With the MMO scene gaining more and more contenders with each passing day, every developer has tried to offer something new or attempted to break away from the traditional mould. ArenaNet are no exception, with plenty of promises being waved around about Guild Wars 2 over the last year. At GamesCom they put their cards on the table by showing us what to expect from their MMORPG sequel, and at Eurogamer Expo we got to go hands-on with the PvP aspect to see the gameplay mechanics in action for ourselves. I did get a brief chance to play the main game at the same event but 45 minutes really wasn’t enough to do the game justice in a write-up, so when the lovely folks at NCsoft foolishly gracefully allowed me to take part in the latest Closed Beta weekend I looked forward to the chance of seeing if the fruits of their labour were matching up to their MMO manifesto.
The thing is, even after an entire weekend of play (sacrificing the sudden burst of sunshine that has arrived here in the UK) I barely got to scratch the surface of what Guild Wars 2 has to offer. However, it gave me an extremely positive impression of what to expect when it eventually launches and I sit here now, with the beta event now over, believing this will be the start of a glorious return to ArenaNet’s world of Tyria that could well meet the great expectations that both fans newcomers currently hold.
The weekend started off with the usual set of decisions to make when entering a new MMO; what race and class to pick. I opted for a human character this time around, although I did quickly experiment with the Charr and Norn races in the character creations suite. ArenaNet have improved matters greatly on this front, moving on from the basic setup of their first instalment. The level of customisation is rather deceiving at first glance, with plenty of sliders manipulating various fixtures on the avatars emerging when a different section is selected. There is even opportunity to edit the colour of the starting gear for your character, although the number of dyes will be limited to a basic number, with more available further down the line. It’s important to note that you can also edit your colour schemes on the fly whilst in-game, including when putting on newly acquired gear, so if you fancy changing from all blue to all purple, you can do.
Height and body build are all modifiable, along with various styles of hair and facial builds. In the case of the Charr and Norn, horns, fur patterns, and tattoos can also be customised to your liking, meaning there is plenty to choose from to create the ideal in-game form. If I had to make a complaint about the creation process, it would be that the humans have a disturbing lack of decent beards to choose from. The main reason I say this is that my usual virtual representative, McGarnagle, naturally had to make an appearance in my beta weekend experience, but the only beard on offer meant he ended up looking like a cross between Kris Kristofferson and Zach Galifianakis. Let’s hope ArenaNet’s art department remedy this situation, or they’ll be hearing from me in a series of increasingly elaborate emails.
Oh yes they will.
The character creation doesn’t end at appearance choices though, as players will need to make decisions on their history and background before charging into the world of Tyria. For my playthrough I chose one of the engineer, one of the new classes, to experience the game with and had to answer a number of questions such as where I was raised, my biggest regret (one option being “never joined the circus”) and which of the Six Gods I was bless by. Each choice is highlighted in a short intro sequence before getting in-game, as well as deciding the direction of your personal story missions that will guide you through the levels. This provides a level of replayability to experience the different combinations, and with each race having these options it means that completists who like to see everything will have plenty to get through.
While I was going through all of this, the rousing score of Jeremy Soule (once again returning for composition duties) soothed my ears as I stared at the, quite frankly, beautiful visuals on the screen. One thing ArenaNet have gotten nailed down is the art direction, with everything from the initial splash screen to the opening of menus being an explosion of virtual watercolour. The vibrant colour palette of the countryside surrounding the human capital of Divinity’s Reach, as well as inside the sprawling streets of the city, looks equally as impressive during the night as it does in the day. Even the darker, battle worn areas looked picturesque as I explored the land, a testament to the art department’s efforts.
My journey in-game began with a linear instanced sequence that acted as a tutorial, where the basic controls were slowly introduced as I went through the objectives. Everything, from the ability to dodge (as long as you have the stamina to do so) to the gradual emergence of the five skills for each weapon you use allows the player to ease into the controls at a steady pace. In fact the action, which for new human characters takes place in the middle of a centaur attack, eventually leads to a boss battle within the first ten minutes of the game, creating an epic sense of scale from the get-go. Once the player is thrust into the main world, the scale only increases with the first reveal of the world map. There is no other description fit for this other than ‘it is absolutely huge’, and in the 18 levels I was able to get through over the course of the weekend I only managed to explore 5% of the landmass (helpfully indicated on the world map, along with how many points of interest and waypoints I had visited.)
Exploration is key to the experience in a number of ways as players will come across many tasks as they journey, with dynamic events being the most obvious example. These events appear on the map as a drawn circle at random intervals, either automatically or due to player activation, and can be joined by any player at any point during the event. The first area I came across that hosted these events was a farm, and had me fighting off a few waves of bandits with other players in the area. What stood out for me during all of this was that all players were getting XP and loot for the kills, with no “tagging” feature being enforced, and while you could worry that it would remove the need for teamwork I actually found it increased it. There was no rush for targets, and people were actively reviving fallen players in the heat of battle (which, thanks to the removal of the “holy trinity” of roles, anyone can do.)
When the event is completed, all players are rewarded in reputation points (which act as a separate form of currency in GW2) depending on the level of their involvement, and depending on their success or failure the world will change with the chance of new events appearing. For example, if bandits attacked a set of water pipes, and players let one get damaged, a new event would appear for players to protect workers as they repair it whilst further waves of bandits continue the assault. It is a system that works well will and manages to keep players in the action if they so choose. These events aren’t always the same at each location either, as I passed by the same farm sometime later to find players fighting against a giant worm queen, which helps provides a sense of a game world in motion.
These events are separate to the reputation ‘side quests’ that are found throughout the land, represented as a heart on the map. With no need to speak to an NPC to begin, players are automatically tracked as they perform certain tasks, varying from collecting items or test-tasting ale (no, really), to killing certain mobs in the vicinity. As an objective is met a progress bar is filled on the HUD which, when complete, rewards the player with reputation points and allows a nearby NPC to sell special rewards in exchange for both gold and currency. These ‘side quests’ are not repeatable like the dynamic events, but they allow you to get familiar with the local landscape and dangers.
The other reason that exploration is key is due to the unlockables that can be claimed throughout the land. These takes shape in two forms; the first are the waypoints, which provide fast travel in the game as long as you are not in combat. Much like in Guild Wars one, these are unlocked as soon as a player moves their avatar to their location, and they can be accessed on the map at any time with any frequency of use, with the only cost being a small amount of currency (with the exception of getting around a capital, which is free.) The second unlockable takes form in skill points. Unlike in other MMOs where players are just handed points when they gain a level, GW2 has the player travel various locations for them. Marked on the map so players can easily locate them, this usually translates to interacting with an item or talking to an NPC. I really enjoyed the sense of discovery this system brings, and with a number of skill point locations in each section of the map there is plenty to get through, with the points collected used to buy new skills for use on the toolbar.
This doesn’t mean that traditional rewards upon levelling up are removed though. Once a player hits level 10 they begin to earn Trait points with every level they advance, and these can be placed into a number of progression paths that upgrade various stats such as the ability to hit enemies harder or the effectiveness of particular aspects of class skills. This actually brings me around nicely to discussing the Engineer, one of the new additions to GW2's roster of classes. The gun wielding hoarder of gadgetry acts as a ranged class with static pets, which take the form of turrets, capable of using pistols and muskets to take does his foes. Skills such a net guns and shooting glue onto the ground help to keep enemies in place, and those wishing to fill in a support role can deploy healing turrets that emit Area-of-Effect (AoE) healing to all players in range. While a little overpowered in one-on-one PvP encounters, I found the engineer was a lot of fun to play, and my impression was so enjoyable that I may even pick it as my initial class at launch.
In Part 2 of our Beta Event Preview we take a closer look at the finer details of the game, and I get involved with the colossal World Vs World Vs World PvP battlegrounds.
(Oh, and before anybody panics, you need not fear as Nolan North provides voice acting duties once again in GW2, ensuring your collection of his games continues to grow at the forecasted rate.)