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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
  • @BethesdaWare: Interesting thoughts. I don't disagree with you for the most part, but I think you're underselling events/hearts as being the massive improvements over standard questing that I think they are. WvW has problems -- it's zergy, queues are terrible, exploits suck -- but when it works as designed it's great and there's a ton of potential. I do disagree that players are pigeonholed. I play a Guardian and I've busted out a ton of different builds in dungeons and group PvP and had success. It's not at *all* comparable to for instance the "heal or GTFO" attitude toward vanilla WoW paladins/druids/shaman (which has resurfaced at various later points in WoW's life). Absolutely agreed that endgame is a little empty outside WvW. That's the biggest issue ANet has right now, and they'll be needing to get some more real endgame content out there sooner than later.
  • i totally agree.i played wow for 5  years and i have played GW2 for 5 days. wow was never this good.

  • I got up to lv 30. And so far im not impressed with this game at all. I was hoping for more because of the hype around it, but sadly it just does not seem that good to me. WoW and SWTOR are much better then this too me.
  • In my personal opinion GW2>WOW. Wow never made me feel as if I was traveling through a living world like GW2. This has to be the first mmo to encourage the player to explore the massive maps and you don't have to worry about jerks stealing your kills. You begin to welcome the arrival of a stranger, no more signing off to log on as the opposite faction just to keep killing the jerk getting in the way of farming and completing quest. Wow had a good run, I can't say I hate it, for now guild wars2 is what future mmos will inspire to be... Its sad when most of the wow players won't even pick it up and miss out on a real gem
  • I agree with this "review". Although I find their way of storytelling refreshing. No more lengthy text readings! I was able to play this at my cousin's house and I loved it. Need to get this game soon, and a new video card.

  • I fell back in love with video games by playing MMOs (my return was with CoH), but after WotLK and all the WoW clones, I was getting really sick and tired of the lack of freshness in the genre as well as the asinine comments made by people online regarding how to set-up builds ("you're playing your char wrong noob!") and various other trolling comments. I almost wrote off the entire genre and the corresponding MMO community. The one thing that got me to buy this MMO was its dynamic play style. As a gamer, I love trying out different game mechanics and since it seemed so fresh, I had to try it. I'm really glad that I did. I'm having a great time playing this MMO (which is something I haven't said in a long time... probably since BC). I haven't tried out any dungeons but I do have to say I disagree slightly with Adam on his point on the personal quest missions. I really think it depends on the race & the story line you choose for your character. So far of the 3 race/class combos I've made, I like some of the stories more than others. So I would definitely recommend playing up to the ending starting area to see if you enjoy your char's story line or not. Also with regards to team dynamics, I've had a great time doing area events with a small number of people. 2 other players and I were trying to down a swamp boss on our own. We died a couple times on & off rezzing each other throughout the process. A fourth player came at the end and we were able to finish him off. It's such a great experience accomplishing something difficult with other players that know what they're doing even without communication involved. Overall, I love the game. I love that it's somewhat difficult and that combat is so dynamic. You will die in this game and it's been a LONG time since a game has done that. Thank you ArenaNet for making a game that is challenging and rewarding. I highly recommend it!
  • I need a good gaming PC.
  • Amen, brother.

  • I must be the only person still enjoying SWTOR on this site at this point...
  • Mod

    I am not an avid MMO player, but I did give this game a purchase and am loving it so far.  I do need to get more social though so I can take on more of my class quests.  I'm on Ehmery bay, anybody else there?

  • First I have to say this. I think Guild wars 2 HAS turned the MMO world on its head. Why? it gets rid of the elitist sense that I am a Tank, or I am a Healer so my role is more important. (I always played as a pally tank...and healer in WOW.....for 6 years, so this is not a Bias opinion)

    What adam said. "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."

    And I agree entirely! So how is this not moving the genre forward in a big way? This is a GREAT idea on paper, and could have been executed poorly, but Arena Net hit the nail on the head. I can see future MMO's adopting this option...No wait times, not elitist behavior, no arguing over who messed up. He also forgot to mention that any player can rez. Also, the more you have helping rez, the quicker the downed player rezes.

    Adam did touch on the action bar a bit, but in my opinion it is amazing. As he said it is not about rotation, it is about the button for the moment. He also failed to mention that you can carry two weapon sets out of a total of 8 combinations that you switch between, thus the 10 moves. Five moves are for one weapon set, while the other five are for the other weapon set. These actions flow seemlesly, and are beautiful to execute.

    Another note is that quests do not play out like quests in other MMO's like Wow or Rift. As soon as you enter a quest area you see your objectives, once completed you can turn in your karma points, as they are called, into the quest giver to buy boon (Buffs), recipes, weapons, or armor. No more looking for the quest giver, doing a quest, then running back to turn them in.

    All in all I think that GW2 is a huge step forward in MMO's because it IS being so different from the MMO king WOW.

    All other MMO's that came before it to try to compete fell flat because they kept the same mechanics as wow, but tried to change the production value a bit.

    Wow is like a lion...King of the Jungle. If a company wants to antogonize the Lion you dont follow it. You poke it in the nuts with a stick, poke your chest out, and dare it to come get you...while at the same time hiding a 357 behind your back....Arena Net is doing this. They are testing the lion!

  • I think I'll stick to waiting for SWTOR to go free to play.
  • less moves = less skill LOL

  • Fantastic game, it takes a little getting used too since you'll get all 10 skills by 30, but as you unlock utility skills and switch around weapons you'll find plenty of variety and not to mention how fun it is because its so engaging. :D

  • Fantastic game, it takes a little getting used too since you'll get all 10 skills by 30, but as you unlock utility skills and switch around weapons you'll find plenty of variety and not to mention how fun it is because its so engaging. :D

  • Can anyone tell me if they would recommend this game? I don't really have that much MMO experience, but this still sounds really fun.
  • Hah, publishing this the day the WoW expansion comes out

  • I really need to get this game!

  • I don't forsee ever paying for a subscription game again. If Arena can put out a game of this quality with no subscription then so can everyone else.  

  • This game looks pretty cool.  I checked online and saw that it's available for Macs now, so I might give it a try.