Guild Wars 2: First Impressions

So, this past weekend was the first pre-order beta and after playing until the wee hours of the day, I think it’s only appropriate that I make a post about it and bore you all with my personal impressions :)

So, first things first: The game is everything it advertised and that is saying a lot. Most of the time, a heavily expected game just doesn’t match its hype to any extent, but Guild Wars 2 (GW2 from now on) matches it easily. I will not declare it a complete success just yet, because I’ve only seen the first 10 levels of content or so (with three different race/class combinations) and it could very well still pull an “Age of Conan” and quickly lose steam after level 25 or so, and turn into a grindfest to cover it up.

However, there’s a few things that work in GW2’s favour in this regard, and it has to do with some of the fundamental designs of the game. I’ll go through that in the next sections. For now, I  want to talk about the hyped things I knew about and how they turned out.

(I won’t go into details on some of the things I’ll talk about, as you’ll find multiple sources explaining them in far more depth than I could. I will provide links when possible though.)

Dynamic Events

This is one of the things I was the most excited about, and after playing a considerable amount of time with them, I must say that I love them. The idea that you find things to do in the world as you explore is almost alien to all other MMORPGs out there at the moment. After playing Star Gars: The Old Republic beta a few months ago, where it would almost cynically bundle all quest givers for your particular level in a “hub” (i.e. a small safe area with merchants and so on) which you’d have to finish before moving on, this was a serious breath of fresh air. I honestly do not like the hub approach as it feels just so forced.

With dynamic events, I could just go exploring in the generic area of an appropriate level and I would find exciting things to do. And we’re talking about exciting, not silly “kill 10 rats” quests. For example, one of the last ones I played, which I found randomly when I went harvesting (i.e. I was just exploring, looking for crafting materials, and bumped into this dynamic event). It went like this:

I discovered a small outpost in the wild, which was being attacked by some things called “crawlers” I believe. I started defending the area with another player and after losing ground at the start, a few others came around and we managed to drive them off. Soon after that, everyone left to go do their own things, and I was hanging around a bit selling some junk and buying some other stuff. Once I was done, every other player that had helped me was gone. I was alone.

I noticed a quest giver (Note: There are a few “quest givers” around, but they are not as you’d expect. They are also fairly rare) so  I decided to talk to him. He was a scholar who wanted to research some relic or something (was 3am, wasn’t paying too much attention). I accepted the quest and we started an escort mission. I needed to get him to a location for him to study something and protect him from dangers. The dangers were some Ice Wyrms popping up from the frozen lake we walked upon, and some still rampaging crawlers.

Once I accepted the quest, a Dynamic Event started about it. Which means anyone approaching my area would notice it, and get a marker on their map. I started escorting alone, but soon, another player joined and (this is fairly stunning in it’s brilliant simplicity), started helping out. Think of this for a moment: In any other MMORPG this would be fairly impossible. Either you’d have to start the quest while in a party already, or you’d have to specifically invite another player to help, by sharing the quest, which would take a lot of communicating effort and…well it’s a mess which is why it’s not done that much.

So I was escorting this dude, killing out wyrms and crawlers and by the time we reached the end, there were 3 of us. The event finishes, I get some small reward. Now another event starts. We need to destroy the corrupted relic he found there. As we start doing it, we start getting swarmed by Wyrms, as well as a few solo enemies defending it. Some of us are attacking the relic, some are defending them and so on, all is well. And then a swarm of defending raiders run outside a nearby cave and start kicking out asses. We fall back and desperately try to hold them off. Then a group of like 5 new players descents from a hill to help out. Quickly the battle turns and we drive them back. Soon, the relic is destroyed and the event finishes. Soon another event starts. A hostile shaman approaches to recreate the corruption, so we have to prevent him. Now the event really bumps up the difficulty. By now there were like 10-15 of us and I think there was a a partial wipe by all the enemies swarming in. I respawn and run back to the battle, by now there’s some portals with summoned enemies opened (another event) which is what caused us to lose the previous battle. So we all concentrate on destroying those first. We finish this event and run to the relic location to stop the Shaman. There is now something like 20 players and the Shaman event has become a Boss Fight. Special AoE attacks falling from the sky, enemies spawning in and a “bullet-sponge” shaman that needed the combined might of 20 players to bring down. In the end, we manage to get him down and the event is also finished. The area is now calm.

This, for me was an amazing experience. From a single-player escort quest, it became a 5 player destruction quest, then a 10 player survival quest, then 15 player destruction raid and finally a 25 player boss fight. By this time, it was like 4am, but at no point could I extricate myself from it, because I couldn’t just abandon the other players. And take note that this wasn’t just people fighting. There were some dropping down support AoEs, some running around reviving people, some trying to tank the enemies and so on. The naturally emerging teamwork was glorious! And at the end, everyone got rewarded, depending on how much they participated. I got the most reward because I was there from the very first escort mission (so basically I got a reward for each finished event in the “chain”) while others got only the rewards for each event they participated in.

This is the definitely the best way to do quest in MMORPGs. It just works so well and naturally. It really puts the MMO back into the RPG.

Renown Hearts

These worked similarly to dynamic events with two main differences: The progress for each heart is specific to your character and there’s many ways to fill the completion bar. This means that any player there can do the quest on their own pace and at their own preference. Most of them allow you to complete them without any combat. In fact, there are many that don’t involve any combat at all. Unfortunately it means that there’s not a lot of cooperation, even though many of them have ways to complete that involve helping others but it’s a minor points because the main purpose of Renown Hears from what I understood is different.

They are there to serve as beacons to focus players in a specific area (each heart is marked for its level, and players can easily participate in areas that are up to 1-2 levels higher than them with some skill) so what happens is that player will travel towards the heart (if they don’t like aimless exploring that is) and in the way find various dynamic events to take part. Then, the renown heart will hold them interested in the area for a bit,  long enough for various dynamic events to start, which puts you into an event chain, thereby hooking you. Fairly brilliant.

I also loved that many of them are a nice break from combat. Some of them are their own mini games, like the one where I had to find and bring bunny food to a guy, while dodging leaping bunnies all the way. Other players could help by scaring the bunnies away from others players. Another one I had to play snowball fights with kids or fight off enraged guards who turned into bears! Another was turning into a snow leopard and hunting giant chickens and bunnies in the bushes. Yet another was answering riddles! I loved the fact that if you wanted a break from combat, you got it quite often and if you didn’t like the mini games, there was almost something else to do in the area, or a way to complete it via combat.

Sidekicking

What happens when you want to play with your friends but realize that their character is 5 levels ahead of you? Either both of you make an alt and promise not to play them without the other, or you suck it up and quickly grind your way to their level, losing a lot of the story in the meantime, so that you can play the same content.

I started playing GW2 with a friend at some point, where we both made the same character, so that we can start in the same area. At some point I was having a break and he was trying a different class. Then I came back and he went into a break so I started trying our a new character class myself. When he came back, neither of us wanted to really play the characters we started together, but rather our current ones. But there was a problem. He was level 9 and I was level 4.

Hah, I’m joking, there was no problem whatsoever. All he needed to do was grab a portal to my own area and then we could continue question together seamlessly, as he was automatically adjusted downwards in level, so that he was always just 1 level above the current area’s recommendation. This means that the enemies were a bit easier for them, but nowhere near a walk in the park.

This works brilliantly because the game is not based on quests, but rather dynamic events. So there’s no way you’ll have done a particular quest and not able to do it again. You can always take part in dynamic events happening around you, which means that you will always be able to play with your friends. We played the last day with those 2 characters. The level different was a complete non-issue. How cool is that?

Combat

Combat in the world of GW2 is visceral and skill-based. You have your first 5 skills that you quickly get by simply using a weapon of choice and then as you level up, you slowly grab your race and class skills which where the real customization happen.

Initially, I thought that the dodge ability would be a gimmick, something that you use once or twice for not much effect. But now that I’ve played some other characters I realize that there’s a lot of other skills that allow you to perform extra blocks and evasions, and they’re all skill/timing based. When I used my engineer with shield and pistol, I had a block & stun skill, that I had to press at just the right time. With my Sword&Dagger wielding ranger, I had 3 different evasion skills to call upon. This means that for the lightly armored ranger it became imperative to learn when and how to dodge my enemies, because even same-level enemies hit hard. Melee with more than 2 enemies was always a very risky proposition and most often than not, I couldn’t handle it.

Unfortunately, the way the combat works now, coupled with the low skill of most players, means that melee combat is avoided by most, even though it has more damage potential (it hits faster/harder and it seems that all attacks his everyone in front of you). Basically if you went into the melee pile or toe-to-toe with a boss, you almost always fell on the grown in no time flat. The boss can wipe you with one hit, and the bundled mobs just focus fire you. With 1-3 players in an event, it’s still manageable, but when there’s 20 players and all the mobs are granted double the highest player level in order to last, then it’s a nightmare. As such, AoE skills and Ranged attacks rule the day. Even warriors play with guns and bows.

I think the main reason for this is three-fold. One, as I said is the low skill of most people playing currently, which made combat seem much more difficult, since you cannot dodge well (especially with the crazy lag we had).

The second reason is that because of all the newbies, all the starting areas were swamped. Which meant that any event had something like 20-30 people going at it, which not only is a clusterfuck by definition, not only does it boost the mobs so much that they’re mini-bosses into themselves, but it grinds most computers to a snail’s pace due to performance hit and lag. At a big battle around a lake,with something like 30-40 people fighting, I was having 14 FPS with the PC I built less than a year ago.

I don’t know if there’s any plans to address this, but I think one way to somehow about this is to make new enemies spread out a bit more. Right now they’re all pretty much in the same pile, which makes AoE effect and ranged attacks the best way to fight them. If the enemies instead spread out so that each attacks only one player if possible and gives preference to players that are not close to allies (i.e. so as to avoid creating a pile, by the enemies charging a group of players standing together) while ranged attackers focused on those not engaged in melee, then it would achieve the following:

1. Nobody would be safe. You couldn’t just stand on the back and fire arrows and AoEs into the clusterfuck. You would be sniped by archers or charged by melee enemies.

2. AoE wouldn’t be that effective, as there would be less of a mob in one spot. It would make achieving results with an AoE more about positioning yourself and hitting charging enemies or clusters or archers, rather than a mindless “fire into the clusterfuck” action.

3. Melee would not be suicidal. Since you’d be fighting 1 or two at most, you’d be able to actually utilize your evades and blocks and wouldn’t die in 3 seconds.

Hmm, I should probably suggest this somewhere (But where? The forums?)

On a sidenote: This is just my impressions for PvE, especially on large scale dynamic events. I’m guessing that combat in a PvP scenario would be something entirely different, as players would definitely focus fire players and go after the squishy ones first.

Story

The story is the one thing that didn’t really grab me. Although some of the quests in the story are interesting – such as transforming into a minotaur to trick some raiders, or masquerading into a bandit and then infiltrating their camp just to steal information – the story itself was very forgettable. I could somehow follow the story of my Norn huntress because it was a simple “find out what the hell is going on with the minotaurs” thing, but I’ve completely forgotten what I was fighting for with my Human engineer or Charr guardian.

There’s also a small issue in that while being able to play the co-op is nice, not giving the co-op player anything to do except combat in a storyline mission is not optimal. In non-combat quests, the accompanying player was just bored. It would be nice if the players could coordinate their strengths a bit, so that during the infiltration attempt I mentioned before, one player charms a bandit, while the other pickpockets another, even if the main player wasn’t a thief.

Other than that, the storyline quests were OK. Perhaps they get better later but for now I can’t say they really drew me.

And finally, I’d like to quickly mention some thing that bothered me.

Racism/Sexism

I’m afraid the ArenaNet dropped the ball on this one. Not that I had particularly high hopes about it.

There’s practically no people of colour that I saw in the game. Almost all the humans and Norn are the whitest of whites. Almost no dark-skinned people, no people with asian features, almost nothing. Maybe 1 in 20 NPCs you saw would be a PoC. Even on character creation you’d be hard pressed to make a character that had facial features that were distinctively non-caucasian. Well, at least (when I was paying attention) 1 in the 8 classes in the selection was dark-skinned.

And then there’s the presentation of women. The good news is that female armour from what I saw does not egregiously increase the skin-showing percentage, so most of the time, you can be a woman who dresses seriously for battle. The bad news is that of all the starting archetypes for women were wearing ridiculous shit. The Norn Mesmer was the most absurd, showing off as much a skin as if she was going to a sexy gala, and not in the midst of battle. All the others followed similar motifs, showing boob windows, thighs and midriffs whenever possible. The only exception was the Norn-Engineer who was wearing a bad-ass leather trench coat. Pity she doesn’t start with it :)

There’s other issues here that bothered me. Such as the fact that all the character you can create, range from wispy to well-trained young adults. You cannot seemingly be old or frail. You also cannot be overweight. I don’t understand why MMORPGs don’t provide these options which would really improve the look of the game as you’d see a variety of characters as PCs and NPCs, and not the (for all intents and purposes) identical body type running around.

On the bright side, the Charr females are awesome. Since the Devs didn’t feel the need to cater to the Male Gaze on the Charr, their women look bad-ass from the get go. Easily on par with the males.

A small problem with the party system and overflow servers

One thing that really annoyed us when there were two of us playing, was on how the overflow got in the way of us playing together. You see, the overflow server is where you get put to play the game, when your own server’s world instance is full. This isn’t an issue at all normally, but the fact that you and a friend might join the main instance and one of you gets put in the overflow and the other doesn’t is a bit annoying. Because you can’t see each other anymore and you can’t even join the same instances like that. The only solution we found was for one to teleport out and in again, and hope we end up in the same instance of the main world.

The lag. Oh my gawds the lag!

The start of the pre-order beta weekend was a disaster. For the first 3 hours that I tried to connect on Friday, it was impossible. When I did manage it, it had so much lag that it was almost unplayable. On Saturday things were better and I was happily playing until 8pm or so, at which point the USA woke up and started trying to login, which promptly brought down the authentication servers and kicked me off. I only managed to reconnect at 1am or so. Sunday had no problems, so that’s good.

What Frames per second

The game was not using my graphics card at all. At least according to the info I’ve found, this is deliberate, and the game is CPU-bound. Fortunately I won’t get situations with 12 FPS again in the released version.

Crafting / Junk Collection

While crafting is not anything particularly annoying by itself. It is made so by the fact that to craft you need to bring your shit from the bank, drag them to the crafting bench and then go back to the bank to store them. And if you forget one, do this again. With the Charr, fortunately the bank was close, but with the humans and Norn, it involved a teleport. This was just annoying.

There’s some good ideas, like the fact that you can “teleport” crafting material to the bank when you find them in the world, thus saving you some inventory space. Unfortunately you can’t do this for all material, so you end up carrying a lot of teeth, bones and blood with you. Not a particularly big deal. What more annoyed me is all the junk you gather from the game and how they clutter your inventory. They are not a big deal by themselves and I don’t mind them taking a bit of inventory space, but I would really prefer if they had a secondary inventory called “junk” and they put all that stuff there, just so that I don’t have to shift through them every time I wanted to look at what useful stuff I’m carrying. They also need a “Sell all junk” button on merchants.

Content

This is more of a concern than a complaint. Given how common dynamic events were in the world, I am concerned on if they’ll manage to keep up this level of content for 80 whole levels, plus dungeons and renown hearts and whatnot. This is a lot of content to fill and I am afraid that there just won’t be enough time and ideas. I wouldn’t want to start the game and quickly discover that after level 25-30, there’s something like 1 dynamic event per level.

the good news is that because of the level adjustment that happens when one goes to a lowe level, there’ll always be “end-game-content” to do, in the form of all the renown hearts and dynamic events you haven’t done in the rest of the world. In this case, the “questing” system that GW2 by itself saves the day, as you are not locked out of content just because you’re exceeded its level requirements. I am not sure if the rewards for it scale as well, but I think I read somewhere that they do.

Epilogue

Whew, that was a larger post than I expected

I will say that after playing this first beta, I’m just as much, if not more excited for the game than I was. In the next pre-order beta I think I’ll concentrate more of PvP scenarios, particularly on WvWvW just to see how they play, and also to avoid spoiling all the single player experience for when the game comes out.

In the end, I truly think GW2 has some amazingly good innovations that will certainly change the way MMORPGs are made in the future. Yes, It is that good.