I had a wonderful weekend adventuring in the Guild Wars 2 closed press beta. It was tremendously rewarding to a fan of the game and the series to get to see so many of ArenaNet's promises and plans holding up to playtesting. There's a ton to talk about, and more interesting experiences than I can conveniently cover in one post, so let's get started by looking at some of the broad categories of what rocks about this game.
Guild Wars 2
's combat system is everything it's supposed to be. I don't mean that it's everything MMO combat is supposed to be but everything that game combat
should be. I don't mean that it is the ultimate of any gaming combat experience ever, I'm saying that you don't have to call it good combat "given that MMOs typically..." or "compared with how things normally are..." -- I mean that it is good combat, full stop. It is absolutely visceral and engaging. The emphasis on mobility is refreshing, and the visual element is excellently informative. It's very simple to get into a rhythm such that you're not even fully aware that what you're making qualifies as tactical decisions -- you start making combos without thinking about them beyond that they are things that make sense to do
. At first, it's impressive that you and that Ranger can combo so well. Then it's totally natural, and you do it all the time, and it rocks
. For example, my Warrior was in a mixed-profession group, running around at about level 12. It was easy to see when the Guardian threw up shields and to get behind them if I needed some cover. When an AoE field got thrown up, it made sense to shoot through it to see what got applied to my projectiles. In fact, I used Stomp on any friendly AoE I came across just to see what nifty things it did for my allies.
It's hard to feel like you're missing out with the lack of dedicated healing in this game. The role of a dedicated healer is simply not necessary
. What's great is that this doesn't make the game feel like some desperate struggle to survive, at least not in any negative sense. In fact, in the time it took me to level from 11 to 13 on my front-line Warrior (doing only in-world events without any personal story), I didn't really have to use my self-heal. I was able to be smart about how I handled engaging enemies, and there was enough support from my teammates to keep me from resorting to my healing skill.
For example, I had a signet utility skill that reduced incoming damage, the Mesmer I was grouped with would occasionally use Chaos Storm (which granted me boons), and the Guardian had some minor
AoE heals tied into his skills to help offset some of the damage I was taking. Although we encountered many prolonged fights, the multifunctionality of professions made it very easy for players' positions to ebb and flow with the battle. Because of that, if things were a little risky for me at the front line, I could drop back, swap to my bow, and do some damage from a safe distance while someone else stepped up for some mano-a-mano. Let's have some clarity here: players do have heals
. Some profession have more healing capabilities than others. However, if anyone were to try to pidgeon-hole them into the role of dedicated healer, they would not only be playing this game poorly, but also unsuccessfully. No profession has a high enough healing output to be more effective as a pure healer than as a support or support and offense hybrid role. Any supposed benefits from having a dedicated healer would be overwhelmed by the loss of effective control and damage.
Given that, you don't really have a game where everybody's her own healer -- you have a game where healers are unnecessary because combat rewards intelligent play and there's an incredibly well-designed system of boons across every profession's skills. That said, I do have to say that my self-heal was in high demand during more challenging endeavors. In the level 30 dungeon, for example, it made a huge difference. However, it only made such a difference when used with strategic timing and positioning. Using your heal while standing in the middle of enemy AoE isn't going to cut it.
While we're talking about healing, something I find amusing is that every so often you'll encounter NPC healers. Not just folks who can regenerate health rapidly or have skills comparable to players' heals -- folks who return-75%-of-health-out-of-nowhere heals. There were some ghosts, specifically, whose only purpose seemed to be using one healing skill as often as possible, throwing a few half-hearted attacks while it was on cooldown just to keep up the pretense of offense. And golly, are they annoying! I feel like ArenaNet may have included them just to remind players that this is why it's awesome
that dedicated healers didn't make the cut as a playstyle. There's no fun
in trying to beat someone's red bar down faster than he can bolster it. There's no thrill
to standing in one place and whacking at someone with all your strength in the hope that you'll kill him before his megaheal hits its six-second cooldown. Happily, those healer foes are few and far between (and they're mostly a rather charming throwback to the original Guild Wars
, so my nostalgic self is willing to overlook them).
This is definitely a game that I want to play in groups even if that just means playing with one other character. I love group combat, I love the social aspect of MMOs, and I love the way it affects gameplay.
For example, in the original Guild Wars, I could chat with people in my alliance or guild while partying with AI-based heroes and henchmen and still have a reliably great experience. Sure, there were some benefits (like PvE-only skills and better consumable management) to actually playing with people, but I could still get the social fun another way. In Guild Wars 2, while it's still preeminently possible to play, succeed, and have a kick-ass time playing solo, group combat is mind-blowingly rewarding. There's definitely something to be said for group dynamics and combos and such as a statistical benefit for playing in groups in Guild Wars 2, the real reason I want to do it is that it's just plain fun. More people means more challenging events, which is all to the good. More people means more ways of finding coordinating skills and more interesting ways to handle things. It also means more thoughtful gameplay. I was especially guilty, right at first, of using a Guardian hammer skill to send foes tumbling head over heels, and I had a knack for using it just after the Engineer I was adventuring with put out his glue-spray to immobilize foes, effectively knocking them out of that field of effect. When we learned to fight in a complementary style, it became a more rewarding experience.
The downed and rallying system adds a great deal to combat. Helping comrades rally feels very natural in the middle of battle, the downed state provides enough consequence without totally ruining fun, and the mechanic allows for some great tactical situations. I have a bad habit of trying to help people rally before taking care of the monsters that beat them down, something I'd advise against once you enter the world of Guild Wars 2. That said, strategic rallying can really turn the tide in big events. One of my favorite examples of this comes from a multi-group encounter with the giant Shadow Behemoth in the human starter zone of Queensdale. The Behemoth has some ugly AoEs that are so large they're hard to dodge out of, which resulted in almost the entire group of about 30 players dropping into the downed state. I was on my Warrior, which meant that I had a skill while downed that allowed me to rally for 20 seconds and then drop immediately into the defeated state. As soon as the AoE dissipated, I used that skill, ran around to rally a few people, and then retreated to a safe distance and collapsed into the defeated state. The few people that I helped kept up the chain of rallying (including a kind soul who revived me), and soon the entire group was back in action. It was beautiful.
That said, it's very fun to play solo -- it's just a different experience. I really prefer the social aspect of groups, but you still feel totally awesome solo. You have to be more aware of your aggro -- you don't have anyone on-hand to help restore you if you go down. It's not really a big deal for five players to get engaged with 25 foes because there's almost certainly enough AoE and team support going on that they can probably handle it. Fighting on your own, though, you might be a little more choosy about how many foes you take on all at once. It's still incredibly fun, and it doesn't feel hampered. (Disclaimer: Some content is not made to be handled solo. Elite events, with foes like the Shatterer and Tequatl the Sunless, are among them.)
Also, even with just the beta population, it isn't at all unusual to run into people as you're out adventuring in the world (as should be the case). The nice thing about the system that Guild Wars 2 uses is that it encourages cooperative play, even without being on the same team or communicating at all. If I see someone else struggling to complete the same task that I'm working on, it only benefits me to go help. For one thing, I'll get credit for participating, without taking away from his XP/loot rewards. For another, I like playing the hero, so it's nice to actually be able to help people out.
Leveling is mostly something you're conscious of as you're fighting solo. That's when there's the most emphasis on being aware of what your level is in relation to the mobs around you and how many mobs you're tackling at any one time. Group dynamics change that significantly. While there's still room for caution, there's also a lot more room for maneuvering when it comes to how much a group can accomplish. A player a few levels below the rest of her groupmates will pretty much always have an option to hang back and let the higher-level players manage front line control while still contributing effectively to the team's progress. Particularly when you're in groups, it's easy to focus on fighting, rather than when you hit your next level. While you're obviously still cognizant of your XP bar, the pretty common idea of waiting anxiously for your next level doesn't really rear its head in this game.
For example, when I hit level 11, I unlocked my first trait point, which I needed to visit a trainer to use. Since I was having such fun running around with the group, though, I kept putting it off until "just after the next mob." By the time I actually got back to a city to visit my trainer, I realized that I'd leveled two more times. Another thing that helps keep that engagement is that even if you don't have a lot of bag space, bag management is actually rarely a problem. Whenever you complete a heart task for an NPC (there tend to be 10-15ish on a single map), that NPC turns into a karma vendor, which means that you can not only acquire cool stuff from them but sell junk from your bag, which greatly cuts down on the need to visit cities.
Of course, levels still matter. They matter a lot less than they might in other games (sidekicking and event scaling make sure of that), but there's a definite advantage to advancing. Higher levels unlock more trait points, more skill slots, and a general feeling of cool -- not to mention gear! -- so there's always a reward for reaching higher levels. It simply doesn't feel like a carrot that's danging just out of reach. Leveling, while still rewarding, has become a non-issue.
As someone who loves rolling as many alternate characters as my sanity can handle, I love the Guild Wars 2
story system. Character creation includes several customizable choices: Human social class, Charr legion, past life events, personality style, and many
more. Some of them are profession-specific, most of them are race-specific, and all
of them have an impact, to one extent or another, on that character's path through the game. The Charr Iron Legion story is substantively different than the Ash Legion story, and the story of a Charr whose father was a sorcerous shaman is different from that of someone whose father was a loyal soldier. Story choices actually matter. Yes, you're eventually going to hit major plot points (for example, even though dungeons aren't part of the personal storyline, they're something that all players will experience as the same story -- that is, the story mode of dungeons will be consistent regardless of character creation choices), and you'll end up in the same place eventually (I mean, who would want to avoid fighting a dragon?), but you take wonderfully different paths to get there. There are real, significant choices that you can make, and they result in a unique, engaging story line.
Massively's not big on scored reviews -- what use are those to ever-changing MMOs? That's why we bring you first impressions, previews, hands-on experiences, and even follow-up impressions for nearly every game we stumble across. First impressions count for a lot, but games evolve, so why shouldn't our opinions?