Guild Wars 2 [Preview] – Second Beta Weekend Impressions

26 Mar 2012  by   Paul Younger
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If anyone, press or player, tries to sell you a definitive opinion of Guild Wars 2 based on this latest beta weekend, you’d be wise to remain skeptical. At most, press will have had two weekends with the game. Certain lucky players will have managed a single weekend. Personally, I got in about five hours.

Guild Wars 2 has taken on a strangely partisan quality, where some people are emotionally invested in its success to the point of blindness, and others are eager to prick the hype bubble of the latest major MMO at all costs. You’ll have seen this with Star Wars: The Old Republic and other anticipated releases. It’s a weird phenomena (one that’s certainly not exclusive to videogames), but it can make it hard to pick through the detritus of opinion. Is Guild Wars 2 everything ArenaNet promised and more, ready to reinvent the MMO as we know it? Or is it a tissue of publicity lies, full of the usual tired old genre clichés?

Neither of those things, most likely. The only rational answer is: it’s far too early to pass definitive judgement.

What I can give you are my experiences from the hours I had with the title, and a little speculation based on those experiences.

I opted to don the velvet and linen threads of a human necromancer, which meant that most of my time was spent in the human starting areas of Queensdale (a countryside area of farms, rivers, rolling green hills and caves) and its capital, Divinity’s Reach (multi-layered streets, city squares and cramped housing).

The Guild Wars 2 character creator offers extensive options without being overwhelming. You can choose a variety of physiques (although these don’t really range further than ‘buff’ and ‘skinny’), alter your height, select an alarming hairstyle and play plastic surgeon with one of several default ‘starting’ faces. Sliders are in place for options like eyebrow height, mouth width, jaw size and the like, so you can tinker away at your appearance. There are also a wide selection of colours for everything from your skin tone to the lining of your boots.

After that, you answer a few basic questions about your attitudes to life, your upbringing and whether you regret never joining the circus (yes, really). It’s clear that most of these choices affect your starting stats or gear in some way, although this wasn’t spelled out. The upbringing choice in particular seems to have had an impact on the player storyline. After choosing ‘street urchin’ as my humble beginnings, I was given quests relating to street gangs and dubious acquaintances; something I assume would’ve been different if I’d elected to be of noble birth.

You can watch a portion of that storyline in the video above, and videos featuring other aspects of the beta (including the character creation detailed above) will be appearing on throughout the week.

As you can hopefully ascertain from the footage above, ArenaNet is pushing the game’s combat in a skill-and-positioning based direction. It’s not exactly an action RPG, and there’s still plenty of mashing (or auto-attacking) with your main attack ability, but it’s not encouraged to spam all your other talents just because they’ve come off cooldown. It was possible to get by this way in the beta, though this is quite likely down to the areas being low-level in nature. Even here, I was having to utilise the double-tap dodge function and watch when I was using my ‘Drain Life’ ability or sacrificing my Blood Fiend minion for a quick health boost.

It remains too early to tell if this approach to combat will become more demanding (and thus more rewarding) at higher levels, but I hope it does. Having to keep an eye on dodging attacks, planning when best to use your abilities (instead of mashing them) and the requirement to be accurate with certain attack-types is a system which feels quite satisfying.

Aside from the personal storyline, PvE in this beta was all about ‘Heart Renown’ and dynamic events. The former seemed to consist of your standard ‘NPC needs something done’ activities, which tends to translate as killing a few hapless creatures. I wasn’t hugely impressed by these, as they suffer from the usual problem I encounter in MMOs; namely that your efforts seem to make no difference to the world whatsoever. Yes, I’ve chased off the bandits or the spiders in the orchid, or whatever, but the exact same enemies will be back in about five minutes and the same NPC will be asking for the same kind of help. This always undermines the effort put into creating believable scenarios and makes these mini-quests just seem like fairground rides, running indefinitely for a endless stream of punters.

Dynamic events were more engrossing (in part because they would tend to pull me away from Heart Renown activities). These events will (like the rifts in Rift) pop up in parts of the world and demand player attention. You might suddenly be called to protect pipes from bandit saboteurs, or to hold a dam against malicious swarms of harpies. It adds a nice sense of urgency to your questing, as well as a sense of camaraderie as players organise to prevent the threat. What I (sadly) didn’t get to see was what happened if these dynamic events failed. Had we failed to protect the dam, would it have been destroyed? My hope is that failure in these events has lasting consequences.

In the course of my hours with Guild Wars 2, I was also able to have a quick bash at some PvP matches. The two maps I played (Conquest Forest and Battle of Kyhlo) were somewhat chaotic affairs, most likely because people were still trying to figure out how best to use their abilities. Pre-set level 80 characters were the standard in beta PvP, which of course meant a rather overwhelming learning curve regarding skills and abilities (especially given the fact that Guild Wars 2 combat seems geared away from button mashing).

Nonetheless, the matches did give an insight to map layouts and match rules. Conquest Forest was an arena-based affair, with points on offer for capturing and holding one of the three victory point areas (and bonus points for slaying opponents). The Battle of Kyhlo map proved to be similar (even down to the three capture points), but also added a trebuchet in the mix. Each team had access to one of these war machines, which could provide supporting fire. If destroyed by attackers, the trebuchet had to be repaired with a kit.

I had only a fleeting look at this mode, but it seems to be aiming for a ‘multiplayer online battle arena’ (or MOBA) approach, where balance between races and professions will be key and precision use of abilities will be vital.

Though it may be far too soon to reach any kind of overall conclusion on Guild Wars 2 at this stage of its development, the game undeniably features a host of encouraging little touches. I’m a fan of the last-ditch ‘downed’ state that your character goes into when out of health, providing a final opportunity to get back on your feet if you can slay an attacker (or if a helpful passing chum revives you). Fast travel points on the map (which allow you to hop around the place for a small gold fee) prevent endless wandering to the next quest-trigger point, which is also welcome.

The combat is going in an encouraging direction, aided by a system that gives you different skill-sets depending upon which weapon your character is wielding. My necromancer was using a hatchet and dagger at various points during the beta (twinned with an off-hand warhorn), and each weapon provided different main abilities. A quick-switch ability is unlocked at higher levels, which I’ve no doubt will invite tactical use of certain weapons for specific situations (especially in PvP).

Only further play and the passage of time will say whether ArenaNet’s ambitions for Guild Wars 2 are realised. Still, the direction being taken by this much-anticipated MMO is a promising one, and if all the intentions are met it should offer something for all but the most hype-afflicted player.

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