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Guild Wars 2 preview: Common sense

Of the many -- so, so many -- MMOs represented on the PAX Prime 2011 show floor, ArenaNet's long-in-development Guild Wars 2 easily presents the most outside-the-box thinking. Where other entries in the genre tend to look at their contemporaries and attempt to iteratively repair their rough edges, Guild Wars 2 throws out baby, bathwater and tub, starting with a base that's altogether unprecedented.

Take, for instance, this core conceit: Why do other MMOs require you to stand still to use most of your character's abilities? Why not allow them to fire off powers while ducking and dodging through salvos of enemy attacks? Why not let heroes use their powers, regardless of whether or not they're targeting an enemy? Why not put some action in your MMO, or vice versa? ArenaNet seems to have noticed most developers' proclivity for sacrificing streamlined gameplay for staple MMO characteristics, and repeatedly asked that very question: Why?

The demo I played answered each of those questions with some pretty bold, albeit totally commonsense features of its own. Battles do move with breakneck speed, with players double-tapping movement directions to dive out of the way of oncoming attacks. This maneuver has its own energy meter, though, preventing you from skirting all the damage you have coming to you.

While exercising these feats of agility, you can also fire off one of your five special attacks. There's no energy meter for you to deplete; you only have to deal with each ability's typically short cooldown period. The extrication of a genre-staple mana pool is a change that was only incorporated in this latest build of the title, but a reasonable one: It just served as another unnecessary hurdle to temporarily prevent players from playing the game they assumedly purchased.

Here's where things get complicated: Each weapon class (hammers, pistols, blunderbusses) have five abilities which change based on which character profession you're playing as, and unlock over time. For instance, that dagger will give five abilities to the Necromancer that don't even resemble the five abilities it unlocks for the Thief. The player's other five ability slots are populated by permanent utility, healing and elite powers -- but the first five can (and will!) be swapped out at will during a fight.

Your weapon set determines what kind of role you'll fill from within the confines of your profession, making for a system which promotes both class specialization and class-defying variety. For example, with a hammer, your Engineer's abilities might make you a competent melee brawler. If occasion calls for it, though, you could just as easily swap to your dual pistols on the fly, and launch a series of five other powers against enemies from afar.

Why doesn't everyone do that?

Why doesn't everyone provide you with a quick Q&A about your character during the creation process, allowing you to decide on their most prized possession, their deity, their best friend, their manner of conversation and their family history? Guild Wars 2 does, and each of those decisions shape the cutscenes, dialogue options, relationships and personal story of each and every player. These decisions can be seen immediately, in the lovingly drawn, customized intro cinematic presented before the actual adventuring begins.

And oh, the adventuring you'll do. During my demo, it seemed like there were dynamic quests around every corner, almost all of which were links in longer, more rewarding quest chains. For instance, encountering a bulwark, I was approached by an NPC guard -- yes, the NPC approached me -- and shouted for my aide. After helping hold off the enemy onslaught and finishing the quest, a new quest presented itself; one which tasked me with defeating a ten-story tall mound of sentient earth.

Why don't all MMOs give you the satisfaction of dropping a boss like that within your first ten minutes of the game. Why make us earn that satisfaction, instead of distributing it so freely? Isn't more satisfaction better than less?

You know what else is satisfying? Having an additional set of underwater weapons, which have their own skillsets that enrich the experience of fighting in a 3D space. For example, one weapon allowed the Guardian class to bolo-throw a heavy weight onto the ankles of a submerged foe, dragging him to the bottom of the briny deep. Another traps an enemy in a bubble, sending them floating harmlessly to the surface.

Almost a quarter of the game takes place below the surface of the sea -- entire cities and dungeons are buried under leagues of water, just waiting to be explored. (Each character also comes equipped with a breathing mask, meaning you don't have to worry about pesky consequences like drowning.)

There's also a Player vs. Player system which can embroil three entire servers in a two-week long war, netting server-wide bonuses for the winner. A brief PVP demonstration showed off a city-wide warzone, where towering trebuchets could be used to knock down entire buildings, clearing paths between your cohorts and their objectives.

There are just so many smart parts moving beneath the surface of Guild Wars 2, such as a crafting system which allows you to experiment and create your own recipes, a sidekicking option which lets you boost the level of your friend or lower your own. It doesn't just look good -- it looks exciting, and with a subscription-free business model, it should command the attention of MMO diehards and decriers alike.

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