I have been waiting a long time for Guild Wars 2. Years in fact. To finally get my hands on one of the most anticipated games of recent times was a mix of fear and excitement. I suddenly thought to myself as I approached the booth: “What if I don’t actually like it?”…
I was fortunate enough to have a press pass for my weekend at Eurogamer and so gained early entry into the Expo ahead of the crowds. I sprinted across the entire show floor like a poor imitation of Usain Bolt to find the ArenaNet booth and jumped straight onto a demo pod that was running Battle of Kyhlo (PvP sessions were between 10:00am and 11:00am for early entrants and press).
Someone had kindly selected my character as a charr thief and with the battle only seconds from beginning, I had limited time to see what my skill bar offered before heading out to the nearest capture point. The first things that struck me were the fluidity of the game-play, how striking the game actually looks and the level of polish. My character felt weighty yet agile as I bounded towards the windmill, seamlessly dropping onto all fours as I quickly pounced my way across the map.
At the windmill, I had enough time to switch to a duel pistol setup as I captured the point (ranged combat is more my thing) before quickly reading over my skills and encountering my first opponent. Unlike other MMOGs I have played in the past, fights between players are comparatively long. PvP combat in World of Warcraft or Warhammer Online tends to be over in seconds as you quickly slug it out and yet in Guild Wars 2 they can be upwards of minutes, not seconds. Is this overly long? Absolutely not. It was a delight from start to finish; fast, frantic but entirely controlled.
My list of 10 skills were easily remembered as tooltips weren’t bogged down with irrelevant information, whilst using skills told you all you needed to know through clear visual cues. Fears of over crowded spell effects or too much happening on screen are simply unfounded. What was also refreshing were the tactical nuances behind timing individual skills, not just your dedicated heal or elite. Using snares or knockback skills too early and I knew my opponent would realise, too late and I may have put myself at a disadvantage over the course of the fight. Heals may also feel like they take an eternity to recharge, but to give you an idea of how long some fights can go on for, a particular 1 on 1 encounter saw me use mine three times, much to the humour of Colin Johanson as he peered over my shoulder (I’ll discuss this encounter in more detail later).
Kyhlo itself is a surprising triumph. Though it seems a relatively simple premise experienced so regularly before (it is a conquest map with three capture points) the breadth of tactical play as you too and fro between the points, combined with the siege weapons made the entire experience incredibly exciting. The map is easy to navigate thanks to intuitive indicators on your minimap but is deceptively large, with multiple routes and hideaways. ArenaNet have also made great use of vertical space and vantage points which seems a rarity in other MMOGs. Not once did I ever struggle to find an opponent, but if you were seeking a more hit and run play style, drifting around the outskirts to sneak upon unsuspecting siege weapon users and stragglers, then you are in for a treat. I did this countless times as a ranger in later matches to the great annoyance of my opposition.
Siege weapons are also a brilliant addition. To be stood idly in the Clock Tower only to be bombarded seconds later and watch the roof collapse is incredibly nerve racking as you desperately try to run away (it also looks great). It adds an additional layer of game tactics and choices:
1. Should I man our trebuchet in retaliation?
2. Should we use have used it from the beginning?
3. Who would be best to man it?
4. Who shall we send to dispose of the opponents trebuchet user?
5. Can we afford to not use ours at all?
6. Shall I waste time destroying my opponents trebuchet?
I made a conscious decision that as a ranger (for the remainder of my PvP play-throughs) that I was in a good position to deal with anyone using the red teams trebuchet. Using Quickening Zephyr gave me the ability to reach the trebuchet early, but combined with three specific skills I eventually settled on (Frost Trap, Muddy Terrain and Lightning Reflexes) I could could instantly burden my opponent with an array of disorients and nuisance skills. I certainly don’t want to face a ranger who used the same setup as me.
As a map though, it wouldn’t be sensationalist of me to categorically state Khylo is the finest PvP map I have ever played in an MMOG and is leagues ahead of anything Mythic, Blizzard or Trion have thrown out their door. I’m absolutely desperate to play it again and if other maps are as well balanced and presented, I’ll die a happy man.
After the units were switched over to PvE, I decided to jump straight into a high level zone. Selecting an asuran ranger, I headed out into Sparkfly Fen, a relatively high level area. With only 40 minutes on my demo timer, I decided I’d be best placed to just have a wander around and see what the game world threw at me. I briefly mentioned at the beginning of this piece, but Guild Wars 2 really is incredibly stunning. The world has been so lovingly created, down to the most minute of details, that I actually grinned from ear to ear throughout my entire time. Everything just looks and feels right, a world that has so obviously been lavished with affection by those who created it. The last time I was this excited to explore, just to explore, was in Dark Age of Camelot.
I just wanted to run into the distance, in any direction, I didn’t care. I wanted to comb the map, every ridge and outcrop, every tree, shrub and water pool. Even thinking about it now makes me sad that I can’t return there. It isn’t often that the world in a genre such as this captivates the childishness you experience when you visit a theme park for the first time. The world is there to be experienced, not just to function as a roadmap for levelling.
Dynamic events and NPC encounters subtly lead you on from one location to the next. I never once questioned why I didn’t have a ‘quest’, it was a joy to just go out and actually do things, without feeling railroaded by an NPC who needs 5 badgers feet or 10 bats ears. I must add here that the user interface is also a triumph and compliments the ‘quest-free’ gameplay. For too long we’ve accepted that the World of Warcraft template is the best there is. Well it isn’t, Guild Wars 2’s is. Clean, crisp and minimal but otherworldly functional, the user interface and its painterly styling (which is absolutely everywhere, I might add) is not only refreshing but it compliments the approach ArenaNet have taken in ensuring you are watching the game, not tool bars, quest trackers and goodness knows what else we like to litter our game screens with.
Before I’d even managed to finish a single dynamic event chain though, my timer was up and I was conscious that I’d spent nearly two hours at the booth with a huge queue now having formed behind me. Leaving, I decided to introduce myself to Colin who was walking the floor to ask a few brief questions and arrange to return in the morning for a game of PvP with him and other ArenaNet staff.
At 10:00 o’clock I ran once again to the ArenaNet booth to see only two other players waiting at the PvP systems. Colin and the staff looked as cheerful as ever and we quickly got a game underway between some of the ArenaNet team and a prominent member from Esoteric Warriors. Excited didn’t even come in to it.
Choosing an asuran ranger again (I’m sorry but its just an amazing class) we geared up and waited for the map to start. Equipping a shortbow and greatsword as well as the skills I’d used the day before (Heal as One, Frost Trap, Muddy Terrain and Lighting Reflexes), my team actually started with a bang. Heading straight to the windmill I waited patiently as the control point ticked over to blue, it was only then that I realised a sylvari ranger and charr warrior were hurtling towards me. Five seconds later and I was eating dirt having been steamrolled, developer style.
Dusting myself off, I re-spawned and headed out to the windmill where I once again encountered the sylvari ranger. She was just leaving the control point but died quickly as I blitzed through the skill rotation I’d developed, trapping her relentlessly in mud and ice. Pleased as punch, what would become my nemesis appeared. A warrior controlled by a member of Esoteric Warriors, we ended up battling for an age across five matches as we grappled with one another for minutes at a time. It was PvP dueling with such fine class balance and longevity that I’ve honestly never encountered anything similar. It was only after I killed him several times that Colin informed me he was one of the top 5 Guild Wars players in the world.
My nemesis and I went on to fight continually over the course of the matches, with one particular encounter lasting so long we eventually both ran. I cannot stress how important effective use of the dodge skill is. Not only will it save your life, but balancing its use and timing it to perfection is critical if your to make maximum use of skills with cool downs. It buys you time, but also allows you to reposition yourself to a point of advantage. I managed to escape the attacks of my nemesis and put him on the back foot so many times with effective maneuvering. Ideally, I would like to see the dodge meter display how many rolls I could actually undertake (maybe split the single bar into three) but this is very minor as you quickly just ‘know’ how many you can perform.
It was here that I decided to deal with the trebuchet that had begun to cause my team problems, as we had rapidly begun to lose points quickly due to my nemesis and a guardian teaming up. Heading to the red trebuchet quickly it was being manned by a warrior using a bow. Having already set Crossfire as my autoattack I quickly laid a Frost Trap, threw down Muddy Terrain to slow him even more and hit Lightning Reflexes to send my arrows rocketing to dizzying speeds. He quickly tried to run as I hindered him constantly before I jumped over the cliff edge in pursuit as he tried to escape. Having killed him he rallied (to my total surprise) and jumped back onto his feet. Almost dead, I just managed to heal myself after an effective roll before he died a second time. Eat that, Bookah!
For the final match (the score was 2 games each) Colin jumped on as an Elementalist. I’m unsure what went wrong (whether it was Colin’s intervention or external factors!) but his team lost embarrassingly badly. The final score somewhere in the region of 200 – 500. It was also a pleasure to have killed him several times over as he popped his Tornado on the way to the Clock Tower. 😉
There were actually too many stories to tell from the five games I played, with an hour flying by in the blink of an eye. My opinion on Guild Wars 2’s PvP from Saturday was only strengthened by Sundays experience and cemented my opinion that it was the finest PvP MMOG experience I had ever had. Not only was the class balancing seemingly perfect (not once did I ever encounter a skill that I thought was overpowered or underpowered) but the ability to be self sufficient through each class having its own heal, the ability to resurrect and removal of energy on skills wasn’t just a breath of fresh air, but ground breaking for the genre. I still cannot believe such minor changes have had such a profound on the way the game plays.
Combat is fast, fluid, entirely skill based, fully reactionary and laced with layers of tactical decisions based on your skill choices and use of them. Not once when I died did I question the game, as I knew in that circumstance I could have done better by making better use of my skills, movement and placement.
The accessibility of the PvP is also masterstroke. In minutes of playing on Saturday to having sunk several more hours in on Sunday, I felt entirely confident in my class and realised that the skill ceiling on even the simplest of classes could reach dizzying heights. It isn’t a case of a class needing a mechanic or one class being more complicated over the other, it was all entirely personal; how good you were as an individual. In what could become a huge competitive E-Sport this level of user defined skill should be cherished, as in my limited PvP play time I’ve more stories to tell of fun PvP encounters than ten years of playing other MMOGs.
If I encountered any problems with Guild Wars 2’s PvP it was simply with the Rangers pet and not the experience as a whole. I needn’t write reams about the well known pet issues here as this is entirely class specific, but while the A.I was entirely functional (they attack when they should and return when they should) the greater problem was between me and my pets synergy. Some skills effected my pet (Crippling Shot caused my pet to inflict bleeding) but sadly there weren’t enough like this, while Heal as One was fundamentally flawed. If I needed to heal, but my pet didn’t, I still had to use it. Seconds later though, if my pet needed healing, I couldn’t because the skill was on cool down and so my pet died regularly as a result.
You might argue that that is a viable trade-off (self preservation at the expense of an AI companion) but when the ranger is the primary pet class in the game and is reliant on a successful companion (I functioned more than fine with my pet dead) crippling the class by not implementing a unique pet heal that is always available regardless of skill bar set-up, is a sure fire way to annoy (Comfort Animal wasn’t available and I don’t think that fixes the wider problem).
Fundamentally, ArenaNet need to implement a permanent heal skill for the pet, that is entirely separate from the player and its skill bar. All classes have a dedicated heal skill, so why can’t the pet? (companion skills really weren’t a viable option either).
Back on topic, another thing that surprised me about the PvP was that I didn’t need to change weapons, or didn’t feel the need to. I did experiment with various other weapons during the PvP matches, but managed brilliantly with just the longbow and shortbow equipped. This is to be applauded by ArenaNet as it allowed me to craft my own play style. Swapping between long ranged attacks and more mobile based versions with the shortbow when in close proximity to players gave me a great choice of skill sets that didn’t require me to enter into melee. That isn’t to say that melee options aren’t viable (the greatsword was fantastic) but it was just my personal preference to remain bow based.
After the booth was switched to PvE I decided to play through the human starter area to get a feel for the game from level 1. Though the character creator is inevitably behind the standard of EVE Online: Incarna, it is much more robust than most of the competition, even in its current form. The female charr faces were brilliantly rendered and their horn combinations looked fantastic with ArenaNet cleverly weaving in details such as cogs and other industrial elements. The options for humans were also incredibly varied and were obviously a little further along than the other races, I am however hoping that I can choose what my voice sounds like from a pre-defined list when the game launches, as I still had concerns about matching my voice to my face.
Having seen the human starter zone many times before from past videos, it was great to actually see it in motion. As with Sparkfly Fen, it looks brilliant and the fact you are instantly in combat with centaurs results in you jumping straight into the action. You might imagine that starting with just one skill may be a little repetative as you set your autoattack but suprisingly, it isn’t. Learning skills gradually as you use a weapon type is much quicker than I anticipated and within ten minutes I had already unlocked my second skill. By the time I’d visited several dynamic events after the culmination of the centaur event with Logan Thackery (which was absolutely stunning) I’d unlocked my first five.
Though this system is simple, there is a risk of it becoming a nusance should you wish to change to another weapon later on, only to realise you have in fact failed to train any additional skills through lack of use. But, and in its defence, the speed at which you acquire skills makes it a great trade off in comparison to the tradition of buying skills and it truely does give you time to learn each skill as you go, which is inevitably its fundamental purpose. Having visited Star Wars: The Old Republic after playing Guild Wars 2 (that was a mistake!) I couldn’t actually unlock any additional skills because I didn’t have any money. Who thought that that was ever a good idea?
I should now mention the voice acting in Guild Wars 2, considering my previous complaints in Vocal Coaching. From my perspective, it was a mixed bag of results. The charr voice acting is fantastic; gruff, gritty and entirely fitting, whilst humans in places were also great as you spoke to passers by or undertook dynamic events. It wasn’t the script that was directly my concern but more the delivery of lines by some human actors.
During the personal story cutscenes where your character talks to an NPC of prominence you appear on screen talking, bordered with cinematatic black edging. For me though, and what broke immersion, were that the animations on the characters are distracting. Limited animations and little to no lip syncing at times made it awkward to watch and listen to. But, having spoken to Colin Johanson and Bobby Stein since playing Guild Wars 2 and raising my concerns, ArenaNet let me in on few treats they have store to rectify these issues entirely, though I wont spoil the surprise here!
Irrespective of all this and even in its current form, it all comes down to a fundmanetal question you need to ask yourself as a player: “Would you rather play an amazing game with some minor voice acting problems, or a terrible game with amazing voice acting?” I think we all know the answer to that, but should ArenaNet implement what they propose, I wont have a single criticism of the game remaining.
In conclusion, Guild Wars 2 is one of the finest games I have ever played. It isn’t just because its an MMOG, it is because ArenaNet have looked at stagnating genre, branched away from the norm and managed to meet and surpass all that they have claimed. The game world looks and plays incredibly with dynamic events a triumph over Warhammer Onlines iteration, whilst class balance and its PvP is something I just cannot wait to experience again. A few tiny niggles aside, such as a few casting bar errors and some dubious voice acting in places (that are due to be rectified), it is so unbelievably polished it puts all rivals to shame.
There is a reason Guild Wars 2 won the editors choice award at the Eurogamer Expo and it’s because it is truely remarkable. ArenaNet, please take my money.
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