Hard-hitting truths, I know. The game won our 2012 Game of the Year award for good reason. There's a lot to praise within that package, from the art direction to the game mechanics to the flexibility. Many parts of it push the design paradigm in interesting ways and could lead to a much better understanding of what can be done with online games.
And then there are places where the paradigm pushes back.
I come here not to praise Guild Wars 2 but to look at the game after the honeymoon has ended and we've all had a chance to settle down. It deserves its status as the best game released this year, but man there are some places where the game is an irritating piece of work. And there are lessons to be found here both for future development on the game and for anyone thinking that it's a gold standard.
Roles are horribly underexplained and unclear
Some people have a major issue with the trinity setup in games. I don't, but I can understand why some people do. Guild Wars 2 took on the trinity in a manner reminiscent of a man discussing his ex-wife. It seemed at times that you literally could not read a single promo piece from the company without at least one or two mentions about the game not having a traditional trinity setup.
That's fine. If you want to yank out one of the fundamental engines that people assume MMOs are built upon, points for you. But those points are immediately lost when you decide not to tell anyone how your replacement works.
Digging around on ArenaNet's site, I can't find a single discussion of how the game actually intends to break down roles. The closest I can find is an old installment of our weekly GW2 column, Flameseeker Chronicles, talking about something entirely different. There's certainly nothing explaining exactly what you're supposed to be trying to build for or look for when crafting your character.
Is this an issue? I'm not the only person to find that the game's actual group dungeons lack much in the way of structure, and group combat feels more like a mess of people trying to overwhelm events and enemies with numbers instead of finesse. And there's literally nothing in place meant to imply what you're supposed to be doing -- trait lines enhance stats, which suggests one playstyle, but sometimes the abilities offered by that trait line don't suggest a similar style.
There's nothing to answer the question of "what in the world should I do with my character?" The game and the website alike provide nothing in the way of guidance. And the tired old chestnut of "what do you want to do?" doesn't help in this situation because there are clearly right and wrong ways to play. What weapons work well with a venom build? Which healing skills fit better here? Should I go down one trait line or another if I want to focus on damage?
It's not the lack of a trinity that causes these problems; it's the fact that all of this works just fine in the minds of the developers but doesn't ever get explained to players. And not only is this a problem in and of itself, it also leads to some major issues with the game's group dynamics as a whole. Groups are frequently beyond messy; there's no clear way to understand how someone else's character is supposed to work and formulate a strategy based on that.
In short, the whole thing would almost have worked better with a trinity setup. If the game had, for example, allowed any class to perform any role or given each member of a party a role and granted abilities accordingly, that might have accomplished the net goal (not shackling players to having a tank and healer) without the current issue. But even if the designers just take the time and effort to explain how they want the game to work now, that would be an improvement.
As it is, the lack of roles results in things just being a disconnected mess. This is not what anyone wants.
Dynamic events don't work in their role as quest replacements
Quests are one of those things that have gone from being a brilliant new idea to an oversued idea that's indicative of lazy design. It's easy to forget the genesis of the quest, how the idea started in pen-and-paper games and MUDs and moved to Ultima Online's escort quests and then to EverQuest (which was designed as a themepark in the modern sense of the word) and was improved to the point that World of Warcraft's use of quests was seen as groundbreaking. It was content that you could control to some extent.
GW2 eschews quests, just as it eschews the trinity. The quests make up for the lack, and the game gives you a lot of things to do in any given area, but the part that's supposed to replace quests outright is the dynamic events.
Matt Daniel did an excellent job discussing this in his at-launch review of GW2; he quite eloquently stated that the game's dynamic events are really static events occurring at random times. But that's only half of the problem. The other problem is that these are meant to be the bread and butter of your leveling content, and in that they do not work for two reasons.
The first is that they get annoying when you want to do anything else in the world. Warhammer Online's public quests had a similar issue: When there are only a handful of them in a given zone, you're going to be seeing them repeatedly. The same is true if you have two dozen events in a given area. Stay around long enough and you'll see them happen time and again, with nothing more interesting the second time than the first. The game seems to assume you're going to be moving on to another zone by then, but dynamic events alone won't get you the levels you need because there just aren't enough of them.
And that leads to a connected issue and the other reason that the events don't work as designed: They're often reliant on someone kicking off the chain or a bunch of people being around. When that doesn't happen, the events don't work. Either they expect a bigger population to successfully complete the objectives or the series never kicks off. Or the event starts and stops before you know it's happening, meaning you walk in just as it's wrapping up.
The net result is that they feel as repetitive as RIFT's repeated, well, rifts, but with the sense that skipping one isn't optional. Instead of breaking out of the rut of going to various quest hubs and picking up another quest, they drive you into a rut of dashing around looking for events and eventually giving up while filling out maps.
If you go back and fill out maps, of course, you'll have no problem leveling. But that leads to a different issue.
The way that maps work in GW2 is a distinct sign of cleverness. The level 10 area doesn't become irrelevant when you hit level 50; your return to that area will level you back down so that you still have to face a challenge from enemies in the area. In theory, you could easily wind up hitting the level cap long before you have moved on to higher-level areas.
Unfortunately, this can be problematic, starting with the fact that the game never forces you to move on.
See, to do all of the work necessary to clear a map -- something the game explicitly encourages you to do -- you're going to be there for longer than the recommended levels, especially if you get lucky with zone events. Because of the way that level scaling works, you're going to keep getting experience rewards that scale nicely with your real level, avoiding the usual issue of diminishing gains. Factor in the rewards for the daily achievements, and if you feel like clearing all of the starter maps right away, you may very well be into your 30s before you head into your first zone above level 10.
This all sounds well and good, but then you realize that the karma vendors scattered throughout every zone are in place to help you get level-appropriate gear. Fill a heart, and you get access to gear that's reasonable for that level. Rather than waiting on the luck of the drop, you can just fill in blanks there, right?
Except that as you stick in lower-level areas, you get lower-level items... until you're utterly undergeared for areas that are actually at your level.
This also comes into play with relative power levels. While gear and trait bonuses scale down to your level, they don't scale down City of Heroes style, where you lose access to abilities much above your current level. They're just reduced by a percentage. And as higher-level gear gets more and more powerful and adds to more and more stats, you wind up with a much more robust and powerful character in the lower level ranges as it stands.
But let's assume that you're not worried about all of this. There's still an issue with the area flow, centering chiefly around the fact that it doesn't exist. Nothing is pushing you from one zone to the next except clearing the first zone. There are no breadcrumb quests, no reasons to move on, nothing but a vague need to fight higher-level enemies and get slightly better resources from harvesting.
Your personal story, in theory, helps direct you to your next destination, but in practice it jumps all over the place, and it's far easier to just ignore your personal story, for reasons that I'll address a couple of points down. It also will lead you to only a handful of places on the map, leaving you to just decide on wandering one way or the other until you get somewhere too high-level.
The fact that you can do that is awesome. The fact that there is nothing else to force movement? Significantly less awesome.
Crafting is a freaking mess
My favorite crafting system of all time is the one in Final Fantasy XIV. (At least, the version of it that I've played; I've not yet tried the remake's alterations.) Despite that, it had some major issues. I bring this up because GW2's crafting inherits all of the issues of Final Fantasy XIV's system, strips out the most interesting parts, and then mixes in a whole bunch of other mistakes.
What issues? Well, you've got a set of recipes that require you to make four or five transitional items to get to the one thing you want to make, so that's awesome. But more notably, the game doesn't tell you how to fit those items together; it just leaves you to work through the Discovery interface. The idea here is clever, but the execution is lacking. You click items and hope to put together a working item from what you've got on hand, but that's literally all you can do here. FFXIV's lack of a recipe list of any sort was a major issue with the game; here, it's just improved by the fact that the game stores the recipe after you've made it once.
But then there's actively leveling a craft. And that's when crafting becomes an exercise in hair-tearing frustration because creating one level 20 recipe does not increase your level to 21 as it would appear. No, you get experience toward level 21, meaning that the problem of leveling up by making useless items is exacerbated.
Oh, and usually you can only salvage finished products, not parts. For one or two crafting items when you easily sank 10 pieces of raw material into the craft. By comparison, Star Wars: The Old Republic lets you salvage a reasonable portion of what you used to craft, levels your craft faster, and gives you several options to harvest needed resources whenever and wherever you need them.
The idea is that crafting is supposed to be an effort, but as it stands, it's more effort than it's worth. You can deposit crafting materials from anywhere, and that's nice, but you blow through stacks of materials ridiculously fast trying to just level yourself into competence. Short of buying gold and begging at the trading post, there's no way to actually harvest goods fast enough to keep up with the demands of the game compared to your level. Some resources even become nigh-impossible to harvest, especially leather: Since loot that drops is around your level always, you stop getting lower-level leather pretty quickly, and there aren't any nodes to harvest for it.
In other words, if you want to craft, odds are good-to-definite that you will outlevel every single item you can make until the level cap, at which point there are a handful of relevant things to make and a lot of lower-level junk you don't need. You know, exactly like crafting in World of Warcraft or Star Wars: The Old Republic or several other games, except that the road to get to selective obsolescence takes a lot longer and winds up being far more obnoxious.
The story is weak
Many journalists, including Massively's, have already criticized the poor storytelling in GW2. Part of this is that people have stated (correctly) that the voice acting ranges from acceptable to bad; I'm not sure of exactly why, since there's top-shelf talent in the cast, especially among Destiny's Edge. Kari Wahlgren does a pretty good job as Caithe, but Troy Baker comes off as a pastiche of previous roles, and Steve Blum just sounds like he's growling his way through Rytlock without a great deal of effort. And once you move past the main five NPCs, things get worse, despite the fact that there are still several other excellent actors and actresses in the lot.
But let's leave that to one side; I can assume that the actors weren't given good direction or pacing. There are games that do voice well and games that don't. A more fundamental problem is the story itself.
The first problem is that the emotional arc of your character concludes after the second arc is finished. From that point onward you are, essentially, a tagalong; the story is affecting other people, and you're mostly just along for the ride. A good part of this is due to the segmented nature of the game's quests, as every 10 levels or so you kick over to another arc, treating a story as if it's a sequence of blocks stuck together instead of an evolving whole. Events from one chunk don't really play into the next chunk.
My human Thief joined the Order of Whispers. First order of business? Protect a human noblewoman to keep Kryta in the hands of the royalty. This meant I got a crash course on Krytan politics and history, despite the fact that I had just finished doing a whole chunk of work for the Queen and had been right there investigating a conspiracy that petered out halfway through. But that was another arc, so nothing that happened then counted, and I had to pretend as if I'd never heard of these people or places before.
Of course, by that point I already had stopped having a say in the storyline. The story gets suborned by the antics of Destiny's Edge and whatever pet NPC is your current companion, while none of the NPCs you interacted with before is ever seen again. It's hard to feel much emotional impact when characters die or leave because they're being treated as setpieces rather than actual individuals with wants or desires. Your friends from the start of the game aren't relevant later on, not even as a reminder of where you come from.
The actual plot that the game wants to tell -- Destiny's Edge reforming against the background of fighting Zhaitan -- is handled competently but without any flair. Since all of these characters are NPCs, we don't get any context or emotional insight into these various characters. They're stereotypes without any depth as presented. The game doesn't give you a chance to understand why Rytlock and Logan dislike each other; they just do. Nor do we see emotional growth take place that brings them back together. Instead, the plot mashes them back into a single group because the climax is coming up.
And the player character is reduced to playing step-and-fetch-it alongside better-known heroes. Not since Britney's Dance Beat has a game so succeeded in letting a player feel as if his or her best efforts are enough to earn the right of being second fiddle.
It's possible that I'm being too hard on the story's content, but that just leads to pointing out that what the story is supposed to do -- guide the player to level-appropriate zones -- is also not well-handled. Nor is the story compelling enough to keep a player following along, which is a cardinal sin in what should be driving you forward. It's a great idea that doesn't pan out in execution; whether that's because the execution is bad or the idea itself is a poor one is left as an exercise for the reader.
So it's bad, then?
Oh, heck no.
I encourage almost everyone I know to play GW2. It's a great game in many parts. The purpose of this piece is not to say that it's a bad game but to call attention to the fact that it is also not a high-water mark for the industry as a whole.
GW2 tries a lot of ideas out. The trouble is that it rejects a lot of established structures that have been put into place for good reasons. When it succeeds, it's a load of fun, but when it fails, it does so explosively and dramatically. In the end, it's a game that'll have you ecstatic and despondent in equal measure, sometimes in the same half hour.
So consider this a reality check. It's not the apex of game design; it's a game, one that aims high and hits a respectable number of marks but also one that has some issues it could really work on hammering out over the next year.
Or we could keep going with Ascended gear. That went over real nice.
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