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Gaming Reviews with Kay (Thoughts of Dragons)

Kay is a young, enthusiastic gamer who is also a dragon.  She loves action games and MMORPGs, and is glad when those genres can come together like in Champions Online and Hellgate: London.  Being a dragon, sometimes she has to rely on her buddy Cael to help her play games, but she'll play them however she can.



A few years ago, I played the original Guild Wars.  There were all kinds of great things to be found in one of the most unique MMORPGs, from the setting and classes to the storytelling and the mechanics.  But the developer, ArenaNet?  They didn't think it was enough.  Unsatisfied with merely being different, they started work on a sequel to their game that aimed to be a revolution in the Massive genre.

            Well, that game is getting close to completion.  In the last weekend of April, ArenaNet invited playtesters and owners of preorders to test the game in an open beta. The only warning that was given for the test was a timer on the Guild Wars 2 webpage, counting down to noon that Friday.  However, many preorder owners had been anticipating the test long before the preorder became available two weeks before; some people have been waiting years for this game to release.

            The ArenaNet team have been talking up some of their ideas, so I went into this beta with a few expectations.  I expected to see some of the big features implemented, at least the much-lauded open questing and the personalized story quests.  I also looked forward to the action oriented combat and the dynamic death system, but I expected those to be not so original or slightly unfinished.  But let's get back to these preconceptions later.

            Let's start with the all important first impressions.  This is essential to bringing the feel of the game to the player before they even play it.  A good first impression can draw you in, and Guild Wars 2 does so in a sublimely delicious fashion.  The artistic aesthetic is clear right away, with the painterly "2" logo and orchestral soundtrack kicking in right at the loading screen.  Within the logo, several beautiful backgrounds fade in and out, giving a splash of color to the white field it lays on.  This continues right into the character creation screen, where all the races are displayed in a beautiful ink-painted style.  All of this prepares you for sensory immersion in a world crafted by artists.

            Getting into the game, I picked a Norn Warrior to start the beta with.  The Norn are hunters and fighters, with bodies built for cold and astrong legacy of tradition and wild power.  They're also the tallest of the five races, and I like being tall.  Warrior is one of the heavy armor classes, meant to be on the front line of combat, dealing punishment and taking hits for others.  That, and there's nothing I like better than taking a huge, blunt object and putting it between the eyes of unsuspecting enemies.  Although my huge, rambunctious, female Norn wearing chainmail and hefting a great big hammer may not be that unsuspecting.

            You do all the things making a character that you expect from a MMO.  You get to customize all kinds of sliders and options, colors and tones.  But when that part is over,  there's still more to do in making a Guild Wars 2 character.  Those first steps, selecting race, sex, class, and appearance details, are only 4 parts of a 10 step process during character creation.  Part 5 for me was choosing between 2 helmet styles or shoulder pads, the equipment option for warrior.  I picked the pauldrons, because my Norn's hair was fantastic -- there's no way I'd deprive my enemies of a glimpse of beauty before they are crushed to death.  Several more options, from your character's past, their philosophy, and old friends, depend on the race and class that you've picked.  Once that's done, you pick a name and start your story, after being treated to a cinematic that showcases some of the choices you made.

            Starting areas in Guild Wars 2 are cleverly instanced versions of the first questing zones for each race.  You get to see a bit of where you'll be leveling, and, more importantly, how the all important event system plays out.  Events are like living quests, that show up on the map and minimap so you can locate them easily.  They all have different objectives, although beating the tar out of monsters and bandits are usually the meat of things.  The starting areas put you through a handful of mini events to get you into the spirit of how they work, joining other players in various tasks before joining them in a massive boss fight -- more on these later.  The whole idea is that you get the idea of how the game will work; not a quest deathmarch from place to place, but a romp around the map wherever you desire to go.

            The game moves on with another cinematic, leading you into the starting village and first questing zone.  Here is where you meet your first scout.  These NPCs give you clues on how to progress, showing you parts of the map where people need your help as well as other places of interest.  They don't show you all places that events will happen, but they do show you the other part of the open questing, Heart quests.  Heart quests are general locations --marked by a big heart -- on the map where you have a selection of tasks you can use to improve your standing with the heart.  Once you do enough of the tasks -- anything from rescuing eggs and demolishing predator nests to raiding camps of evil dragon worshippers alongside your own wolf pack -- you gain a boost of experience and access to the location's karma vendor, where you spend the karma you get from completing events. 

            Heart locations are also places where events can start, and this brings me to one of the coolest parts of the game, the "Wandering Hero" scenario.  You won't always be there when an event starts; more likely you will happen upon them while doing tasks for a heart quest and others will already be engaged with the scene.  You feel like a real hero most times jumping in and lending a hand, and when you beat back the enemy forces or defeat the giant monster it feels so much better than if you got there knowing it would happen. 

            This leads in to the only thing that makes this possible: the community.  In a lot of other MMO games, you are likely to view other players as your rivals -- or worse, your enemies -- when it comes to meeting up with them in a zone.  They are usually there for the same reason you are, monsters, resources, or quest items, so having others around makes it hard for you to progress as quickly as you would alone.  While it's true that you have to increase your progress on heart quests individually, when it comes time to do events, the more the merrier.  You can't kill-steal in GW2, anything you do to an enemy already engaged by another player just helps them out.  You both get rewards for killing them, so why not give them a hand?  The same applies in events, but with a twist: the more people participating in an event, the harder or more numerous the enemies will become.  An event that starts with five enemies when one player is around can escalate to thirty enemies in no time flat when allies join the battle.  Being part of huge events can be invigorating and supremely satisfying, but they might also be the hardest things you ever do in the game.

            Now,this was a beta, so there were a few minor glitches still hanging on, stuff this event was designed to help fix.  Cael, Trent and I ran into a few things that were a little off, starting with the balance.  Remember when I said I was playing a warrior?  It was a little less glamourous than I had hoped.  The skills all feel cool, and you can certainly take some punishment, but melee combat feels incredibly underpowered in the movement oriented system they've implemented.  You need to run around while your skills are going off, and some skills have an incredibly limited range.  Worse still, others make you move when you might not want to, and if you accidentally hit a skill that jumps you away when you wanted to jump forward, you could be in for a short fight.  At the very least, you end up being far less effective than ranged characters in big battles, and at its worst, you are dying every time you enter combat, wasting other characters time as they give you a hand up (another system that I'm glad they made work).

            Another big issue is the big boss battles.  Did you ever wonder what happens when half the people in your zone decide to take on themoleman boss all at once?  You get lag.  On weaker systems, this would be game breaking: all the cool things you do in this game are with other people, and big battles are incredible to behold.  When everyone is on top of one enemy, you get a huge mess: very little coordination is possible in these situations, and often you cannot see what you're doing.  Not being able to see the boss hurts effectiveness (especially if you're melee, see above) and it makes what should be spectacular kind of disappointing.

            Lastly, the game is not currently optimized for making a group.  For the most part, you don't need to and that's fine.  But if you're like Cael and Trent, you wanna party up and run around together.  But if you have to leave your zone to go to town, for example, you run the risk of being bumped into an overflow server when you get back in, and there's no telling whether or not you will be able to get to your party or not.  This isn't truly awful, but this little issue could be a big one for guilds and smaller groups of friends that want to play together often.

            Speaking of playing together, Trent and Grimm convinced Cael and I to try out the World vs. World PvP with them.  The WvW system takes all the PvP combat out of the main world and has it happen in a sort of parallel universe.  You don't need to make a specific character to join in, you just jump right in from an Asura Gate in Lion's Arch and get going.  Since you change your skills with weapons, you can optimize your fighting loadout from questing to player-killing with ease.  You might not need to, either -- fighting players isn't too different from killing AI opponents in Guild Wars 2.

            There are other forms of PvP, the Mists is similar to the Warcraft Battlegrounds with its objective based scenarios, but I think this isolated PvP mechanic works for a different reason.  First of all, there is no lore reason for there to be a "PvP zone" in the game where everyone just picks a side and fights, its everyone against the dragons, and breaking apart alliances means death for all.  No, this only works if taken out of context, and it really feels like a whole separate game.  Furthermore, the cooperation aspect of the game is stressed even more in PvP, where everyone can hold their own in the fight.  Even if you feel like you stink at killing other players, you can always sink some resources into making some siege weapons to help out in taking down massive numbers of players or breaking into player holds.  It's a nice little change of pace, and a great way to take the fight away from the rest of the game.

            Speaking of change of pace, the beta ended with an event in Wayfarer Hills, the Norn starting area.  The event was dubbed the Great Critter Hunt, and it's just what it sounds like.  The area was infested by aggressive critters -- rats, raccoons, and pigs mostly -- and we were invited to slay them all for the glory of the Norn.  It was crowded, laggy, and incredibly silly.  There was even an instance or two of a vicious white rabbit (which was a raid boss, by the way), and a plethora of black moas that spawned a bunch of memes on the spot (Had enough yet?  Here's some MOA!).  Eventually, it became clear to many that this whole event was a thinly-veiled attempt to stress test player concentrations.  Hopefully they got some conclusions from it to make some changes, we didn't get to do much during the event because we couldn't see what was happening.  Still, it was a fun and light hearted capto an amazing weekend of gaming.

            Overall, this was a breathtakingly refreshing experience.  Some people would argue that ArenaNet has not done enough yet to make the game feel different enough, but I would say that they have made a Massively Multiplayer experience that feels unlike anything else I've seen or played.  The slight change in the mechanics from exclusive to inclusive combat is what makes it feel right.  The amazing amount of cooperation gives it a very involving theme, but it's also constructed to play well with small numbers or even just solo players.  I've played a lot of these games, but none of them ever really encouraged players to work together, and that was the part missing from most of these games that would have made them fantastic. 

            Keep in mind, this is just a beta.  This game isn't done yet.  That is the most surprising thing that I came away with.  Even as an unfinished experience, it is easily the most impressive game I've played for ages.  Pretty much the first time I played Guild Wars would be the last time I enjoyed a game this much.  If ArenaNet's unfinished beta plays more satisfyingly than other, completely finished games, I can only say that the finished game will be something no one will want to pass up.

 


Written & Edited By Tyler Clapp. All references, icons, and imagery are trademark to their appropriate owners, and author and editor take no credit for creation/ownership of these things, only the opinions stated in this article.