Guild Wars 2: the latest attempt to beat World of Warcraft at its own game.
Guild Wars 2: the first game I’ve played that’s actually managed it.
Oh, I doubt it’ll have the runaway success and the eleven million subscribers WoW did at its peak, but then Guild Wars 2 doesn’t have subscribers. It doesn’t have a subscription fee. It just has people who buy the game and play it. The original Guild Wars also had no subscription fee, but it managed this by not really being an MMO as such. In Guild Wars 1 pretty much every single area except inter-mission “hub” areas was instanced (which is MMO-speak for being split off into a unique private game for you and your friends) and there was very little interaction with other players unless you got into trading or PvP in a big way. I played Guild Wars for sixty hours or so and I think this approach worked pretty well for the game, along with its collection of sizeable expansion packs providing regular infusions of new content for the players and cash for the developers.
Which is why I’m actually pretty startled at how closely Guild Wars 2 hews to the WoW approach of a massive persistent world (although it’s not completely contiguous, being split up into twenty or so discrete areas that you have to go through a loading screen to transition between). It’s consciously rejecting the design of its predecessor and providing a full-fat MMO experience that developers have always said required a subscription fee or microtransactions to finance. So when you fight monsters in Guild Wars 2, when you do quests and events and explore the world, you’re doing so alongside a vast number of other players – and unlike a lot of MMOs these players will almost always help you out with what you’re doing because the game is designed from the ground up to incentivise working together.
The WoW approach of “tagging” a monster with the first hit so that only you got the experience and the loot actively discouraged helping people who weren’t in your party and lead to unpleasant phenomena like monster queues and spawn camping. Similarly environmental/gathering items were also one use only – I lost count of the number of times I’d try to clear monsters away from a promising ore vein only to have some opportunistic bastard swoop in and grab it while I was tied up fighting them. In Guild Wars 2, though, the world may not be instanced any more but everything else that matters is. Hitting a monster once is enough to tag it and get experience/credit for the eventual kill. If it drops loot, then it will drop a separate set of loot for every single player who tagged it, meaning people actually want to come help you fight that huge crowd of trolls you aggroed because you’ll both get something useful out of it and you’ll kill them more quickly if you work together. The same goes for resource nodes, which can be harvested once per player rather than once full stop. It’s kind of staggering how long it’s taken for the gaming world to produce an MMO where people flock towards fights and cooperate in completing tasks and events rather than just running on by because there’s no benefit to them to help out. Guild Wars 2 might look like a regular MMO in terms of its basic structure, but as far as the actual playing experience goes it couldn’t be more different thanks to this markedly different design philosophy.
And the weird (or not so weird) thing is that incentivising player cooperation like this fosters a more helpful attitude amongst players in general1. The vistas scattered throughout the game provide a good example of this; these are high-up points on the map similar to the church towers in Assassin’s Creed that players can get to and activated for a brief panoramic cutscene showing the area they’re in along with a lump sum of experience points. The catch is that the route you need to take to get to them is rarely obvious, and often involves a jumping puzzle2 or a hidden pathway. This leads to players clumping up on their way up to the vista as they run into a particularly difficult jump or a non-obvious part of the route, but once one person figures it out they will more often than not tell the rest how to do it before moving on. It’s a nice thing to do, and it’s a generally nice atmosphere in general; the fact of the matter is that there are very few ways for you to actively inconvenience another player in this game and you get more stuff for working together, so players are going to naturally gravitate towards the latter.
Quests are another MMO staple that have been drastically altered in order to stop players from treading on one another’s toes. There aren’t any NPCs with floating yellow exclamation marks over their heads, and neither do you have to kill twenty of a specific type of bear or collect forty bear testicles3 or whatever. Instead quests are tied to areas. Once you blunder into the quest area you’ll get a little popup in the top right of the screen notifying you what you have to do, along with a progress bar. Fulfilling any of the quest tasks contributes to filling that progress bar. The tasks themselves are quite varied; while you can usually complete a quest by repeatedly killing a certain type of mob that’s far from being the only option available to you. I’ve captured bugs in jars to feed to cows, made snowmen out of discarded armour, and even played whack-ye-mole once, all of which eventually led to a lump sum of XP and a small monetary reward. While it can be difficult to do a quest in an area that’s oversaturated with players, the fact that most quest items are instanced with a unique copy for you and you only means you can usually progress no matter how many people are present, with no monster races or spawn camping or any of that other crap.
The really interesting thing about quests in Guild Wars 2 is that they’re very definitely a secondary objective, taking a back seat whenever a dynamic event turns up. Dynamic events are yet another side to the many-faceted approach Guild Wars takes towards player cooperation, and there’s usually a couple of them going on in a zone at any one time. If an event starts nearby you get a popup telling you what’s going on as well as a map marker telling you where to go if you want to participate. Once you get there you’ll be greeted by some apocalyptic nightmare like the one pictured above, with dozens of players laying into dozens of enemies (or a single giant enemy crab); this is because the event marker acts as the batsignal for every other player in the zone and events scale in difficulty (up to point) with the number of players present in the event area. Events range from assaulting forts and stopping sieges to sabotaging war machines and training battle cows (?), and simply participating in one for a couple of seconds is enough to get you a reward equal to or greater than what you’d get if you spend ten minutes doing a quest. Again, this is the game incentivising players working together to achieve a goal rather than running off to do their own thing.
Events on their own are quite the innovation, but the really impressive thing about them (to me) is the way they cascade and set up subsequent events in a chain. The very first proper event I ran into was a take-and-hold job on some ogre watchtowers, which was easy enough. Success here triggered the next event in the chain, where a massive ogre attack force moved in to retake the watchtowers and our brave band of players had to keep five quest NPCs alive under this onslaught. We managed this, just barely, and were rewarded with a third event to capture the nearby ogre kraal from which the counterattack had been launched. Finally we had to kill the (ludicrously tough) ogre chieftain to cement our hold over the area. Not all events cascade like this but most of them do, and even failing an event isn’t the end of the world; it’ll give you a smaller chunk of XP for trying, and the failure might even shift you to a different event chain entirely. For example, failing an event to defend an NPC encampment against a horde of attackers will temporarily render the encampment facilities/waypoint unusable for everyone in the game, but it’ll also give the people that failed the event a chance for redemption by giving them another event in which they have to retake the settlement. Giving players something interesting even if they fail takes the pressure off and encourages everyone to focus on having a good time, and the fact that any player can join an event at any point in the chain – again – incentivises people to jump in and help out.
Then there’s the exploration aspect of the game. Discrete points of interest are marked on your map once an area has been uncovered, and visiting each one gives you a small amount of XP. Completely exploring an entire area gives you a very large chunk of XP as well as some money, crafting materials and valuable items, but this isn’t always easy as 100%ing an area requires players to get all of the vistas, and these are often hidden behind cunning (and occasionally frustrating) jumping puzzles or secret passages. Or they require you to beat a miniboss and pull a chain or open a locked door. Exploration in Guild Wars 2 isn’t the usual braindead process of riding around until you’ve uncovered the entire map, instead requiring a little bit of lateral thinking, and I like it.
Still, so far, so MMO. The specifics may be different but as far as the general thrust of exploration goes there’s nothing here that a completionist player of the genre won’t have seen before: “Get all the things on the map” isn’t particularly original no matter how much they jazz it up. However, what cemented a definite love for Guild Wars in my heart was the time I ran into something that wasn’t marked on my map. I’d just found a vista by – for once – not doing a jumping puzzle, but instead running through a small rock passage heavily obscured by foliage. Jumped on top of the rocks, collected the vista, and then things went right off the rails when I heard a grizzled pirate voice coming from a nearby cave/pit. I saw another player standing at the top, evidently as puzzled as I was. Then he jumped in. Thinking “There can’t be anything down there, can there? There’s nothing on my map.” I headed over to take a look, blundered a little bit too far and fell into the pit myself.
This turned out to be a good thing, however, because the bottom of the pit lead to a completely undocumented (as far as the map was concerned) secret ghost pirate maze full of puzzles and booby traps. Getting through that thing with the three other players who had also found it is the most fun I think I have ever had in an MMO, and the best part is it wasn’t an easter egg that one of the level designers tossed off in an afternoon; instead it was an entire mini-dungeon where the only barrier to entry was having the brains to find and access the damn thing. From what I’ve seen and what my friends have seen, Guild Wars 2 is just full of meaty secret stuff like that. This is how you reward exploration, game developers – not with a poxy achievement for doing all of the things, but with a unique player experience that they can’t get anywhere else and which they have to find themselves.
Of course, part of the reason I say that is because I’m playing it close to launch day and there’s not yet any wiki detailing every single secret area in the game in exhaustive detail. Once there is I’m sure a lot of the magic will be gone, as even if I stay away from it every other bastard will be using it to look up the solution to whatever puzzle we happen to be stuck on, but I’m enjoying it while I can. It’s a good tradeoff for putting up with the usual MMO launch woes; Arenanet have done a sterling job of keeping the game servers and login servers themselves up and aside from a brief period on Wednesday evening I’ve always been able to get into the game itself. It’s just that a lot of the ancillary stuff is broken or disabled — most notably the trading house, Guild Wars’ auction house equivalent. The trading house is absolutely crucial to any sort of crafting profession as otherwise you have to go out and grind some of the materials yourselves, and without it that entire part of the game is pointlessly crippled. I have been able to access the trading house for all of ten minutes over the last week of play, but as a result of those ten minutes I more than doubled my level in tailoring. Then I ran right back into that brick wall when the trading house went down again. It’s a shame, because from what I saw of it during those ten minutes it looked very slick.
I have faith that will be fixed sooner or later, though. There’s other stuff I’m not so sure about, such as the fairly anaemic guild functionality (a curious omission in a game called Guild Wars) which I’m pretty sure will have to be padded out in an inevitable expansion pack, but once they get all the stuff that currently should be in the game working it should be a very comprehensive and fun MMO experience. It might have a relatively high up-front cost (Guild Wars 2 retails on Amazon.co.uk for £35); however, it also has a monthly subscription fee of bugger all. All the gameplay changes and tinkering Arenanet have made are great and they make the game really really fun, but it’s the lack of subscription fee which really makes Guild Wars stand out for me as it means I can take a break from it without worrying that time or money is going to waste. It will still be there when I go back to it, whether that be in a couple of days or a couple of months. Not feeling pressured to get my money’s worth out of an MMO is a wonderful feeling and it contributes greatly to my being able to sit back and enjoy all the game for what it is: the best MMORPG currently on the market, which actively iterates and improves on decade-old genre conventions and which should hopefully make its way down the road littered with the recent corpses of failed MMOs (TOR, Secret World etc.) to carve out its own niche in the market.
Guild Wars 2 might not surpass WoW in terms of player count or money made but as far as I’m concerned it’s already toppled it from its lofty perch as King Of MMOs by offering a far better player experience with no monthly fee. Even if you don’t like MMOs there’s definite mileage in this one as a simple game without any of the usual massively multiplayer strings attached, and if you do? Well, I think you’ll discover that Guild Wars 2 is nothing short of astonishing in how fun it all is. Buy it.
1. The Main server chat channel will still be braindead drivel, though; Guild Wars 2 is very, very good, but it can’t work miracles.
2. These jumping puzzles work just about as well as they can do in an MMO, although they’re still rather clumsy mechanically.
3. It’d always confuse me when the NPC would say “Bring me ten bear claws!” and I’d go out and murder a bear only to be rewarded with one measly claw. Doesn’t a bear have, like, five of them? On each paw?