Guild Wars 2 Review (PC)

It’s probably best to dispel this one right out the gate; no matter what anybody might have told you, Guild Wars 2 isn’t the new dawn for MMO games. It isn’t a title that reinvents or moves the genre forward into brave new territory, and nor is it the game that’ll usher in a generation of new players in the same manner as an Everquest or a WoW. What it definitely is, however, is the absolute peak of current-generation MMO design. It’s purposefully simmered and reduced down to the component parts that are fun, and laced with masterfully crafted level progression that never leaves you far from completing a goal no matter where you are in the world or your character build. It’s addictive, and it’s absolutely brilliant.

Take the quest log as an example, there simply isn’t one, and I didn’t even notice until I had a lull around four hours into my initial session. Aside from your ‘personal story’ (your own main questline, built around your initial choices and concerning the reformation of a splintered superhero group to combat some nasty happenings in the homeland of Tyria), you’re pretty much left to your own devices. What that entails is walking for 10-15 seconds until you spot either a roving band of players, an interesting landmark, a scenic view or a giant orange circle on your map, running over to it and joining in whatever’s happening. They all grant XP, and they’re all worthwhile paths for levelling up.

Sights like this are frequent

Indeed, those orange map markers represent the closest GW2 ever gets to a standard quest. They mark out events designed to teach you a little about the world, or alternatively just to show off a cool spectacle that the designers wanted to shove into the landscape. You might be killing off poisonous snakes to protect crops, protecting a supply cart as it moves from one town to the other; or you might be leading a forward charge on a raider encampment or taking out a massive legendary beast that frequently spawns in the area. They’re open to all players, everybody gets a quest reward if they join in (you’re ranked bronze to gold for your level of participation), and there are so many of them littering the landscape that you’ll often chain several into each other in one session, as your thrown-together band of new allies fights its way around the area.

In that fashion, NC Soft neatly does away with my primary gripe in other MMOs, in that they essentially boil down to repetitive singleplayer RPGs until you reach a raiding level or find a suitable party. Not so here; simply wandering the landscape virtually guarantees you’ll be fighting alongside several other human companions within minutes, and massive groups of players are common in all parts of the land. There’s something ridiculous about the sight of a gigantic wave of participants all spamming attacks and smashing a single enemy into pieces, but it really never gets old. Not all of the encounters are particularly easy either, and they act as a constant refresher for those looking to get into the more serious raiding aspects later in the game (dungeons start at level 30).

The fluid approach to combat and character professions also neatly compliments those action-led set pieces. Players are able to swap out weapon sets and abilities on the fly, meaning (for example) that my human ranger can go from a damage-dealing ranged fighter to a melee-focused sword-wielder within half a second. That’s not to say that true specialities are lacking, and if somebody rolls a character build specific to tanking and melee damage then they’ll outstrip my abilities in that area every time, but in allowing players to effectively use a broad array of skills that might not be traditionally suited to their profession, NC Soft has solved that helpless feeling when your ranged character is finally surrounded, or your tank just can’t keep close enough to a fast enemy. Now you have options available to you, and it’s down to player skill to choose when and where they best suit.

Sitting as a sort of halfway-house between a traditional MMO and something more action-focused, the combat in Guild Wars 2 also demands a little more thought and anticipation than other offerings, and especially so when in smaller groups. There is no MP bar here, with each of your five weapon-specific skills operating on a separate cool-down timer, whilst your five other selectable skills also keep to the same template. You have the ability to dodge around and avoid attacks whilst your stamina gauge has the required points to activate a roll or a sidestep, and a lot of attacks can be avoided by simply running around and/or learning when enemies telegraph their animation. That might not matter so much in those massive random groups that form such a huge part of the game, but you’ll quickly come into situations dealing with enemies one-on-one in which the game teaches you the intricacies with harsh effectiveness.

Believe it or not, that'll pack a punch

It also helps that character builds are incredibly flexible in that regard, and changing your combat strategy can be done whenever you choose. I started my ranger with twin throwing axes, with my pet following up for a little more damage whilst I strafed around and fired at the enemy from afar. After a while I decided I wanted a short bow however, so I swapped out the weaponry and skills to deal as much piercing and immobilisation damage as I possibly could, again with the pet following up as a secondary. 30+ hours in and I’m now favouring a loadout that biases almost entirely towards using the pet as a tank, with a slow-loading longbow and AoE skills as my staple. No doubt in another ten levels it’ll be something different again, depending on what I fancy at that stage.

That, understandably, keeps things fresh, and although specialities will become favoured by every player as they reach higher levels, the experience in getting there is as constantly varied and entertaining as the best bits from any other MMO you could mention. There’s no let up in the pace, there’s always something new on the horizon, and even if you get bored of the world events, you can always settle into the storyline instances or go about crafting and trading in one of the many beautifully-envisioned cities and encampments.

And really, they are absolutely stunning to look at. Whilst it’s scalable to run on modest PCs through to the latest powerhouse, the world of Guild Wars 2 exhibits a consistent art style throughout that makes it an absolute joy to discover and explore. Whether you’re in the vast rolling fields of the human-led Kryta, the grandiose Shiverpeak Mountains (Home of the massive naturist barbarian Norns), the barren lands of Ascalon (home to the returning Charr), or the Tarnished Coast of the Asura (little obsessive creatures) and the Sylvari (beautiful plant creatures), you’ll want to see every inch of the land and hunt out the hidden treats and events that NC Soft’s designers have tucked away. It’s varied too, with every district having its own distinct flavour and melange of players to savour.

Heading outside those walls for a moment, the same positive comments also hold true for the PvP offerings. Whilst I’m yet to pour a large amount of time into their respective treats, they seem to be solid offerings here for both quick and long-term play, with perhaps the epic World vs World being the most notable. It’s a mode designed for hardcore guilds or solo players alike, pitting three servers against each other for control of a huge swathe of territory. Groups of players need to rally and work together to take down fortifications with siege weapons, to control supply routes, and hold strategic points on the map to score points. It’s not uncommon for sessions to last for a couple of hours or more in WvW mode, and its complexities are only just beginning to reveal themselves as people figure out the intricacies of tactics. Fortunately, everybody is bumped up to the maximum level 80 on joining any PvP game, ensuring an even playing field and showcasing the skills and talents of groups that understand their chosen classes. That’s the theory anyway, although there is still a huge amount to take in even after a couple of sessions.

Indeed, there’s so much to see and do in Guild Wars 2 that it’s sometimes difficult to know where to even begin. The beauty of the lack of subscription fee and auto-levelling zones however (even if you’re level 80, you’ll drop down to a suitable level on entering a newbie area), is that there’s never any pressure to progress quickly. Advancing through levels can be achieved at a consistently rewarding rate throughout your time with the game, and although micro-transactions exist, they only allow players access to temporary XP boosts or trinkets that don’t threaten to skew the balance too far in any one direction. With that in mind, I’d argue that the money you spend on the basic version of GW2 represents one of the best value offerings in gaming of this or any other year, and it should seriously cast further doubt about the validity of charging a monthly fee for any MMO experience of this nature.

It's all a little bit pretty

Of course, it’d be foolish to conclude here without mentioning some of the teething issues to beset the game in its initial few weeks. Validation errors, minor security breaches, missing features and overflow servers have all played their part in dampening spirits somewhat; but NC Soft appears to be doing a good job in updating players through their ‘state of the union’ style blog posts and in-game text descriptions of changes and faults soon to be fixed. As it stands, nearly all of those issues have been significantly smoothed out or eradicated, and provided you can find a copy I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the experience as it stands.

In reality, Guild Wars 2 will likely only get better in the coming weeks and months whilst players settle in, features mature and the long-term content plans reveal themselves. It’s not often you can say that about any MMO in this day and age, and even if this is one of the final death rattles for the template we’ve come to know and love over the past decade or more, what a hell of a way it would be to say goodbye. Guild Wars 2 is a fast, slick and beautiful community-driven MMO experience featuring all the content and mechanics you’d expect from a game with a monthly fee, and a good deal more besides. With that in mind, I cannot recommend it enough.

Best Game Moment: Wandering over to a band of roaming players and joining the chase.