The real heart and soul of Guild Wars 2 lies in its map.
It took me three weeks to play and talk to my colleague Kirk to realize and articulate how much magic there is in this seemingly simple function. The map of Tyria is not only functional; it is wonderful. Even submerged in the fog of war, the picturesque brushstrokes hint at every terrain that can be explored underneath.
But it's more than just the art. Where every other MMORPG I've played draws my attention inward, to a personal quest journal or log, GW2 draws my attention outward and specifically encourages me to take a more global perspective. Every quest I can complete appears on the map, from the permanent, static heart quests to the mobile, dynamic events. Vista points, seen and invisible, are shown on the map, as are POIs and places where I can earn skill points. Perhaps most importantly, dejected players – regardless of whether they are in my guild or group or not – also appear on the map.
The Guild Wars 2 map isn't just a record of where I've been. It's a living guide to all the places I haven't visited and all the things I haven't done.
WHY: With a mix of familiar MMORPG tropes and new, modern approaches, Guild Wars 2 is an excellent, inviting take on the genre.
Guild Wars 2
Released: August 28th
Type of game: Fantasy set MMORPG
What i played: A month on a main that hit the high 30s plus some time on a couple of alts. Played as a member of a guild, with solo, group, dungeon and PvP games as well as handicrafts.
My two favorite things
- Design that specifically encourages collaboration and community among all players in the world
- The art, not just in the game zones, but also on the map and in cutscenes and loading screens. It's alive, lush, and lovely, with a feel of human hands behind it.
My two least favorite things
- Fall damage. With so many jumping puzzles and high prospects, an unfortunate series of splats is almost a certainty for any player. Even with ways to mitigate the damage over time, it's troublesome.
- Uneven performance. I can't explore the Black Citadel because my frame rate is single digits. All other zones I've encountered in the game so far are fine. It is frustrating.
Back-of-box offers made to order
- "900 screenshots aren't too many, right?" – Kate Cox, Kotaku.com
- "A multiplayer game where hell aren't really any other people." – Kate Cox, Kotaku.com
For an entire month playing Guild Wars 2, I recorded impressions in a number of logs. The first was where I discovered an insatiable need to explore. In the second case, I wondered how easy it was to get off the beaten path, how unnecessary it seemed to form a party, and how generally amiable the community was. In part three I discovered the craft, and in protocol four I jumped into PvP world versus world and fell off quite a few cliffs.
The constant thread through all of my experiences has been how impressed I am with the very deliberate tactics ArenaNet has used to break the habit of personal, linear ladder that so many previous MMORPGs have given us. Other games have taught me to view other players as competition or danger. If another player and I were to arrive at a dock in EverQuest II at the same time, we would steer in opposite directions as we walked into the zone to avoid getting in each other's way by harvesting or killing. On a recent foray into World of Warcraft, I feel like other players are something I have to wade through to get where I'm going. In these and almost other multiplayer games I've tried, other players' existence only helps me if I'm in a group with them on purpose.
Not so in Guild Wars 2. Any event that occurs in or near my path is a moment that inspires a quiet but fervent hope from me that other players are around. Diving into massive hand-to-hand combat is fun. It's not like finding myself alone with half a dozen waves of enemies pounding down on me. And yet, even if it is briefly the end of a character's life, being overwhelmed at an event is not the end of the world. (Fortunately, death is only a fleeting and easily fixed condition.) Zones are in a state of constant warfare: if players cannot defend a location, they can help retake it later. After the pirates managed to blow up a bridge, a new wave of players came by who helped me and the other player who stood on the bridge when it was blown to revive it. Then we all worked together to defend the workers who were fixing them.
That spirit of collaborative work in a living, breathing world is really what sets Guild Wars 2 apart. The generally joyful, cooperative feeling is heightened by the way the game measures progress. There are eighty levels, fairly normal, but every action a player takes contributes to a single treasure trove of experience. Tinkering, exploring, fighting, quests, participating in events, even throwing a rez at another player – every action contributes to growth. Skills don't depend entirely on a player's level either. Hotbar slots are unlocked at levels 10, 20 and 30, and players can fill these slots with powerful skills.
However, weapon skills are based solely on the weapons a player has chosen to equip. When I fight with a dagger in each hand, I learn certain five skills. If I swap the main hand dagger for a weapon, I'll learn three new skills for slots 1-3 instead of the dagger skills I had there. When I swap the dagger for a weapon, slots 4 and 5 change. It's a modular system that sounds complex but becomes intuitive and fluid almost instantly as you play.
In recent years there has been a trend in massive multiplayer online games where they have become more and more single player experiences that take place in a shared world. Guild Wars 2 easily reverses the trend without ever imposing certain "social" actions on its players. No player is allowed to participate in a group event, and it is entirely optional to rez a fallen player or lend a hand in a fight you are participating in. Yet, the way the game is organized, players tend to stop to help one another.
The end result is a game that feels a bit like Cheers. Everyone may not know your name exactly or be glad you came in person, but it's still a world that welcomes your presence. Tyria can be difficult to navigate at times, but in a way that feels playful and mischievous rather than hostile. Most of all, Guild Wars 2 feels encouraging and fair. Death and failure are not particularly difficult to overcome and become challenges rather than punishments.
If I lose myself, if I leave the beaten path, there is always another path to be found.
If I lose myself, if I leave the beaten path, there is always another path to be found. If I die and fall from a high vantage point, it is my own fault that I climbed up there. If I am severely undervalued for an area, I have ignored the level guidance clearly visible on my map. When I come over my head with a few additions, I've almost always received an adequate warning that the area was dangerous. With waypoints pretty generously scattered in most areas, the revitalization and the walk back to my original location doesn't take me too far back.
Guild Wars 2 is also forgiving in its dungeon environments, for which I was very grateful on my first foray into the Asalonian Catacombs. It's the first group zone in the game, and yet it doesn't appear until a player is around level 30. Events in the player's character history lead to this and allow the player to switch to story mode. After that, players can return to explore the dungeon in a more traditional exploration mode.
While the dungeon itself is a fairly straightforward and predictable mix of trash mobs and bosses laid out in a simple form, learning how to first approach GW2's special mix can be an adventure of the always fatal kind Approaching class skills. Also, the more players act in a given area, the more difficult it is to spot the warning signs of AOE effects or traps that can cause fires, stings or other pain in your location. Although the problem of the visual spectacle overwhelming useful information is hardly confined to dungeons alone.
What I feel when I'm playing Guild Wars 2 is something I haven't felt in this type of game in a long time. In that, I'm not just a player moving through a game that other players also enjoy. Instead, I am part of a community and part of a world that is constantly reacting to my presence in it – even if some of these reactions are clearly in a loop. My urge just to find things is not only tolerated but encouraged, and for once I enjoy the part of "massively multiplayer" that brings other players to my side.
Guild Wars 2 is not structured as a highly competitive game, and players who just strive for the best gear, the fastest level, and the sharpest endgame technique will likely miss most of what it has to offer. Instead of viewing the lack of an endgame-focused quest and equipment ladder as a flaw, I see it as a blessing. It is a journey that I take great pleasure in exploring.
How for the goal? I really have no idea where it will all end. But I'll enjoy taking my time along the way and discovering every single point on every map.
Republished with permission. Kate Cox is an editor at Kotaku.