More than two years ago, ArenaNet founder Mike O’Brien made a huge statement by posting the “Guild Wars 2 Design Manifesto” which slammed traditional MMORPG mechanics and proclaimed boldly that their development team had “one mission: to make Guild Wars 2 the best MMORPG ever created.”
The hype train is finally pulling into the station, as Guild Wars 2 will be launching officially on August 28. I’ve gotten a pretty thorough feel for the game through three Beta Weekends and two Stress Tests, or at least enough of one to reasonably gauge whether a hefty superlative like “best MMORPG ever” could be applied to Guild Wars 2.
And, as far as fact-checking the Manifesto has worked out, Guild Wars 2 might not stand out front as far as ArenaNet would like to say it does, but they have managed to create a unique MMO unlike any other in the genre.
A Living, Dynamic World
The first set of goals ArenaNet set down for Guild Wars 2 was to bring fantastic role-playing game storytelling back to MMOs. The manifesto criticizes typical MMOs for having a lack of focus on the player’s decisions and for delivering tasks through static quest text. To correct these wrongs, ArenaNet promised to create a detailed player story and dole out quests in a way that felt dynamic and, according to the manifesto, would allow the players to witness the results of their heroism, or lack thereof.
The pair of concepts, both having grown buzz-names as the player’s “personal story” and the “dynamic events” which the player will encounter, are present as promised in the game. During character creation, the player chooses from a series of biographical questions pertaining to the character’s friends, social standing, and personality. The personal story was closed after about level 20 during the Beta, but it seems as though the decisions made during character creation change the entire personal story for these levels.
One question during character creation for the Charr race asked whether the player would be a member of either the warlike Blood Legion or ninja-like Ash Legion. The choice completely changed the quests from a story of military power struggles to a story about preventing a series of assassinations. The weight seemed a little too much behind the decision that I and most other players honestly made as totally uninformed bumbling lore-noobs. Still, there were decisions to make mid-story which are sure to have an effect later on, a good omen against my fear that one’s decision to pick one biographical element because it was prettier would not turn the experience into a trainwreck.
As far as writing goes, Guild Wars 2 is above average, but never especially grand. ArenaNet did an excellent job fleshing out racial identities the playable races and creating a deep and rich world to set the game in, but for the personal story that’s been available so far, things haven’t really heated up. There are a few “wow” moments, but the dialog can feel a little cringey and some moments are fairly cliche. Still, it’s a story about destroying continent-sized dragons. The content about dealing with your deadbeat dad is naturally going to pale in comparison.
Dynamic events are a more complicated beast. ArenaNet’s task was cut out for them in reinventing the typical MMO quest system, where the player runs up to an NPC with an exclamation mark over its head, reads (or skims, or doesn’t even read) some quest text which sets the scene for the task ahead, and then fulfills the shopping list they are given. The stereotypical example for a bad quest is “collect 10 bear asses,” stemming from World of Warcraft’s tendency to have NPCs request loot drops from mobs, like bear asses, or troll ears, which only occasionally drop and stand as a rather flimsy excuse to participate in the grind the game is trying in vain to conceal.
The dynamic events and quests which Guild Wars 2 serves up do a good job of not feeling like ass collection, and they manage to conceal the grind well, but at their root, ass collection does occur. The Heart quests are most analogous to typical hub quests, as they are served out of a single NPC whose affection the players vie for. Instead of displaying the player’s collection of asses as a fraction of the asses needed to complete the quest for the NPC, each ass the player turns over adds towards a general total of completion for NPC’s affection- not removing the fraction, but obscuring it and excusing the fact that nobody really would know how many asses are required to “make a dent” in the number of assed bears in the forest.
Also, if a player would rather forgo ass hunting entirely, affection can be gained by doing alternative activities, like teaching the bears to dance, or killing the bandits who are looking to steal the ass collection. Once the hunt is done, rewards are given in the form of gold, experience, karma, and the opening of that NPC’s karma store, rather than gold, experience, and pre-set gear. So if in the end the NPC can offer only an inferior pair of bear-leather chaps, the player can pass on redeeming the karma in hopes that a different NPC down the line will have something better. Hearts don’t really revolutionize the MMO quest, but they iterate it in the most streamlined and ideal form.
Dynamic events are the part of Guild Wars 2 which looks a little closer to the next generation of MMOs. They come in many shapes and sizes, but all have a couple things in common. When a dynamic event begins, it pops up on the map and its completion status appears for all players in the vicinity. Occasionally an NPC will be charged with running frantically from player to player, begging for help with a situation visible on the horizon using the game’s generally thorough voice-over work. There are a few commonly-used event types: world boss, group item collection, and siege, NPC, or item defense, with a few random outliers like herding escaped cows. At their root they’re really no different from the fare available in any other banal MMO quest, but their time limits, quest chains, and fail states give activities a more active feel, like something happening in that moment rather than once per player, dozens of times per hour, on dozens of servers.
Obviously they all have to run more than once, but save for some exceptions their triggers are spaced out enough that running into the same event a lot isn’t too common, and story-wise their ability to repeat makes sense. They’re a little rare in low-level areas of the game, likely to avoid confusing new players, but ArenaNet has stated that certain high-level areas would entirely forgo Hearts in favor of dynamic events. In addition, it’s possible for ArenaNet to churn out new events relatively quickly, meaning that zones which players have already visited will evolve over time. The system of living struggles which can get better and worse in the short term and develop entirely in the long term is as close an approximation to a living persistent world as I can really imagine for a game
Everyone has the Same Motivation… Everyone Gets Rewarded
“For the Horde.” For a decent percentage of the MMO-playing population, those three words are triggering. A history of mid-quest ganks, PvP rivalries, and random aggression sets one half of the players of World of Warcraft against the other half. Stack that with killstealing and loot rolls, and World of Warcraft could be the most massive single-player game ever as far as PvE is concerned.
ArenaNet pushes the idea that in all aspects of Guild Wars 2, an additional teammate will never be a bad thing. The manifesto claims that Guild Wars 2 will make it easy to play naturally with the other players you encounter, without the necessity of having a party to mediate loot drops, quest participation, or percentages of experience from kills For the most part, Guild Wars 2 delivers in this. Almost too well, even. Participation in events rarely requires communication- a good thing for efficiency, but a bad thing for players trying to have a social experience. Local chat turns into a straight list of players saying “thanks”: if you need a heal, someone will probably get you one before you need to ask, if you need to be revived, someone will be there to get revive experience, and if you need backup fighting a monster, someone will turn up. Maybe things will require more coordination at later levels, but the focus seems to be on feeling like part of a single will, rather than a dozen thinking individuals.
Joining in with friends is just as seamless. High-level players in low-level zones get “downleveled,” to put them on a scale with the monsters they face, rather than letting the content become irrelevant. So if a friend is rolling for the first time, it doesn’t mean that you’re then required to roll a new character unnecessarily. Downleveling feels a little bit like it rounds the character’s stats upwards, so the difficulty is a little generous, but leaving room for showboating never hurt anyone.
The unstructured PvP aspect of Guild Wars 2, titled World vs. World, is something the manifesto highlights as a good example of pick-up multiplayer. The manifesto reads, “if your world can get 501 people working for the same goal, that’s only going to be more helpful than 500 people.” I’ll avoid a lengthy diatribe about how high-level WvW competition might become more discouraging for fresh faces, because worrying about stealthy movement or intelligent defense is something most pick-up players will never do, but in general, the more the merrier. For the majority though, WvW will be a series of long sessions sieging a single door, and reinforcing the PvP mode’s nickname, “Player v. Door.” Things should begin to trickle down over time, as WvW allows notable armchair generals the opportunity to become “Commanders” who can more easily put every new player to use by adding them to organized squads. But over the span of at most about 72 hours of saved gameplay, few players had earned the commander distinction, and it didn’t receive enough valid critical testing in that time.
In a broad sense, Guild Wars 2 is more social than the typical MMO. But by streamlining player relationships, it’s transitioned multiplayer gaming from social to something resembling a player hivemind.
The Pure Visceral Joy of Combat
Of all the sweeping superlatives in the manifesto, the combat section was the most rooted in reality. It broke down the best parts of Guild Wars 2 combat into four parts – skill flexibility, skill combos, environmental weapons, and visual fidelity.
For the most part, skill use is quite flexible. In combat, players are limited to five weapon skills, one heal, three additional “utility” skills, and an elite skill. On top of this, most classes have the ability to switch weapons in combat, and some have access to additional skill bars. It’s fairly easy to fall into a basic rotation with some weapons, something Guild Wars 2 was trying to avoid, but the addition of utilities means that there is more to think about than the next dull sequence of key presses. Knowing when to use a utility based on the skills used by other players will be a key part of high level play. Dodging is not as consistently used as it is in Tera Online, as there are only a subset of monsters whose attacks are all telegraphed and dodgeable. Most of them are elites, which gives these fights a more epic feel, but at lower levels when dodging is barely necessary and Guild Wars 2 can easily give uninitiated players the impression of vanilla combat.
Skill combos perhaps play a less important role in combat than they ought to. A combination occurs when two players perform skills which are compatible, and generate bonus effects. Because, as previously mentioned, pick-up groups rarely communicate, most combos in the field occur completely by accident. A single player who is aware of available combos can make an offensive more effective, but it will take time before that goes into consideration for most players.
Environmental weapons are a mixed bunch. Essentially, players will be able to discover items in the field which can be picked up and used in combat, to mixed success. It’s fun to try and shank someone with a broken bottle, but rarely more effective than doing anything else. They’re good for a laugh, but haven’t proven to be invaluable or even worthwhile at all. “Mount”-type weapons, the sort of things which your character “enters” before using, are a whole different animal, typically overpowered for the sake of context, or in World vs. World, tightly balanced (or occasionally, not).
The last thing, visual fidelity, is rather hard to deny. In early testing, Guild Wars 2 had far too many particle effects, but they’ve since trimmed it down to at least a semi-organized chaos of lasers, fire, and explosions. Melee combat actually has weight, unlike in most MMOs, and knockback skills feel meaty and, at least the first few times, can provoke a nice empathetic “ouch.” Area of effect skills could not be more easily identifiable. Shown as a simple circle drawn in red, they ease the player’s ability to decide what to dodge by reducing visual clutter and ambiguity. In PvP they can be a powerful force, as players will tend to avoid any AOE they encounter, regardless of immediate threat or fallout from their decision to dodge it In short, combat is great. It doesn’t completely alter combat the way Tera Online does, but it simultaneously appeals to fans of active combat and fans of old-style skillbars.
The Best MMORPG Ever Created
Mike O’Brien wraps up the manifesto with that big superlative I mentioned back in the beginning, that their aim was to create “the best MMORPG ever created.” But the MMORPG genre has been in a strange turmoil for the last seven-and-a-half years. Until only recently, MMORPGs were incapable of competing with Blizzard’s total takeover of the genre.
Recent releases, like Star Wars: The Old Republic and Tera Online, finally showed gamers that developers were ready to start disassembling the wall that Blizzard built. SWTOR fell behind for its generic combat, and Tera Online fell behind because of its generic quests. As long as Guild Wars 2 maintains its active combat, lively questing, and detailed story, it stands ahead of the pack. So, in my opinion, on the slow, unpaved path leaving behind World of Warcraft, Guild Wars 2 is the current forerunner.
For the moment, I’ll allow ArenaNet to call Guild Wars 2 the best MMORPG ever created. Just know that isn’t an invitation to rest – it’s a long road from here.