Guild Wars 2|
Basically any MMORPG is, by definition, incredibly ambitious. Even the least among them is a tremendously complicated game with countless moving parts. That said, though, Guild Wars 2 might be the most ambitious to date. With an emphasis on action, a partial dismantling of the tank/healer/DPS party architecture of traditional MMOs, a focus on personal story and choice, and the event system that can change the face of the game's zones, they shot for the stars. While Guild Wars 2 doesn't live up to its own hype in every way, they have made a game that boldly treads new ground, and which is more genuinely fun than most online RPGs that have come before.
So, maybe you're a human noble, heir to the shrinking, crumbling kingdoms long since overtaken by the elements, and your greatest regret was that you never ran away from home and joined the circus. And now, out of a sense of misguided altruism, you're facing down a band of centaurs and their gigantic earth elemental. Or maybe you're a norn who blacked out at the last moot, blessed by Raven for your cleverness, setting out on a great hunt to prove your heroism to society. Or maybe you're a charr from the blood legion, fighting on the front lines, and shamed by your honorless father. Or maybe you're something else entirely.
Every race has a wide set of options to start their adventure off with, and these will carry you through your first 20 levels. While you make choices as you go that determine where you go and who you'll meet, your history doesn't follow along with you. If you rescue an NPC, they might show up in your home district, but they won't make another appearance later in your storyline. It's understandable, but somewhat disappointing. Still, despite the lack of repeat appearances, the game's storyline has an impressive number of branches, and there's plenty of room for multiple playthroughs, if only to see the situation in Tyria from different perspectives.
While the personal story leads you around to explore the world, the game's event-driven system lets you wander around and engage in heroics at your own pace. While early in the game's launch, the massive wave of players made sure that events were always quickly resolved and peril was held at bay, the game has started to settle into a more dynamic state. Some towns lie in ruins, while elsewhere, players hold back armies of centaurs, ghosts, or other monsters. Exploring the landscape and finding took up most of my time as I played my characters, and thanks to the game's cooperation-friendly attitude, it was far more satisfying than the majority of MMORPG questing I had done in the past.
Events range from the simple, such as driving bandits away from a farm, to the more intricate and complex, like the chain of events that leads to establishing a beachhead and sending patrols on a continent infested by the undead. Everything's driven by player interaction, and when you push things forward in one of the longer event chains and change the state of the world, there's a real feeling of accomplishment. The campaign on Orr feels like you're pushing against the status quo in a way like nothing else in MMORPGs does.
The way the world reacts to you would be impressive enough on its own. But when you have players on different parts of the map taking different actions that all lock together, Tyria becomes the closest thing to a living, breathing world we've ever seen in a video game. When one player prepares a caravan to be sent out, while another rebuilds the watch tower on its route, and a third comes along to help take the caravan to its destination once it's dispatched, with players able to enter events as they come across them, there's a sense of presence, and even community, that traditional MMORPGs can't even begin to approach.
Of course, all the time you spend in these places wouldn't be as notable if they weren't so beautiful. The world has a painterly sort of style that recalls how fantastic Guild Wars looked when it was released back in 2005. From a sheer logistical perspective, it seems impossible that the game couldn't reuse assets, but as you travel, everything seems unique. It's a triumph of art design and technical execution that everything looks as good as it does. When you find a harbor town tucked away in the corner of the map, or when you crest a hill and see a beautiful river valley far below the jagged cliff in front of you, it can be a breathtaking experience. More than once, I called friends over so they could see what I was seeing. The tremendous music helps drive the majesty of everything you see home, making for a worldly experience that I haven't had since I first explored Azeroth.
Guild Wars 2 isn't all events and exploration and personal story, though. The original game was built around PVP in a big way, and Guild Wars 2 carries on that tradition. There's no open world PVP, but fans of that style of play will almost certainly like World vs World, a series of two week long events where players from three servers come together to fight over four zones and earn rewards for their servers. The World vs World matches serve as an interesting bridge between the structured PVP, which is reminiscent of traditional organized PVP, and the more event-driven gameplay of the core game. Whether you're getting rewarded for defending castles, building siege equipment, or convincing neutral races to defend the land you control, there's a lot for players to do on their own or with groups, especially as the game spawns events for players to complete for varying rewards.
Once I reached the level cap, I spent my time collecting materials for crafting and hunting for dyes, but there are huge amounts to do across the world. While the game doesn't have a raid-based endgame, scaling loot gives players a reason to explore the rest of the world, and will help expand the duration of the game greatly.
The black mark on the game's personal record is definitely the dungeons, though. First, players will experience story mode which involves, to quote a member of my guild, “following the bumbling antics of Destiny’s Edge as they flop about Tyria doing more harm than good”. Destiny's Edge consists of the mentor characters for each player race, and long before the game began, they broke up. Now, through a series of bizarre misadventures, they're starting to get back together, and it's up to the players to help. The flip side of the coin is the explorable mode, where you return to the dungeon to find the problems that Destiny's Edge overlooked, and choose one of three routes to solving them.
While this seems like a solid plan, the major issue at hand is that the dungeons are largely just tedious. Even after you've mastered a boss's mechanics, they'll take far too long to bring down. Corridors are filled with trash in amounts not seen since classic WoW. Sometimes it feels like going back eight years in terms of dungeon design, and sometimes it feels like someone accidentally added an extra zero or two onto the end of a boss's health total, but either way, it's often frustrating. It's made even worse by the few dungeon encounters that are actually fun. Caudecus Manor's story mode was a shocker after the drudgery of Ascalonian Catacombs, and the final boss of Sorrow's Embrace was so good that it almost made me mad after how aggressively banal and tedious the rest of the dungeon was.
Still, for everything that Guild Wars 2 messes up, it does ten things right. It might not be a full revolution in and of itself, but it's set the path, and I wouldn't be surprised to see this as the origin of a new generation of MMORPGs when we look back a decade from now. It has a lot of promise, but even right now it's a definite contender for best in the genre.