ArenaNet believes the MMO genre's apparently endless malaise can be broken with some heady innovation in Guild Wars 2. Steph Nunneley details gaming's most exciting online prospect.
Some may see it as presumptuous for ArenaNet to be toting Guild Wars 2 as a fix to a general lack of variety and tediousness in many MMOs. Others may scoff at the idea that the genre can be invigorated after the WoW peak and so many years of stagnant, cookie-cutter titles.
There are those that think ArenaNet could be harboring an exaggerated sense of its own importance in regards to Guild Wars 2.
Happily, all the naysayers appear to be wrong. In a recent demo with the upcoming MMO, any trepidations we had about just how interesting, fun, and personal Guild Wars 2 could be went right out the window within the first 10 minutes.
The game looked stunning, and if the visuals and concept art weren't enough to make our eyes water in utter abandonment despite the lack of finish, the gameplay mechanics described by Chris Lye and the lore explained by Ree Soesbee pushed our desire to play straight over the edge.
Getting to know your races
To provide a bit of background, the original Guild Wars took place 250 years before Guild Wars 2, and the sequel sees advances in culture, technology and magic. Whereas the original Guild Wars only had humans as a playable race, the Asura, Norn, and Charr are controllable this time around.
In Guild Wars 2, you’ll be able to play all five races. There's the warlike, combative Charr; the humans, who currently stand battered with only one nation left and only one great city; and the Asura, who came up from underground when the dragons beneath the world awoke, and built a magic city on the surface called Rata Sum.
Players can even choose the Sylvari, an enigmatic and mysterious race born in the middle of the jungle out of a great white tree. They're curious, interested and naive, but they know enough to desire the destruction of evil. Because of this, the other races are willing to trust them to an extent, but at this point in the lore they just don’t have enough history in order to fully integrate well with the other races.
There’s the Norn, which we’ve all heard quite a bit about over the last couple of months. The Norn are gigantic, ferocious, legendary people to whom culture, story-telling and myth are all-important. If you're a Norn, one of the most important things to you is future glory; to have your name and story told at the Great Halls to your grandchildren and their grandchildren. They live, always, aspiring to be a great hero.
Norn also follow four traditions: Snow Leopard, Raven, Wolf and Bear.
When it comes to personal story, the Norn is about becoming a legend, going from a place where no one knows your name to a place where everyone recognizes you, where NPCs approach you using your character name.
Each race will have its own reason to fight the dragons, but each race also has reason to fight the other races.
“Because we don’t believe so much in big walls of text, we have NPCs that come up to your character and say, 'Please will you help me, I have a problem,' and will explain it to you so it feels more interactive,” said Ree Soesbee, both the game’s writer and lore and continuity designer for ArenaNet.
“As you play through the Norn’s story, your legend will grow even as a Norn would expect it to, so we invest in the player as well as the culture in that idea.
“The Norn’s over-arching story is how the elder dragons arose. We first saw this in the Eye of the North when the Cremoras first came up."
In the 250 years since then, other dragons - and in particular Zhaitan, an undead dragon - have emerged. Zhaitan lives on the continent of Orr, which, much like Atlantis, rose up through the sea, resulting in water cascading and destroying all parts of the world.
"Zhaitan’s minions are now going forth like locusts, just destroying the cultures of the world, and impacting things badly," Soesbee added.
"The races are falling back. They are losing position, and people are dying.”
Each race will have its own reason to fight the dragons, but each race also has reason to fight the other races. The Charr and humans have been at war for hundreds of years, so the over-arching story challenge for the developers in Guild Wars 2 was how to bring these disparate cultures together to fight against Zhaitan and the other dragons.
Choosing your hero
RPG plotting is nothing without gameplay, though.
Guild Wars 2's professions are Elementalist, Thief, Warrior, Guardian, Ranger and Necromancer. The demo we were shown involved a Guardian, and while we didn't see a lot of the visual character customizations, there'll be plenty.
The team, instead, wanted to familiarize us with the game's biography customization, which is unique to MMOs.
The biography introduces a number of questions in character creation to help determine your avatar's story and personality in the world.
“Our personality system is actually quite involved; these questions only set your initial disposition as far as your personality is concerned,” said global brand director Chris Lye.
“You can continue to evolve your personality through the game, depending on how you interact with NPCs and how you deal with certain challenges.”
How your character deals with challenges depends, obviously, on the choices you make. For example, you can choose to deal with adversity by selecting charm, dignity, or philosophy. Your personality will affect NPC interaction. Children will run away from you, for instance, if you are particularly fierce and intimidating.
"You can continue to evolve your personality through the game, depending on how you interact with NPCs and how you deal with certain challenges.”
One of the other biography choices had to do with choosing your race. Humans, for example, have the option of choosing nobility or poverty as a background option.
There will be more questions asked in the biography section, with each race having a different take. The Norn is asked what the most important quality is to being a hero - strength, cunning or instinct? Remember that Norn only care about legendary status, and social castes aren't important. For the demo, cunning was chosen.
“We also have quirky little questions, some of which are funny and you don't exactly know how they'll play out from the storyline perspective," said Lye.
"It keeps you guessing a little bit and players seem to really like this choice."
At the end of the Norn's biography section, since the race worships totem animals and cunning was chosen as an advantageous quality in a hero, Lye picked the Snow Leopard as the Guardian’s totem, as it's represented by that particular characteristic.
After this part was finished, the character’s biography was summarized in text, which will continue to change and evolve during play.
Players will have an in-game journal which catalogs choices and decisions throughout the adventure of Guild Wars 2.
And so the war begins
Before the action started for our Guardian - who was standing outside Hoelbrak, the Norn's starter area - Lye wanted to draw our attention to the game's overall look. Which is basically gorgeous.
“We feel that our concept art team is second to none in the industry, and the way they use that artistic style to do story-telling is incredibly compelling,” said Lye.
“As you go through the game, you’ll see that we are really not trying to push this photo-realistic edge; we are going for more of a stylized, painted approach, so as you venture through the world of Guild Wars 2 you feel as if you are experiencing a beautiful masterwork of fantasy art.”
As the player moves through the game, they'll come into contact with NPCs and objects marked by a starburst; the quests generated by these markers are dynamic to your characters race and biography.
“We have what we call your personal story, which for many players is one of the most important things they do in the game,” explained Lye.
“These starburst bubbles will always indicate to you elements, NPCs and objects that you must interact with in order to move your personal story along. What you have to do in order to continue your story should never be a question for you.
"We’re not going to bury that in a list of a whole bunch of other things.”
Let's hunt some Minotaur
Finally, we're into the game, starting with a female Guardian Norn hunting Minotaur in a dynamic event.
Combat in Guild Wars 2 will be both fast-paced and positional, so Guardians will be dodging a lot, and - if timed properly - both projectiles and enemy attacks can be avoided.
The Guardian is both heavily armored and magical. They can drop symbols to increase inflicted damage, provide protection, and even heal.
What really makes the Guardian an interesting profession, however, are Virtues, professions-specific buffs: Justice causes a Guardian's ax to burn; Courage enables the Guardian to trade off blows; and Resolve quickens health regeneration.
When a Guardian is surrounded by other players, he or she can sacrifice these Virtues so other people take the benefits. For a Guardian, play is a constant choice of off keeping these abilities to themselves or sharing them for the greater good.
There are two ways to play a dynamic event in Guild Wars 2: free-flow exploration and surprise.
The starting areas for each of the races have very distinct feels. Our Guardian wants to be talked about in the halls of Hoelbrak by the skaald, and celebrated at moots with story and song, so she's going to participate in a hunt with the assistance of this great Norn hero, Eir Stegalkin.
“Stegalkin shows up in our most recent novel," said Soesbee. "It's a story about five great heroes, each one iconic from each of the races who go out to fight the dragons and fail.
"Throughout the story of Guild Wars 2, each race will attract its racial iconic, understand their story, understand why they thought that attack failed. We slowly bring those great heroes together again for another assault on the dragons following a plan of their leaders.”
In the event space, players are not required to group, so this means you're not losing XP when other players participate in the event with you. The event system is set up so that it scales as more players participate, so players should never resent another player showing up in an event: in most MMOs, players end up competing with others for limited resources.
ArenaNet wants to eliminate this, so, going ahead, players will see that position is very important, and so is having others around when a dynamic event occurs.
“If you end up on the tail-end when the dragon lifted its head, you're going to take damage,” said Lye. “Likewise the Sylvari has a number of attacks; if you are not paying attention you’ll get knocked back, you'll get frozen slow. You never want the player to be standing in one place. You want people to get dynamic, positional action.
“The other cool thing about how our gameplay system works is effects, styles, magic that your player can drop down and enhance other players, increase damage or increase healing. Again, you don't need to be partied with other players to take that advantage, you just need to be in the general vicinity.”
There are two ways to play through in dynamic event in Guild Wars 2: one is to just do free-flow exploration and come across events as you see them; and the other is surprise.
For those not into "surprises," and prefer an MMO with a little more direction, there’s the scout system which was designed to force players in the direction of dynamic event clusters. This way, when they come to check out these spots, they'll encounter at least one and possibly multiple events in that area.
“Combat has come a long way in other genres, but we always felt this was one of the stodgiest things for MMOs,” said Lye.
“It’s target, hit one, hit two. We wanted to make the combat much more visceral, much more dynamic and action-oriented.
“With our dynamic event system, you'll see that we do not throw walls of text at you saying, 'This is going on, that’s going on,' and so on: we show you instead. As you enter a village, you'll see centaurs setting things on fire. You'll experience and immediately be immersed in what's wrong with the world, and if you are of a mind to participate you can easily get in and out, without talking to NPCs or anything.
"It’s a very natural system."
A thief slinks into the picture
Next up is the Thief, a very active and dynamic profession from what we saw during our demo. Wearing medium armor, the character doesn’t have the highest health of the other professions, and needs to rely on positioning, dodging attacks and maximizing damage in combat. The Thief has a powerful Stealth ability, which is on a timer.
While the Thief can perform a number of attacks, it can, pretty obviously, steal stuff from opponents. Weapons, for example, can be nicked and turned back against foes.
Interestingly, the Thief's first five weapon spells don't have any cool-down timers.
“This is different from a lot of the other professions. We wanted the Thief to be a lot more fast-paced and opportunistic,” explained Lye.
“This allows her to do some devastating attacks. Incidentally the Thief is the first professional we've unveiled that uses pistols, and it can make use of dual-wielding. As a result of her dual-wielding she gets a very powerful attack, called Unload. Because there's no cool-down on it, she just uses Initiative. She can, with a full Initiative bar, just unload twice in a row, which can be brutal.”
The Thief can also switch weapon sets in combat.
Movement and position are important for the Thief, as is being able to flee: the profession has a Shadow-Step ability, allowing teleport in and out of combat.
This ability was shown to us in a multi-chained event involving a pirate invasion. In the first section, the pirates which were setting buildings on fire in a town. The thief was tasked with not only defeating the pirates, but putting out the fires.
Lye pointed out an Elementalist running around the game world, and explained how professions can mesh.
An Elementalist can drop a wall of fire through which the Thief can fire her pistols, despite not being grouped. The bullets take on the fire, causing extra damage to the pirates lighting the town up. Likewise, a Guardian in the area could drop symbols on the ground, allowing any of Thief’s bullets crossing their influence to become more harmful.
There are really cool combat instruction blocks to play with tactically in-game, a very rare thing in MMOs.
Death is only a long sleep
All this fighting leads, inevitably, to death. Fortunately, dying isn't the end in Guild Wars 2. When your health drops to zero you enter a "down state," giving you a last ditch attempt to kill something. If you succeed you rally, and don't have to go from death to get back into combat mode.
“We don't have a dedicated healing profession in Guild Wars 2,” said Lye. “We didn’t want people sitting around waiting for healers before they can get in and start playing.
“Every profession has at least one ability to self-heal; some of them have the ability to heal others in group-heal. For every profession, any player can go up to a fallen player and revive them on the battlefield. We keep the combat fast-paced. We rarely come to a dead stall and we allow them to stay within the content of the dialect stuff.”
It's all very different, from death to quests to class to story. It's obvious that ArenaNet is trying to create an innovative game, but is it "massive" this time? The first game was basically a string of instances running off meeting areas, which was pretty stark in contrast to the extended openness of the likes of WoW.
“When we first launched Guild Wars in 2005, there were a lot of things about it that were innovative – one was the way our gameplay was set up,” said Lye. “We were a highly-instanced MMO. We actually didn't call ourselves an MMO, because it was so highly-instanced.
“I wouldn't go so far as saying it was single-player based. We did encourage grouping and stuff, but it wasn't wide open. There are a massive amount of people playing the game, but they're not all playing together.
“The other thing that was revolutionary about Guild Wars was its business model. You buy the game, you play online for as long as you like, and you don't pay a subscription. That was very controversial at the time.
"MMOs at this point in the genre are kind of stuck in a rut."
“Six years later, Guild Wars has sold nearly 7 million units worldwide, primarily in North America and Europe, and is arguably the second best selling online role-playing game in North America.
“We looked at Guild Wars 2 and said, 'What do we want to do with the sequel?' MMOs at this point in the genre are kind of stuck in a rut; let’s push our gameplay in a direction that focuses on innovation instead of retreading ground that has been done well, but been done to death by lots of other games.”
The ArenaNet team appears to have created a tight, personal, impactful, highly-scripted story so that players could feel like they are interacting with and impacting the world, a world full of wide, open, persistent spaces that are shared, allowing players to have all sorts of ad hoc encounters.
Guild Wars 2 delivers this in spades. There is no doubt that Guild Wars 2 is, indeed, a full-on MMO.
Guild Wars 2 will release for PC only. It has no date as yet.