MMORPGs are at a cross-roads. Since the free-to-play model encouraged the growth of the likes of Lord of the Rings Online and Champions Online, games that were previously subscription-based have flocked to the ‘freemium’ model with almost universal success. The reason for this is simple, games that don’t follow this paradigm often struggle to succeed to the extent that the father of the modern MMO, World of Warcraft, has; even when they use such illustrious IPs as Star Wars.
However, there was one game that chose not to use subscription fees at all, way back in 2005; Guild Wars. Choosing instead to earn their money through a one-off purchase and the release of expansion packs in order to gain more content. On the whole, it was a success, with six million copies of all four campaigns of Guild Wars being sold by 2009.
MMOs have never held my attention for long. I played Guild Wars Prophecies, briefly, as I did World of Warcraft, City of Heroes and Champions Online. None of them managed to keep me playing for longer than a month or two. With Guild Wars 2 arriving sometime this year, could it be the one to finally win me over to MMOs?
Loading up the game and logging in during the second Beta weekend, I’m confronted with the usual first major decision MMOs give you; selecting a server. There’s a good amount of customization to be had too with five races and eight professions to choose from. After creating a human ranger, influenced by the character Lord Baelish from Game of Thrones, I set off on my quest.
As with the first Guild Wars, there is a heavy emphasis on story in Guild Wars 2. Starting off as a human, the game places you in the village of Shaemoor after an introductory cutscene detailing your background and your story (narrated by none other than Nolan North). With the town under attack from centaurs, you spend your time battling through the village until being downed and waking again in Queensdale, on the outskirts of your home city of Divinity Reach.
Every environment you encounter looks excellent, and the high standard of presentation seeps through nearly every part of Guild Wars 2. As I progressed through the land of Queensdale, ignoring summons back to my home to defend farms from bandits and other such hazards troubling the rural community, it was a pleasure to take in the sights. Whilst the game will win no awards for its graphics, the game looks the part, and at no point do you feel you’re simply playing an old, re-hashed MMO.
The combat , however, is typical MMO fare, with an ability bar (powered by hotkeys or clicking on the ability you want to use), it’s simple to pick up and easy to battle with. As you progress, you unlock new abilities to utilize in combat by defeating enemies, performing quests and participating in events; real-time quest-like objectives that pop up as you move through the different areas the world map presents. If you want to take part in them, you can join in and help the players around you, earning you coins and XP as a normal quest does. If you don’t wish to partake in them, you can simply disregard them if you so wish.
If you need to find out which areas need help in the various areas that comprise the world (the beta weekend had considerably fewer areas accessible to players than the full game will have), then you can make use of scouts scattered across the map, or waypoints that you’ve discovered to (for a few coins) fast-travel around the map. Of course, if you wish to continue your story, or gain loot, then you enter into instances. Instances, if you’re unfamiliar, are special areas in MMOs that generate a new copy for each player. This means that, unlike the side quests in Queensdale where other players were swarming into the affected areas, there are typically very few people, or nobody, in your instance. That changes if you’re in a party, but you don’t need to be. In my first instance, a party thrown in honor of my character was interrupted by those ever-present nuisances, the bandits. After fighting them off and saving Lord Faren from their clutches, I’m then tasked with finding the farmhouse in Shaemoor that contains the other hostages.
Following on from my adventures into the cavern underneath the farmhouse, and saving the hostages, it’s time to take a step back and go to a Ranger trainer. Trainers in Guild Wars 2 operate as you would expect them to, they train your skills and unlock new skill trees in exchange for cash. However, I need to be level 11 to be trained, and I’m half of that, so I’ll leave that for now. However, after a few side quests and events, I notice that there are such things as ‘Skill Points’. Skill Points are exactly what they sound like, a sort of currency you exchange in order to gain utility skills. These include traps, better healing powers and other miscellaneous abilities; therefore they’re incredibly useful. As well as accruing them when levelling up, there are also points on the map where you can commune with places of power and therefore gain skill points. All in all, with the skills you earn for each weapon equipped, and the miscellaneous ones you can unlock using Skill Points, there is plenty of scope in Guild Wars 2 to mould your character into exactly the kind of battler you want them to be.
There are plenty of ways to show off your character to other players as well, in more than just incidental meetings as you complete side-quests and events. If you want to battle against people, there are two ways to do it. Player Vs. Player, based in the Hearts of the Mist, features two different types of battleground, ‘hot-join’ PvP, where you can pit yourself against other players from any world, in formats ranging from 1 Vs. 1 to 10 Vs 10, with auto-balancing of teams. In their efforts to create a more revolutionary PvP experience, all of the modes are structured, but ‘hot-join’ is the most casual of them.
If you want a more competitive ‘eSports’ feel to your Player Vs. Player battles, then the structured tournaments, introduced in this beta weekend, are for you. In the main game, there will be plenty of types of tournament, but the current beta weekend currently only has automated elimination tournaments. Instead of talking to the ‘PvP Browser’ character, to enter the tournaments, you talk to the ‘Tournament Master’ and enter yourself into the tournament. Either way, whichever one you pick, you compete in Conquest Mode. To win, you simply need to reach the score limit, or have the highest team score by the time the clock runs out. To earn points, you have to kill enemies and capture strategic points. Whilst having just one mode will be disappointing to some (and it does get boring), there are more modes promised by ArenaNet after launch.
If you’re not necessarily a Player Vs. Player type of fighter, then World Vs. World my be more accessible. Taking place in the Borderlands of one of three servers, or in the Eternal Battlegrounds, that make up The Mists. By capturing and controlling key points scattered across the map, your world gains points that make up its War Score. The higher your War Score, the more bonuses players receive. These bonuses, along with skills, traits and XP, count towards your Player Vs. Environment character, even though you are dynamically levelled up to Level 80 immediately. This means that success in The Mists can positively impact your character. Although it was relatively unpopulated during the beta weekend, the PvE-style challenges, A.I. enemies and better loot ensure you can enjoy it, even with lower player numbers.
An important factor for any online game is the strength and stability of the servers, and Guild Wars 2′s beta is coping with the load rather well. In areas that are heavily populated with other players and enemies alike, there is considerable slowdown, but that is more likely due to the graphical optimization for this beta leaving something to be desired. On more than one occasion, I suffered great slowdown in instances, even on low graphics settings. Despite these isolated incidents, the overall experience runs well.
So, will I adventure as ‘Petyrbaelish’ again? It’s hard to see why not. For a Player Vs. Environment player, like I tended to be during my time with the beta, there was plenty of content to be had, with minimal grinding necessary outside of the side quests. Although I was usually one level lower than the quest I was tackling, I never encountered any serious problems with difficulties. If you’re more a fan of PvP, or feel you would like to try it, then with the structured tournaments, the hot-join mode and the extensive battlefield of World Vs. World, there seems to be plenty to hold your attention in Guild Wars 2 in that respect as well. With a bit of optimisation, and some more variety in PvP, there is every possibility that Guild Wars 2 will not only be an excellent MMORPG, but the one that grabs my attention longer than any of the others have managed to.