I’ve bounced off more MMOs than I can adequately remember. I’ve been dishonourably discharged from Star Trek Online. I’ve committed honourable suicide in Dynasty Warriors Online. I’ve even retired from three separate superhero identities (Champions Online, City of Heroes, DC Universe Online). I’ve just reached level 51 in Guild Wars 2. Level 51. This isn’t a place I ever thought I’d find myself: I’m enjoying a MMO.
It says a lot about the current culture in MMO games that I instantly feel I should leap to my own defence for liking one. MMOs have become about a constant drip-feed of loot and organised raiding and absolutely perfect party composition, with guilds an essential part of playing the game you’re paying a subscription fee for. This is what I personally find off-putting about the genre; not only do I not have the time to play the game enough to justify a subscription fee, but the reliance on the unwashed masses of the internet to allow me to play my game past a certain point is one that I find hard to overcome. When combined with the basic grind of kill mobs, get loot, sell loot, equip better weapon, kill mobs, the MMO is almost impenetrable to the new player or to the lone wolf. Guild Wars 2 takes a huge step into the future for the genre and every other MMO is going to be dragged along with it, whether they want to or not.
To start with, Guild Wars 2 no longer has a subscription fee, only the original fee for your copy of the game. This alone is something that simply needs to be emulated by other developers considering entering the genre; with almost every sub-based MMO having run into the ground or ended up a free-to-play micro-transaction marketplace, it’s imperative that devs realise that the only way forward is to drop the subscription fee. It provides pressure on those who pay it to get their money’s worth and for those who cancel their account due to time constraints, it provides a strong incentive to avoid signing up again. A one time purchase allows you to dip and delve into the game whenever you like, no worries about playing the game enough to warrant the fee (or at least, no more pressure than any other game out there).
Grinding has essentially been removed as well, so not only is your time not dictated by a fee, but that time can be used exploring and enjoying the game, not watching an endless stream of enemies add tiny increments to your experience bar. Don’t get me wrong, you can still, if you’re so inclined, grind against the varied and interesting foes but if you do, you are playing the game wrong. With massive dollops of experience offered for discovering new areas and enjoying the game’s pre-set vistas (gorgeous panoramas of the surrounding area) and the game’s Renown Heart system (more on which soon), the game rewards exploration and aesthetic enjoyment over the basic grind. It’s such a simple yet effective change to the MMO formula, although the game could do more to emphasise this difference from the typical MMO. I’m sure many players will find themselves trapped at a level lower than the next story mission demands, desperately grinding to make up the difference, when a simple explanation from the game about its differences would have alleviated this problem.
Not that the game insists on exploration alone to push your character up through the levels. The Renown Heart system takes the typical quest-giver and expands them over a large area of a map; while in this area, performing beneficial tasks such as collecting fruit, destroying enemy supply caches, sniffing out truffles as a pig (my personal favourite) or the basic murder of enemies will fill a gauge that, when full, will explode in congratulatory messages, money, experience and karma (a separate form of currency). It’s infinitely preferable to the exclamation mark wearing NPCs of other games, although the easiest way to fulfil any Renown Heart is simply to murder enemies in that area until the gauge is full. Need to practice with ballista? Instead, just stab a wolf. Someone is demanding you set crab traps? Shoot a fish in the fins. Training troops? Nope, kicking centaurs in the face. This almost codifies Guild Wars 2‘s advances: they’re huge steps forward, with minor flaws that hold it back from perfection.
Combat may be the easy way to finish most quests and it’s surprising how well the combat holds up when compared to its compatriots. The game hasn’t quite escaped the cooldown/hotkey rhythm that plagues MMOs, but combat feels far more active and crunchy than the hotkey system might lead you to believe; playing as an Engineer, I’ve two separate sets of skills to play with. Weapon skills, unique skills provided by your choice of weapons, unlock quickly through use and will be your mainstays for each fight, with my Engineer’s two-handed rifle allowing both knockback and massive damage. If I’d gone for two pistols, I’d be ready to deal status effects and damage-over-time effects, though swapping one of those pistols for a shield would have given me increased defence and the ability to knockback crowds. My only concern with the weapon skills is that past the first five skills you unlock, weapon skills stagnate; you won’t unlock any extra weapons skills and in the case of my Engineer, there’s only three permutations of weapons (and hence, skill sets) which can get repetitive. Class skills go a long way towards fixing this, with several builds available for each class. My Engineer has specialised in turrets and supply drops to help support other players in large battles, but I could just have easily have gone for a grenade extravaganza or a status-firing elixir gun. In fact, there’s a lot of overlap with the skills, allowing for very personalised builds and skills that can be swapped out between battles to allow you to fill certain roles in larger battles.
I could talk about Guild Wars 2 forever. There is no hyperbole there. It’s a game that has provided so many stories of saviours swooping in at the last moment to revive me, allowing me to get the last shot off at a boss, of long hikes across varied and stunning scenery and of players helping strangers in a way rarely seen in any videogame that I can think of. It has design choices so perfect that the fact they’ve not emerged before Guild Wars is stupefying. It’s currently worth several hundreds of your currency of choice and that it’s being sold for so little is a disservice to the developers. You need to play this game.