Guild Wars 2 is meant to be all things to all people. It’s supposed to be both a revolution for those already embedded in the peculiarities of massively multiplayer roleplaying, and the game that lures outsiders into the genre. ArenaNet is aiming, by accident or choice, for Schrödinger’s MMORPG: a game that exists in a dual state, pleasing two distinct groups.
Astoundingly, it’s got close, although Guild Wars 2’s advances should be considered on a sliding context scale. At the thin end of the wedge, small adjustments have made the experience friendlier for veterans. These tiny tweaks to questing and grouping will be apparent to old hands, but fly right over the heads of newcomers. Fresh eyes will instead look at Guild Wars 2’s snappy combat, perhaps finding their first inroad to a genre that usually looks too stilted for fans of rapid payoff.
Guild Wars 2 still sets its camp in the lush, verdant MMORPG forest. Quests involve killing a lot of the same things. Combat skills are accessible via the number keys. Guilds provide a social home for players, while banks store items, and crafting stations let you make a lot of shoes. GW2 has smoothed out a great many of the traditional MMOG’s rough edges – the template laid down by EverQuest – but this is no vast change. Some improvements are obvious, and some take hours of digging to uncover.
Tyria is a place of rolling green hills, icy fjords and dinky villages. Large open fields are graded by level, and most AI characters stand stock still, roped in to provide window dressing to the traditional fantasy universe – but the world has many visual innovations, too. Rata Sum lies over in the extreme west, a host of floating pyramids run by clanking automatons. It’s the home of bunny-eared gremlins the Asura, and their city is held together by a combination of force fields, brilliant crystals and intertwining branches.
Guild Wars 2 is at once a completionist’s dream and nightmare. Wander through any area and you’ll be gently nudged into completing dynamic quests open to all. They’re easy enough to avoid – with no penalties for leaving them to others – but the rewards are often excellent
Similar branches also feature in the Grove, the home of Guild Wars 2’s new race of advanced plants, the Sylvari. They live inside a giant tree, moulding it into an approximation of the fiction’s older races’ homes. Vast leaves obscure doorways, gangplanks grow out of roots, and everywhere twinkling seeds fall gently to the ground. Movement around the Grove is possible thanks to giant, seemingly tame seed pods that ferry passengers between points. Like Rata Sum, it’s beautiful, and it invites exploration.
Tyria feels relentlessly designed. If MMOG spaces are often perfunctory expanses studded with quests, Guild Wars 2’s capital cities and the spaces around them are rich with imagination. The curious will find pirate ships and mines, and while many exist to provide homes for later questlines, others are there simply to discover. The game’s Vista system codifies the joy of exploration: dotted around each area are map icons, and if you make your way to one of these and press F, you’re treated to a panoramic sweep of the surrounding scenery. This is both pretty – thanks to Guild Wars’ colourful, sumptuous art style – and useful in planning your next move.
The world is huge, but the problems of transit around it have been solved. Uncover a waypoint in an area and you can warp to it from anywhere in Tyria for a nominal fee. Those who aren’t too curious will find themselves sticking to their starting zones until around level 30 if they stick slavishly to the story, but there’s little to stop players from poking their noses around the other races’ homelands sooner.
Yet even when your network of waypoints is extensive, it’s often more fun to walk. A jaunt through an unexplored area is like a stroll through a pet shop, with any number of things making puppy-dog eyes in your direction so you’ll go over to play with them. The aforementioned Vistas are located in hard-to-reach places that necessitate some mild jumping, while skill point challenges task you with beating a tough enemy, and pay out in tokens you can put towards learning secondary abilities for use on the battlefield. But perhaps most important of all – and similarly spotted by skirting close enough to see them – are Guild Wars 2’s dynamic quests and events.
Rather than forcing you to badger NPCs for odd jobs, Guild Wars 2 has them standing out in the open, screaming their predicament for all to hear. Hearts appear on the game’s map; initially hollow, you can fill them by performing certain tasks for their owner without you ever having to click through a single dialogue box. On your Tyrian travels, you’ll also spot various symbols of battle, supported by text in the top-right of the screen. Move close to the source and you can collaborate with nearby players to complete a quest – guard a submarine from underwater saboteurs, kill waves of centaurs, and so on.