The Last Bastion

For the old guard, the happy fools, the dreamers.

My first play experience with Guild Wars 2

Posted By on May 3, 2012

I’m having a really difficult time starting this article. Partly because there’s so much I want to say. It’s really hard to sort it out and figure out where to begin. Also because I don’t feel like anything I could possibly say will describe what I’m thinking and feeling very effectively.

The most clear and concise thing I can say about Guild Wars 2 after playing it for roughly 20 hours last weekend is that it’s like the Matrix. You just have to experience it for yourself. If you are even remotely a fan of the MMORPG genre…if the promise of these games excites you in the least…whether your relatively new to the genre or an old-school fan like me…you owe it to yourself to give this game a try. Open your mind the best you can to some very new ideas, and jump in. I’m willing to bet that you will be pleasantly surprised, no matter how high or low your expectations going in…and in this genre, that’s really saying something.

The second thing I’ll say is that the game lives up to the descriptions. This might not sound significant, until you realize that almost no game in this genre in the last decade has done that. It’s actually become so normal for these games to be disappointing, to be dramatically less, cleverly short-cut, or more shallow versions of their marketing, that players just automatically translate everything they hear and read. It’s like getting a cheeseburger at McDonald’s. You see the picture on the menu, but you know that the real thing looks nothing like that, and you’re so used to that fact that it doesn’t even bother you. You just automatically swap the awesome, juicy, 4-inch-thick fantasy for the squashed, greesy reality in your head, and order it with full knowledge of what you are getting.

Guild Wars 2 provides pretty much exactly what’s in the picture on the menu.

 

I know. Impossible, right? I think this is at the heart of why some of us who played the game last weekend have had such a difficult time describing our experiences to other people, especially people who are long-time fans of the genre. How do you explain the fact that this game developer, somehow, actually does all the stuff they say they do? Those systems and elements they describe on their website and in thousands of articles and videos and interviews…it’s all there. It’s in the game. And it works. All the philosophy they discussed about social play, about a world that feels alive, about removing the bad while cleverly improving on the good. It requires no filter, no grain of salt, no translation. They really did it. For a good portion of the weekend, I was running around the world of Tyria saying exactly that to myself over and over. “My God, I think they really did it.”

Because of that fact, probably the most effective description I can provide of what I saw and experienced in the Guild Wars 2 beta is to say…go read their website. Go listen to interviews with the devs. Go read my “Spiritual Successor to EQ” series. That’s what I saw, and it was even better than it sounded on paper. The sum really is, at long last, greater than its parts.There were so many moments that made me smile due to recognition dawning of the mechanics in action. So many memorable moments of awe at what I was seeing and hearing. So many moments of almost pinching myself after a particularly challenging fight and saying, “I must be dreaming…there’s no way that they brought challenge back to MMORPGs.” It’s just impossible to tell you about them all. You have to experience it for yourself.

Where Rift and WAR failed with public quests, Guild Wars 2 takes things 10 steps farther and succeeds with their dynamic events. Where SW:TOR failed with their incredible waste of money on voice acting, GW2 succeeds at creating cities and a world that feel alive and are awash with stories and tidbits of useful information, and provide some of the more complex tutorial elements and the transitions between events with cleverly-placed NPC dialogue. Where other games fail with too much character customization and end up with a bunch of classes that are all the same, or cookie-cutter builds that everyone is forced to use, GW2 succeeds in offering a tremendous amount of legitimately useful flexibility while still maintaining each profession’s play style and flavor. Where other games have failed with more visceral, action-oriented combat, Guild Wars 2 succeeds at not only offering a very synergistic combination of MMO and action game, but also at very quickly and organically re-training all of us players who have been stuck in a boring MMO combat rut for a decade. I could go on.

I don’t want to spend the whole post slobbering shamelessly, however. There are hundreds of positive articles around the web from quite reputable sources that all describe the same things really well. For my part, I’d like to talk about some of the issues with the game and maybe offer some humble suggestions (ah, yes, no game is perfect). I’d also like to throw out some thoughts I’ve had that might just get you thinking about the game a little differently, and maybe convince you to give it a try.

My surprisingly short list of issues with the game

(It was quite stunning how close they got to the bullseye on almost everything from balance to system design to mechanics and challenge, considering we’re still in the middle of beta)

First off (appropriately), the game need first-person view. Badly. The game world is so stunning and alive and immersive, yet we can’t view it through our character’s eyes. Screenshots are a pain, although I constantly found a desire to take them. This should be a no-brainer… the option of first-person view is needed.

The starting armor for female cloth-wearing professions in the game is skimpy, to put it mildly. It’s the type of controversial, stereotypical armor you expect to see female characters forced to wear in most Asian MMOs, and just the double-standard type of thing that truly bothers a lot of women gamers. The men are all wearing practical and bad-ass armor, and a lot of the women are wearing frilly little mini-skirts with peek-a-boo panels to show their panties. It presents a very negative first impression to many players, and actually puts some people off of certain professions completely. There was a very large and active thread on the issue in the beta forums, and the issue has been mentioned in multiple articles around the web, including the cover article of June’s PC Gamer magazine…

“I become a mail-clad warrior, meanwhile, because I want my character to put some damn clothes on. The land of Tyria is populated by clear-faced underwear models, and it’s an uphill struggle to make a female character who doesn’t look 15 years old. The best I can do is a kind of Disney Joan of Arc, a waif-thin airbrushed beauty wielding a sword bigger than she is. I avoid spellcasters entirely because there’s only so much Renaissance-themed fetish gear I can handle. It’s a negative first impression, albeit one that’s down to personal preference.” – Chris Thursten, PC Gamer

At this point, I seriously don’t see how ArenaNet can ignore this issue. They need to offer some style options for starting armor, and I believe they should really start with something much more plain and in keeping with the character’s personal story. Don’t remove any armor, or change any of the existing styles, just offer choice. I’m sure they already have hundreds of sets of armor of many different styles. They just need to present a non-controversial and more universally comfortable first impression, and provide choices so players don’t feel like their first few hours in game have to be spent on a quest to cover their underwear.

Chat in the game needs significant work. It’s surprising they would offer such neutered chat options in a game with social play so well baked into almost every system from the ground up. I can understand their desire to cut down on spam and harassment and the like…but they are throwing the baby out with the bathwater on this one. They have a channel called /local, which is really unclear in terms of who hears you when you speak. It’s bigger than /say in other MMORPGs, it would seem, but smaller than a zone-wide chat channel. They have guild and group chat, and they have whisper. There was no /say, there was no /shout (maybe this is what /local equates to?), there was no zone-wide chat at all…no auction channel or help channel or class channels…I could go on.

There’s a lot missing, and it became evident almost right away. New players joining the community for the first time need to feel like they are part of a community. They need to hear real-life people talking…they need to be able to ask those newbie questions and get answers because there’s a reasonable number of players hearing them. Role-players need /say, and I would argue that pretty much anyone comfortable with MMORPGs would find it quite odd not to have a channel like that. I also don’t believe it was possible to change the color of chat channels, or detach chat tabs into separate windows. This sort of stuff is basic functionality for a massively multi-player game, and I really think it’s a bad place to try and be different.

I found it very odd that there was no sound associated with looting, and no looting animation. I had to keep glancing to the bottom right corner of the screen to see whether I had successfully looted. I think this should be added… along with an area loot option which worked so well in other games.

Players who wish to melee in large boss fights are having a really hard time. There definitely needs to be some tweaks to the system which allow for a bit more survivability up close. It’s quite difficult to see what’s going on, big mobs often can kill you with one hit, and there aren’t really enough defensive abilities to protect yourself at random (without being able to tell when the big hits are coming, you can’t keep defensive abilities up forever, or expect to randomly hit them and live). I’m sure they’ll get this straightened out somehow. Melee attacks already do more damage, but being in melee range requires significantly more attention and reflexes, and also effective use of abilities and dodge. It could be great fun if they just make it possible to stay alive long enough to hit things.

How to make a living, breathing world that isn’t just a marketing phrase.

After reading a really great post from a friend over at the Silky Venom forums, I got to thinking. I agreed with most of his ideas…but one thing sort of struck me. Guild Wars 2 felt just as much like a living world as EQ to me. Maybe even more so. It felt like it had weight, and depth, and…well…LIFE. If ArenaNet left out all those “hard-core” side elements, all those time sinks and frustrations and realistic elements and overhead…how could their world still feel alive and real? How could it allow for the same suspension of disbelief? How could I be immersed just as much? I think the answer is hiding in some of my thoughts from my spiritual successor articles. They took an entirely different route…but ended up in a very similar place.

I love food analogies, so I’m going to go back there again.

What EQ offered to us as players was a really delicious full-course meal. All the sides and trappings were there, and it was really memorable, satisfying, and just enjoyable. But…there was overhead, and there was structure. You had to show up early at the restaurant and wait to get a table. It took the cooks a long time to prepare the food. You couldn’t get up during the meal without totally disrupting everyone else. You couldn’t have dessert until you finished your broccoli, and you were going to sit at that table until you finished your vegetables whether you liked it or not.

All that structure and overhead really made the experience of EQ memorable…it made the good times better and it really lent the experience a feeling of reality and weight. No question that it’s one way to create a fantastic living virtual world. At the time, it may have been the only way to do it, considering the constraints of technology and the philosophies and thinking of the time. They had to create a virtual reality through pain…by adding in those petty annoyances we experience in real life that remind us we’re alive.

Games like WoW, Rift, SW:TOR…these games reacted to being forced to wait for a table and eat their vegetables by basically throwing a tantrum. They put the five-year-olds in charge, and with them running the restaurant, you can see what we got. You can show up any time, sit for as short a time at the table as you want, and nothing is served except really small, overly sweet, unsatisfying portions of dessert. They just keep serving and serving those little sweet morsels until you grow physically ill, and long for something with some real substance…something savory and with real depth and choice. Something that sticks to your ribs, so to speak. I know I can only eat so many little pieces of the same candy before I just have to stop.

Guild Wars 2 takes a different approach. They don’t make you wait for a table. They don’t make you eat anything you don’t want to. You can get up and leave at any time. But every time you sit down, they serve up a delicious plate of steak or pasta or fish with all the sides. You eat what you like, when you like, and you can focus on the flavor and the company at the table, rather than all the overhead, time wasting, and structure. You’re getting that same great meal, maybe even with some additional choices, that you got way back in EQ…but now it’s all about the good stuff and focusing on taste and friends.

Hopefully this made a bit of sense. Guild Wars 2 offers a living, compelling, memorable world…but they do it in an entirely different way than EQ did. ArenaNet has created a living world by building in personality, character, story, and above all…soul. Through visual and auditory richness that we’ve rarely, if ever, seen in this genre. Through a freedom of exploration and adventure that has never been possible with traditional MMORPG systems and thinking. Through incredible depth and complexity to character customization and combat, without sacrificing accessibility. There are constantly multiple choices of what to do and how to play available to you…right from the end of the tutorial, but none of it really requires overhead, wasted time, or painful preparatory effort.

I was amazed to find that slow travel and exploration were incentivized in really substantial ways, and almost everything offered challenge and required some thought. Death had a bit of a sting…but wasn’t discouraging at all, quite the contrary in fact. If it’s a casual game because of the lack of overhead and time sinks, it’s the most grown-up and mature casual game I’ve ever played by a mile. They don’t treat you like an idiot or a five-year-old, and there’s quite a bit less hand-holding than you might expect. This is a really serious virtual world (serious as in legitimate, it doesn’t lack a well-done sense of humor in places)…just one you can choose to experience a little or a lot, and one where you don’t have to deal with so much overhead in order to get to the good stuff.

You just play, get as immersed as you want, enjoy the type of game play that suits you on a given day, and take off when you need to. I think as more and more folks begin to see the depth and complexity and longevity that the game offers, they will be shocked that the game was so accessible and “actiony” when they started. There are multiple layers here, and there’s really nothing that forces you to experience any more depth than you can handle. It’s introduced at a good pace, and I’m guessing that before long, players will be completely immersed in the story, the combat mechanics, the character customization, the collections, the mini-games, and everything else, without even really realizing they have changed at all.

There’s no doubt I’ll be writing more about this game…and I don’t think there’s much doubt left that I’ll be playing it for a long time. I’ll see you there.


Comments

One Response to “My first play experience with Guild Wars 2”

  1. perfect says:

    Not to abuse your metaphor too much but that EQ table cost you $10 ($15 later) a month. The same from Rift, WAR, TOR, etc.

    At the GW2 table, there is no fee. You can pay a little bit to get your food faster but it’s so good that you might not WANT different plates faster. And, if you do, it’s available. Some guy down the table got a fortune cookie that he had to pay a bit to open but there was just some fluff fortune inside of it. You can pay a little bit to have your potatoes taste like bacon or you could just have the plate of bacon.

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