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PAX 2011: Massively's hands-on with the Guild Wars 2 Asura

Rubi Bayer, @@rubi_

The new demo has arrived to the United States! ArenaNet unveiled the newest demo version of Guild Wars 2 last week at Gamescom, and it was filled with new surprises. Orrian undead, one of Zhaitan's underlings, the Charr starter area, playable Asura and Sylvari, and much more captured the attention of fans.

ArenaNet has returned to its home turf and was presenting the demo at PAX this weekend, and I had the privilege of diving into the game's new content. Follow along after the jump for the latest look at the Guild Wars 2 demo!

If I had my way, I would have spent hours reveling in gameplay -- checking out the Charr starter area, playing with a Sylvari then an Asura, crafting, and of course indulging in some serious character creation time. Since that wonderful unlimited gameplay day is not here yet, I had to pick and choose. It was a Sophie's Choice moment, but I decided to check out some high-level gameplay. Just like other Guild Wars 2 enthusiasts, I was eager to get my hands on a race I hadn't played yet, so I chose an Asura, creating a diminutive Thief and putting her through her paces.

Character creation was as much fun as gameplay, so I spent a fair amount of time pondering my choices. The visuals are great, but Asura also have some entertaining options for their background and preferences as well. The three colleges -- Synergetics, Dynamics, and Statics -- reflect a variety of playstyle preferences. Synergetics students "devoutly research the true nature of the Eternal Alchemy." They're the thinkers, the bookworms. Those who choose the college of Dynamics are the ones who aren't afraid to experiment: "Energy, enthusiasm, and boldness are our best qualities [...] If a prototype explodes, it isn't a failure unless the lesson goes unlearned." Finally, there are the traditionalists of the college of Statics. As the description says, some call them conservative, but they work well with what's known and what's come before, using existing knowledge and designs to build and create.

The Asura, of course, are brilliant inventors, and another character creation step is choosing your favorite invention. There are three inventions to choose from, each distinctly different. The Valet-123 Golem is a service golem that both revolutionizes lab cleanup and mixes a great cocktail. Handy! The Transatmospheric Converter is all about power. "What unmitigated joy to be able to change the weather at my whim!" Finally, the Infinity Ball taps into the sense of fun and whimsy that the Asura radiate despite their best efforts: "My invention predicts the future! So what if it doesn't predict it correctly every time. That's irrelevant! Could it give me an advantage? Reply hazy, ask again later."

The clock was ticking, so I wrapped up character creation and got into some actual gameplay.
I have to say that the Asura race is easily the most charming from a gameplay perspective -- the animations are completely appropriate for the race's stature and build. The Asura are top-heavy with short legs, and every detail of their movement is designed with that in mind. No matter what my character was doing, her way of doing it brought a laugh. When she jumped from a standing position, she made a little high-pitched grunt of effort. When she jumped while running, she windmilled her arms in the air to keep her balance. When she came to a halt after running, she sort of skidded to a stop and wobbled to stop herself from falling. The list goes on and on, adding so much to the charm of these little guys.

Demo players choosing an Asura character are sent to fairly high-level content, so I was level 59 right out of the gate. I've logged a few hours of Guild Wars 2 gameplay through various demo opportunities, but nothing near what it would take to level a character to 59 in the live version. However, the mechanics and methods of combat are fairly intuitive as long as a player knows the basics. ArenaNet has done a pretty good job of making a game that's easy to understand while still being varied and exciting, so I was able to jump right into combat without getting stomped over and over because I didn't know how anything worked.

"Undead" was the word of the hour, thanks to the location of the Asura lands -- the Orrian undead were coming up from the water and attempting to take over. I was offered a task (not a quest!) from a nearby Hylek NPC when I loaded in, and while I accepted, I was really more interested in running around exploring. My goal was to see how the world felt with the Guild Wars 2 dynamic events system. Could I really run and explore -- without staying on a constant quest chain path -- and still find plenty to do? I also wanted to get a good look at the environment and soak up the ambiance a bit, since this was my first foray into the Asura part of the game.

The first thing I noticed was the realism... well, as realistic as you can get under the fantasy-setting circumstances. There were various types of trees, flowers, brush, moss, and more everywhere. The setting of this area of the game is swampland, and the plant life spoke to a low-lying, wet area. There was also a constant background hum of cicadas that provided a nice addition to the overall feel without being irritating.

I wandered around checking things out and killing some creatures here and there as I stumbled into their aggro range. I was also helping an NPC who was plagued by these creatures, so it was nice to get a little bonus as I explored. My real interest, however, was in dynamic events. I was hoping for a good balance between allowing me time to explore and giving me plenty to do. I'll take a moment here to say that designer Colin Johanson did mention that the background mechanics of dynamic events are changed in some fairly significant ways during convention demos to allow for the way players jump in and out. When you have thousands of people playing constantly in 40-minute increments, you have to make sure that there's something good going on for each of those players. Undead dragon Tequatl the Sunless was set to appear on a predetermined schedule, for example, but that's not how it will work in the live game -- he'll appear in direct response to a large series of player events.

Because of the way this was set up, I had high hopes of finding some exciting events. I played through two demo sessions as an Asura and came across several pretty exciting events. I also found out the hard way something I heard Colin explain later on Sunday: Dynamic event scaling has its limits. While there are many, many dynamic events that will scale all the way down to accommodate a solo player, the truly epic events need a lot of players.

I was running around when I got the "New Event Nearby" notice. In the distance, I could make out the huge decaying wings of Tequatl. Yes! Excited at the prospect of participating in a battle royale, I took off as fast as my short little Asura legs could carry me. I arrived in the area, came tearing over a hilltop, and screeched to a halt when I saw the beach swarming with enemies. Scattered here and there were the corpses of NPC allies, and there wasn't a single player character in sight. Whoops. I backed off quickly before they saw me and thought for a moment. It seemed like a good time to test the limits of Guild Wars 2's scaling system, so I started strategizing. The first order of business was to clear Tequatl's Orrian friends, so I snuck around the side looking for some loners to pick off.

In a one-on-one battle, or even two or three on one, it was a decent fight and I emerged victorious. But I learned pretty quickly that Colin was not kidding: These big events are designed for multiple players. I picked off a few enemies and moved forward, but more arrived behind me to take their places and I soon found myself fleeing for my life, forced to admit defeat. I understand this mechanic and it works, even though it's a little disappointing. Who wouldn't love the bragging rights inherent in taking out Tequatl solo? Guild Wars 2 is an MMO, though, and part of the experience is having huge events like this to bring a large number of players together.

That sounds a bit like I'm talking about a raid, which brought to mind one of the things I'm most anticipating about GW2. I needed more people to finish this off. A lot more people. But unlike the situation in a traditional raid, it didn't matter who those people were. I didn't need to put out the call for anything specific. Anyone who wanted to play could have come running with any race, class, weapon, and skill set he fancied and the job would have gotten done. Offering players the chance to participate in something epic on their own terms is a pretty huge deal.

I came across one more large-scale dynamic event in my travels and one slightly smaller one. In the large one, I got a taste of two things: how exciting these events can be when lots of players are participating, and how crazy it can be when those players are new to the game. Our enemies were Orrian undead of various races who were storming the beach after emerging from a nearby ship, the Ash Horizon. Several demo players were participating, and it was chaos of the best kind as undead waded ashore and we ran every which way taking them out. The convenience of ground-targeted skills like buffs and heals really hit home to me during this fight. Several times a healing circle on the ground caught my eye at a critical moment and I dashed toward it in time to avoid going into a downed state.

I also got to have a little fun with environmental weapons here. At some point during the festivities, a fallen enemy dropped an undead arm on the ground. I picked it up and found it was a weapon! My skillset changed to reflect it, and I had the ability to throw it at a foe. When it hit, it exploded in a cloud of poison. It was a single-use item, of course. Once I threw it, my normal weapons and skills returned, but it's a fun addition to the game. I can easily see players making very clever use of this after launch as people learn strategic gameplay. There will likely be skills and attacks that synergize well with a poison effect, and having the ability to inflict that at a critical moment is going to add some fun new twists to combat.

There was one false note in all of this fun, and I'd be remiss not to address that as well. I played two character classes in my demos: a Thief and an Elementalist. I favor caster classes pretty strongly, so I was anxious to get a feel for the Elementalist most of all. I spent a fair portion of the 40-minute demo experimenting with her abilities, cycling through all four attunements, and found that I felt very uncomfortable with her range.

A caster is a strong midline or backline character, depending on the circumstances, and the Elementalist's range felt extremely short. I approached an enemy and started launching lightning attacks, only to find my screen fill with the word "miss" over and over. I moved in a bit and tried again, with the same result. I didn't start connecting with my attacks until I was in what felt like near-melee range. At one point I had three enemies in melee range at once and used a skill to knock them back, thinking I could push them off of me and finish them off with lightning attacks as they ran back. It didn't work because they were out of my extremely limited range. They recovered from their KD and started running toward me again, and I was able to make only one hit before they were back in melee range.

After that I began experimenting with positioning and switching attunements, and overall it felt like the class was on an extremely short leash when it came to attacks. I was playing solo this whole time, so I'd be very interested to see how it feels in a group setting with sturdier companions to take some of the attention from me. It might not matter as much, but since GW2 doesn't exactly have traditional tanks, it's a bit of a concern.

On a similar subject, something else that was driven home to me during my gameplay was how incredibly important positioning and situational awareness are in Guild Wars 2. Combat is so dynamic that it's easy to get overwhelmed fast -- or wind up in some fairly embarrassing positions if you're not paying attention. My Thief character had a skill that allowed her to fire her pistols at an enemy and use the corresponding recoil to fling herself backwards out of harm's way. I was getting smacked around pretty enthusiastically by a foe, and I thought I'd be clever and use that skill to buy myself a few seconds for a self-heal. So I fired it off and shot backwards... straight into the ocean. Suddenly I was five feet underwater with a shiny new skill set and no clue what had just happened. Once players get used to the way all of this works, there's going to be an exciting element of strategy added to battle, but there's a definite learning curve here in the meantime.

Overall, both of my gameplay sessions showed me a fun, well-designed game that is progressing steadily toward launch. (When it's ready.) I feel like there is a fair amount of tweaking to be done, and obviously the developers do too or we'd see it on the store shelves by now, but for a game that's still in development, it's polished to a high gloss.

Massively's on the ground in Seattle during the weekend of August 26-28, bringing you all the best news from PAX Prime 2011. Whether you're dying to know more about SWTOR, Guild Wars 2, City of Heroes, or any MMO in between, you can bet we'll have it covered!

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