Underwater combat is handled surprisingly well. Water is often deep and filled with both monsters and quest objects. Dip below the waves and your character changes their weapon set, giving you a new range of abilities to play with
Finish it, and you’ll get an experience bump and fresh loot, but you’re also free to wander off and let others deal with the problem if you so chose. It’s the same with the game’s solo quests (Renown Hearts in Tyrian parlance), in which you’re free to move on should you tire of killing spiders or repelling crop thieves.
And you will tire of it. Guild Wars 2’s quest acquisition is novel in comparison with its peers, but the dynamic quests themselves are the same as they ever were: kill ten of these, pick up 15 of that. There’s the occasional snappy, well-plotted example, but the majority grate quickly – especially as there never seems to be quite enough of your target in the designated area, forcing you to backtrack and twiddle your thumbs until the MMOG gods deign to resupply the world with monsters. This problem is counterbalanced by the sheer weight of stuff in Tyria – a boring Renown Heart can be dismissed without fear it’ll consign you to a life of under-levelled death – but the story quests rely on players devoting at least some time to upping their skills between chunks of exposition.
Class stories swing in and out of focus – around level ten, for example, there’s a suggested arc that mostly ties itself up neatly, only to be reopened around level 14. This gap is designed to be plugged with questing, or crafting, or gathering, or exploring, or PvP. The stories themselves are earnest things, fantasy staples often told with the most po of faces. The bear-cat Charr have a traitor legion to deal with, the Viking-like Norn are keen for you to become individually glorious. The writing throughout is but a few steps from ‘thees’ and ‘thous,’ and only the tiddly Asura have much fun with their origin stories, sending robots and golems haywire, and trying to clean up the mess.
The classes themselves are more enjoyable. Each has a definite function in combat. The Ranger and Engineer affect a battlefield from afar; the Guardian stands in the centre and tries to make himself as big a target as possible. But each has more flexibility than a character in most MMOGs. A few levels in, players get access to a second weapon slot. Weapon choice dictates your core skills. The Thief, for example, when using a pistol and dagger, can launch himself forward with Shadow Shot, before delivering a mighty backstab. But pressing a key will switch his gun and shiv for another toy, perhaps a shortbow. On the fly, a Thief can then flip between peppering a target from afar, and getting in close to deliver the final blow.
World versus World combat is Guild Wars 2 at its most vast and confusing. The mode pits servers against each other, asking three sides to capture points in an area as big as any race’s starting region. Fights are colourful, but it can be easy to get lost in the scrum
This makes for a satisfyingly open combat system. You’re still tapping number keys, but battling is far less static than in other MMOGs. GW2 has a dodge – double-tap a direction – and it’s expected you’ll use it to avoid attacks before they connect in realtime. It’s not an action game, but it’s closer than the genre’s got before, so battles demand a new level of focus.
Particularly when combat is so tough. Bosses in the game’s dungeons – currently eight story-led runs through gauntlets of tough enemies, necessitating a powerful group – can feel more like a Dark Souls enemy than a World Of Warcraft foe, forcing assailants to learn attack patterns and movements, not simply their own skill rotation. Sadly, some of these foes fall back on the MMORPG’s shortcut for increasing an enemy’s difficulty: a big health bar. Skill gives way to grind as players fall into muscle-memory routine.
It’s a shame that the game still relies on this grind, especially when it tries so hard to respect the player elsewhere. Without a subscription fee, the most valuable thing you’ll be giving GW2 on a regular basis is time. Other MMOGs artificially inflate their worlds, forcing players to walk everywhere and sift through hours of busywork to progress. GW2 jettisons that approach, making fast travel easy and stuffing the map with things to do. The result is a game that rarely overstays its welcome, but when it does, it’s oddly more disappointing than it would be in something lesser.
Guild Wars 2 is a few brushstrokes short of a masterpiece, then, but ArenaNet has succeeded in trying to paint over the worst of the genre’s cracks. Thanks to a rigorous programme of restoration, only sometimes do its underlying imperfections show through the glossy veneer