Review of the Guild Wars 2 Beta Weekend

Though we were out of town to attend a wedding at the end of last week, I did get some time with Guild Wars 2 (GW2) on Saturday and Sunday. This was a weekend beta event for people who had either pre-ordered the game or gotten a beta key through some other method (I was able to pick up a few at PAX East), but even so the game ran great. There was some downtime on Saturday 2-3 hours, but Arena.net got it fixed relatively quickly and overall performance was very good.

That said, while there are a few things I liked a lot about Guild Wars 2, there are a number of areas where I felt it was pretty poor. Let’s start with the good.

Good: Weapons and Abilities

It didn’t click for me until Sunday how cool this was. In GW2, your abilities are tied to your weapon. The way this worked in GW1 was that you had a massive amount of abilities, and these became available or unavailable depending on the weapon you had equipped. You could only set 8 abilities on your skill bar, and you had to set them in town–when you went out into the wild, you couldn’t change them until you returned to town. This meant that if you wanted to change weapons, you couldn’t.

In GW2, when you change weapons, your abilities automatically roll over. New abilities unlock as you become more proficient with that weapon, and you get all of them by level 5. These abilities can be pretty different, so it was really neat for me to discover that equipping a sword and shield was totally different from equipping a sword and dagger, or a mace and shield, or a greatsword, or a staff. And abilities are, of course, different between each class, which means there is a ton of variation. This was really exciting when I realized it, and I think it’s a neat approach to weapon-specific abilities. It removes a lot of clutter while giving you a good set of choices and letting you play with things.

There are abilities you buy with skill points as well. Your weapon abilities are 5 slots on your bar, and skill-point abilities are 5 more, for a total of 10. I didn’t get to a very high level on any character, but there were definitely some neat things you could do with these. And, of course, you can respec at a trainer.

Good: PVP

Guild Wars is known for its PVP. That’s just about the entire point of the game, and I can say with confidence that GW2 has some of the best PVP I have ever seen. I only played a few maps, but they were fun, diverse, and encouraged teamwork and communication. And when you finish one, the scores are displayed, and then you automatically roll to the next map. There is no going to a lobby to queue, or waiting for another round to start. You can play as long as you want, and quit when you’re ready.

The only problem with PVP may have been just a problem with me, which is that I couldn’t figure out how to exit it. You can queue for PVP from anywhere in the world, but the only way I could find to leave was to exit to “The Mists,” which is the PVP lobby (there are some missions in there and such, which I didn’t try), and from there you can run to a portal, which takes you to the town of Lion’s Arch, from which you can take other portals to other places. So, getting into PVP is quick, but getting out might take several minutes. Hopefully there is another way to exit that I just didn’t find this time.

Good: Travel

There are quick travel points all over the place, and the only limitation on using them is having a few copper in your pocket. Once you run past a quick travel point, you unlock it, and you can then use the map to travel to that point from anywhere in the world.

Except from the PVP area. Which is kind of frustrating.

Also, I don’t know if there are mounts in GW2… didn’t see any or hear of any, but they’re not really needed. There’s not much distance between each quick travel point, and if you need to go further than one point, you can just travel to the closest point to your destination.

Good: Events

While doing your regular quests (which are a bit different in GW2, but not terribly), there are Events that pop up, similar to the Invasions in Rift. Text will pop up telling you a new event is nearby, which you can see on your map and minimap, and you can run into the area to join the fun. You don’t have to join a party or raid, and progress as well as success or failure is shared by everyone present. Your participation is rated as Bronze, Silver, or Gold, and your rewards are commensurate with your participation.

These are fun and often challenging, and they pop up all over the place. They also scale in difficulty depending on who all is present, and it was fun to run in and help secure a location, beat a bad guy, or escort a caravan all on the fly.

However, there’s a problem with the game that I think the events highlight.

Neutral: Community

Despite so many of us rushing into events and fighting bad guys together, my experience over the weekend was that no one chatted, no one partied up, and no one really stuck together. I didn’t know anyone’s name and no one knew mine. We ran into an event, we overcame it or failed, and we went our separate directions. No community was built.

During the beta weekends for Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR), and in regular every-day play, it is common for there to be lots of chatting, for people to group up for quests, and to meet new friends. I have met people randomly who I now chat with on Ventrilo and we get together each week to play. I’ve been in two different guilds with great people that I enjoy talking with. And these things developed organically because the game encouraged communication.

Guild Wars 2, of course, has guilds. It’s in the name. But I worry that the community outside of guilds will be largely non-existent, which was my same experience with Guild Wars 1. When I was trying to quest, it was hard to get anyone to talk with me or be terribly helpful. Some of that will be ameliorated by the design decisions in GW2, which makes every player a lot more self-sufficient than they were in GW1, but I play massively multiplayer online games for the multiplayer, and I worry that unless I find a guild in my time zone with people on, I’ll be out of luck. Everyone else just stays silent and runs on their own.

This might just be the beta, though. We’ll see how it fares at launch. That’s it for the good or semi-good. Sadly, there’s a lot of bad.

Bad: Writing and Story

I rather enjoyed the story in Guild Wars 1. The videos were a bit hoaky since it was people with block heads, block hands, and no moving mouths talking to one another, but at least we were seeing in-game graphics in each cut scene with moving cameras. In Guild Wars 2, cut scenes are often a background with two characters facing the screen, though turned towards each other at a 45 degree angle, talking. And not talking well.

The writing in GW2 is jaw-droppingly bad. Three races were available during the beta, and I played each for a short while, taking my human noble guardian the furthest. To give credit where it is due, each race has multiple backgrounds–you could be a Charr who is Iron Legion, Blood Legion, or Ash Legion, or you could be a human who is from the streets, who is a commoner, or who is a noble. And each background has a different story. That’s a good idea… but the writing and setup of each story makes me not want to play most of them. The human noble story made me dislike my character, and a friend who played a human “street rat” said the same for them. The Norn story is pretty lame and doesn’t fit into the epic setting at all, and the Charr stories are similarly blasé.

Between the characters not looking at each other and their delivering lines to no one and nothing but rather to a space about 2 feet in front of the person they’re talking to, it just doesn’t work for me. I’ll still be playing the game, but I’ll be leveling one character to 80 and doing dungeons and PVP. I have no interest in seeing any of the stories.

This is in comparison with SWTOR, where I have 8 characters right now, one for each story. And they are all written so well that I am really enjoying all of them. It hurts GW2 as well that it really isn’t a role-playing game, but more of a massively multiplayer fantasy action game. SWTOR is a true MMORPG, perhaps the first ever that really earns that acronym, and the role-playing in it is simply awesome. You really get to build your character in a way that is emotionally meaningful, and I love it. GW2 is a pale and limpid thing in comparison.

Bad (or potentially Neutral): Inventory management and vendors

To give GW2 some credit, I do like the Hero window. This is like a combined character sheet and inventory that has tabs (via a vertical menu on the left) for skills, attributes, PVP, etc. The inventory it displays is only the items you can equip.

You have a separate inventory window that is pretty standard fare. The thing that annoys me a bit is buying/selling, which uses a system similar to Lord of the Rings Online (LotRO). When you go to a merchant, you have a window with a vertical menu on the left (just like the Hero window, and several others). The first tab is buying stuff, and the second is selling. You go into the second tab and double click to sell, which is a pain.

What’s worse, you can’t repair at every vendor. This is something SWTOR has that I have fallen in love with. Not every vendor sells the same items, but every vendor I go to, no matter what vendor it is, can be sold to and can effect repairs.

Arena.net has really trumpeted how, during the design of Guild Wars 2, they have asked themselves, “What do we love about MMOs, and what do we hate? Let’s improve what we love, and get rid of everything we hate.” Do they really love having only 1-2 vendors per major city who can repair gear? And having none in most remote locations? Tracking those guys down is a huge pain. What’s more, most vendors aren’t labeled correctly on the map, so if you’re looking for a weaponsmith, you may have to spend a lot of time looking for him. There will be 6 nondescript “Merchants” near one another, but only rarely are they labeled correctly and specifically to their function.

Bad: City design

There are two problems with city design. The first is a confusing map. Let’s say you have a quest inside a city, so you open your map and see the green quest marker indicating where you need to go. The only problem is, a city might have 3 different levels, and your marker doesn’t tell you which level you need to be on, or how to get there.

This is something that SWTOR has spoiled me on. Its map is the best thing I have ever seen in a game, and it makes finding your next step painless and perfect. More on that in the quest information section, though. Suffice it to say, the map doesn’t show you how to get from point A to point B in cities well.

Which brings me to my second point. Shitty, shitty, shitty city design. It’s realistic, perhaps, but it is terrible for a game. The Charr city is a good example of this, which I spent an hour running around in great frustration. There are walls, and pits, and elevators, and ramps, and all kinds of stuff that don’t show up on the dark-grey on dark-grey map. You know roughly where your quest is, but you can’t figure out how to get there, or which of the 3-4 levels it’s on, and you just keep running into walls.

Arena.net has gotten a lot of praise for how large and full their cities are/feel, and that’s great. But I hate spending a ton of time running through a city for no good reason. SWTOR only really screwed this up with Coruscant. World of Warcraft (WoW) does a good job of this by making their cities surprisingly small, but with short visibility–they’re not necessarily hard to navigate because pathways are clear on the map (except for Orgrimmar, which was a pain to learn at first), but because everything is so tall, you can’t see everything at once and that gives the city a sense of size without them actually having to be huge.

After experiencing the Black Citadel in the beta, I won’t make a Charr. I like the race a lot, and I think it’d be neat to play, but their city is too infuriating. I’ll stick with a human most likely, since their city is pretty easy to navigate.

Bad: Quest information

Let me use an example. On my human noble, I was trying to gather information for a court trial. I was at a party and needed to question people. But I didn’t know what people, or where they were. Several people told me to ask the cook, but I didn’t know where the cook was. Someone told me to talk to the guards, so I went around and clicked on every guard.

Nothing on the map, minimap, or quest text/log indicated who I should talk to. Finally, after clicking on each NPC in turn, I would find one, and the quest text would update and tell me to go somewhere else, but it didn’t say where eactly.

WoW, SWTOR, even LotRO has better quest indicators. So does/did City of Heroes, DC Universe Online, Rift, Star Wars Galaxies… in fact, I think the only one as bad or worse than GW2 for quest information would be EVE Online. Some of the quests are clear, but not all of them, and there are simple things that newer games have done that GW2 doesn’t do, which is just odd.

Undecided

This last one is the huge gamble Arena.net has taken, and I have no idea if it will work out or not. They have broken the trinity of Tank, DPS, and Healer–those roles do not exist in GW2. You cannot play a healer, no matter how much you want to. As near as I can tell, you can’t really play a tank either–I didn’t see any way to generate threat other than by doing damage. Everyone has self-heals and is largely self-sufficient, and a lot of combat involves actively evading and dodging your enemies.

This could be great. It really mimics a great fantasy novel, where the characters don’t have a role like we do in a game, but instead are companions on a quest. They work together and complement one another to achieve their goals.

But in the context of a game, I don’t really know how it will work, especially with higher level content that is more challenging. I assume all this stuff has been tested and works fine, but I haven’t seen it myself. It was in my second day of playing that I realized I could not play a healer, and that healers didn’t really exist, and that they weren’t necessarily needed… but while I think that is fascinating, I don’t know how it will work out long-term. We’ll just have to wait and see.

Conclusion

Pretty much the only thing that will get me playing Guild Wars 2 is that it has no subscription fee. I can buy it, enjoy it with friends, level up and do PVP (which really is the greatest), and skip through all the poorly written story stuff.

I won’t be leaving SWTOR for it, though. The only thing that Guild Wars 2 does better than Star Wars: The Old Republic is PVP. Even the graphics in GW2, while good, succumb to the same problem as many more “realistic” games in that they look like a mix of browns, greens, greys, and little else. The graphics don’t pop or help you distinguish easily between background, foreground, and monsters, which is a pain.

So, GW2 is OK. I’ll have it and play it, since there’s no subscription fee. I think some of the decisions Arena.net has made regarding its design and philosophy may change MMO games. But it won’t supplant World of Warcraft or Star Wars: The Old Republic. Its story and PVE just aren’t good enough, from what I’ve seen so far.

Did you play in the weekend beta? Let me know where you disagree, agree, and if you’ll be playing at launch!

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