This is my story: I was delighted when I first logged in and went through the character creation process. Everything looked, dare I say it, beautiful, from the character designs to the user interface. It was a fluid experience, with concise flavour text for the races and professions to choose from. This was going to be something really special, just like the hype had made out. Then the game proper started, my character slowly fading into the world, a row of icons along the bottom, notifications everywhere else. Oh no, I thought, it’s just like World of Warcraft. I was to spent the rest of my time in Tyria both rebutting and confirming this initial thought.
The game takes place 250 years after the events of Guild Wars. Elder Dragons have risen from their slumber and are intent on wreaking devastation. The only thing that can be done is to reform the Destiny’s Edge guild and unite the world in an effort to stop them. But before that happens, you’ll be doing a whole load of other stuff, from participating in snowball fights, to stealing food and battling a variety of the world’s denizens.
As with most other MMORPGs, gameplay is more a battle between the hybrid keyboard and mouse interface than anything else. You make your character move with the keyboard, control the camera by holding down the right-mouse button, and perform actions by clicking on icons at the bottom or by using the corresponding number keys. Oh, and target with the left mouse button. And stop frequently to type into the chat window. It’s a cumbersome approach, and frankly it’s astonishing that no-one’s come up with a better system. After several hours, you’ll get used to it though, even down to knowing you’ll have to run right up to someone in order to be able to tap “f” and talk to them. But not targeting. That never becomes second nature.
The skills however, are very well thought out. Your chosen profession has a bunch of skills that get unlocked as you level up, but far more interesting are the weapons. Each weapon type (there are 19) has a corresponding set of skills associated with it. Actively using the weapon will rapidly unlock each skill, allowing you to freely experiment with different weapon types (though you’re limited by your profession as to which weapons you can use). Three of those weapon types are used whilst underwater (mercifully, you begin the game with a breathing apparatus that allows you to move freely underwater with no breath level or other enforced time limit), and there are items to be found throughout the environment which have their own set of skills (for example, a Hazmat Suit bestows 6 usable skills when equipped). When in a group battle, you’ll also fine that certain skills interact to produce a much more powerful effect. For example, a thief character can create a “smoke screen”, and a warrior uses a “stomp” skill on the smoke, which causes all allies to become stealthed.
Another great touch is that points of interest (even those you’ve not visited yet) are visible on your map, which also shows a completion score for various things. It quickly becomes clear that there is lots to do everywhere. You might be headed over to visit a lookout point on some mountain, but on the way you’ll be notified that there’s an “event” happening nearby, with a circle drawn on the map. Wandering into this area presents you with an ad-hoc set of quest objectives, and the organic and spontaneous nature of these can make them quite fun to participate in. It’s not just limited to combat or fetch quests either; there are riddles to solve, platforming sequences to complete, and a whole bunch of other stuff to do.
Even once you’ve tired of the basic stat-building gameplay, there are still other things to occupy the countless hours you’ll spend logged in. There’s player vs. player tournaments, where you’re temporarily boosted to the maximum level to face off against other players, and world vs. world battles where entire servers face off against each other. Then there’s the usual crafting and trading activities, or you can always just take off and explore the countryside.
It’s a streamlined experience, but it’s also full of design decisions that seem to serve no purpose other than to slow you down. Case in point: crafting. There are 8 different crafting disciplines in the game, and before long you’ll collected resources suited to all of them. However, for no apparent reason the game limits you to only having two active disciplines at a time. The “solution” to this problem, such as it is, is to create alternate characters and share the resources between each of them. Wouldn’t it just have been easier to allow every discipline to be available to every character? And then there’s inventory management. It’s a staple of RPGs, but it’s really just a pain here. I found having to sort through all the junk I’d accumulated became a chore, particularly as the game is so deep you often don’t know what’s considered valuable and what isn’t (in a usefulness sense, not a monetary one). Had the game just let me carry limitless amount of stuff, I wouldn’t have felt that it had been dumbed down in any way.
The game seems to assume working knowledge of the various tropes to be found in similar games. There’s a not-really-tutorial and a comprehensive in-game hint system, but neither does a stellar job of explaining the game mechanics to you. You’re not, for example, told how to operate the camera or move your character at any point, and the sheer mass of information presented on the screen from the very beginning can be overwhelming. There are other resources outside of the game, such as the slim online manual, which can help you get started, and the official wiki, which is a useful reference once you’ve got the basics down. Some things just aren’t particularly intuitive, even with the help of these sites, and I spent for example at least 30 minutes trying to find out where in the interface I could “refine” crafting materials.
Combat can be pretty dire at times. Your character has the ability to dodge, but this is on a somewhat lengthy cooldown, so you can only really dodge twice successively before having to run (extremely slowly) backwards. If your character’s health gets knocked down to zero you get a last chance to take out your opponent (in a manner reminiscent of Gears of War) using a number of skills, which is a great touch but feels a bit clumsy in execution.
My biggest disappointment however, was that it failed to capture my imagination. There’s a lot of world lore and backstory, and high fantasy mixed with a touch of steampunk, but none of it really interested me. There’s the much-touted personal storyline, but even with that I realised at some point I simply had no idea what was going on, and had just been going from one map marker to the next, completing objectives and somehow managing to avoid registering anything that had happened during the cut-scenes that bookend each one.
Probably the biggest (and perhaps the most important) way that Guild Wars is different from other MMOs is that there’s no subscription cost. You buy the retail copy and that gives you ongoing access. There’s no subscription or other ongoing fees, and although there are microtransactions, these are (at the moment at least) fairly innocuous.
Despite all the issues, I have no problem wholeheartedly recommending it to anyone who hasn’t already gorged themselves on similar games. It’s probably the most accessible MMORPG to date and it certainly brings welcome improvements, if not a much-needed overhaul, to a very worn-out genre. It’s a game that can be played as comfortably with permanent friends as with temporary ones, and any serious gamer needs to at least give it a try so they can at least say “I was there”.
Performance & Quality
At the time of writing, the Mac version is still in beta, so some faults are to be expected. It’s not a true port and instead uses a Cider wrapper. As a result, generally the performance is pretty bad, and even on our Mac Pro we had to dial all the quality sliders down to minimum in order to get a decent frame rate. We also experienced the launcher hanging on ocassion, but generally, once the game was up and running we didn’t experience any significant issues.
On the audio side, you’ll need to make sure the audio is set to high quality or else it sounds slightly distorted.
Technical support is pretty atrocious. As I write this, the servers are down for scheduled maintenance. Nowhere was this mentioned other than the Guild Wars 2 twitter feed, and attempting to register a new game at the moment results in a terse “Access is denied” error message. Likewise, attempting to log in to the website produces a “check your log in details” message. This is really uninformative for new users, and hopefully in the future there will be better communication from the developers.
Note: Guild Wars 2 is currently only available to buy as Windows-only. To get the Mac version, buy the Windows version and visit account.guildwars2.com. From there you can register your serial number and download the (beta) Mac version.