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Sunday, February 26, 2012

Guild Wars 2 - Why I'm still on the fence

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Until recently I haven't been paying that much attention to Guild Wars 2. I played the original a few years ago, but didn't care much for it's focus on small-team based PvP, and mega instancing of the PvE areas. I also wasn't a fan of the art style. Consequently, and with the launch of The Old Republic I haven't paid much attention to it.

Recently members of the media were allowed to participate in the closed beta test  for a weekend, and almost all of the feedback has been very positive. That, coupled with the fact that my TOR guild, Convergence, will be playing the game (alongside TOR, which will remain the primary focus of the guild I should add) has meant that I've taken a second look at the game. And I'm still on the fence about it...

There's no doubt it's a good looking game.

Here's my overview of some of the main game features as I understand them, along with my thoughts on why the game could be a new dawn for MMOs, but also why the hype and my own experience is making me very wary.

A lot about the game sounds interesting. Like the original it will have no subscription fee, so at the very least I expect I will buy it to give it a shot (assuming the reviews aren't bad, which to be fair seems unlikely). However, with the buy-to-play model comes the inevitable cash shop. ArenaNet promise that the cash shop items will only be cosmetic, but I'm cynical about this because I've heard exactly the same things from other developers and in each case it wasn't that long before buy-to-win style items started to appear (I'm looking at you SOE and Turbine!).

I know the original game also has a cash shop, and that whilst mainly selling cosmetic items there are also some items on the store that could be construed as pay-to-win items. Additionally a recent updating of the official game wiki has changed the stance from a clear statement that only cosmetics would be sold, to a much more vague statement that could open the doors to stat-based items being available in the shop. With there being no subscription, and GW2 having a much higher development cost than the original, there could be a temptation for ArenaNet to start selling stat items and more if the box sales are not stellar.

Why does it matter? Well, in a pure PvE game it doesn't really, though I don't really like the idea of pay-to-win. However, in a game with a strong focus on PvP (especially at endgame) then it becomes a much more significant issue.

PvE in the game seems to bring something genuinely innovative to the genre, and is one of the features that I am looking forwards to experiencing. First of all there will be personal character stories that will be dependant on your race, class and biography choices. I cannot praise the the personal stories in The Old Republic too highly. If ArenaNet can bring a similar level of storytelling to their game then they have a good chance at dragging me in for a long time. Of course, I imagine that personal stories in the game will be dependant on heavy instancing (much like in TOR).

The more innovative change lies in the main questing system. In fact GW2 does not contain quests in the traditional sense. There are no quest-givers (other than scouts who can point you towards areas where events may take place), but rather a dynamic events system that takes place in the open world. They seem to be like Rift's dynamic rift system, but on steroids and with a huge amount of variety. The idea is that rather than be steered by a quest, you simply explore the world and end up interacting with dynamic events as they occur, and that your interactions with them can leave permanent changes to the persistent world. Like the events in Rift and Warhammer Online, anyone will be able to join in any event at any time one it has started.


To better explain, one example quoted on the official website is as follows.
"In GW2, the outcome of every event will directly affect the game world around you. If an enemy dredge army is marching out of their main base, players will be asked to mobilize with their allies and help destroy the army. If the dredge army is defeated, other events will cascade out from there. Players will be able battle their way inside the dredge base, face off against their commander, rescue captured friendly troops being held in the dredge prisons, and even hold the captured base while fighting waves of dredge, who arrive from deep underground to try and take back their home.

If, on the other hand, players fail to destroy the army, it will establish a fort in friendly player territory. From there, the dredge will send shipments of troops and supplies to the fort from the main base while building up walls, turrets, and siege engines to help defend it. Enemy dredge forces will then begin to move out from their newly established fort to attack friendly player locations in the area, sending snipers out into the hills, sending assault team forces to capture friendly player villages, and trying to smash down friendly fortifications with massive dredge walkers. All of these events continue to cascade out into further chains of events where cause and effect is directly related to the player's actions.

For example, if the players do not mobilize to stop the dredge snipers, they'll begin to shoot down all the villagers and merchants in nearby friendly villages. If they fail to stop the dredge assault teams from capturing a village, players will need to lead a force to help liberate the town and free the villagers. All of this content is derived from a single initial event - the dredge army marching through the map."
There are plenty of other examples to be found around the web, detailing events from small encounters to large, multi-path world-changing events.

This system does sound particularly interesting and exciting, but I still have a few concerns. First of all, for large events it may be impossible to see them fully play out unless you are prepared to stay logged in for many hours. It may be possible to miss the whole story and outcome of the event. Secondly, there is a question over how often will the events will reset and repeat. Too often and the dynamic nature of the world is shown as a sham, and not often enough and you could end up missing many of the more interesting events.

ArenaNet have apparently stated that they have needed to develop 3-4 times the normal number of quests as dynamic events in order to balance the timing of them. That's a lot of content. A lot could go wrong with this kind of content, and I also worry that the gameplay may feel as though it lacks any real sense of direction.

Having said all that the dynamic events system is one of the two features that mean I will now be keeping a much closer eye on the development of this game. If they can nail it then ArenaNet may really have redefined MMO gameplay.


The other feature that has me hopeful for the game is the World vs World PvP system, mainly because it sounds a lot like the Dark Age of Camelot RvR system, which has been without a shadow of a doubt my favourite PvP experience in an MMO. If they can manage to recover even a shred of the same feeling that DAoC RvR gave then they are onto another winning system.

As well as PvP battlegrounds the World vs World (WvW) concept is the interesting part. Your entire server will compete against two other servers for rewards that can benefit everyone on your home server. The WvW takes place across four large maps that will allow hundreds of players to fight at the same time (one map per server plus a central neutral map). This sounds very similar to how the DAoC wargrounds were set up.

Each WvW map will also feature PvE content and dynamic events, and the fighting will be based on capturing of keeps and towers, again much like DAoC.

Sounds great right? It really does have me quite excited, but I still have a few worries about the system. Players will be bolstered in PvP in a similar way to The Old Republic. That system works to some extent, but the fact is that higher level characters still hold a big advantage due to gear and skill sets.

The other issue is that the map populations are limited to 100 players per faction. In my experience taking keeps and fortified positions in PvP normally requires that the attacking force has a considerably greater strength of numbers than the defending force. If the populations are limited to the same level then this coud play heavily in the favour of defending groups.

Still, the WvW along with the dynamic events system are the two things that have me keeping an eye on the title from hereon in.

Combat in the game is supposed to be more dynamic than in most MMOs with active dodging and blocking required. DDO did this quite a while back, and whilst it does make combat a little more interesting the system is still basically a hotkeyed MMO combat system. I don't expect it to make as much of a difference as people may be hoping for.

Apparently there will be no holy trinity of combat roles in the game. There will be no tank classes and no healer classes, with all classes able to take on those roles to some degree. This sounds like a nice idea, but I'm not convinced it will work so well in reality. Combat roles potentially bring strategy, tactics and the need to rely on others to group combat, and I'm not sure how removing them will do anything other than making everyone basically focus on dps.

I do have other concerns, though they are mainly down to personal tastes. The world and lore in the original game was, in my opinion, pretty much standard hackneyed fantasy fare. I didn't care for the art style either (big eyes and microscopic skirts on teenage-looking female characters isn't to my taste). Whilst the graphics do look amazing in the videos I've seen, the setting again seems like a stock fantasy land with a stock fantasy story (the danger caused by the awakening of elder dragons type of story was getting old when EQ first did it years ago).

There are a few other odd omissions from the game. Stock MMO features like mounts and raids are lacking. I'm still not really sure what the endgame content is supposed to be.

The fact is however that having taken another look at the game there are two features that could, if done right, really change things up in the genre. WvW and dynamic events sound like things to get (cautiously) excited about.

As I said above, the fact there is no subscription means I will now be picking the game up, most likely at launch (still officially slated for this year). What happens after that depends above all on whether the innovation leads to fun gameplay and enough interesting experiences for me to overcome my dislike of the setting and lore.

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