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Exploring the beta and beyond in Guild Wars 2

In a time when all MMORPGs charged a monthly subscription fee, Guild Wars was the shining light that said a monthly payment wasn't the only future for the genre. For enthusiasts of the first game in the series, ArenaNet didn't need to change much in Guild Wars 2, but the upcoming title adds upon the instanced gameplay of the original by adding events and making the universe feel more alive than ever before.

Gone are the healers and quests have been abandoned, but you shouldn't see that as a bad thing, as ArenaNet's new direction really drives home why Guild Wars 2 doesn't seem to be your average MMO.

Gallery: Guild Wars 2 (2/20/12) | 16 Photos

As I began to go through the typical RPG character creation process in Guild Wars 2, choosing my race, class, gender, hair color, etc., I reached a set of questions asking me about my parents, whether I was raised rich or poor, how I react to certain situations, and more.

For those who have had an opportunity to take part in the game's first pre-release beta weekend, these questions may still linger in your mind.

In making these decisions, it didnt really strike me that this was anything other than a way to work my answers into a shoehorned moment later in the game, but as I explored Guild Wars 2, I realized that the person playing the game next to me during a recent ArenaNet studio tour event was in a completely different area, despite us choosing the same race and class.

"When you create a character, you fill out this biography and your answers on that determine which set of the first ten hours you get," Colin Johanson, game designer on Guild Wars 2, explained. This ten hour figure seemed pretty hefty to me, so after a few hours, I restarted and chose different answers. I didn't see any of the same areas with my new selections. "Individualization is the one thing that players want the most. Two players shouldn't have the same story, both choices and instances should change the experience," Continuity and Lore designer Jeff Grubb said. It's an interesting experiment at providing players with a different experience every time.

In a move that is likely to scare most MMORPG fans, Guild Wars 2 gets rid of quests completely, instead opting for events. This may sound like a minor change – or like a simple renaming – but it allows for two major things: a completely persistent online world that allows players to experience different events at random without the need to instigate a quest and no forced waiting to participate. It works better than the average quest system and actually led to some special, unplanned interactions with other players.

ArenaNet has also shifted how Player-versus-Player interaction works in Guild Wars 2. PvP here takes the best parts of action-oriented MMOs and team-based shooters. Two teams of eight players fight for control of three points that, in typical 'capture the point' fashion, award the team one point each second for each area; the first to 500 points wins. Some fans may be disappointed by the lack of open world PvP, but according to Jeff Grubb, "It was under discussion to have an open world PvP, but it was eliminated very early on.

We felt that it was better to have this in a specific area. Otherwise, it felt counter to what MMOs are about, working together."

Instead of instant death, players go into a 'fight for your life' mode that has them, well, fighting for their life. While they are in this state, they must be finished off by the opposing team before their teammates can revive them. I found this to be one of the most exciting additions to the core gameplay of Guild Wars and it felt surprisingly solid for being such a departure from the typical ArenaNet game.

The persistence of Guild Wars 2 removes the need for parties, though they still exist. You don't need to party up to accept quests as anyone in that area will automatically be dealing with the same environment you are in. The only time that you really need to party up is when you're going on a dungeon raid and even then, things will be a little different. In Guild Wars 2, parties are limited at five players. This may seem like a pretty large oversight, but when you realize that instead of having a healer running with you, each player has their own healing skill, which works quite well. But a team-oriented group is still essential, as evidenced by the vile dungeon my group explored and nearly didn't survive. It's a very simplified approach to MMOs that I hope to see more widely adapted.

Unlike most MMOs, there isn't any high-level raid content. ArenaNet promises that its dynamic scaler is creating this content throughout the game for players, which sheds Guild Wars 2's need for the pre-made set pieces. Dynamic scaling kept things exciting as it increased the number and difficulty of enemies as more players stumbled onto an ongoing event.

World vs. World matches are another new addition to the Guild Wars franchise, but I had less success with them than I did PvP matches. In WvW, three teams – of up to 125 players each – fight to control points on a persistent battlefield for a two week period. At the end of this two week period, players gain experience earned and begin to level up so that they can be matched with better players. "World vs. World was meant as a way to replace 'server pride' and players who didn't really want to fight other players," Guild Wars 2 executive producer and ArenaNet president Mike O'Brien told me.

I failed to glean much enjoyment from this particular mode. With the large number of players fighting in the same battle, it is extremely hard to know what is going on and was often confusing enough to lead to my death. Perhaps the most frustrating part was that there was only one spawn point per team, so after I died, I spent two or three minutes running to get back into the action.

Although Guild Wars 2 will feature no recurring payment, microtransactions will be available for extra items such as XP boosts, collectibles, more storage, mini-pets, and more. It's a business model that, since the first Guild Wars, has seen much success throughout the industry. "Players are picking up on the fact that microtransactions are a very player friendly way to keep the game going post-launch," O'Brien explained. Players are able to purchase gems with real-world money that can be exchanged for gold to be used in-game, but gold collected in-game can also be exchanged for gems to purchase these items. Nothing about the system sticks out as egregious; it seems to be a time vs. money situation, but allowing players to work transactions the other way around makes the whole thing seem even better.

While there has been much improvement from its predecessor, there's still some things that need to be worked out, such as Guild Wars 2's World vs. World content. From my time with the game, Guild Wars 2 is looking like one of the most content-heavy releases in a recent memory; there's possibly hundreds of hours of content between the personal stories and world events, PvP, and WvW. What may be the most interesting question is to see how Guild Wars 2 fares when it launches to an industry swollen with free-to-play and subscription-based online experiences.

Alex Rubens is a freelance writer based in of Seattle, Washington whose work can be found at G4, PC World, and Complex Magazine, among others. Talk to him about Star Wars on Twitter at @alexrubens, he loves it.

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