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Guild Wars 2: The Best MMO I've Played In Years

Guild Wars 2 is the best MMO I’ve played in years. It’s not perfect, and it doesn’t turn genre convention on its ear as much as the pre-release rhetoric from NCsoft and ArenaNet might have led you to believe, but this ambitious and well-executed MMORPG artfully marries the twin design tenets of rewarding same-faction cooperation and providing hardcore, skill-based PvP competition.

[Editor's Note: Game Informer does not assign traditional review scores to MMOs given their constantly updating and changing nature. This column examines the game with a critical eye, and takes the place of a standard review.]

This is cast in the mold of the EverQuest/World of Warcraft lineage of MMORPGs, but with several key innovations. Some parts of the game, like the big-ticket World vs. World combat, are leagues beyond anything available in competing titles. Others, like the leveling process, are familiar but so dramatically improved over genre standards that you’ll have a hard time going back. ArenaNet’s unusual take on players’ personal storylines, on the other hand, is a half-baked shell of a feature that functions poorly. On balance, though, Guild Wars 2 is an exceptional game worth every penny of its sticker price and more, despite its lack of an ongoing subscription fee (see sidebar).

The incredible scale of the world is striking. Capital cities stretch out to the horizon. Handcrafted adventuring zones are packed full of content, and are as gigantic as they are numerous. ArenaNet has almost entirely avoided the cut-and-paste trap that some MMOs fall into; every corner you turn brings an arresting new vista full of unique visuals. From the overall art direction to the tiniest animation, Guild Wars 2 is one of the best-looking games I’ve ever played.

After the initial buzz from the presentation fades, a deeper and more permanent love affair with the mechanics is clear to take root. Combat is still a matter of pressing hotbar buttons, but the need to aim most attacks instead of having them automatically seek their targets lends battle a dynamic edge lacking in similar MMOs, even newer ones like Rift and Star Wars: The Old Republic. All but the most basic fights ask more of players than other MMORPGs do, from dodging out of nasty charge-up attacks to adapting tactics and skill priorities to each encounter.

 

The limited skill bar is the other key to the combat system. Unlike World of Warcraft and its brethren, where a high-level character often has upwards of three dozen skills and items that need to be fired off in particular sequences or situations to coax optimal output from your hero, you’re limited to 10 total skills plus a unique class feature or three. As in the original Guild Wars, you’re largely free to fill those 10 slots with the skills you like or need to fulfill your role in a group. Every one of the dozens of combinations I’ve tried across several classes is suited to a unique playstyle, and the design of each individual skill and overall class has thus far prevented anything approaching a “cookie-cutter” build from becoming dominant in any sphere.

 

The most impressive accomplishment of the combat and skill design is how it obviates the very idea of a “skill rotation” that is endemic to most other hotbar-combat MMOs. Picking the right time to hit your buttons is what makes a player skillful, rather than finding the “correct” build in an online guide and burning the optimal ability rotation into your muscle memory. Along with the ever-present emphasis on ground-targeted effects, positioning, and dodging, the combat and skill design invites players to keep their eyes on the battle instead of playing the interface.

I wasn’t sold on the idea of removing the traditional tanking and healing roles, especially as someone whose favorite content is difficult group dungeons and raids, but so far my earlier skepticism is proving unfounded. The concept of giving every player a heal skill and making everyone responsible for their own health bar is working out brilliantly. Having a decent mix of damage- and support-focused characters in a PvE or PvP group is still helpful, but the line is pleasantly blurry. I’m not convinced that dungeon-style content is plentiful or good enough to hold my interest in the long-term, but Guild Wars 2 makes up for that in many other ways.

How content is structured is as important to an MMO as good fundamental mechanics are. Guild Wars 2 follows the same blueprint in this regard: Determine the core goal that this style of MMORPGs have been chasing since their inception, and come up with a new, better approach. The results are excellent.

Guild Wars 2’s leveling experience is unparalleled. The dynamic event system takes the place of questing, and holds several advantages over traditional designs. The window dressing of a quasi-living world falls apart about halfway to level cap as you realize that the game effectively trades static spawns for longer, more scripted spawn cycles, but it’s still a superior system. More importantly, combining the dynamic missions with the ability to meaningfully engage in content without having to find a quest-giver is a wonderful change.

The content is good enough and so intertwined that it’s not uncommon to wander into an event (which the interface makes dead simple to do), be pulled into a series of further encounters and scenarios, and not notice until an hour later that you’ve trekked across most of the zone and gained a level and a half. The generous cooperation mechanics – you always get full credit for killing an enemy or completing a  task, no matter if you started, finished, or helped a bit in the middle of other players also participating – mean that you’re always glad to see and work with other players. Larger events are basically pick-up raids, though like most leveling content they are tuned such that any old group of players can complete it without any meaningful communication. 

Crafting, exploring, questing, and plain old fighting are all rewarded with copious amounts of loot and experience. Whatever activity strikes your mood or playstyle, you can make meaningful progress by engaging in it. Taken all together, leveling is a silky-smooth, enjoyable experience full of opportunities to scratch most MMO player itches from fighting tough one-on-one battles to exploring treacherous jumping puzzles.

The one black mark on Guild Wars 2 is the poorly written, shoddily executed, badly conceived personal story solo-instance adventures that sprinkle your journey from level 1 to 80. Having some control over the course of the tale is neat, but ultimately pointless when the story itself is this bad. I could forgive the middle-school D&D campaign dialogue and narrative if the missions were cool. Rather than helping storied heroes save the world, though, I have thus far found myself either cursing buggy scripting that makes it difficult or impossible to complete objectives, or bored to tears slogging through generic waves of enemies. In every case, I’ve done a lot of eye-rolling while fast-forwarding painful dialogue. The decision to include terrible single-player RPG bits in this otherwise brilliant MMO is a baffling one.

PvP is the final piece of the Guild Wars 2 puzzle, and it’s a big one. The ambitious World vs. World design is amazing. Servers battle each other on gigantic, persistent, open-world zones built specifically for large group combat complete with towering fortifications and powerful siege engines. WvW can be a bit of a crapshoot, as hooking up with a group doing something interesting is dependent on your server, the day of the week, and even time of day. When you do find a group (or even better, organize a crew of your own), the excellent combat mechanics make it some of the best PvP in the genre. Like everything else, engaging in WvW is amply rewarded with loot, experience (though everyone’s base stats are boosted to level-cap values in WvW), and achievements.

Structured PvP is a separate, e-sports flavored option where everyone has every skill unlocked and wears gear with equivalent stats on it. Matches are objective-based and take place on servers akin to the way a competitive shooter like Battlefield works. The progression hook is much weaker here, though, as the only rewards are cosmetic items for use in more structured PvP. And, of course, the all-important achievements and bragging rights that dedicated PvPers do it for.

Guild Wars 2 is a shining, impressive achievement that will shape the MMORPG space for years to come. The personal story is bad, yes, but that’s a tiny sliver of the overall package. The execution of the rest of the game is nearly flawless on a level that only a handful of studios have ever achieved, much less in a massively multiplayer setting. The ambitious and unique retooling of genre conventions reveals a level of thoughtfulness on ArenaNet’s behalf that only the top tier of game developers can aspire to. We’re going to be playing and talking about this one for a long time.

A Respectful Business Model

In lieu of a monthly subscription fee, Guild Wars 2 has an in-game shop where items are sold for real-world currency to supplement the income provided by sixty-dollar box sales. Out of all the cash shops I’ve seen in online games, I like this one the best. Not only is it almost entirely avoidable if you don’t want to spend money (bank slots and bag slots are the only things I’d consider de-facto required), but the real-money currency is available for purchase with in-game currency. The exchange rate is dependent on the game-wide economy, but so far the effective gold prices for items and services have been comparable to the investment required for similar items in MMOs that lack cash shops entirely. Until and unless ArenaNet has a dramatic change of heart with regard to how it runs the cash shop, its inclusion is way more than a fair trade for the lack of a monthly fee.

Comments
  • Mod

    Lol "not a review".

  • I agree! Best MMO I've ever played as well! I will be playing this game, as long as humanly possible. :D

    You've been quite the busy one Adam. Explored a good portion of the world at level 55. Not bad. Once I'm done moving out of my apartment this weekend, I'm pounding the hell out of this game, as well as BL2. Two of my favorite games to release this year.

    EDIT: The graphics on this game, are also the best I've ever seen on any MMO.
  • Aren't they porting this game over to Mac? If so, then I might get to play this someday.
  • Seconded.  It's fantastic.

  • I need to get GW2 sometime.

  • Oh Adam posting this on the day the WoW expansion comes out and inviting the trolls in. I liked Guild Wars 2 but I found that it became boring very quickly once I hit lvl cap. That being said I have always been a raider and I always will be. Guild Wars 2 was great and I got my $60 worth, but I still prefer WoW to it. Also I think you give the combat too much credit, most of the dungeons are either bosses who do way to much damage that you can't dodge or have super easy to dodge attacks that will 1 hit you
  • I straight up did not read any of this article due to how long it was and how I quickly become bored with many MMOs I've played in the past. But the praise for this game seems to have no end in sight. Also...there's no subscription fee, only the one-time payment for the actual game is required? I just may have to go out and get this eventually.

  • Guild Wars 2 is the only MMO I have been able to get interested in.  It is a really great experience.

  • Might try this til War Z comes out

  • Hoping to grab this once i get a decent gaming rig.

  • Guild Wars 2's breaker Dragon villain is a damn near carbon copy of Deathwing, albeit with different looks. This is inexcusable
  • Never played it and I probably never will..
  • What a fine article. I agree with most of your points, except the combat and the best MMO I've played in years. Once I hit the level cap in this game, it felt almost... empty. I had this feeling several times while leveling as well. I think this game is very restricted in content and quests. The combat was okay, but so simple. One of the things I like, is figuring out my own rotation, and using it. This game is good, but I still favor WoW over GW2
    Wow PvP GW2 PvE
    Wow Questing = GW2 questing
    WoW end game > Guild Wars 2 engame
    WoW content (though WoW has more content) = GW2 content.
  • Not a big MMO guy, but this makes me very interested in at least trying it.

  • Guild Wars 2 is honestly one the best games, not just MMOs, I've played this generation. Those of you who are like me and could never find a really good MMO should give this game a shot. It's fantastic.
  • Woohoo! GW2>MW2.
  • Good review. This game is great, so long as you're not stuck in your ways as an mmo player. Some of the so-called "hardcore" will nay say this games lack of endgame, but I think those people are just looking at it in the wrong way. However, I would like to see some "endgame" added in future updates. Firstly, more event raids like those in orr and whatnot. Maybe even make the events take weeks to complete. That would be a blast!
  • GW2 is certainly a change of pace and offers features that could be considered a step in the right direction for the genre. However, I believe Adam is overexaggerating how "great" it actually is.

    Yes, players aren't pigeon-holed into certain roles. Yes, dynamic events are slightly better than the typical PvE dailies of most MMORPGs. Yes, GW2 offers a much better PvP experience than most MMORPGs, of which are PvE-oriented.

    The game certainly does a lot right in this regard and is impressive considering it is a F2P MMO. All that being said though, GW2 is far from perfect and while there are pros to ArenaNet's approach, there are also cons.

    The holy trinity has, for the most part, been eradicated from GW2. Cool. I'm not forced to wait hours to get a certain role to complete content. As a result though, dungeons are uninteresting as mechanics are simplistic and degenerate into a dodge/button mashing DPS fest. Since there is no dedicated tank or healer, everyone essentailly fulfills the same role, taking away variety from players.

    WvW is a nice step for MMORPGs (although nothing new to the industry), but suffers in a variety of ways. Having no factions causes the game to suffer from unity and identity with servers, with only large well-organized guilds really monopolizing the experience. Since the nature of WvW is essentially a zerg-fest, it really is a "if you can't beat them join them" menality. It has the potential to be a lot of fun, but like any other MMO, it also has the potential to be very bad and ultimately unenjoyable.

    Sure zones are massive and none of the world is randomly generated. What Adam fails to mention is that besides the occasional redundant dynamic event and the few heart quests available, there is really nothing to do in these zones. He also recognizes that the player can tailor their experience to how they level. But ultimately a player is forced to engage in a variety of activities if they actually want to level. If you want to level reasonably, you can't solely just do your own race zones, or craft, or PvP. Players are forced to do a variety of activities in order to achieve anything. This essentially makes the whole point of having choice irrelevant.

    While it is true that there is more variety and specs than one would see in a traditional MMO, it doesn't in any way get rid of the "cookie cutter" specs. In fact, players have already begun exploiting particular specs that are superior to the rest and have exploded in popularity on the game. Anyone else see a Whirlwind Warrior with a greatsword around in PvP?

    My final personal conclusion is that GW2 is a great purchase as a F2P MMO. If it were to actually have a monthly fee though, I probably would not be playing it. There are a lot of great ideas that are in the game, however execution and focus are not as well defined and there is a lot to be improved.

    When ESO launches next year, which shares many commonalities with GW2, I believe ArenaNet could potentially be at risk for losing a lot of players.
  • This should be Game of the Year. It's definitely the best in the MMO genre hands down.
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