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Original Party Animal: Hands-on with Guild Wars 2

Stace Harman takes a fresh look at ArenaNet's next-gen MMO opus, trying out underwater sections and tackling a hard-ass dungeon encounter. Guild Wars 2 is shaping up just fine.

Beauty is but skin-deep and almost certainly to be found in the eye of the beholder. Happily, for a good few hours on a sunny afternoon in Hamburg, Germany this week, beauty was also found running around in front of me on a PC monitor; first as a Norn necromancer, then a Charr engineer and later a Human thief.

As you’ll have already seen from the video footage and screenshots, Guild Wars 2 is looking very fine indeed, but its greatest graphical triumph is to be found in its overall art direction. It’s the incidental details: the flourish of the blended lines and water-colour shading seen in the conceptual artwork that carry over, not only to the storyboard cinematics but also the skill icons that adorn the UI and the character biography portraits.

But whilst the art direction makes a very positive first impression, Guild Wars 2’s aesthetically pleasing outer layers alone couldn’t hope to keep the player entertained for the scores - if not hundreds - of hours that ArenaNet and NCSoft will be hoping you’ll invest across multiple playthroughs. No, there has to be something more than appearance to hold your attention, and at this most recent hands-on I took a look at some of the features that have been implemented to keep you engaged.

Along the way, I got my feet wet with some underwater combat and my group had its backside handed to it during a party-based dungeon romp. First though, was an introduction to the character creation process and choosing the meat to flesh out the bare-bones back-story of the Norn necromancer.

Origin of the species

“The Norn are a race of giant shape-changing barbarians from the far north,” explains Jeff Grubb, game designer and ArenaNet’s walking tome of Guild Wars lore. “They like to feast and to drink; to fight and to boast. They’re the original party animals.”

Judging by Grubb’s description, I wonder if it might be the Norn that my local town centre plays host to every Friday and Saturday night.

During the creation process I have to make a number of decisions about personality, character and background by picking one of three or four options at several stages of development. These encompass traits such as whether my character is to be ferocious, charming, dignified or proud and, that decided, I’m asked to pick a pick a personal history.

At first glance, the personal history appears to perform a similar function to the Origin stories in Dragon Age: Origins, by offering insight to where your character has come from and the life events that have shaped them. However, unlike the Origin stories, their impact looks set to extend beyond the opening few hours.

“[The background stories impact the experience] all the way to the end of the game,” Jonathan Sharp, an ArenaNet game designer tells me. “What’s more, throughout different chapters you’ll be faced with decisions that, once made, will put you on a path and mean that unless you come back and play the game again, you’re not going to get to make that choice a second time.

"So, you and I might be making decisions that mean ours stories branch [even though we’ve chosen the same race and the same profession].”

During the first few stages of the game we see some of the more traditional story quests that appear a handful at a time on the map and that, once completed, progress the narrative to the next story point. In this case, it’s a tutorial area that helps to explain the Norn’s peculiar shape-shifting abilities and teaches the basics of the four key Norn traditions: that of Snow Leopard, Wolf, Raven, and Bear.

A number of tasks are assigned to help you learn these traditions and you can choose to focus more on healing, protection, guidance or combat along the way. It’s unclear whether the aspects you choose at this stage have any longer term effects, but they do offer choices for how you set about the opening section of the game and present variety from the get go.

Taking a long walk off a short pier

Jumping ahead a few hours in gameplay time and to a different location, I create a new character: a Charr engineer who comes equipped with automated defence turrets, traps and a flamethrower. Speaking to a local NPC furnishes the map with a number of quest markers but, unfortunately for the troubled locals, my destination is firmly fixed and my mind made up – I’m heading for the shimmering blue expanse of a huge lake.

Because of this single-minded act of selfishness, a local orchard owner’s request for help in fending off giant flying pests that are blighting his crops is ignored and the inhabitants of a local hamlet are left to fend for themselves against a band of pirates who are out for a spot of mid-afternoon pillaging. Tough luck; the sun’s out and it’s a perfect day for a swim.

Upon reaching the water’s edge, I wade right in and, once the water is deep enough, I dive down into the depths: doing so has a number of effects on my UI. First, a breathing apparatus is automatically equipped, alleviating the need for a restrictive breath meter.

Second, the flamethrower that would be entirely useless under water is replaced by a harpoon gun for ranged combat – other underwater options include a trident for magic wielders and a spear for melee combat - and third, and perhaps most important, my skill set switches to one better suited for underwater combat.

These considerations, whilst not seemingly revolutionary, suggest that underwater combat is more than just a headline feature. Speaking with Sharp later on confirms this.

“I’m not sure I can give you accurate percentage of how much of the map or questing is underwater, but what I can say is that in the same way that we have areas that are mostly land-based, there are other areas you can go where there is a vast amount of water – and that it’s both very deep and expansive, so you’re going to find a lot of stuff to do.”

Whilst I don’t get to see quite as much underwater action as I would like – there are no specific underwater quests or goals in this area, for example – the time spent splashing about is sufficient to establish that the combat and skills behave differently enough to their terra firma counterparts to feel like worthwhile additions.

“There’s also going to be personal stories and events that take you underwater,” elaborates Sharp. ”Some of the dungeons have underwater areas also, so it’s going to feature all throughout the game.”

Deeper underground

The final stop on this magical mystery tour is one of the game world’s eight dungeons, designed for higher-level group play and which Grubb describes as “massive, instanced adventure areas set in a wide range of settings above and below ground”.

What appears to be a relatively small number of dungeons for a large MMORPG world is bolstered by the modes in which you can play through them. Each dungeon has a ‘story mode’ element – that we see during our play through – and a separate ‘explorable mode’.

Unlocked by completing each dungeon’s story mode, explorable mode offers between 3-9 play states for each dungeon, which take into account the actions of players in the story mode and present the consequences of your actions whilst further ratcheting up the difficulty.

And so, our hardy group of five adventurers set out to slay the ghosts of Ascalon and their cursed king. We’d have asked for more details about why the ghosts are quite so angry but they seem intent on smashing us repeatedly in the face with spectral weapons and, truth be told, we get entirely owned for the first ten minutes as we each ran around independently of one another, blindly setting off traps, stumbling into ghost-guarded tombs and generally behaving like incompetents.

"There are other areas you can go where there is a vast amount of water that's both very deep and expansive, so you’re going to find a lot of stuff to do.”

Fortunately, we finally pull it together and begin to work as a team - our motley crew consisting of an engineer, an elementalist, a necromancer and two thieves – slowly inching its way deeper into the dungeon. We learn the importance of establishing a perimeter with turrets and traps and of focusing our attacks on the enemy mages - who hang back to buff their own troops, debuff ours and occasionally lob flaming Armageddon our way.

There’s a lot going on as abilities, spells and traps are triggered in unison. In fact, there’s so much going on that, at times, the action is lost beneath the myriad effects inside the enclosed space of the dungeon. At these times it feels that an extra level of zoom would be useful to take you further from the action or even the option to tone down the effects when fighting in enclosed areas, else you may find yourself trigger traps or getting separated from your group because you can’t see what’s going on.

It feels relentless, but when the last area-of-effect-spell clears and my nimble thief has performed her last acrobatic manoeuvre with her twin daggers – that, unlike earlier attempts, didn’t see me plunging off the elevated fight arena and dashing myself against the stone staircase - it’s evident that we’ve prevailed and there’s a collective sigh of relief as we count up the booty.

This being a story-based dungeon it’s apparent that the explorable dungeon instances will most definitely be best tackled when you’ve got to grips with your character's growing abilities and skill set, and are practised enough to read the telltale signs of adversaries' spell casting and healing and are capable of interrupting them.

More to come

Judging by my time with the game and plans laid out by the enthusiastic development team, Guild Wars 2 looks set to be engaging, fun to play and packed with content. But there’s yet more to be announced: the eighth playable class to go alongside the warrior, necromancer, thief, engineer, guardian, elementalist, and ranger, for example; details of how the micro-transactions will work that will be necessary to sustain the game after its one-off purchase price and; of course, an actual release date. Although nothing has been formally announced by developer ArenaNet or publisher NCSoft we’re expecting some, if not all, of the final details to be revealed in August at gamescom.

Until then you’ll just have to sit tight, maybe indulge in another peak of the story trailer and combat videos and a look at some screen grabs below, nabbed during my play session.

This is one to keep an eye on, then, regardless of whether you’re traditionally a MMO fan or not. The war for best crafted, most varied, polished and attractive MMO is far from over. In time, Guild Wars 2 could prove itself a worthy world-beater.

Guild Wars 2 is a PC exclusive. A release date is yet to be announced.

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