- Streamlined and entertaining MMO gameplay
- Great mix of personal storylines and crowd events
- The most beautiful MMORPG yet
- Overflow system makes it hard to stick with groups
- Purists might not like the solo-focused approach
- Whopping difficulty spikes in some encounters
- Review Price: £34.99
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.
It’s typical of the game’s whole approach. Guild Wars 2 is a game where affordable teleportation waypoints cut down on the tedious travelling and backtracking that’s a necessary part of any MMORPG, so that you can spend your time exploring new areas, not wandering around those you’ve already conquered. Merchants are sprinkled liberally so that there’s always somewhere near to sell unwanted loot, or there’s a clever banking system where you can store your gear and even share it between characters on the same account.
There are detailed crafting systems for those that want them, but no pressure to use them if you don’t. Even death isn’t met with any vicious penalties. You might lose your armour through persistent thrashings, but you can elect to start up again at a nearby waypoint, and there’s none of the corpse-finding rigmarole of WoW or The Secret World. In general, Guild Wars 2 is all set up so that you’re free to enjoy the game, and do so in your own way.
Beneath all this streamlining, however, there’s still plenty of depth and choice. Interestingly, Arenanet has avoided the usual system where experience unlocks new combat abilities for a system where abilities are tied in to weapons, with new abilities unlocking the more you use a particular type. This gives you a certain level of flexibility, as you can have one setup for dealing with foes at distance and another for serious melee work, swapping between them as need be.
Beyond this, secondary skills can be purchased with Skill Points, either earned through levelling up or by completing skill challenges in-game, and these give you bonus-perks or healing capabilities depending on your class. Traits allow you to weight your character towards offensive, defensive, support or stealth roles, and this flexibility works with a well thought-out class system to give you play styles that go beyond the standard MMORPG tank, heavy-hitter and healer archetypes.
The overall effect of all this is an MMORPG with an almost flawless feedback loop, where you’re always doing something, and always getting rewarded for doing it. Even the simple act of exploration is rewarding, with experience points dished out for finding viewpoints that can only be reached by some crafty platform jumping or an arduous climb.
What’s more, Guild Wars 2 is a beautiful looking MMORPG as well. Capable of being scaled down to play on a standard laptop with a basic discrete GPU, the game can also be played on a decent system with a mid-range GPU where users will benefit from luminous fantasy landscapes and some gorgeous atmospheric effects. The character models balance personalisation with a distinctive Guild Wars 2 art design, and areas of the world have a very distinct personality, particularly if you move from one major zone to another using the global teleport system. Only time will tell if Guild Wars 2 can match WoW’s artistic coherence and sense of place, but the artistry and production values are already hard to fault.
Does Guild Wars 2 have any serious issues? Well, the biggest at the current time is the way the game copes with crowding. Rather than have popular areas bogged down by huge player populations the game uses a system of overflows, where players start or are moved to a replica of the zone on their server until there’s room on the real deal.
You can end up in an overflow when you start a game, teleport out of the local area or move in and out of an instanced mission, and while this isn’t an issue if you’re playing on your own, it is a problem if you’re trying to play as a group. Actually getting everyone together in the same area on the same server at the same time can be a bit of a challenge, and keeping everyone together even more so. We expect this to change with time, as more players leave the starter areas and move out further into the game world.
The other issue isn’t so much a problem as a question of what you’re looking for. In the early stages at least, Guild Wars 2 can feel like a solo RPG with multiplayer elements, and the personal storyline missions are clearly weighted that way. We suspect many players prefer this stance, and will appreciate not being penalised for taking the lone wolf approach. For some, however, this will mean that Guild Wars 2 won’t feel like a proper MMORPG, where the focus is on social gaming and party dynamics.
Finally, there are some questions over the difficulty level. Sometimes Guild Wars 2 feels too easy, while at other times it’s ridiculously hard. The game dynamically adjusts your level so that higher-level characters aren’t overpowered in lower-level areas, allowing more experienced players to play with less experienced friends, and this is entirely a good thing. However, the same happens in the personal storyline missions, meaning that if you’re hitting a brick wall in one key confrontation, then you might not have the option to come back tougher and give yourself an edge.
Playing as a Sylvari Thief, more than one quest has only been completed with a combination of persistence and pure jammy luck, causing gears to grind in what is otherwise a smooth-running game.
Still, this doesn’t crop up much, and when it does some smart juggling of skills and inventory can usually help you get through by the skin of your teeth. Then you’re back out there, wandering through stunning landscapes on the road to your next adventure, or hurling yourself into another joyous ruckus with a mob of other would-be heroes.
Best of all, Guild Wars 2 doesn’t have the cloud hanging over it that has affected so many other blockbuster MMORPGs. Having paid for the game, there’s no recurring monthly subscription, and you’re free to enjoy it as long as you like. With eight chapters of personal storyline content and vast swathes of the world we’ve yet to explore, that could be months, and potentially even years.
Those looking for a game to radically reinvent the MMORPG might feel underwhelmed by Guild Wars 2. Anyone else will either understand how dozens of changes and improvements have made this the most playable and entertaining MMORPG yet, or just be too lost in the sweep of the action to care. This is a superbly crafted and polished world of adventure, with convincing single-player storylines and plenty of mob-handed action. Most of all, it’s an unadulterated joy to play.