Working As Intended: What Guild Wars 2 got right

I returned to Guild Wars 2 recently after months away and was pleasantly surprised with what I found. No, there was nothing earth-shatteringly new, and no, I'm not going to praise the latest installment of the plot, but I realized that I'd forgotten just how much Guild Wars 2 managed to get right. I have many complaints about the game ranging from the way group combat in dungeons flopped to how the economy tanked to the fact that the living story bores me to tears. But Guild Wars 2 has some true nuggets of brilliance all the same, even if it doesn't have (I'm gonna say it) Cantha.

Let's talk about them.

The game embraces horizontal play

Guild Wars 2 has levels, but they don't really matter all that much. They're paced such that every level takes the same amount of time, all the way to 80. Your character scales down in zones so that you can group with lowbie friends or explore areas you technically outlevel and still find challenges. Level doesn't matter in PvP, either. Elaborate gear customization ensures that there's no one endgame look that you must sport or be classified as a noob forever, so you can more or less look and play however you want in whatever zone you want with whomever you want. Guild Wars 2 follows in the footsteps of many great sandboxes and forward-thinking themeparks in realizing that strict vertical gameplay separates rather than binds communities together; it embraces horizontal play and manages to be supremely accessible without being a turn-off to non-casuals.

The game remembers that women and minorities play video games

Take a look around at the NPCs in the game, both the ones leading you through your personal story and the ones just standing there acting as merchants and heart vendors. Notice how they're seemingly random when it comes to skin color and gender and even age? You're as likely to see a man in a floofy mage skirt as a woman in armor leading a war band. It's not an accident; the game is designed to feel inclusive. In an industry where the biggest Western subscription MMO can launch a new expansion with no female headlining characters and a lead writer who can publicly laugh off the omission by saying the expansion's story is "more of a boy's trip," GW2's insistent egalitarian attitude is a welcome one.

This isn't unique to Guild Wars 2; it's something ArenaNet as a studio clearly cares about, which makes me feel welcomed by its games. Guild Wars 1 also made a valiant effort at including NPCs of both genders and varying ethnicities, especially in the later campaigns. Recall that the human hero and human villain of Nightfall were both dark-skinned women and that those superficial attributes are essentially irrelevant to their actions and roles in the story -- as they should be.

The game takes exploration as a gameplay mechanic seriously

I have teased Guild Wars 2 for incorporating a touring system with Foursquare check-ins rather than sandbox-style exploration, but Guild Wars 2 isn't a sandbox, so that's not entirely fair. It's a themepark, and yet it does more for exploration than most sandboxes ever will. "Mapping" -- that is, visiting every point of interest, viewing every vista, completing every heart, and capturing every skill in a given zone -- is what I consider the core of the game. The exploration isn't just something you do if you're a bored achiever-type; it's heavily rewarded with titles and experience and travel hubs, never mind the goodies you earn through completing a map. Guild Wars 2 takes exploration as a gameplay mechanic seriously, which is something few MMORPGs, even sandboxes, did prior to 2012 when it launched.

The game is not keen on wasting my time

I'm over travel as a time sink. I was perfectly content with the mark-and-recall plus boats travel system of Ultima Online, but MMOs ever since have seized upon travel as a cheap way to stretch out game time, or more recently, boost cash shop profits. Guild Wars 2, like its older sibling, turns travel into a minor gold sink rather than a time sink: Discover the waypoint once and you can warp to it for a small fee again and again. No more hoofing it across the world or riding griffonback for an hour just to meet with your friends and finally do the thing you logged in to do. Just go. Or be cheap and run if you really want to; you'll be rewarded with harvests and dynamic events and some of the most spectacular capital cities to ever grace a video game along the way. The choice is always yours.

Elements of the crafting system deserve to be copied

I'm first and foremost an economy junkie when it comes to MMORPGs, so you won't hear me heaping praise on the auction house or economy or crafting system as a general rule. But ArenaNet included three mechanics as part of its crafting system that are in dire need of duplication across every themepark: crafting using materials stored in banks, harvesting nodes accessible by everyone, and storing materials in-bank from the field. These are simple quality-of-life perks that hurt no one and prevent the crafting system from becoming a hateful inventory management minigame or antisocial race to the best nodes.

The game is priced to play

Buy-to-play became my favorite business model for MMOs the day classic Guild Wars launched, and though Guild Wars 2's cash shop implementation can be obnoxious (seriously, I'm not buying lottery tickets for weapon skins), the game as a whole is exceptionally cheap. It's easy to get by without ever buying anything from the game store; I've limited myself to buying two bank upgrades, three character slots, and a chunk of gold to fund my crafting habit, none of which was strictly necessary. When new MMOs launch or old games try to entice me to return, I inevitably compare what they have on offer for their fees to what I get from Guild Wars 2 for no upkeep tax at all. Penny for penny, far too many MMOs, even "free-to-play" games, fall on the short end of that comparison.

Guild Wars 2 didn't get everything right, but it hit a lot of themepark sweet spots. Where else do you think Guild Wars 2 nailed it?

The MMORPG genre might be "working as intended," but that doesn't mean it can't be so much more. Join Massively Editor-in-Chief Bree Royce every other Friday in her Working As Intended column for editorials about and meanderings through MMO design, ancient history, and wishful thinking. Armchair not included.
This article was originally published on Massively.