Guild Wars 2: The Kotaku Review

The true heart and essence of Guild Wars 2 lies in its map. It took me three weeks of playing and a chat with my colleague Kirk to realise and articulate how much magic lies in that seemingly simple function. The map of Tyria isn't just utilitarian; it's beautiful. Even mired in the fog of war, the painterly brush strokes hint at all manner of terrain to explore underneath.

But it's more than just the art. Where every other MMORPG I've played directs my attention inward, to a personal quest journal or log, GW2 directs my attention outward, explicitly asking me to take a more global view. Every quest I can complete appears on the map, from the permanent, static heart quests to the mobile, dynamic events. Vista points, seen and unseen, show on the map, as do points of interest and places where I can earn skill points. Perhaps most importantly, downed players — whether or not they are in my guild or group — appear on the map as well.

Guild Wars 2's map isn't just a record of where I have been; it's a living guide to all the places I have yet to go and all the things I have yet to do.

Guild Wars 2

With a mix of familiar MMORPG tropes and new, modern approaches to delivering them, Guild Wars 2 is an excellent, welcoming take on the genre.

Developer: ArenaNet Platforms: PC Released: August 28

Type of game: Fantasy-set MMORPG

What I played: A month on a main that reached the high 30s, plus some time on a few alts. Played as a member of a guild, with solo, group, dungeon and PvP play, plus crafting.

My Two Favourite Things

  • Design that explicitly encourages cooperation and community among all of the players loose in the world
  • The art, not just in the game zones but also on the map and in cut-scenes and loading screens. It's vivid, lush, and lovely, with a sense of human hands behind it.

My Two Least-Favourite Things

  • Falling damage. With so many jumping puzzles and high vista views, an unfortunate series of splats is almost a certainty for any player. Even with ways to mitigate the damage over time, it's tiresome.
  • Uneven performance. I can't explore the Black Citadel, because my framerate drops into single digits. All other zones I have encountered in the game so far are fine. It's frustrating.

Made-to-Order Back-of-Box Quotes

  • "900 screenshots isn't too many, right?" — Kate Cox, Kotaku
  • "A multiplayer game where hell isn't actually other people." — Kate Cox, Kotaku

During a full month playing Guild Wars 2, I recorded impressions in a series of logs. The first was where I discovered an insatiable need to explore. In the second, I marvelled at how easy it was to get off the beaten path, how unnecessary it seemed to be to form a party, and how generally amiable the community was. Part three was where I discovered crafting, and in log four I hopped into world vs world PvP and fell off rather a lot of cliffs.

The constant thread running through all my experiences was how truly impressed I remain with the very deliberate tactics ArenaNet has taken to try to break players of the habit of a personal, linear ladder that so many previous MMORPGs have instilled in us. Other games have taught me to view other players as competition, or as danger. If another player and I arrived on a dock in EverQuest II at the same time, we'd make a point of steering in opposite directions from each other as we ran into the zone, to avoid getting in each other's way with harvests or kills. A recent foray into World of Warcraft has left me feeling that other players are something I have to wade through to get where I'm going. In these, and in nearly other multiplayer game I've ever tried, the existence of other players only helps me when I am intentionally in a group with them.

Not so in Guild Wars 2. Every event that shows up in or near my path is a moment that inspires a silent but fervent hope from me that there are other players around. Diving into a massive melee is fun; finding myself all alone, with a half-dozen waves of enemies bearing down on me, is not. And yet becoming overwhelmed at an event isn't the end of the world, even it if it is briefly the end a character's life. (Death, fortunately, is but a fleeting and easily remedied condition.) Zones are set up in a state of perpetual warfare: if players cannot defend a location, well then they can help retake it later. After pirates managed to blow up one bridge, a new wave of players came by, helped resurrect me and the other player that had been standing on the bridge when it blew, and then we all worked together to defend the workers repairing it.

That spirit of perpetual cooperation in a living, breathing world is truly what sets Guild Wars 2 apart. The generally joyful, cooperative feeling is enhanced by the way the game measures progression. There are 80 levels, fairly standard, but every action a player takes contributes to a single bar of experience. Crafting, exploration, combat, questing, event participation, even throwing a rez on another player — every action contributes to growth. Nor are skills entirely dependent on a player's level. Hotbar slots do unlock at levels 10, 20, and 30, and players can fill those slots with powerful skills.

Weapon skills, though, are based entirely on the weapons a player has chosen to equip. If I fight with a dagger in each hand, I will learn a certain five skills. If I swap the main hand dagger for a gun, I'll learn three new skills for slots 1-3 in lieu of the dagger skills I had there. If I swap the off-hand dagger for a gun, slots 4 and 5 change. It's a modular system that sounds complex but that becomes intuitive and fluid almost instantly on playing.

Over the past few years, there has been a trend in massively multiplayer online games that has seen them become ever more single-player experiences that take place in a shared world. Guild Wars 2 reverses the trend handily, without ever once prescribing particular "social" actions for its players. No player must participate in a group event, and swooping by to rez a fallen player or lending a hand in any fight you run by are entirely optional acts. And yet, the way the game is arranged, players do tend to stop to help each other out.

The end result is a game that feels a bit like Cheers. Everyone may not exactly know your name, or be glad that you personally came, but it's still a world that welcomes your presence. Tyria can be difficult to navigate at times, but in a way that feels playful and mischievous rather than hostile. Above all, Guild Wars 2 feels encouraging and fair. Death and failure are not particularly difficult to overcome, and become challenges rather than punishments.

If I get lost by stepping off the beaten path, there will always be another path to find.

If I get lost by stepping off the beaten path, there will always be another path to find. If I die falling off a high vantage point, it will have been my own fault for climbing up there to begin with. If I am severely under-leveled for an area, it's because I chose to ignore the level guidance prominently displayed on my map. When I get in over my head with a bunch of adds, I will almost always have had adequate warning that the area was dangerous. With waypoints scattered fairly liberally around most areas, reviving at one and making my way back to where I was usually doesn't set me back all that far.

Guild Wars 2 is likewise forgiving in its dungeon environments, for which I found myself very grateful on my first foray into the Ascalonian Catacombs. It's the first group zone in the game, and yet it doesn't appear until a player is roughly level 30. Events in the player's character story lead to it, and allow the player to enter in story mode. After, players can return to explore the dungeon in a more traditional exploration mode.

While the dungeon itself is a fairly straightforward and predictable mix of trash mobs and bosses, laid out in an easy shape, learning how to approach one for the first time with GW2's particular mix of class skills can be an adventure of the repeatedly fatal kind. Additionally, the more players are casting in a particular area, the harder it is to spot the warning signs of AOE effects or traps about to splash fire, spikes, or another variety of pain on your location. Though the problem of visual spectacle overwhelming useful information is hardly limited to dungeons alone.

What I feel as I play Guild Wars 2 is something I have not felt in this kind of game in a very long time. In it, I am not just a player who happens to be moving through a game that other players also enjoy. Instead, I am part of a community and part of a world that constantly reacts to my presence in it — even if some of those reactions are clearly on a loop. My urge to explore just for the sake of finding things is not only tolerated, but encouraged and for once, I am relishing the part of "massively multiplayer" that brings other players to my side.

Guild Wars 2 is not structured as a deeply competitive game, and players who strive only for the best gear, the fastest levelling, and the sharpest end-game technique will likely miss most of what it has to offer. Rather than seeing the absence of an end-game focused quest and gear ladder as a lack, though, I see it as a blessing. It is a journey that gives me great pleasure to explore.

As for the destination? I really have no idea where it all will end. But I will enjoy taking my time — and discovering every single point on every map — on the way there.


Comments

    I've run the game on my laptop and it hasn't had any framerate issues, even on 'stamina mode' it still runs pretty well. What specs do you have..?

    Absolutely loving this game, though the exact same frame-rate drop occurs for me only in one section of the Black Citadel. Weird, but glad I'm not alone!

      Yeah the Citadel can be pretty chuggy, I'm surprised my old laptop can run it, and pretty well i might add. And i concur, brilliant game.

    I'm loving this game, but entering some instances/zones will result in unplayable lag, hangs and dropouts – not as an issue with one's network connection, but something to do with their instance allocation.

    That said, I haven't had an issue with frame rates (touch wood).

    Hey quick question guys wondering if it's worth getting into GW2, I played the first few ones and did not fine them very fun as you could just automatically get to the max level and do PVP, With GW2 is this the same process?

    Is there an article or a review somewhere comparing GW1 to GW2?

    I'd say buy it, its amazing game that sucks you in, i've played a huge amount of time and I'm nowhere near finishing leveling (all 5 characters ~30-40).

    If you're a massive fan of WoW, i'd probably pass however, all my mates who were enjoying WoW don't like it. If you're a fan of GW1 you might be disappointed about certain aspects.

    WvW is the highlight for me at the moment, sPvP isn't as good as the first game, however once other modes and things like Heroes Ascent are added I'm sure my complaints will be removed in this regard.

    If you want to stroll around a well designed world with a brilliant art style and a somewhat decent plot (hint, play Charr) with amazing music. Its a Game for you.

    If you enjoy playing with other people, but don't want to be penalised for not having a group/party during open world questing. Its a Game for you.

    Not to be negative but I would add to the above:

    If you are a PVE player who enjoys highly tuned dungeons and endgame raid/PVE content - this isn't a game for you.

    If you generally enjoy levelling solely by questing (as opposed to running around exploring/doing professions/doing events) this isn't a game for you.

    As far as i am concerned this game is what MMO's should be.

    I completely agree with Kate Cox when she says that the game is about community.

    If you want competitive RPG-esque experiences, play Defence of the Ancients or League of Legends.

    Or play Call of Duty or Counterstrike even - if all you want is a sense of giddy superiority that you pawned some chump.

    For me, this game has opened so many doors. A wide open world in which people actually help each other when they are in need. Work with each other towards the common good and are victorious ... together.

    That isn't just the world i want to play in - it's the world i want to live in.

    That said, if you like a massive brawl, then WvWvW is the place for you! Recently had an experience where my world was mashing it up with another one then, out of nowhere, the third world comes in and blindsides the both of us.

    It got pretty damned chaotic REAL quick. You didn't even have time to finish off a downed player unless you wanted to go as well.

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