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Monday, June 11, 2012

Guild Wars 2 - First Beta Impressions

Well, I found E3 to be particularly underwhelming this year. Very few games grabbed my attention (Planetside 2 and Assassin's Creed 3 were the only two that made me sit up and take notice) and most just seemed to be more FPS games and console ports. Consequently, I won't be writing up my thoughts on E3 as promised, but will be giving you my initial impressions on the Guild Wars 2 beta instead.

Welcome to Tyria

The usual caveats before I get into the meat of the matter. I have already pre-ordered the game (before I got to play the beta) based on the fact there is no subscription and most of my guild, Convergence, will be playing. However, before playing in this weekend's beta test event (for which there is no NDA, so I'm free to write what I want) I knew little about the game and felt pretty ambivalent about it.

I was aware of some of the mechanics (such as the dynamic public events system, the lack of combat roles, and the pvp system that seems similar to the as-yet-unbeaten Dark Age of Camelot Realm vs Realm system) and the fact there is a lot of hype, with many claiming the game to be the saviour of MMOs. However, I knew little of the lore or how the rest of the game would play. I should also point out that I disliked the original Guild Wars for several reasons.

The last thing to highlight is that these are my impressions after playing one beta weekend. I will be playing any further ones if they become available, and will update my thoughts where necessary. This means that most of my impressions are based on the earlier gameplay levels, and if things change drastically at higher levels I won't be aware of it yet. I have not been following this game, so I really wasn't that sure of what to expect.

The registration system was quick and easy, and the beta client quick to download (it took a few hours and clocked in at around 13.6GB). MMO installs certainly seem to be getting a lot bigger than they used to be! Logging in went smoothly and I was given a choice of servers, then it was off to the character creation screen.

Three of the five races were available to play in the beta test event. The Charr are a kind of ferocious cat race, the Norn are hulking barbarian types, and there was also the stock fantasy Human. There was quite a bit of customisation available, and after selecting a general build and face type it was possible to tweak things like nose length and chin width. Most of the time these smaller tweaks won't be visible, but you will get to see them during the conversation set-pieces.

Once the character's physical attributes are set you can pick the colours of the different pieces of starting armour. This is a nice touch that allows you to stand out a little from all the other level 1 newbies wearing the exact same outfit when you first log in.

The next section of character creation surprised me a little, and was certainly different to most MMOs. Once the character is created you then get to decide on a series of (limited) choices for your character background. So depending on your race selection you get to choose things like your biggest regret, your closest friend, a mystery in your past, the religion you follow, and the like. It's a nice system that immediately brings you closer to your character (and apparently your choices will play out in your private character story during the game).

There is a nice summary of your choices at the end of character creation

At the end of the character creation you are presented with a scroll detailing your character's history and achievements, which you sign (creating your character's name in the process). It was at this point my wife (who was watching over my shoulder) started giggling. She pointed at one of my background choices (my biggest regret was that I had passed up the chance to join the circus at an early age). The way the scroll had been written made it sound really lame and comical. My wife said it was like it had been written by a 12 year old, and I must admit it did come across as a little weak and destroyed some of the magic a little (a problem that unfortunately persists in some of the writing later in the game, but more on that later).

I was overall greatly impressed with the character creation system, which allows for a lot of customisation, both in physical features and armour appearance, as well as giving a limited background choice.

After character creation it was into a stylised cutscene that really highlighted the superb presentation and art style used throughout the game. I was so impressed I went back and recorded a video of it (view it at the end of this post). The game uses a worn, watercolour painting theme that is used on everything from the map to speech bubbles, and it works really well.

The graphics in general are very good. Landscapes in particular are excellent, with a good view distance and some spectacular scenery. The city of Divinity's Reach in particular is amazing to behold (more on that later). Character models and graphics are also good, and the engine ran pretty well for a beta. I used the "Best Appearance" preset and turned down shadows, reflections and depth slightly. This gave me a consistent frame rate of around 40fps.

The one thing I really didn't like about the graphics was the art style used for the Human characters. I know this isn't a Korean developed game, but the Asian-influenced art style is really not to my taste, and I really didn't like the androgynous characters who all looked like teenage girls (even the men), in skimpy clothing. It's nothing to do with prudishness, I just think it's a lazy, overused and unappealing style. The character graphics for the Charr and Norn were much, much better

Scantily clad women with big boobs in a fantasy MMO? There's a surprise
Animations throughout the game are generally superb, with some really over-the-top combat moves lending a dynamic air to proceedings. I did notice a few animation glitches, but put this down to an un-optimised graphics engine and the server lag problems that the game was having. There is something slightly off with character movement however, and the toons seem to lack that connection to the terrain that the best games have.

Sound and music is just as good, with effective voice-overs, good ambiance and stirring music.

I did have some issues with the UI, which was not particularly clear. It is certainly functional, but is no better (and probably worse) than the UI that The Old Republic launched with, which whilst not customisable was at least clean and clear. The painterly art style does lead to some muddying of the UI elements, meaning that at first I was floundering a little trying to locate different elements.

The map has the same problem. It looks beautiful, and has a lot of functionality, but the art style does make it hard to read, and some of the smaller map icons do not stand out particularly well (and there is no key to tell you what they mean). I also really missed the map transparency when moving that The Old Republic brought to the table.

One of the big features of the game is a reported lack of traditional MMO questing and quest hubs. The idea is that you travel out into the world and just come across events happening, that you can choose to get involved in if you wish, along with any other passers-by. In practice however the system (at least at the early levels) is pretty much identical to all other MMOs, except that you don't have to speak to a quest giver (the quest aims just appear in your quest tracker).

There are various "hearts" on the map, and when you get close to them a bunch of instructions pop up in your tracker, and you can choose to help out if you want. Once you have helped out enough to fill up a bar the heart turns gold and is completed (in that you earn some renown). The hearts are effectively quest hubs, much like in any other MMO, except that you have some limited choice in the actions you can take to fill up the heart bar.

For example, one of the first hearts I cam across in the Human starter area involved helping out a farmer. I could fill up the heart bar by feeding his cattle, watering his corn, or killing the worm pests in his fields. It was my choice which to do, but I had to repeat the tasks quite a bit to fill up the bar. Whilst making questing more streamlined, it did not feel at all heroic (watering corn is not my idea of a good time), and it did feel like a bit of a grind (a problem that got exacerbated later on as I'll explain later).

The dynamic events are much better and can either be triggered by the actions of players or may start randomly. They are varied (so far at least) and fun and there seem to be quite a lot of them, but they are basically exactly the same as Warhammer Online's public quest system, just multi-stepped. Fun, but by no means the game changer we were lead to believe.

On top of the hearts and dynamic events each race also has it's own personal story that you play throughout the levelling experience. Events in the story do seem to take into account the decisions you made whilst determining your character background during character creation.

The personal storyline takes place in instanced versions of various world areas. It's fun and does hook you in to wanting to see how things turn out, as well as giving you an insight into the lore of the gameworld. Coming from The Old Republic however the stories are nowhere near as well crafted as the one's in Bioware's game (at early levels at least), and the script is often hackneyed and poorly written (leading to some unintentional chortling on my part).

Conversations are presented with the characters animated and talking to each other over a backdrop, with full voice over. It looks very nice but lacks any of the cinematic experience given by SWTOR's conversation cutscenes. The voice over work is good, but not great and not a patch on that seen in The Old Republic. Some of the scripting is pretty dire and sounds really false coming out of the characters' mouths.

I also found myself yearning to make some decisions during conversations, but there are none to be had. The conversations play out like a script from which it is impossible to deviate, so some of the responses my character made were not what I wanted to hear, which I found frustrating.

I may seem overly critical of a nice system, and if I was coming from any other game the storylines and conversations system might seem fun and innovative, but after playing The Old Republic they seem lifeless, uninspiring and half-hearted.

The other issue with the personal storyline quests is that I found myself constantly underlevel for them. Trying to do a level 8 storyline quest at level 6 did not end well! That meant I had to go back out into the world and complete some more hearts, which gave the game a feeling of having to grind. I found myself constantly looking at my experience bar to see how far I had to go before I could continue my personal story.

So, in regards to the levelling experience don't believe the hype. It is a traditional MMO experience, just dressed up and presented slightly differently. There are a few baby-step improvements, but not the major redefining of the genre many seem to be expecting.

Where's the litter tray?
Combat is traditional hot-keyed MMO combat with a few twists. You do not learn skills at a trainer as such, but rather through repeated use of weapon combinations. Equipping different weapons (or even different combinations of the same weapons) will open up new skills to be learnt. It's an interesting system that works well, allowing you to adapt to different situations (melee or ranged for example). It also avoids the ever-present MMO problem of skill-bloat - you only ever have a maximum of 10 cores skills.

The combat is supposed to be dynamic in that you can dodge and roll out of the way of attacks, and if you swing and something is in the way you will hit it, even if it isn't targeted. In practice I found myself using dodge only very occasionally (though it may come into it's own in endgame PvP) - it basically seemed more like a gimmick than anything else, and I didn't need to do it in order to survive.

There are no true healing or tank classes. Each class gets its own self-healing and others can be unlocked through the skill point system (complete a tricky quest... sorry, event... to earn a skill point you can spend on unlocking other skills). In practice this seemed to mean that melee classes had a harder time of things as they seemed to get aggro more and the healing isn't sufficient to keep up with demand when getting attacked by more than one or two opponents. That was my experience anyway.

The combat is quick and relatively exciting to watch thanks to some good animations and fun skills, but the ability response did seem a little slow (perhaps it was server lag), lending the combat a slightly stilted feel. Combat response is a hard thing to get right in MMOs as it's more about how things feel than hard numbers. It's one area WoW still excels at (and I find The Old Republic is good too after the patch 1.2 changes), but the combat in Guild Wars 2 still needs some work in this regard.

Another area that needs some work is the "camera". The distance to which you can zoom out is far too short, and it is not possible to zoom in to a first-person perspective. I don't understand why as this is surely one of the easiest things to develop and the current system really does feel restrictive.

One area in which the game really soars is in the depiction and design of the game world itself. It's beautiful to look at and filled with active NPCs who really do seem to have lives of their own (rather than just standing in the same spot all day and all night). The city of Divinity's Reach is surely one of the best realisations of a fantasy city in any game - it's huge, gorgeous and full of life and character. I could spend a few hours quite happily exploring all it's nooks and crannies. The same goes for the rest of the gameworld - there are lots of little things like hidden cottages or caves to be found if you go exploring, and each normally has something of interest. I like the fact that the NPCs seem to live their own lives and move around depending on the time of day or night.

Divinity's Reach feels like a living, breathing city
The world is also lent some life by the dynamic events system, which can change areas from time to time (full of peaceful villagers one time you travel through it, full of enemies the next). This game is a haven for the explorers amongst us.

Having said that, the world is still very much a stock fantasy setting, which is getting a little old in the tooth as far as MMOs go now. The developers have tried to give us some more innovative areas (I loved the steampunk look of the Charr's home city for example), and for the most part succeed. It's certainly more interesting than most fantasy MMO worlds.

I have yet to find a dungeon. This is probably due to my relatively low level (my guild mates assure me there are some instanced dungeons starting at the high level 20s, as well as a few open world dungeons).

There is really no need to group in this game at lower levels (for PvE at least). All the quests and events can be contributed to without being part of a group. This lead to the odd situation that many people were working together to defeat an event (an attack by centaurs for example) but no-one was speaking to each other. This happened time and again. In fact, the chat channels were dead for the vast majority of my time playing the beta event, which is something I've never experienced before in an MMO beta test.

Luckily for me I'm a member of a great guild, and the guild system seems robust and extensive for a launch MMO. The usual ranks are available, and players can contribute their renown to the guild to improve it's standing. I have to admit I don't fully understand the system yet, and haven't had time to look into it, but it's nice to see some kind of guild progression system in place at launch.

Unusually it is possible for a character to be a member of more than one guild at a time, and you can choose which you "represent" at any particular time. I'm not sure I like this idea, and it remains to be seen what it does to communities, but I don't think the flexibility it offers is worth the risk of guilds falling apart.

The cities have plenty of places for socialising (including bars, stages, markets, etc), and there are quite a few robust roleplaying tools available, from animated and custom emotes, chat bubbles,  to customisable switchable outfits (called Town Clothing - this clothing is for appearance only and cannot be used in combat). Some items can be picked up (mugs in bars or metal bars for example) and used as a weapon. However there won't be any official RP servers at launch (though this could change I guess), an odd decision considering the size of the RP community.

I didn't have time to explore the crafting system in this test, though I'll endeavour to do so if there are any further beta test events. I don't know how fun or involved the system is or whether it's possible to make money, though I did find several auction house locations.

As well as explorers and roleplayers, the completionists amongst us will also find plenty to do. The simple mechanic of telling you how much of each map you have "completed", and breaking this down into discoveries found, hearts completed, events done, etc., acts as a simple trigger to drive you to do the content and get the perfect score. It also adds to the feeling of the grind a little too though. For those who like to do everything the game has to offer however it's a nice way of keeping score.

During my three days in the beta test event I decided to spend the final day just doing PvP, or more specifically, WvWvW. The World vs World vs World system really does recall the awesome Dark Age of Camelot PvP system. Three servers fight over specifically designed PvP maps, battling for control of keeps and control points that when held will benefit all members of that realm. At the end of every WvWvW period (a fortnight I think, though I could be wrong) one server is declared the winner and then your server goes up against two different ones for the following period.

The WvWvW Battlegrounds. Red are winning
The PvP needs to be good as there is no traditional raid endgame in Guild Wars 2. Luckily, it is. Very good. The WvWvW really does recall DAoC at it's best, but with added depth. Supply camps and caravans can be used to build siege weapons or to reinforce captured keeps. Holding keeps and castles gives benefits to all members of your realm in the form of buffs.

Unfortunately at the time I tried the WvWvW one of our enemy servers was ruling the roost with over 95% of the map controlled (as you can see from the screenshot above), which made it difficult to actually achieve anything worthwhile.  It was still a blast to ride into battle alongside my compatriots however.

I also tried the PvP warzones, which are instanced battlegrounds for up to 16 players. Though I only got to see two maps (I'm not sure there were any more available) it was a lot of fun, and there was not as much reliance on ranged combat as there was in the open world WvWvW maps. The warzones will have a structured, ranked platform as well as the hop-in-at-any time system, with tournaments lasting for a week. There will then be monthly tournaments (you will need to win several weekly ones to qualify) and finally annual tournaments at which the winners of the monthly ones will compete to see who is the best overall.

Yay! We won!
You can enter either of the PvP systems at level 1 if you wish, as you get bolstered to level 80. My guild gave me the advice to wait until around level 10 however so that you had opened up a couple more skills to help on the battlefield. My brief time spent playing the PvP game was a lot of fun.

The final thing I want to mention is the cash shop. Guild Wars 2 is using the buy-to-play model, which means you buy the game, but there is no on-going subscription. Instead revenue will be generated through an in-game cash-shop (which is available for testing and seems to work very smoothly).

I don't like cash shops in MMOs to start with, but if they only contain cosmetic items that do  not give advantage to any players then I can live with them. Unfortunately ArenaNet seem to be walking a very fine line with regards to advantageous items. The shop is stuffed with great cosmetic items as expected, but also contains quite a few "boost" items too (items that may give experience or crafting boosts). These are the things that hover around the line of acceptability as far as I'm concerned.

To be honest I'd prefer there was no cash shop. Guild Wars 2 is certainly good enough to survive (and indeed prosper) on a subscription model, and I'd prefer it if they had gone that way. I'll still play the game, but worry as to what the future may bring to the store.

The big question when looking at any beta test is how close is the game to launch. In my opinion it's pretty close, but there is one thing they really need to sort out before launch day. Server stability is not good. The first night I played in the event I gave up after an hour of constant disconnects (I was kicked to the log-in screen 20 times in one fifteen minute period, each time losing any progress I'd made). The second night I played I got stuck inside a personal story instance for 30 minutes (could not zone or port out). These issues really have to be addressed before launch (which is rumoured to be as close as the end of this month!).

There are other things I'd like to see before launch that are odd by their omission. MMO standard features like autofollow, aoe loot, a decent tutorial and mounts are all strangely absent. Not game-breaking but conspicuous by their absence. However, if they can sort out the server issues then the game may make launch by the end of June.

So, how do I summarise my experience in the weekend beta event? I found Guild Wars 2 to be a very good MMO that really excels in some areas and is at least competent in just about everything it tries to do. It is absolutely not a great revolution in MMO gameplay as much of the hype would have you believe, and I do have some reservations over the grindy nature of some of the PvE content. My MMO of choice, and where I will spend most of my time, will remain The Old Republic which I feel has a better PvE levelling experience based on what I've seen of GW2 so far. The PvP game of GW2 is by far the best I've played since Dark Ages of Camelot, and I'll be heading there for my PvP fix.

My three days were fun overall (despite the frustrations due to server issues) and I will be playing come launch. The game has an amazing PvP system and a beautiful, living world, but the PvE leveling experience is better in other MMOs. Just don't expect the second coming and you'll find a decent, fun and playable MMO that pushes but doesn't redefine MMO gameplay.


  1. I really liked your review but bringing up swtor over and over again didn't help it at all. It seemed you were giving honest opinions but not with out a bit of fan boying. You could have left that out and given much more credit to what otherwise seemed like a great and honest review.

    1. Thanks for the comment :)

      I know what you mean. In my defence these impressions are written from my point of view, and TOR is the easiest reference point I have as that's the game I'm playing right now.

      The main point of reference I make is during the discussion of the conversation cutscenes, and like I said I don't think they are anywhere near as good as TORs which offers choice, better voice-over, a better script and a more cinematic experience. The fact is that no other MMOs apart from TOR and GW2 do this kind of thing right now.

      Anyway, glad you (mostly) enjoyed the write-up :)

  2. In regards to leveling, the grind and PVE overall. IMO does it's job, if it lent itself to the player, in this case you, to learn the game's mechanics. If is accomplishes this, then it worked (much like solitaire in windows to get you to learn how to move/double click your mouse, boring but works). You don't have to level if you don't want to, as the game auto adjusts your levels according to what area you're in, so that you can participate (you forget to mention this) as it allows you to continue to enjoy the PVE aspect alone or with friends, regardless of level difference. And as you mentioned, your guildies suggested you at least get to level 10 to get most of your basic skills opened up. So that you have enough in your arsenal to get by in PVE, but mostly in sPVP/WvWvW. If you chose to continue leveling albeit your levels or skill points, just to further customize your character as you advance/progess throughout the game. -CC

    1. Thaks for the feedback CC!
      I didn't mention the game auto-adjusts level depending on the area because I didn't know about it! That seems like a great idea, and presumably allows you to adventure with friends who are lower level?

  3. Nice review. Sounds interesting and I'm a sucker for beautiful environments in a game and as we discussed the other night, at least the game seems pretty decent..unlike Final Fantasy 14 or whatever it was, beautiful but apalling gameplay.

    The PvP sounds like great fun and I'm keen to give it a try. I recall you raving about DAoCs system back when you were playing it and I never got to enjoy the fun, so looking forward to giving this side of the game a go.

    Cheers for the fun read Bro. It's always nice to have some good reading material to accompany my cup of rosey and hobnobs ;)


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