Some Assembly Required - Guild Wars 2 goes back to the future
Like a lot of you, I've been goofing around in Guild Wars 2 this past week. What does that have to do with Massively's sandbox column? Not much other than that I feel like ArenaNet's game has arrived at an interesting crossroads in the history of MMO development.

In one direction, you have World of Warcraft 2.0 and the continuation of the themepark model. In another direction, you have a sandbox akin to Ultima Online or Star Wars Galaxies. A third fork leads to the so-called sandpark hybrid. ArcheAge may live at the end of this road, and even titles like The Secret World and Age of Wushu can be said to mix both sandbox and themepark mechanics when it suits them.

ArenaNet avoids all three paths with Guild Wars 2, though, and instead makes a fourth that's 80 percent themepark and 20 percent... well, I don't know what to label it. It's almost like the devs wanted to make a virtual world, though.

Guild Wars 2 - Queensdale lake
Now, don't get me wrong here; I know that Guild Wars 2 isn't very sandboxy. It's class-based, for one thing. There are levels and soul-bound gear too. Technically you can affect the world, but it's temporary since everything resets no matter what the players do. It's too early to form any definitive opinions on the economy, but it's hard to imagine an auction house/loot drop affair leading to relevant crafting or sustained non-combat gameplay.

And yet, the prevailing consensus among bloggers and fans is that Guild Wars 2 is innovative. How is that, exactly? And more crucially, if GW2 is in fact innovative, what is it innovating away from, and what is it innovating toward?

Some people are pointing to the game's dynamic events, which in my mind are nothing more than cleverly camouflaged quest hubs (or as Massively's Matt Daniel put it, variations on both public and escort quests). Beyond that, though, what's different about Guild Wars 2 that keeps it from being lumped in with the usual linear suspects?

Well, the combat mechanics are pretty divergent. No longer must gamers stand rooted in place, spamming 1, 2, 3 on their hotbar while waiting for a mob to expire. Dodging is paramount, and while mobile combat has been done before by games like Dungeons and Dragons Online, TERA, Champions Online, DC Universe Online, The Secret World, and Age of Conan (this last one way back in 2008, no less), never has it been done in such a popular game and thus shown to such a wide audience.

Guild Wars 2 - event quest
The traditional themepark staple of 20,000 abilities is gone too. In its place is a relatively small selection of skills that vary based on what sort of weapon you equip, and also which F key you press (my Elementalist can switch between a row of fire-, water-, air-, and earth-based skills on the fly).

Finally, ArenaNet has put its own spin on the tired holy trinity trope, and while claims that said trinity has been abolished are inaccurate (tanking, healing, and DPS mechanics are still required to progress), every class and thus any given player can tank, heal, or DPS.

Most interestingly for virtual world lovers is the fact that experience gain in Guild Wars 2 is tied to almost everything you do. No longer do I feel as if I have to grind quests (or mobs) for hours on end at the risk of "wasting" my precious fun time. Thus far I've gained substantial amounts of adventure level XP for various activities including exploration, gathering, rezzing dead players, PvPing, viewing a point of interest, and crafting. I'm betting there are other novel ways that I haven't even discovered yet, and when/if I actually feel like defaulting back to the usual MMO quest grind, I can seek out area events and renown heart hubs.

The key here is the leisurely pace and the relaxed, world-like atmosphere that it conjures. I'm not falling behind the powergamers who've already maxed out because they're not doing anything at "endgame" that I'm not doing in Queensdale. There's plenty of time to take a deep breath and go sit on top of that hill in the distance simply because it's pretty and not stumble into that horrid trap of having to achieve something every five minutes.

Guild Wars 2 - pointing statue
World of Warcraft -- and EverQuest before it -- inflicted the predictable, mathematical, progress-at-all-costs mindset on MMORPG players many years ago, and given the financial success of those titles, it's somewhat curious to see so many genre fans cheering GW2 as it moves ever so slightly in the opposite direction.

After all, many of these folks chose pre-destination in EQ over free will in Ultima Online before making WoW the envy of the gaming world, and yet here they are singing ANet's praises for attempting to remove (or at least hide) some of the rails. It's almost like they want MMOs to be virtual worlds again but are reluctant to admit it.

Ultimately ArenaNet sticks with the basic themepark model despite the new wrinkles. I can't really blame the devs, as this model sells units, and it turns quietly desperate nerds into lever-pulling, carrot-chasing, credit card-using MMORPG devotees (I'm including myself in that generalization, since I've become less hostile toward treadmill MMOs in recent months).

Looking at some of GW2's mechanics, though, it's clear that someone on ANet's design team wanted to break the mold and make a real, honest-to-goodness MMORPG. They couldn't go all the way, of course. Market forces wouldn't allow it, but the game is nonetheless an enjoyable next-best-thing. This enjoyment stems largely from the fact that Guild Wars 2 is a baby step back toward what MMORPGs used to be.

Every two weeks, Jef Reahard and MJ Guthrie take a break from their themepark day jobs to delve into the world of sandboxes and player-generated content. Comments, suggestions, and coverage ideas are welcome, and Some Assembly Required is always looking for players who'd like to show off their MMO creativity. Contact us!

This article was originally published on Massively.