Friday, September 14, 2012

Discussing MMOs: Guild Wars 2

There's been a bit of a delay on this one, which I apologize for, but mostly it is because I am both studying for my PhD exams and playing this game like crazy. So I warn you that I am not the most objective source on this game. I remember playing Guild Wars 1 quite a while ago, but only vaguely. Without further ado, I'll get to work.

Guild Wars 2 is kind of an MMO in that it has the large amount of players per server, but it has no subscription fee - all you have to do is buy the game. So once you own the game, you can play when you want, leave, come back, and as long as you still have your copy of the game, it won't cost you anything. Don't get me wrong, they do have a real money conversion thing going - you use real money to buy gems in a game store, and you can use those gems to buy extra character slots, bank space, clothing dyes, or armor skins, among other things - you can even convert the gems into in-game money. While this may seem like a way to make player pay extra money to buy more character slots and such, I should note that the gems-to-game-money conversion goes both ways - you can buy gems with in-game money, as well, so make enough money in the game and you're good to go on gems.

Character-wise, there are five races - the Norns (big, burly Viking-type people - literally, Norns are like 7 feet tall at their shortest, and over 8.5 feet at their tallest), Humans, Sylvari (a race of plant people, some of whom are bioluminescent, so they glow in the dark when it is nighttime), Charr (big, scary, cat/hyena people), and Asura (tiny - 3-3.5 feet tall - mad scientists). Your race, whatever you choose, has no mechanical effect, aside from some subpar abilities you can acquire as 'elite' skills; race really only matters for story purposes. Each race has a series of questions to answer in character creation, and these questions help determine the direction of your personal story.

After race, there are 8 classes, and they are all wildly different. Warriors, as might be expected, hit things or shoot them, and wear big, heavy armor - they're also very tough. Guardians are a bit like paladins - they use many of the same weapons as Warriors, but with a more mystical bent to their skills. They are also tough, but their toughness involves more activity.  After that, we have Thieves, who attack from stealth and do massive amounts of initial damage; Rangers, who have pets to assist them in combat; Engineers, who can pick and choose from an array of gadgets, like rocket boots, flamethrowers, or elixir guns, to kill enemies or assist other players; Elementalists, who use the magic of the elements, each of which has its own particular specialty; Necromancers, who create minions from dead flesh and bone to assist them in combat; and Mesmers, who use illusions and misdirection to mess with the minds of their foes. Each of the classes has an entirely different approach to things, and as I've only played Warrior, Guardian, and Elementalist, I can't comment on them all - but they fit a wide variety of styles.

After class, though, comes something I haven't seen before - weapon choice. Well, I have seem weapon choice - WoW let most classes use a variety of weapons, for example. But in WoW, your abilities remained the same regardless of which weapon you used - only the animation changed. In Guild Wars 2 (or GW2), though, each weapon has its own set of skills. On my warrior, I primarily use a giant hammer, which swings in a wide arc, hitting a pretty big area, and has several abilities that stun, knock down, or control enemies. Sometimes I swap out to a mace and warhorn, letting me club enemies over the head while using the warhorn to buff myself and allies. Or I could choose to use my longbow, which can shoot flaming areas, cause an area to light on fire, and blind enemies from a distance. Weapon skills cover the first 5 slots on your ability bar; most have a 'burst' skill, too, which builds up in combat to let you release for a big hit.

Each class has its own ways to fill up the last 5 slots on your ability bar. One slot is always a healing ability; you have several choices, but it means you always have a way to heal yourself. The next three are utility slots; for a Warrior, I could fill them with the ability to Kick an opponent and interrupt them; or throw Bolas at a charging foe to immobilize them; maybe shout "Fear Me!" and have enemies run away, or plant a battle standard to help my defense. Each class has their own array, and they're all different, but fitting to the class. Finally, there is an elite skill slot; these are for big, scary things, and are also where racial abilities come in. Norns, for example, can turn into human/bear hybrids, of human/wolf hybrids, for 30 seconds, while Charr can call in an artillery strike or grab a bazooka; Warriors can transform into a giant Juggernaut, making them stronger, tougher, and bigger. The racial elite skills are a bit underpowered compared to the class skills, but they are fun and thematic.

One of the big draw of GW2 is PvP. There are several ways to go about this in the game, and even I, who normally hate PvP, have tried most of them. For one, in each race's home city, there is an activity - for the Norns, it is the Keg Brawl, which is basically 5-on-5 rugby with kegs on a frozen lake. No killing, just smacking and scoring. Then there is single and small group PvP, which is just what it says; you can face off against other players solo or on a small team, and even compete in tournaments. Finally, there is World versus World - three servers meet on 4 maps and fight it out to control the most territory on each map. This is the biggest PvP I've seen, with literally hundreds of players per server taking part in this combat; you attack towers and castles, build siege weapons, collect NPC allies, and fight off massive groups of opposing players. It's really something to see 50 or 60 of your fellow server-mates assaulting a castle, building rams, trying to shoot down trebuchets, and generally just having a crazy time.

For those of you not into PvP, there is still plenty to do. If you like crafting, there's plenty of it - and crafting can actually really help while gaining levels, because crafting items and discovering new crafting plans gives plenty of experience. If you just like fighting monsters, they are all over the place - there are 25 zones of varying level ranges to get your monster-slaying on. If you like exploring (as I do), there's that, too - and there are specific things to discover in each zone. Points of Interest (specific places), Waypoints (places you can transport to, or restart if you die), Skill Challenges (to help earn skill points to purchase your utility and elite skills), and Vistas (specific, often hard-to-reach places that, when reached, give you a nice, quasi-cutscene view of the beautiful scenery Arenanet created, from massive ruins to mountain peaks) dot every zone, and if you get all of them for a zone, you get a zone completion bonus - usually some kind of level-appropriate equipment or crafting materials.

The look of characters are relatively customizable, as well. While you can't retain old armor looks in a 'dressing room' function, you can use easy-to-acquire items to transfer the look of one item onto the mechanical bits of a more useful one. I did this with some lower-level armor whose look I liked, but wasn't protecting me well enough as I grew in levels. You also start with an array of dyes to color your armor and clothing; everyone starts with 20 or so (determined by race), and you can find more in play, and the dyes come in almost every shade you could want. Things like pure white or black, though, are hard to find, and pricy to buy. I wish you didn't have to use items to re-skin new armor with an old look, but it still gives you far more customization than WoW does.

Questing is another area where GW2 differs from games like WoW. Instead of having quest hubs, and having to take quests which make you run back and forth from questgivers, GW2 works in a much more dynamic fashion - in each zone, there are people who need help. When you get close to one, it will show up on your map, as well as what that person wants done. Sometimes it is killing pesky enemies, but it might also be fixing fences, or herding wayward animals,  or helping with troop morale. There are also a number of dynamic events going on in each zone - in one area, there are a string of events as you fight off an attack by centaurs, then pursue them back to their home base, fight your way in, take out the lower-level leaders, and then kill their supreme commander. If you fail to fight off the initial centaur attack, though, then instead of pursuing the centaurs, there will be another event centered on retaking the human camp. These go back and forth across each zone, and they mean you're never running back to town for the next quest - just moving around the map in a more organic fashion, which feels very freeing to me.

There are also dungeons in GW2, though they are all for 5-person groups, and while I haven't done any of them yet, I know how they work; guildmates have told me that they were a very strange experience, because there are no specific healers, tanks, or damage dealers; people can swap out weapons and utility skills often, and so can move from close combat to a ranged support role in seconds, even during a boss fight. I am told it is a very different experience from the average MMO dungeon, and I hope to check it out soon - the elimination (or at the least lessening) of the 'Holy Trinity' interests me quite a bit.

I am still very active in Guild Wars 2 for the time being, and since it has no subscription fee, I expect to be playing for a while. I'm a member of the guild, Vanguards Grifters & Orphans, on the Tarnished Coast server; if you try the game out, look me up.

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