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Excelsior! The cheerful insanity of the Guild Wars 2 Asura


It would have been easy for ArenaNet to make Guild Wars 2's Asura race just another batch of quirky MMO "shorties," playing into the standard fantasy trope. You know how it goes -- what the little guy lacks in brawn he makes up for in quick wit and charm. Throw in some floppy ears, a mischievous grin, and some mechanical gizmos, and you've got yourself a gnome by another name.

So did ArenaNet rise to the challenge of porting and updating the Asura? We got a good look at the race and its starting zone in the game's final beta weekend event in the hopes of figuring that out. Follow on for our first impressions!

Guild Wars 2 - Asura
Character creation

When rolling up an Asura, players will choose from among five body types (though none of them is sufficiently pudgy if you were hoping for a roly-poly character), eight skin markings, nine faces per gender, six ear styles, and the expected assortment of facial tweaks, including ear customization. Disappointingly, there are only nine hairstyles per gender, some of them shared -- contrast that with the 23 styles available for Human women. On the other hand, the variety of styles and especially the faces and coloration of hair and eyes means that an extremely wide range of Asuran looks is possible. Interestingly, none of the high-end armor has been sexed-up; instead, it appears to match the race's style exquisitely, complete with scholarly tabards, sparkling gems, and golem-lookalike platemail. Even the Necromancer's armor has a clockwork bobbin.

CollegesIn the biography segment of character creation, you'll select your profession totem (respective to class) and personality (the same for all characters: charm, dignity, ferocity). The final three choices are race-specific and constitute "new" material for those of us not in the ongoing alpha test. The first of these is your home college: There's the College of Statics, the builders; the College of Dynamics, the gizmo-makers; and the College of Synergetics, the alchemists. Next, you'll declare your first invention (a simple golem, a weather-changing device, or an infinity ball... yes, a magic eight ball). Finally, you'll pick a mentor from the four available, each representing a different quality: power/force, luck/flexibility, perseverance/planning, and cunning/pragmatism.

Metrica Province
Metrica Province

When you first emerge from character creation, you land in Soren Draa in Metrica Province. If you've never played classic Guild Wars, you'll be in for a treat. Originally, the lands inhabited by the Asura in the GW franchise were meant to be a South American-inspired zone of a Guild Wars campaign called Utopia, which was canned in favor of the Eye of the North expansion and Guild Wars 2 itself. But the Mayan- and Aztec-flavored assets remained. So instead of bumbling around hobbit holes in a bucolic countryside or tinkering in huts surrounded by piles of gears, you'll be wandering around zones that look more like a Stargate spaceship crashed on the edge of a verdant swamp. All of the structures (and even the armor!) have a wonderful geometric quality to them; they're an organic combination of stone-and-metal temples and pyramids, lush greenery, and glowing sci-fi holograms. Expect an overabundance of contraptions, floating orbs, and straight lines. It's really pretty, perfectly juxtaposed, and not at all what you'd expect out of a stock "steampunk gizmo" race.

Your job in Metrica -- assuming you feel like following the path the game has laid out for you -- is to assist the local Asura scientists and educators with their various projects, all conveniently located at renown hearts spread across the map. I particularly enjoyed Professor Gahf's quest, which rewarded me for scaring off miscreants and "helpfully" doling out questionable advice to the professor's young and impressionable students. The writing in quests like these leans heavily on technobabble but ensures that the Asura are genuinely (and in this case, consciously) funny.

Guild Wars 2 Asura
If the Asura renown hearts have a weakness, it's that half of the earliest hearts required me to set aside most of my chosen class temporarily. One RH equipped me with a harpoon for some underwater combat (there might have been a shark involved), one required me to tote around a zapping gun, and a third zipped me into a golem suit. Each provided me a totally separate set of skills, and while I do understand that's sort of the point of the game, at the earliest levels I expect to be learning my own class rather than staring at a full tray of brand-new skills bestowed on me by a quest. Still, those RHs are in keeping with the zone's theme. Had I picked the Engineer class, I might not have even noticed them at all.

Metrica's other issue is that its epic visuals are undermined by a lack of urgency in the plot. As you arrive in the zone, you're told "defective golems are causing havoc out in the jungle," and its true that golems do storm the area via dynamic events, but it just never feels scary. The early area's other big bad, the Inquest, is made up of outcast Asura with philosophical differences seemingly written to mitigate the mainstream Asura's deficiencies.

The Guild Wars 2 Asura
Who you callin' deficient?!

The Asura embody a cross between the mad scientist and absent-minded professor tropes often used by writers to subtly attack science and technology itself. Such characters usually pursue knowledge for its own sake, consequences be damned. In Asura lore, the race's religion is science, and we see examples of the Asura creating doomsday weapons and using other races as test subjects. They're portrayed as brilliant and unapologetically arrogant, even when their inventions go horribly wrong (like the rogue golems in the starting zone).

This is a particularly grating strawman to me, so I was happy to see that ArenaNet's writers didn't just stop at the stereotype plaguing gnomes across the fantasy genre. Sure, the Asura run around like clumsy, floppy toddlers, and yes, their obsession with technology sometimes bites them in the ass, but they have an extra layer of resilience and determination and cooperation that makes them special. "We will not move another inch," declares the intro cinematic. "Not for dragons. Not for anyone." They're not lone wolves; they operate in organized academic units called krewes to maximize their collective research. And they're not oblivious to the risks of unchecked invention. They're adamant that their gate system be used only for peaceful purposes.

More importantly, the dozen or so characters with dialogue I encountered seemed to have been given relatively independent personalities. One NPC was eager to seek revenge, while another was excitable, and still another advised caution and political savvy. In this way, the stereotype diminishes. And by serving as the "even worse" alternative, the evil, radical members of the Inquest make conventional Asura more likable by comparison.

The Guild Wars 2 Asura
The Rata Sum of all parts

At the end of my journey, I poked my head into Rata Sum, having been primed by Massively's Lis Cardy to expect nothing short of a miraculous transformation of the Asura capital from Guild Wars 1. In reality, the parts of the city I saw (I left some unexplored so that there's some mystery for me at launch, too!) left me speechless. Even Divinity's Reach can't top floating pyramids with hanging moss and LEDs. Sorry, Humans!

Ultimately, I say the Asura are a strong contender for one of the most unique cultures I've experienced in an MMO. I'll definitely be playing one at launch (and looking forward to a good chance to call someone a Bookah!).

It's taken an Asura's intellect, a Human's charm, a Sylvari's wisdom, a Charr's passion, and a Norn's love of strong mead to dive into the Guild Wars 2 beta and make sense of the game. Fortunately, we have all five on the Massively staff. Enjoy our previews, guides, and our weekly GW2 column, Flameseeker Chronicles!

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