bit more difficult. Sometimes events are chained together, so with enough people you can take on a very big boss that’s very satisfying when you defeat it. You can also fail an event, which usually happens if there aren’t enough people to take on the challenge – for example, if the centaurs steal all the supplies, cue the sad trombone. Rewards for completing an event include coins, karma points (which can be traded for additional items) and XP.
In addition, each character type isn’t limited to their class role. While warriors tend to fight up close in melee fashion, they can also equip a gun and play as a typical DPS role. Same thing goes for magic users – with the right set of skills, they can battle up close without getting pummeled. On the healing front, every character has the ability to heal others – again, depending on the user’s skills. While most skills are determined by a character’s race and class, other skills are granted depending on the weapons that they choose. When you equip a sword and shield, you eventually gain 5 different sword-fighting skills (you start with one skill, then eventually unlock the other skills). If you then switch to two axes, your skill sets change – some of those skills become better or worse for damage or healing, etc. Finding the right mix of weapon sets and skill sets is part of the fun of the game. Note – when you equip a new weapon type for the first time you start out with just the basic skills and have to level that weapon type up all over again. However, if you switch weapons within the same weapon type (like upgrade from one sword to a newer one), you don’t have to re-level the skill. This is just for things like switching from a sword to a mace for the first time.
Another frustration with MMOs is the feeling of “the grind” – that in order to level up your character, you have to constantly “Kill X boars” in order to gain enough experience points (XP) to move up to the next area of quests or get better stuff. GW2 handles the grind in a couple of different ways. First, when you are presented with a new area, a hollow heart icon on the map shows you where you can help out non-player-characters with quests – but instead of the quest-giver assigning you one task, you are presented with several different options. For example, at one area, you can help a farmer by fighting the bandits who are attacking her crops, or you can feed her cows, water some corn, etc. Doing these things build up a progress bar – once you’ve done enough of those tasks, the heart icon fills up, giving you extra experience points and a chance to purchase some items from the quest-giver.
If the heart-shaped icon quests feel like a grind, there’s still ways to gain XP without doing those missions. A lot of times, dynamic events will begin within each of those heart-icon areas, and kills/work done during the event count towards your progress within that area. I’ve entered areas where I haven’t even met the quest-giver, yet I get the credit for that area because I participated in events.
Second, the game gives your character a “personal story” quest line, which feel less grind-like – the personal stories are a series of different quests, complete with animation and dialogue during the course of the story. Your character’s personal story is determined by some questions you answer when creating your character – each character class has three different personal stories (with seven character races, that’s 21 different stories to experience if you are a completist). While you can’t just complete all of the personal stories at once (the level requirements tend to jump up, requiring you to do some events or other experience-gaining quests), they do tend to make the game more interesting than the aforementioned “kill X number of boars” quests seen in other games.
Other ways to gain XP in GW2 include map exploration (each time you go to a new area or unlock a fast-travel portal, you get XP), including hard-to-reach vista points, which require a bit of platform jumping-and-running skills. Vista completion reminded me a bit of the Assassin’s Creed series, where climbing to the top of a building or other area would unlock more of the map. Some vistas are easy, others can be frustrating.
You can also gain XP by playing in the game’s player-versus-player (PvP) or world-versus-world (WvW) areas – unlike PvP in other games, which have level and gear requirements, everyone can play here right from the start. When you jump into one of those areas, you are transformed to the highest level (level 80), although your gear stays the same. So being higher-level with your gear and skills can help somewhat, for the most part the PvP and WvW areas have a level playing field, and success requires skills like teamwork and organization, not just “who has the best stuff”.
There’s no way that you should feel that gaining XP turns into a grind with the number of different ways players can level up. Even crafting items can get you XP – in fact, a spokesman for the game said the first person to reach Level 80 achieved it solely through crafting.
The crafting system is similar to other MMOs – gather a bunch of materials, either through exploration (mining, cutting down trees, gathering food), enemy mob drops (open a bag and retrieve some leather) or purchase. Crafting lets you make additional items for your own character, or to sell via the trading post. Your enjoyment of crafting in GW2 depends on how much you love or hate crafting in other games – one thing I did enjoy, was that the crafting goes much quicker when dealing with bulk items. For example, if you’re turning logs into wood planks, the game speeds up completion as you work – if it takes 3 seconds for one plank, it’s not going to take 150 seconds for 50 – rather, it takes about 10 seconds as the system speeds up completion. It’s a very nice and efficient touch.
With more than two weeks of regular gameplay under my belt, it feels like I’ve just scratched the surface of GW2’s massive game world. My main character (a human elementalist) is only at level 25 – I have two other characters that I’ve played around with as well, but who haven’t gained as much XP. The best part is that I don’t feel like I have to play in order to justify a monthly subscription payment – there’s no guilt if I decide to watch some TV each night instead of logging on the game.
Some other final random thoughts:
• You can join multiple guilds, so you can end some of the guild-joining/guild-quitting drama that some other MMOs create. This lets you be in Guild A with casual or work friends, and Guild B for hardcore dungeon explorers.
• Initially, you can switch game servers without penalty (not sure how long that will last – at some point you may have to pay to move)
• Resource nodes are unique to each player – if you spot some iron ore on your map, you don’t have to win a road race with another player in order to gather the material – each character can get the resource.
• With the large events, everyone who participated gets rewarded at the end of a successful battle– you don’t have to “roll” for the good treasure - the system grants everyone random treasure/items.
• You can only create 5 characters, which seems a bit low considering the possibility of 21 different storylines to experience. But you can purchase some additional character slots through the in-game gem purchasing.
• Speaking of gem purchasing, we found it very simple to do, and gems appeared in our account instantly. This allowed one colleague to update the game from the basic version to the digital deluxe version quite easily.
• Massive environment with lots of stuff to do; should appeal to veteran MMO gamers as well as new players to the genre.
• No monthly subscription fee – You get everything right out of the box. No pressure to “have to play” in order to justify monthly fee.
• Beautiful landscapes, artwork and things to explore and look at within the game world. This alone makes the vistas worth attempting.
• Dynamic events are entertaining for group play, without waiting around trying to find friendly people to play with.
• PvP and WvW combat doesn’t limit you to experienced players only (although noobs will still likely get PWNed)
• New game bugs and glitches may irritate some players; some events don’t seem to end; some latency and lag in high-population areas (but nothing that affected our gameplay- getting frozen temporarily never seemed to kill our characters)
• Some storylines seem more thought out than others – some plotlines are typical within the fantasy genre realm; none of the story missions really made me stand up and say, “Wow, I’ve never seen that before”
• While you might not grind for XP, there is some grinding in order to get money to buy things, make things or otherwise generate coin (unless you just want to buy gems and convert them to in-game coins). Everything I’ve made in the trading post has been made by thousands of other players – in the end, you make money only buy selling resource materials, rather than any special gear you make. At least, initially.
Grade: 5 stars (out of five)
Keith Shaw rounds up the best in geek video in his ITworld.tv blog. Follow Keith on Twitter at @shawkeith. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.
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