(PC Review) Guild Wars 2

Developer: ArenaNet
Publisher: NCsoft
Genre: Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG)
Players: 1-A Lot
ESRB: Teen
Reviewer: Ryan Newman

Overall: 9 = Must Buy

Minimum Requirements:
Win XP (SP2), Intel Core 2 Duo 2.0 GHz/Core i3 or AMD Athlon 64 X2, 2 GB RAM, GeForce 7800ATI X1800, Intel HD 3000 with 256 MB RAM (Shader Model 3.0), 25 GB free hard drive space

The first time I played Guild Wars, ArenaNet’s massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), I was holed up in an out-of-state hotel as a hurricane was doing a number on my home town. As luck would have it, Guild Wars 2 launched as another hurricane was slowly approaching the coastline. Unfortunate coincidences aside, I have found few titles as well suited to being tucked into during a troubling time. While the original was a unique experience, combining single-player elements with the mechanics and online interplay of the day’s MMOs, Guild Wars 2 has gone far beyond its predecessor with a design that simultaneously offers players a satisfying single-player campaign but with the connectivity and depth of a full-blown MMO. Post-launch jitters aside, role-playing fans are in for a great time.

Newcomers will encounter a slight stumbling block early on, and that’s the minimal exposition as to what happened before, and how the original and its three expansions relate to the sequel. It’s been 250 years since the events in Guild Wars’   last expansion, Eye of the North, and all that’s especially clear is that things have not gone well. In the interim, massive dragons awoke from a long slumber and ravished the lands of Tyria, and humans, suffering from a harsh turn of fate and again at war with the deadly charr, are teetering on the edge of the abyss. It is into this chaos that you step—the hero who will turn the tide. As one of the five playable races—the resilient humans, impish and techy asura, feline-like charr, towering Nordish norn, or born-of-the-earth elvish sylvari—it’s your destiny to unite the disparate factions against the resurgent Elder Dragons. To do this, you must strengthen the bonds of the races by working through the fractious Destiny’s Edge, a group originally set up by the various races to battle the dragons that has since become little more than a loose cabal of antagonistic, strained relationships.

While this overarching storyline is the same regardless of race, how you reach your goals is determined by your own personal storyline. After selecting key points about your life and personality, similar to how Bethesda begins The Elder Scrolls titles, you are introduced to the game world by quests based around those answers. As you resolve these past conflicts, a gradual transition occurs that expands your role from that of an upstart finding their feet to a major player in the battle against the dragons and their forces. As an example, I initially created a human character and chose a tragedy that involved my sister being killed by centaurs, which led to a quest line where I was compelled to investigate a possible link between centaurs and the suspicious actions of those garrisoning a border fort. And that’s just one sub-quest line among several major quest lines for one faction, all of which are punctuated by stylish dialog screens that feature voiced conversations between detailed, animated characters. As you progress in your journey, your character’s story is collected in a book, which not only helps to tie in the many personal events with the overall narrative but to also keep track of outcomes so that alternate quest lines can be more fully explored whenever you create an alt in one of the four remaining character slots. You don’t have to go through the story alone, either, as other players can step in to lend a hand during difficult encounters. Even better, if they like the outcome, they can accept it as the result for their own storyline. Although your past remains an important part of your character’s development, you do grow beyond it, especially when you join one of the world’s three major orders: Durmond Priory, Order of Whispers, or Vigil. From there, the world opens up and the war against the dragons really picks up steam. In all, it’s a wonderful setup for those who want the more personal, customized storylines of single-player titles while also feeling as though they are part of the kind of dynamic, living worlds offered by MMOs.

The personal story serves an additional purpose, and that’s to pace players by introducing them to new, level-appropriate regions without overwhelming them. At the same time, progression requires leveling due to the fact that each subsequent plot point often has a recommended level several marks higher than where the player stands after wrapping up a quest line. Of course, gaining experience is easier now that you are in a new area, though actually earning said experience will require you to thoroughly explore your new surroundings. Naturally, this will also happen to involve a lot of assisting, harvesting, mining, and fighting.

One of the fastest ways to level up is by exploring the world. Each location is dotted by Points of Interest, waypoints, and vistas, all of which net you a decent amount of experience. They also happen to be very helpful travel aides. Points of Interest are locations of note, be it an abandoned mine, an outpost, a trading camp, or a section of a city, that help you to maintain your bearings as you travel about. Waypoints are the most beneficial of the lot as they serve as a transit system, allowing you to teleport to any that you have discovered; there is no connection system or physical restriction, either, though they do become increasingly expensive to access as you get further out. Vistas are spots in often hard-to-reach locations that offer short cinematics that give you the lay of the land; surprisingly, the platforming that is required to reach some of them isn’t terribly difficult thanks to fairly tight controls. These alone will account for much of your experience early on, and they remain a potent experience-generating pool throughout your adventure.

As you explore the world, small icons that look like weeds, logs, and lumps of rock will appear on the mini-map. These are the main raw materials that are used to generate and refine the items that are created by one of the game’s eight crafting trades: Armorsmith, Artificer, Chef, Huntsman, Jeweler, Leatherworker, Tailor, and Weaponsmith. Each resource requires an axe, pick, or sickle to harvest, which are available in varying qualities. Each higher-grade variant allows you to harvest higher-quality resources, and increases the possibility of harvesting a better ingredient, or even a rare material or surprise find. The game doesn’t stop you from mining superior materials with inferior tools, though. Even if you don’t receive any usable ingredients, you’ll definitely want to harvest them anyway because, as with traveling, they offer generous returns in experience.

Once you’ve harvested enough, there is still further experience to be gained by using those materials in crafting. Of note is how the game handles all of these harvested goods. If you find that space is becoming tight in one of your item bags, you can quickly and easily clear out all collectible materials by simply selecting to deposit them in an off-site chest. Depositing the goods will allow you to use them at any crafting station while freeing up whatever inventory slot they were using, and even better, the deposit count is both high and entirely separate from the account (bank) vault that holds other non-material items. Once you arrive at one of the appropriate crafting stations, which are too scarce in some parts of the world, you simply activate it, and then select the items you want to make or combine (up to four items can be combined to create recipes).

Crafting requires registering with a master craftsman, and you can only be actively engaged with any two at the same time. That might seem limiting, but the game allows you to easily switch between trades by simply telling a master that you wish to deactivate a current trade to learn theirs—all items and experience are retained. As with most aspects of Guild Wars 2, there are levels in crafting. As rough materials are created from raw materials and further refined into finished goods, experience points are accumulated that go towards increasing your level of proficiency for that trade, which also garners character experience. As you produce more goods, lower-end items offer less and less experience until their creation becomes too rote to warrant advancement. But you can also experiment, creating stat-boosting runes and badges which can then be added to refined goods for further upgrades, such as additional health and increased precision. As with the random items you loot, created gear can be broken down with salvaging equipment to attain some of the raw materials used in their manufacture for re-use. Few things are wasted in Tyria.

For those who would prefer to not spend their time gathering resources, creating the nick-knacks necessary to create gear, or both, there is the game-wide marketplace known as The Black Lion Trading Company. The Black Lion allows you to buy and sell any and all items for a small fee, with their scattered agents serving as drop-off and pick-up points. To be clear, the fee is a percentage of the in-game money that will be earned from the expected sale. However, actual money can be spent to buy Gems from Black Lion, which are used to purchase more extravagant items (e.g., special costume gear) and helpful kit (e.g., additional item storage space and vault space). Patient players can avoid spending their hard-earned cash by trading in stockpiled Gold for Gems. The exchange rate of cash to Gems determined by the game’s fluctuating economy, but the trade-off has been fair thus far. Black Lion also offers a great way to get that extra coin by allowing you to rid yourself of useless ingredients and items for a princely sum. If you want to throw your luck to the wind, you can always take a visit to the Mystic Forge in the capital of Lion’s Arch, where you can toss together four disparate, or even mystic, items for a random piece of kit. The game has recipes throughout, purchasable with Karma (a form of currency earned by doing good deeds that can be traded in for higher-grade items), Skill Points, or money, but it’s more fun to throw caution to the wind and see what comes out. True craftsmen laugh at assurances! (Ha!)

Ahem … sorry. Getting to all of those resource deposits and attaining all of those coins will inevitably involve fighting. Given how well combat is handled in Guild Wars 2, that’s a great thing. However, for those who prefer going the less-physical route, the game offers numerous activities that for alternative means of leveling. In many cases, the game favors its more explorative and creative side, with the experience gained from felling enemies eclipsed by that gained from felling a few trees. Still, fighting isn’t entirely avoidable, as there are numerous areas populated by wandering wildlife and patrolling enemies that go for blood and dotted with dangerous Dungeons, Events, and Quests.

Dungeons are optional, party-based instances that can be separate or part of the overarching storyline, where characters join together to take down tough enemies in self-contained areas. Far more common are the Events, which are scenarios that pop up during play that allow players to join together to complete an objective, be it escorting a supply caravan, delivering vials of an antidote to a doctor, clearing research facilities of anomalies, or saving townsfolk from slavers (and subsequently freeing those caught). A text splash indicates when an Event is nearby, and a circle on the map pinpoints the area you have to be in to receive experience for participating. Depending on how involved you are in seeing the task through to completion, you will receive a bronze, silver, or gold medal, along with that medal’s corresponding rewards in money, experience, and Karma points. Events pop up all over the place, and it isn’t uncommon to take part in the same one several times during a single session. As with fighting low-level creatures, repeating Events remains a viable means of gaining experience throughout the game due to a dynamic leveling system. Going into a high-level area while you’re still a new player will result in some painful lessons, while going through a starter or low-level area later on will see your level knocked down but gear and skills retained. This means that taking down the lowliest of creatures will still net some experience, and favored Events will be worth replaying even after you’ve far passed that area’s recommended level range (handily displayed on the world map).

The well-crafted combat system also means that being in an area with higher-level enemies doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily out of your league. Characters have access to Weapon Skills, Slot Skills (Healing, Utility, and Elite), and Traits with which to draw from during battle. The interplay between all of these elements makes for an engrossing and involved system that allows for stronger enemies to be bested while asking more from you than most other MMOs. Each character has a pool of stamina that allows for swift evasion of attacks by rolling either sideways, forwards, or backwards, which can create some dramatic turnarounds, while special skills recharge on their own instead of drawing from a mana pool or other reserve.

Despite their radically different appearances, the races are similar when it comes to combat. There are racial skills that come into play, but they aren’t a significant factor in forming a fighting style. Instead, the predominant element is in which of the eight professions that your character belongs: Elementalist, Engineer, Guardian, Mesmer, Necromancer, Ranger, Thief, or Warrior. Each has access to a variety of weapon types, including rifles, axes, torches, spears, swords, warhorns, and daggers. The available skills are determined by which weapons are equipped. For instance, an Engineer can equip a long-range two-handed rifle, two pistols, or a shield-and-pistol combo by having their main weapon as a pistol and their off-hand weapon as either a pistol or shield. Those various combinations offer a number of abilities, ranging from a demobilizing net fired from the rifle, an area-of-effect sticky and enemy-slowing goo fired from the pistols, and a shield ability that reflects missile fire. The abilities offered by weapon types differ by profession, with shields giving Warriors a bashing ability that stuns enemies, while they give the Guardian a projecting ability that harms enemies and protects friendlies. Weapon Skills are gradually unlocked with use, with only the first attack being immediately available when first equipping a weapon; these go towards unlocking Slot Skills through points earned by leveling. These newly unlocked abilities can be assigned to one of the handful of Utility slots on the Skill Bar, which means that only some of your powers will be available at any given time.

Your Weapon Skills are augmented further by your ever-increasing character stats. As you divvy up the points amongst several rows of Traits, new skills are unlocked at set intervals. Increasing your Traits also increases your character’s primary and secondary attributes, with the former consisting of your character’s core stats: Power, Precision, Toughness, and Vitality. The bonus tier abilities also offer some fun perks: after 10 points have been assigned to Explosives, Engineers are given a choice of several abilities to choose from, one of which is the ability to drop an explosive powder keg after a successful Evade. Subsequent tiers and their bonus perks are accessed by purchasing increasingly expensive manuals from your profession’s trainers. Reading a manual not only unlocks the next tier, but it also allows you to reassign all accumulated points. With three tiers in total, there is a great degree of customization.

Skills are unlocked using a set of points known as Skill Points, which are gained by completing certain challenges, communing with powerful spots in the world, and leveling. As you purchase a set number of skills within one tier, subsequent tiers are unlocked that host more expensive skills. Gradually, you will work your way through the hierarchy until you gain access to the most expensive tier that hosts only a handful of Elite Skills. There is also a tertiary skill set nestled in the Mechanic Bar that is a subset of other skills or of that profession’s abilities. These control anything from engaging the Necromancer’s Death Shroud form to controlling the Ranger’s pet or engaging the Engineer’s utility belt (attacks that vary depending on the Utility Skills equipped).

Combining the various skills will engage ad hoc combos and pre-set combos. The latter consists of two abilities, an initiator and a finisher, creating a chain reaction with an area-of-effect ability enhancing or being enhanced by the follow-up ability. The effects of combining the two can result in anything from a projectile catching on fire in mid-flight for additional damage to a healing spell increasing in potency. The former are less structured and more organic, coming about through experimentation. The Engineer offers many examples of some great custom combos, including a three-move attack that deals heavy damage to multiple enemies: after engaging a stomping blast that deals splash damage during takeoff and landing, followed by a scatter shot that deals damage to all nearby enemies, you can then cap off the surprise assault with a shot that has the double knockback effect of sending both the targeted enemy and you flying back (and out of harm’s way). And that’s just for one weapon set with one profession. Through the various weapon types and sets available, Guild Wars 2 also largely does away with the need for parties to have set roles, as each profession is capable of attacking from afar, at close range, and acting in a support role. While players can certainly choose to specialize with a group dynamic in mind, the requirement of having to do so has been decreased significantly by the game’s focus on personal storylines—it would be hard to have an engrossing personal quest otherwise. Combos coupled with the hands-on evade technique offer a combat system that is second to none.

It shouldn’t surprise you at this point, but there’s more. In a twist that will undoubtedly inspire some groans, there is a good deal of underwater combat. Not only do you switch weapons when you head under the waves but an entirely new skill set becomes available. Aside from narrow caverns being hell on the camera controls, playing underwater is very similar to playing on land, with the main difference being the ease with which you can ascend and descend amidst obstacles and structures. Each player is given a device that allows them to breathe underwater to explore the depths for as long as desired. There are resources to mine, characters to talk to, and enemies to fight—just like on terra firma. Swimming along the surface is allowed as well, which is a quick means of travel, though doing so denies you access to your skills.

Whether you’re on land or under the sea, there will be times when you’ve been bested. After losing all of your health, you will be in a downed state. As you struggle to hold on, you will be given a few moments to rally to either reach the surface (underwater) or get back on your feet (on land). During this time, you have access to a limited skill set designed around reviving yourself to continue the fight. Three of the four downed skills are determined by profession and designed around attacking and defending, and the fourth a minor healing spell. Rallying will occur if a targeted enemy is defeated while you’re down, while the others allow for you to hold on long enough to allow allies to fight back enemies while you bandage yourself. If time runs out and you’re defeated, you can either wait for another player to revive you or spend the coin to revive at a Waypoint. The penalty for being downed is pretty light, with an accumulated effect decreasing how much health will be available the next time you’re downed and how long it will take the be revived, in addition to the cost it takes to repair your damaged armor. As to why the penalty is so light, ArenaNet has stated that “Defeat is the penalty; we don’t have to penalize you a second time.” I can’t argue with that.

The game’s breakneck pace ensures that new moves and skills are always being unlocked. It doesn’t take all of the 80 levels to hit your sweet spot, but it can take a while. Fortunately, there are myriad bonuses for those who log in every day and engage in the world. There are not only daily and monthly achievements but also some for all kinds of strange and not-so-strange tasks: killing certain monster types, maiming the random critters that roam the world (I never did like the cut of those armadillos’ jib), consuming a certain amount of food, salvaging a set amount of materials from items, and so on. The daily achievements are the easiest to accomplish, which tasks players with taking part in a certain number of Events, harvesting resources, and tackling various enemy types. The rewards are not only the expected coin, experience, and Karma, but also items, such as coins to fabricate high-end items. The steady trickle of rewards are both flashy (bold, glittering letters and icons detailing your progress) and tangible (cash and experience), which adds the kind of excitement and reward structure to keep players coming back.

However, if you’re the bloodthirsty type of player, or just worried about the focus on questing, ArenaNet has other means to satisfy. The dynamic leveling system allows for players to jump into online versus play right off the bat, but things are a bit different in Guild Wars 2. Instead of simply running up and fighting another player at will, you have to take your aggression to one of the two different worlds set up for versus play. The two have very different links to the standard Player versus Environment (PvE) realm where you spend your time completing the personal storyline. It’s best to think of them as three steps, with the next leading to a more self-contained and violent arena.

The PvE world is populated with a player base eager to help out. That air of camaraderie is built upon a design that eschews a zero-sum mentality that results in loot and experience being doled out based on participation rather than number of participants. Moving further into dangerous lands is the World versus World (WvW) realm. Here, players are dynamically leveled up to 80 but retain all items and skills they have unlocked playing through the storyline; all harvested items, looted gear, and gained experience are also brought back with them to PvE. In this world, factions vie for control of one of several battlefields by taking and holding outposts, supply caravans, strongholds, and other fortifications. There are groups of monsters to ally with (by holding an associated Point of Interest), Events to partake in, siege engines to construct, and assaults to launch. Winning in WvW incurs bonuses, such as additional health points, while losing means a hard slog to regain a foothold in that battleground. By retaining all of their skills, advanced players will have the bonus of a deeper pool of moves and combos to pull from, while lower-level players will be able to help out while also gaining the experience that will lead to them to expanding their own skill sets. Then there is the other end of the spectrum: the Player versus Player (PvP) mode. Centered on squad-based combat, PvP involves small groups of players engaging in tournaments consisting of small battle maps that are won by holding key points long enough to hit a point marker. Not only is the focus a total shift from the all-for-one mentality of PvE, but PvP is also separate in terms of experience (ranking), gear, and rare items. The gradual shift from teaming together to small-scale brawls covers pretty much all the grounds.

Of course, the carrots ArenaNet dangles in front of characters to help and keep spirits high in PvE is completely removed for WvW and PvP, which is much more reliant on the behavior of the other players. Without a commanding strategist to take the reins, WvW can devolve into masses wandering about from point to point, attempting to take strong fortifications manned by a determined foe or by those with superior commanders who can easily fend off such haphazard sieges. Bickering can also slow things down, as higher-level players jockey for position as they lay out their plans for which areas should be attacked, where supply should go, and what the next move should be. That’s also expected, though, and the increasing communication that can develop between new comrades also lends itself well to the much more tactical PvP, where a focused take on combat means that those more in tune with each other are more likely to take and hold the key points. Although, given that all online play is all about fighting and compromising with others, a better structured strategic layer within the WvW framework could help to smooth things out.

Suffice to say, there is a wealth of content in Guild Wars 2. That alone wasn’t what took so long for this review to come together, though, as I experienced a number of technical problems. In the beginning, I was hit with a powerful one-two punch that combined the kind of bugs and glitches prone to newly launched MMOs and from a nasty memory leak caused by a combination of a 32-bit version of Windows 7 and an Nvidia graphics card. While the leak still occurs, ArenaNet has made significant strides in improving the game’s stability, allowing for far lengthier sessions than previously—before being suddenly greeted by a pop-up explaining that the game has crashed and to please email ArenaNet the error log or unceremoniously dumped to the desktop. While I still frequently experience crashes, hiccups, and graphical anomalies, such as enemies becoming untargeted or conversations with invisible character models, they are occurring less and less with each update. What has been a sort of unsung hero throughout my adventures has been the stability and frequency of my save states, which have always kept me near my previous location and have yet to result in a loss of items, experience, or progress due to a crash.

Just as great strides have been made to increase stability, so too have there been to add unfinished content. There are still characters with ‘not working’ tags in their names, and Skill Point Challenges without any characters with which to converse, but things are changing and improving all of the time in the lands of Tyria. Shortly before wrapping up the review, I found several previously broken quests and a Skill Challenge fixed, allowing me to finally clear an area I had long since worn down … and then the game crashed. ArenaNet is getting there, slowly but surely—and fortunately, what’s already there is great.

Guild Wars 2
combines the personal storyline, character customization, and varied combat system of a single-player role-playing game with the living, evolving world of an MMO in the best ways possible. There are still technical issues being worked on, and by evidence of the game’s increased stability and expanding content, ArenaNet is already making great progress in that regard. No MMO will be completely frustration free, whether from bots cluttering up an area or the occasional rollback because of a glitch, but so far, Guild Wars 2 has managed to offer an engrossing experience that is only getting better as time goes on. Now if someone would just plug that leak.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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