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A jaunt through Tyria: hands on with the Guild Wars 2 beta

ArenaNet held a closed beta for Guild Wars 2 over the weekend, and Stephany Nunneley won the ensuing brawl for VG247's lone key.

To say that Guild Wars 2 has been "highly anticipated" over the last couple of years is a bit of an understatement; there's been tremendous buzz in both the diehard MMO community and among those playing the original Guild Wars for the ArenaNet sequel.

This weekend, press were given a chance to try the MMO in a private beta which allowed choice of three races and both PvP and World vs World events. Unfortunately, I didn't get to participate in the later, which in retrospect is probably as good thing as I am admittedly horrible at PvP.

However, I did manage to log quite a few hours playing the core game, and I came away extremely impressed. Having no previous GW experience, I was looking forward to finding out first-hand why so many MMO players harbor such reverence for Guild Wars and ArenaNet.

I am Norn, hear me roar

The first character I chose to play was Norn, a race I'd seen in last year's GDC demo. I picked a female. Classes are professions in GW2. I could choose from: Elementalist, Engineer, Guardian, Mesmer, Necromancer, Ranger, Thief, or Warrior.

Whenever I play an MMO, or an RPG which gives me a choice in the matter (or even tabletop games), I usually pick a ranged or tactical class because I'm terrible at tanking. While I might not be the best at taking down enemies that get all up in my grill, I excel at crowd control and burning down mobs with massive amounts of DPS. So, with GW2 I chose a class I was comfortable playing to start with before stepping outside of my comfort zone: Ranger.

The next step was character customization. There were plenty of options to choose from regarding height, body type, hair-style, the shape of various facial features, armor color and tattoos. My Norn was a lovely, tall readhead with braids and some really sexy-looking black and red medium armor. Unfortunately, we weren't allowed to take screencaps of our character or the game; trust me, you'd notice her right off down the pub and start having racy thoughts about her as you downed your pints.

You then choose various character attributes for your adventurer's biography, which provides the player with a main backstory that lasts throughout the game. I took Ferocity, Instinct, and a Wolf Totem.

Your totem, or spirit guide, is one of the various animals the Norn revere: the wolf, snow leopard, bear and raven make up the group. Since I decided early on my pet in GW2 would be the wolf, choosing this as my spirit guide just made sense to me.

The final step to finishing out my character was deciding my back-story. Of the various options provided, I chose to have “blacked out” after too much drinking during a "celebratory moot.” Because of my choice, one of the running threads during the game will be to find out what happened during my time of being “blacked out”. I thought this sounded fun and interesting.

Once a player finishes the customization process, it's time to name the character. Once Guenhwyvar was finished, her story was told through a cutscene which featured the various choices I had made during customization.

My instincts guide the way to the glory

Much like the Hunter class in World of Warcraft or Lord of the Rings Online, the Ranger can use a sword or an axe as its main hand weapon, as well as carry an axe, dagger, torch or warhorn as an off-hand weapon. Two-handed weapons are also an option, such as the long or shortbow, and this class did well using a greatsword as well. As you gain more proficiency with your weapon, extra weapon abilities will open and appear as an option on your attack bar.

Character customisation.

In the introductory quest, I was tasked with going out into the wild and bringing back trophies of various animals: those who bring back the best trophies earn a place in the great hunt. With my trusty axe in hand and my loyal wolf Tess by my side, we went out in search of Minotaurs, Owl Griffon Sire, and the Dire Boar. While in search of these great beasts to murder for their heads, a World Event occurred. These events happen quite often in the game, and are essentially instances in which all players in the area can participate. Unlike an instance, however, you will not leave the current game screen – you simply walk into the area circled in orange on your map radar showing in the bottom right of your screen, and start doing what the event tells you needs to be done. You can also leave at anytime, simply by walking away, and it's possible to miss out on it all together if you don't get there fast enough.

In this case, the event was the Dire Boar, which was on the trophy list. Without other players and the NPCs which also participated, this boar would have been my first taste of death in GW2.

After obtaining all the trophies on my list, I returned to the village to show my worth and participate in the great hunt, which involved felling a giant iceworm called Issormir. When I arrived, I found smaller versions of this worm sticking up out of the snow, basically spawns of the main enemy. As in other games, I had to kill a number of these before it triggered a very brief cutscene in which Issormir burst through the ice to challenge me. This is where being a Ranger came in handy, as I could use my Ricochet skill, which basically tosses my axe in multiple form through the air, hitting both my main foe and the mobs around it, while my wolf tanked.

Once the battle was over, and I was victorious, the tutorial ended. I was whisked back to the village, and told to venture out into the world to help residents in need of my aid. Various quests and events occurred during this time. I helped bring a much needed elixir to a sick boy in the Norn capital city of Heolbrak; I assisted the great spirits of the bear, wolf, raven, and snow leopard with cleansing their shrines (I was even transformed into a leopard at one point which was very, very cool); and I killed many a beast, demon worshiper, and other enemies of the Norn. There were various World Events to participate in, and in the end I gained quite a bit of coin, and my bags were filled with loads of saleable merchandise and crafting supplies.

The attention to detail on the slightest item, NPC, building or surrounding landscape was impressive. The city is massive; I got a bit turned around a few times and became slightly lost.

What do you do for a living?

Upon entering the gargantuan city of Heolbrak for the first time, I was struck by just how much work has gone into GW2's environments. The attention to detail on the slightest item, NPC, building or surrounding landscape was impressive. The city is massive; I got a bit turned around a few times and became slightly lost. However, this is where the game's map radar becomes indispensable. When running about the world, you'll notice a dotted white line on your radar, appearing behind your character arrow. Think of this as the breadcrumbs Hansel and Gretel dropped when lost in the forest. This is a handy mechanism; if you find yourself geographically challenged you can just look at your radar and retrace your steps.

Another way of getting around the city are waypoints, which upon discovery can be used to transport yourself to various zones in an area, saving your feet in the process. Waypoints are also out in the wider world map, so if you need to run to town in order to empty your bags or receive a reward for doing an NPC a favor, waypoints will come in handy - for a fee. Another option is Asura Gates, which take you to larger zones, and these are located in each race's main city, as well as story-specific locations.

Also within Heolbrak are plenty of vendors; NPCs interacting with one another; banks; an auction hall; and profession and crafting vendors. As you move through the game world, mobs will drop various items which can be used to craft. Players will also note foodstuffs such as herbs and berries growing in the wild, as well as ore which can be mined. You don't need to have nominated a particular crafting profession in order to gather these items, which I found refreshing, nor was it necessary to carry around a tool for harvesting, which in other games take up much-coveted bag space.

The crafting system in GW2 is divided into specific professions, or in this case disciplines, where a player can choose two out of eight different disciplines from a field of Armorsmith, Artificer (magical items and weapons), Cook, Huntsman (bows, pistols), Jeweler, Leatherworker (medium armor), Tailor or Weaponsmith.

I chose Jeweler and Huntsman, in order to make my own jewelry and bows – items which most, as MMO player can attest to, are some of the more expensive items in any game auction house. So it makes sense to be able to make certain items for yourself in order to save a bit of coin.

Each craft will have several levels of advancement which will match the character's progression throughout the game, which also is a bit handy so you’re not creating items you will have to haul around until you have reached the appropriate level to use. If you find you're not enjoying a crafting profession you have chosen, you can always visit a master craftsman and change your discipline for a fee.

Look at the pretty kitty

After playing around with my Norn Hunter a bit, I decided to see what other races were on offer for the beta weekend: these were the Human and the Charr.

Considering I'm human already, and I find that a bit tedious most days of the week, I chose a Charr. Being the crazy catlady I already am, this made purrfect sense [Good grief - Ed].

The Charr's formidable appearance is totally badass. I probably spent more time customizing this character than I did with my Norn. The sheer variety of coat pattern and color options available for this race really impressed me, but, in the end, I had to quit playing around with her: my time with the beta was going to end in a few hours, so I chose a white coat with black spots similar to that of a cheetah.

As with the Norn, and every other race in the game, I was able to choose the build, and look of the character and its backstory. My Charr, again named Guenhwyvar which is more fitting as a name for a glorious cat of this size, chose to be part of the Blood Legion, which is known for its prowess in combat. I was also given the option to choose a warband; my father's character (he was a renowned warrior); and a character in my legion I am closest to – in this case I chose a ranged character as I would be playing a Guardian. In retrospect, I should have chosen an Engineer as they get to use guns and turrets, but, again, I decided to step out of the comfort zone I described to you earlier – and had fun with it in the end.

Once my Charr was complete, and her story told through the opening cutscene, I started off in the Plains of Ashford near the Iron Legion stronghold called Black Citadel. The home instance started in a barrack, and I was tasked with reporting to duty with the head legionnaire - unfortunately, my help was needed in stopping a host of ghostly human warriors and their commander who came to life through a statue erected to him, and some of my warband perished in the battle.

Upon returning from battle, the death of my comrades was blamed on me, and I was sent on menial tasks in order to regain the confidence of the head of the legion.

If the Norn city of Heolbrak was easy for me to get lost in, you can only imagine how directional challenged I was upon entering the Black Citadel. All the attention to detail I noticed earlier was multiplied tenfold in this city, which was built by some of the finest engineers in all of Tyria. If you are a steampunk fan, then this is the race for you: the city is entirely built of metal, and there are interesting contraptions all over the place. It was a wondrous sight to behold, truly.

ArenaNet has created a colorful, bright, detailed MMO with a large amount of character customization that feels truly unique in a genre filled with cookie-cutter WoW clones.

All adventures must come to an end

Writing a preview of an MMO is no easy task because they can last for years, not just a few hours. However, from the 12-14 hours I was allotted, I came away extremely impressed. ArenaNet has created a colorful, bright, detailed MMO with a large amount of character customization that feels truly unique in a genre filled with cookie-cutter WoW clones.

I've played a lot of MMOs over the years, and I get really, really bored with most after I hit the 20-30 hours mark. I will be the first to admit it isn't fair of me to judge an MMO based in such a short amount of playtime for a game that is intended to last for so long, but you wouldn't continue reading a book if it failed to draw you in, and you would stop watching a television series if you kept falling asleep while watching. It's the same for me with MMOs. If I'm not interested after dumping large chunks of my time into one, or I find it tedious and utterly repetitive, I'll drop it like a bad boyfriend and never look back. This is one of the reasons I continue to play Lord of the Rings Online after four years. Yes, it can be repetitive, and yes, I get bored every once in a while when new content has been slow coming, but the story and the sheer beauty of the game - and the maturity of its community - always pull me back after a short break.

That being said, I could easily see myself playing Guild Wars 2. It's gorgeous, it's fluid, the UI doesn't get in the way, it's noob-friendly without holding your hand the entire time, it's interesting, and it can be challenging. The character customization is impressive, and being able to have your own story instead of something canned is refreshing. While I will always feel the pull to venture forth into Middle-earth in order to taste sweet revenge upon the orcs and taint my blade with their blood most foul, I would also consider it a privilege to aid Tyria in its time of need, whenever she calls for it.

An open beta for Guild Wars 2 will go live in the spring, and the game will be released later this year.

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