GUILD WARS 2: CHECKPOINT REVIEW (LEVELS 1 TO 20)

You’ll never forget your first world event. You’ll be rambling through a forest, then a message will flash in your quest log: ‘Slay the enraged cave troll’ Suddenly, you’ll see five players rush past you. Then ten. Everyone’s charging to the objective en masse, and you join the pack. As you approach the troll’s cave, you see a dazzling fireworks display of spells. More people than you can count are attacking the beast together; strangers working side by side. It’s beautiful.

This gives you the chance to take part in massive battles and multi-part quests without having to organise as a group. They just happen randomly as you explore. You might never see these people again, but you’ve shared a moment with them. This side of MMO gaming isn’t new, of course; but being able to take part in them, at any level, even if you don’t have a group of friends to raid with, is something very special. When these huge battles are over, we often find ourselves forming parties with the people there and continuing our adventures together.

Regular quests are the same. Forget the usual MMO routine of picking up a quest from an NPC, completing it, then turning it in – here, all you have to do to start a quest is be in the general area. It won’t be some banal ‘collect 20 eggs’ fetch quest; there’ll be multiple objectives, all spread across a large area of the map. You might be digging up crops, scaring away bunny rabbits, protecting villagers from monsters, repelling bandit invasions, and any number of fun – and often bizarre – mini-games. For every one you complete, a progress bar fills up. When it’s full, you’ve completed the quest and a pigeon swoops over your head and delivers your reward. It’s remarkably streamlined, and eliminates any sense of grind or repetition.

But the best thing is that while you’re doing these quests, so are dozens of other players. So if someone is fighting an enemy, you can join them and it’ll count towards your own progress as well as theirs. Like the world events, this makes players forge social bonds on the fly. The idea of solo questing seems so archaic now. Items and enemies respawn quickly too, so you never feel like you’re knocking heads with the people around you to complete objectives.

Another element of MMOs that’s often criminally ignored is exploration. Guild Wars 2′s world is absolutely stunning, and immense in scale. ArenaNet’s art team have done a sublime job giving every area its own distinct personality. There’s a richness of detail in some areas that put many single-player RPGs to shame. It’s easily the best looking MMO to date. But it’s not just for show; you’re actively encouraged to explore and appreciate the beauty of your surroundings.

Each map has its own completion bar that you fill up by finding places of interest, hidden skill challenges and vistas. Activating a vista gives you a sweeping shot of the landscape around you, and nets you experience points. They’re often hidden in hard to reach places, forcing you to complete a mini platforming challenge to collect them. In busy areas, watching ten other players trying, and repeatedly failing, to navigate these jumping puzzles is entertaining, but it also means that you can watch them to learn the path for yourself.

Our main character is a ranger, and we’ve been ploughing through the starting areas for each race. Cleverly, your stats are adjusted to fit the level of the area you’re in. This means you can work through quests that are designed for people with much less in-game experience than you, but you still get decent XP and levelled loot. This provides the opportunity to explore every corner of the map without worrying that you’re wasting your time.

There’s something amusing, almost heart-warming, about seeing someone with fancy, high level armour doing quests alongside newbies.

Getting around is made easy by portals. If you want to join a friend on a completely different side of the map, all you have to do is visit your race’s capital city and stroll through a portal. This takes you to a hub with connections to all the major cities. You can travel quickly around maps too. As you explore you’ll pick up waypoints, and for an inconsequential fee you can travel between them instantly. There’s no waiting for zeppelins to arrive or hearthstones to recharge – another example of the streamlining that makes the game such an effortless pleasure to play.

In another example of the game’s design bringing players together, sometimes waypoints are marked as ‘contested’. This means enemies are invading the area around it, and players on the map will have to band together and fight them back to make the spawn point available again. This makes the world feel alive and dynamic. Of course, we haven’t even scratched the surface. That’s why we’ve broken our review up into two parts. We’ve just reached level 20 after 25 hours of play, and we’ve only uncovered a tiny fraction of the world map. But in that relatively short amount of time we’ve experienced so much – and all with other people.

From the hardcore MMO player’s perspective, there are some complaints about the interface and PVP balancing, but this is to be expected. So far ArenaNet has been incredibly vocal about fixes, and sorting out the inevitable launch problems. Besides an initial four hours of being unable to login at the beginning of the headstart sessions, we’ve had no problems connecting. It’s a much smoother launch than The Old Republic, but still far from perfect. Gameplay, interface, and balancing issues will, as with all MMOs, be continually tweaked and improved as the months – and perhaps years – go on. So the Guild Wars 2 we’re seeing now, as good as it is, may be a completely different beast as the patches roll out. Time will tell.

We’ll have to see whether our excitement lasts. The first three map areas we’ve completed in full have been entertaining, beautiful, and full of memorable moments, mostly involving armies of other players. Whether this extends to the farther reaches of the map remains to be seen. If you fear the idea of an MMO, or have tried the likes of World of Warcraft and didn’t like it, Guild Wars 2′s slicker design and focus on social interaction might win you over. There’s no monthly subscription fee to worry committing to; all you have to do is buy the game and you’re in. 

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