A critical look at Guild Wars 2

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A critical look at Guild Wars 2
Screenshot -- Guild Wars 2
Well, it's finally official: ArenaNet's golden child, Guild Wars 2, has launched, and I'm sure thousands upon thousands of you are too busy playing it to even read this article. On the other hand, it's an MMO launch, so a good chunk of you are bound to be locked out of the servers, unable to launch the client, or any number of other things, and if that's the case, then boy do I have an article for you. But first, allow me to don my flame retardant suit.

In the hopes of lowering the deluge of angry emails I'm about to get, let me preface everything by saying this: Guild Wars 2 is a good game -- a great game, even. In fact, I love it. But every time I've had the audacity to mention anything even remotely critical about the title in in-game chat (my first mistake), I've been immediately pounced upon by rabid fans who seem to think that anyone who feels that the game could be better in some regard is a heretic who should just quit the game. So I'm going to do what any rational gamer with a death wish would: take a critical look at Guild Wars 2.

So I'm going to start things off by picking on one of the title's most-hyped features: dynamic events. I have a lot of issues with dynamic events, not least of which is the fact that the very name is inaccurate. Guild Wars 2's dynamic events are often anything but dynamic. One of the most prominent events I've run across is the Wychmire Swamp meta-event in Caledon Forest, which (spoiler alert) leads players on a trek through a swamp that culminates in a battle with a gargantuan Wurm. If you read my beta impressions of the Sylvari, you'll remember that I actually loved this event, and that hasn't changed, but it's a good way to showcase the fact that there's nothing dynamic about it at all. The entire event could have been done as an escort quest granted by a static questgiver, and in essence, it is. In order to start the event, you have to speak at an NPC in the nearby village whom you escort for the first part of the event.

Literally the only difference between that dynamic event and an escort quest is the fact that it occurs only at (semi-)random intervals and that other players can join in once another player has started it. These are both improvements on the much-reviled escort quest format, don't get me wrong, but the event is still hardly dynamic. There are a few events in the game that have more dynamic qualities, such as those that involve NPCs taking over a town that becomes useless to players until the monsters are driven off, but even that is stretching the definition of "dynamic." You can let those centaurs occupy the town for as long as you'd like, but nothing's ever going to come of it. The NPCs will continue to respawn and wage a valiant-but-futile war against the centaurs until a player comes along to give them a hand, and the centaurs will continue to stand around rather than tear the city down once and for all. For all the pretense of immediate threat, nothing is really at stake.

I know that what I'm asking for is a little far-fetched; it would take untold amounts of work to provide dynamic events of epic scale that truly impact the world in a permanent way. That said, I don't know why there was so much hype around a system that ultimately amounts to static quests that occur at random times.

I'm also not a fan of how large of a role these static-quests-that-occur-at-random-times (doesn't quite have the same ring to it) play in overall progression, and the reason for this is simple: They occur at random times. See, just doing the Renown Hearts in a given GW2 zone will not provide you with enough experience to keep on a steady progression path, and if you do nothing but Renown Hearts, you'll eventually be too low a level for the next one.

What GW2 is trying to do is essentially alchemy. In an ideal world, players adventure from one point of interest to the next, coming across (and completing) dynamic events along the way in order to supplement the somewhat meager experience and karma granted by Renown Hearts. When this alchemy comes together just right, the lead turns to gold and everyone's happy.

When it doesn't, however, the results are pretty nasty. On three of the four characters I've rolled so far (I have severe altitis -- leave me alone!), I've wound up in a drought of dynamic events, so by the time I'm supposed to be hitting up level 5 Renown Hearts, I'm stuck at level 3, so now I have to run around and grind mobs/resource nodes or hunt for dynamic events until I get my level up to par.

I know; no one likes being dragged by the hand down a completely preset path, and that's the issue dynamic events are meant to alleviate. On the flipside, though, it's not very much fun to run around aimlessly because you've done all of the "immediately available" content and still aren't able to move on to the next. Some people will say that part of the fun is in the exploration, and for many people, that may be the case, but I don't think I'm the only one who laments not having anything to "fall back on" if I end up coming up short in the experience department. And really, this is easily fixed: Either boost renown heart XP slightly or allow players to continue completing a Renown Heart's objectives even after they've maxed it out. Sure, they won't get the big XP bonus that comes with completing a Renown Heart, but maybe throw in a bit of extra karma for completing extra objectives. That would be more compelling than running around scrounging for something to do.

To top it off, dynamic events have the potential to kill the inertia of the game. Massively's always-fabulous Eliot Lefebvre mentioned the concept of inertia in a recent post on the subject, and it's something that people don't tend to notice until it gets messed up. MMO inertia, in my mind, is more or less how well a game keeps up a player's pace in order to keep him playing, and let me tell you, nothing kills Guild Wars 2's inertia like the content-drought situation I described in the previous paragraph. It's a shame, too, because the game has so many other features, such as the ability to bank collectables from anywhere and the waypoint-based fast-travel system, both ostensibly implemented for the specific purpose of preventing players from losing momentum. But when you're in the middle of a zone with no incomplete renown hearts in your level range and nary a dynamic event to be found, you're brought to a screeching halt -- or at least a sharp yield.

All right guys, see you in 20 minutes when he wakes up!
I'd also like to vent some frustration at some of the more poorly designed Renown Hearts. Specifically, I take issue with the ones that insist on replacing my abilities by transforming me into something else, giving me a special weapon, or something of that nature. One thing that World of Warcraft understood was the idea that when a player is put into a situation where he's forced to give up his normal abilities temporarily, the replacements should be cooler and more powerful so that he feels as if he's gaining power rather than losing it.

My prime case for this criticism is Arias' Garden in Caledon Forest. The hook is that you're transformed into a treant for the purpose of busting up briars and other things that your puny human(oid) body simply can't handle. It's odd, then, that in the situations where I found myself fighting, I was dishing out a fraction of the damage my Thief could do with his daggers while taking just as much. There was no sense of power or desire to play as this treant because all I could think about was why this huge treant's ground-pound did only 30 damage while my daggers could dish out much more. The Danador's Hounds Renown Heart in the same zone falls victim to the same issue, though it partially redeems itself by allowing you to play with adorable plant-puppies.

I'd also like to take a moment to address what is paradoxically my most and least favorite part of Guild Wars 2: jumping puzzles. Holy crap, I love/hate jumping puzzles. They're fun, they're a breath of fresh air in a genre that has historically been centered almost solely around murdering the ever-loving daylights out of everything that moves, and they're generally a great idea. In execution, however, many of GW2's jumping puzzles are dodgy. Morgan's Spiral comes to mind, as it's one of the first that Sylvari players encounter. In essence, players have to jump from one mysteriously floating rock to another in order to be rewarded with a treasure chest full of shinies. The problem is that the devs seem to have put more thought into how to make the platforms look pretty rather than making them functional and not rage-inducing.

Imagine playing Mario, Psychonauts, or another platformer of choice. You've got a big jump to make; failing means certain death. You line it up, time it perfectly, and... get caught on a tiny piece of geometry with a bewilderingly large collision zone, causing you to plummet to your untimely demise. It's super-frustrating, really. I died three times on Morgan's Spiral (which I managed to complete on the first try in the beta, might I add) because of some hanging vines that bizarrely block the path that was clearly laid out for players like some kind of curtain of impassable spite. The game grants a very small margin of error, with some jumps (a certain pair of mushrooms in Dreamdark Enclave, for instance) requiring pinpoint precision due to oddly placed geometry. Pinpoint precision that, I think, is unreasonable when taking into account the influence input lag and server latency can have.

I'm not suggesting that ANet make the jumps easier, per se; I love a good challenge. But I love a fair challenge in when I'm punished for my own stupid mistakes, not because I don't have the eagle-eyes required to see the little knot on the tree I'm running across.

I don't have anything witty for this, but it's pretty
And while I'm nitpicking, I may as well go all-out. The game's voice-acting makes me cringe more often than not, and I think I've managed to determine why that is. When I listen to cutscene dialogue, it sounds to me like the voice actors had absolutely zero clue about the context of the speech. Exclamations of surprise are delivered with exasperation while mundane lines are shouted in celebration. The example that stood out to me was in a Sylvari story quest (minor spoilers ahead) in which my character, along with two other Sylvari, was attending a planned meeting with a group of Hylek. When the Hylek arrive and are standing no more than a few yards away, one of the NPCs exclaims, "The Hylek are coming!" (or something like that) as if it's the most revelatory piece of information in the world. Well, duh. We arranged the meeting, and they've been in plain sight for some time now.

I know that the actors can't necessarily see the exact in-game scene they're voicing, but they should at least be given basic context so they know what kind of tone is set. Instead, much of the cutscene dialogue sounds like they were just spitballing it. This causes a weird dissonance that really takes me out of the scene. It's made even weirder to me by the fact that much of the game's ambient dialogue, such as conversations between wandering NPCs, is actually pretty well done. It's kind of a shame, really, and ArenaNet really took a big risk by fully voicing the cutscenes. As Star Wars: The Old Republic demonstrated, when voiced dialogue is done well, it can really add that extra bit of atmosphere, but when it's done poorly, otherwise-well-written dialogue can be made painful to listen to.

Now then, if you've read this far without taking to the comments to write something angry, thanks for that. Let me take the opportunity to reiterate the fact that Guild Wars 2 is a great game that I've been playing nonstop since prelaunch began, and it does just as many (or more) things right than it does wrong. My point in all of this is simple: We're all hyped for Guild Wars 2, and there are a number of good reasons to be excited, but can we please not act like nothing's wrong with it? After all, MMOs live and die on patches that add new features while fixing old ones, and nothing's going to be fixed if we just pretend that it isn't broken.

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