Guild Wars 2 has done it. After so many near-misses and mild disappointments, we finally have an MMORPG worthy of becoming the next World of Warcraft. It’s not that Guild Wars 2 radically transforms the genre. If you’re looking for a new approach to combat, character development or basic game mechanics then you’re not going to find it here. What you have got, however, is a game that takes what works about the MMORPG genre and puts it in the foreground, while ruthlessly stripping away or providing workarounds for anything that hinders or slows down the experience.
The result is an MMORPG that is nearly always a joy to play. There’s none of the conservatism that hampered Star Wars: The Old Republic, the frustration that held back The Secret World or the patchiness that derailed Age of Conan. It’s not perfect, but it’s the first MMORPG since Lord of the Rings Online where we haven’t got a big ‘but’ waiting before the verdict hits.
The basic setup is classic fantasy MMORPG. You build a character from a choice of five races and eight classes, then send them to explore a vast realm packed with monsters to slay, non-player characters who dish out quests, cities to discover and loot to gather. Completing quests and killing monsters builds experience, experience leads to new levels and new levels mean new skills and a tougher character. New weapons and armour can be won, found, purchased, sold and equipped, along with secondary items that give you bonuses to health, armour or damage. On first impressions, combat is traditional too. You target your beast or baddie of choice, then click on attacks, spells or defensive moves from a shortcut bar at the bottom of the screen (or use the number hotkeys if you’re actually planning to survive).
So far, so WoW, but where Guild Wars 2 succeeds is in optimising the amount of time you spend doing fun stuff, and minimising the amount of time involved in less fun stuff. Take quests, for example. While there are still times when you have to locate a non-player character, ask what’s bothering them and then do something about it, most of the time this isn’t necessary. Instead, you can simply wander into an area, check the on-screen alert to see what needs doing, then get on with doing it. Instead of the ‘find 10 x’ and ‘kill 10 y’ instructions you’re normally hit with, you have a gauge to fill up and a choice of ways in which to fill it. Sure, you can keep culling the local spider population, but why not rescue some captured villagers and harvest some mushrooms while you’re at it?
But then Guild Wars 2 isn’t just about the usual grind. During character creation you’re asked several questions about your character’s outlook, and these will establish a personal storyline for your character to follow. The quests contained therein make up the basic framework of the game, pushing you outward from the heart of your race’s starter area and into the wider game world. While the shared game world provides the framework for the story quests, the quests themselves are instanced, meaning you either complete them alone or – in some cases – with your current group. In this respect, Guild Wars 2 feels close to the narrative-driven gameplay of Star Wars: The Old Republic, and while it isn’t quite as polished as Bioware’s epic in terms of drama and characterisation, it’s close. Even were the world a little boring, the unfolding plot would drag you through.
However, the game world is far from boring. Beyond the standard quests and personal storyline, it’s continually disrupted by what the game calls ‘events’. These are focused on a specific area, and range from simple kill-and-collect missions to multi-stage defence scenarios, each one involving several or even dozens of players at a time. You’re alerted to events in your area, and join in just by wading in to help.
Frankly, events are usually a chaotic mess, but even so they’re always an enjoyable one. There’s plenty of spectacle as you see multiple races and classes wailing on a mob of zombie monsters or a huge boss critter, and at the end you’re rewarded with experience commensurate to your endeavours. It’s not exactly a new idea – Warhammer Online pioneered the concept with its public quests – but Guild Wars 2 makes it feel like the heart of the game. Events are a great way to play with other players without any ties or restrictions.