[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 ….

Is your character race purely cosmetic?

There is a long tradition, stretching back to the earliest MUDs, that players have a choice of fantasy races for their characters. It has become part of the MMO scenery, even though in many games it will never much affect your play. So is a race just cosmetic, just another way to customise your character visually?

PvD posted awhile back about how races are sold in the cash shop for EQ2X at the moment. You can buy options for that game in packs of three, and each pack is arranged to offer one popular race with two less popular ones. Other than that, there’s no rhyme or reason in the selections. This puzzled me as a concept – the idea of picking a race because ‘it was included free in the pack with the one I actually wanted’ feels like a very unintuitive way to make that choice.

I was minded of this because I have a friend who has a really strong preference for playing elves. If a game doesn’t offer elves, her interest drops. One of the things she is most excited about in Cataclysm is the ability to play a blood elf warrior for the first time. And this has nothing to do with game elements like racial abilities. She just likes elves. If she played EQ2X I don’t think she’d be too thrilled to see the elf races split between packs (she’d probably just pick the one she liked best and not bother with the others, whereas she’d have paid more for a pack that included all of them.) I know others who always play humans, and prefer to pick a human character who looks as close to themselves (in some idealised form) as possible. So some players go into the game with a vague idea of how they want their character to look or act and pick the race that fits it most closely.

For other people, the most important thing about picking a race is any in-game advantage. So optimal racial abilities or starting areas would play a bigger factor in the choice. If racial abilities change, these guys may take advantage of a paid race change in game.

Others are more interested in aesthetics. Which race looks prettiest or most badass? Which race/ class combination has the coolest looking armour?

And in some games, that’s pretty much it for racial identity. It’s all about how you look and whether you get any minor mechanical perks. EQ2X for example does have racial lore, but it isn’t equally emphasised for all races. You can easily go through a starting zone that seems to have been designed for another race without learning anything about your own.

When races are more than a collection of stats and a skin

Warcraft certainly wasn’t the first game to emphasise racial starting areas and lore. But their commitment to doing so has always been quite impressive. When you pick a race, you’re also picking a starting zone in which you’ll have about 20 levels worth of race specific content. (Unless you’re a gnome or troll, in which case hang in there for Cataclysm!)

This is fertile ground for roleplayers, who might go with the strongest lore or most appealing backstory. As well as their own starting areas, races have their own architectures, racial leaders, history, and in-game racial stereotypes. So gnomes are not just small and squeaky but also crazy scientists with silly names. Forsaken are sarcastic, deadpan, and have no moral compass. Dwarves like beer and blacksmithing (is there any game in which this is not the case?).

Racial lore is about to get a huge boost in Cataclysm with the addition of Archaeology to the game. I think this is going to be one of the most popular new mechanics that the expansion brings. And as a side-effect, it adds more oomph to the races and their backgrounds.

Why is this big at the moment? Because of course Cataclysm will add in two new races to the mix. They’ll have very solid racial abilities, new lore, new cool models, and since players like new stuff anyway they’re bound to be heavily played. And also, many classes will have new racial options in the expansion.

This is most striking for druids, who soon will be able to pick from two races per faction instead of just one fixed choice. And one of the most asked for screenshots from the beta was the picture of the new troll and worgen druid forms. I’m thinking this shows that a lot of people are mostly about the aesthetics with their racial choices.

Is it mostly about the looks for you? I wonder if people tend to pick their first character based on look/feel/ prior idea and maybe explore the lore of other races after they’ve played the game and are making alts.

The Power of Memory in an MMO

graveyard in brillThere’s no place like home

Over the last couple of weeks, I have been helping to clear out my father’s flat. I have spent quiet hours sitting on trains*.  I have walked many miles to and from the train station; retracing the same path that I travelled every time I went to visit him. The same path that very soon I will never need to walk again. I find myself taking more notice of the details of the journey. The uneven pavements, pigeons crowded outside the supermarket, the roar of traffic, the cafe that replaced the other cafe that replaced the other cafe, the huddled bus stops, the noises, the sights, the smells, the feel. And already, the familiar route brings back vivid and familiar memories.

I have seen designers discuss how to bring more emotion into computer games. We see games inducing excitement, elation, disappointment and wonder if they will ever inspire the whole range of feelings that we get from good literature, films, or music. And yet, I haven’t seen many of them talk about nostalgia – the one bittersweet emotion that games reliably do conjure up. It isn’t just the nostalgia of looking at games that we played ten or twenty years ago and wondering at how much technology has changed, that’s true of anything in life. It is the nostalgia of being able to go back and play the early levels again, capture again the feeling of being so new,  and see how much you have changed (or not) and how many of your initial assumptions were right or wrong.

In a typical MMO, your character goes through some kind of starting area and then spends some time around a major city or village. For the rest of that character’s ‘life’ that starting area will carry with it a sense of home. It will carry with it the memories of the very beginning of the in-game experience. This is a very deliberate design decision, and subsequent quests and events send you back there to evoke precisely that reaction. Games that lack this layout (like WAR) feel as though something is missing to me – I never made that connection with the game world.

If I take Mrs Spinks back to Brill (the undead starting area in WoW), I feel some watered down sense of how I feel travelling to my father’s flat. I know the area, I know the NPCs, and simply walking around there brings back vivid memories of my early WoW days. I felt the same in LOTRO when walking about Michel Delving as a hobbit – however far from the Shire you roam, whenever you go back, you are going home.

Of course, the main difference in an MMO is that the NPCs and home area never change. Shops don’t close. Houses don’t get pulled down. NPCs don’t retire or win the lottery or die in tragic boating accidents. So your home is always preserved, exactly the way that you remember it.

I noticed that quite a few bloggers marked the recent Cataclysm announcement by returning to WoW, however briefly. I believe that this is all about recapturing the memories while those starting zones are still poised in their eternal time vacuum. In the same way that walking the route to my father’s house now cements the memories of all the times I have done that in the past, playing through the old zones brings memories to life for players too. If retracing our steps in the real world helps to relive memories, then it should be no surprise that virtually retracing our steps in a virtual world has the same effect.

I will not miss the old zones. I enjoyed them, but you can never really go back. Even if you rerun the quests, it isn’t the same without the other people around. Looking at them now, I keep thinking how badly they need the update and how much they will benefit from being taken out of their time bubble, at least for a little while.

And after all, we’ll always have our memories. We’ll always have Brill.

* sitting on trains … with my DS :P