[GW2] Hands on with Guild Wars 2

In case you are reading this and somehow not aware, Guild Wars 2 is a highly anticipated fantasy based MMO which builds on the lore from Guild Wars but is otherwise a completely different game. Current thinking is that it is probably due out next year.

The first sight I had of the off-site Guild Wars 2/Alienware tent was on the preview night of Comic Con, when Arb and I were searching for the shuttle bus to the pre-registration pickup location. We had walked the length of the convention centre twice and then been sent back to the far end, over the road, across a bridge … you get the picture.

As we finally found the bus stop, I noticed an Alienware branded tent in the car park next door. “No one’s ever going to find that,” I thought. Let’s just say that the exterior location was not the greatest. This worked in Randomessa’s favour as she was able to test out the GW2 demo extensively.

Never mind that, what did you think?

Inside the convention centre, NCSoft had a stand in one corner, near some of the other computer games, where they were running demos for Guild Wars 2 and City of Heroes. The GW2 demo lasted 40 mins so I decided to try to get in as early in the morning as I could and be prepared to wait awhile.

Few words about the stand: It was never throughly crowded like the Bioware one, but that’s partly due to location and partly due to it not being about Star Wars. The NCSoft staff were awesome – I think as soon as I stopped to watch someone else play the game, one of them asked me politely if I was interested in playing the demo and when I said I was, showed me how to tell how long was left on the current player’s screen. I also like to see female gamers staffing the stall and answering people’s questions about the game, it may be sexist but it makes me feel more welcome as a female gamer even if I never speak to them myself.

OK, back to the demo. Soon enough the guys playing the console in front of me came to the end of their time and I was next in line. The demo offered options to play as three of the races: humans, norn, and charr. Charr started at a higher level for people who wanted to explore that side of the game, Norns started at level 1 in their starting area, and I didn’t bother checking Humans because by the time I got to them I’d already picked my Norn and moved on to the next screen. I swear I’ll get better at reviewing demos but I wanted to play this one.

Norns are a blonde, athletic, viking-type race who follow animal gods and have animal totems. They also drink a lot and live in a snowy mountain area. and the character generation gives the player is quick intro to all of these features.  You are able to pick your name, father’s profession, preferred totem, and some events that happened in your backstory (which relic did you inherit? what exactly did your character get up to at that last drunken revel, assuming you can remember it?). and in the live game there will be plenty of character customisation options too. It seems clearly signposted that all of these decisions will come back to haunt you later as you go through your personal questline.

And then you’re off.

Initial quests follow the familiar pattern of “questgiver marked with an arrow” but very quickly I found that the game has a much better flow than this would imply, even to a seasoned MMO gamer who can see behind the curtain and is already thinking in terms of, ”Where’s my next quest? How much more xp to level 2?”

Just wandering around will uncover goals, which may take the form of actual quests, or may be requirements marked on the map. Sometimes you wander into events, which are handily noted on screen with “An event has started!” Other times you can talk to a scout NPC who will take you to a quest area and help by marking out useful locations on your map. Sometimes you will wander past a world element such as  a shrub or tree that seems to be glowing and when you stop to interact, your character will do something appropriate or you’ll be advised if you need to find something and return.

This makes for a far more immersive experience than it has any right to be. I wandered around, things happened, I responded to them, I have no idea how many of those things were part of dynamically generated events and how many were just there anyway waiting for someone to discover them … and I don’t think I care. Other demo players were in the same game world, I saw some of them running around and stopped to help someone kill a larger mob on my way.

I think Arenanet are on to something very good here, because despite the impression of wandering around aimlessly, there was always a certain amount of direction offered. If I had been really stuck I could have gone back to the core quest and followed that. Similarly, the gameplay feels initially similar to WoW (and WoW-like games) – you have an action bar, you use WASD to get around, etc. This makes it very easy to pick up for a seasoned MMO player, but I feel that there’s a lot more to it, especially once you are able to use more abilities at higher level.

The core personal questline includes cut scenes which are more like stills of talking heads, and seems to be more about your personal legendary journey. I loved the graphics and didn’t feel that lack of animation in the cut scenes was any kind of hindrance. The landscapes are bright and colourful, and I noticed the charr player next to me was wandering through a field of bright flowers in his higher level zone. Also yes, you can jump (people tend to go on about this because characters can’t jump in Guild Wars 1.)

As far as the engineer goes, since I only played it to about level 3 I can’t offer much of an analysis on combat in general or the engineer in particular. My norn started with a blunderbuss which offered two main skills – a regular shot and a net/ root shot. When I later switched to dual pistols, the skill bar switched too, and looked as though it was more AE focussed. I felt very encouraged to move around during combat, not necessarily because I had to (this probably is more of a feature when you are out of the starting areas) but because my main shot was instant.

There will be cosmetic clothing, at least to some extent,  and the basic character screen, once you find it (icons are at the top left of the screen and quite small), offers a choice even to starting characters of wearing adventuring clothes or town clothes.

As you wander around the world you will also occasionally uncover teleportation sites, similar to the stable masters from regular MMOs. Towards the end of my demo, I decided to go check out the norn main city, which is available even to new characters from any teleport point. It looked very quiet and empty with just me and a few NPCs. This also led to one of the NPC conversations which most amused.

I was talking to an NPC and noticed a typo in her response. “Ahah,” I thought, “I’ve found a spelling mistake in the beta, my task here is done!” But as I continued with the in game conversation, it turned out that she was actually ICly mispronouncing the word, which was turned into a source of humour.  It’s a trap for overly keen beta testers!

My overall impression was very good, 40 minutes passed very quickly and I would have happily played for longer. What is harder to put across in writing is that the game has a certain charm to it. In fact, what I’m most reminded of (and don’t hate me for saying this) is how I felt the first time I played the WoW beta ….