Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Guild Wars 2: The Re-Review

It's been two years since Guild Wars 2 released, and almost that long since I posted my original review. I was looking over that review the other day, and it's... really outdated. I briefly considered updating the review, but so much has changed that it would actually be easier to write a whole new review.

So here we go!

As a refresher, this was my summary of Guild Wars 2's launch week reviews:
Guild Wars 2 was received very well, earning an average review score of 90%. Critics were impressed with the scale of the game and its focus on cooperation, as well as the attention to detail and the removal or improvement of most of the problems associated with MMOs. Some reviewers complained about repetitive content, and some were disappointed that the game wasn't as revolutionary as its marketing made it appear.
The biggest thing that hasn't changed over two years is that Guild Wars 2 is the friendliest MMO I've ever seen. The core game systems are designed around cooperation. Everyone gets full rewards for every action and kill and event - rewards aren't divided between players. Resource nodes are instanced so everyone gets to mine. You're rewarded for helping and reviving other players. Running into another player in the open world is always a good thing. This cooperative design (and strict but reasonable chat moderation) make this game feel very friendly and welcoming. 
Part of the newest zone, Dry Top
It's also an easy game to get into. The September 2014 feature pack overhauled the new player experience. While I had a knee-jerk negative reaction to these changes at first, looking over things in more detail shows that for the most part they really have improved things for new players. Earning your first few levels is very quick, and you now earn rewards and unlocks at every level. Many features are hidden until a certain level, and are explained in the reward display when you reach that level. As an example, gathering nodes are hidden at first, and when they're unlocked you're told how they work, and that you don't need a crafting profession to gather like in many other games. (some unlocks are bugged in that they're intended to be account unlocks but are currently character unlocks, but this is being looked into and should be resolved soon)
April Fools' 2014 = big head mode
Combat is still active and engaging. Almost every skill can be cast while moving. There's a dedicated dodge button. Skills can combo with each other to create new effects. You can swap weapons on the fly to completely change your skill bar. All of this creates a much more dynamic combat system than your typical MMORPG, where the situation can change dramatically and chaotically as everyone moves about the battlefield. There have been a lot of balance updates to refine the classes, skills, traits, and equipment,  so combat feels even better than it did at launch, with a few new options to boot. Especially in PvP modes, a skilled player is one who can adapt and react to new situations quickly, rather than the one with the best gear or memorization. A good character build helps a lot, but it's not everything.
Speaking of PvP modes, while there have been some great additions (such as PvP reward tracks and WvW ranks and abilities), neither mode has changed much since launch, which is a bit of a disappointment. There have been a couple of new PvP maps, and a new WvW "casual combat" zone slash waiting room, the modes have remained mostly unchanged overall. This has been a point of frustration for competitive players, who have been hoping for more variety since a few months after launch. It's recently been mentioned that ArenaNet is working on a brand-new PvP game mode, but we're light on details so far. As a primarily PvE player who's not too impressed with the development on these fronts, I see the competitive modes more as routes to certain unlocks than entertaining modes in their own right.
Lion's Arch, the primary hub, got kind of blown up. You may not recognize For Marriner, pictured here.
The main ongoing complaint about Guild Wars 2 - really the only one aside from PvP - is that there isn't enough content for long-time players. While story missions, guild missions, world bosses, new zones, and dungeons have been added, it's been at a slow enough pace that veteran players often get bored of the existing content before more comes out. Personally I'm not sure how much stock I put in this complaint. As a game with no subscription fee, there's no pressure to "get your money's worth" every month, so if you're bored of the game, you don't have to play it. And updates are frequent - there's almost never more than two weeks between new releases, so even if you burn through all the new stuff in a day or two, there'll be more in a couple of weeks.

The original story was strongest in its earliest steps, dealing with your character's origins and how you make a name for yourself. After the story expanded to the fight against the elder dragons - and specifically the undead dragon Zhaitan - it dropped a notch, save for a few standout missions, characters (Tybalt) and designs (Zhaitan, holy crap).
I've loved the large majority of updates. For a whole year, ArenaNet followed a very ambitious update schedule: new Living Story content every two weeks. Season one followed the story of Scarlet, a villain creating alliances and technology for some mysterious purpose. While there were some weaknesses to this approach - namely that it was mostly temporary and the plot's villain and her ties to the world and lore didn't get explained until too late - these updates tended to be fun to play. 
Some of the high points for me were the Molten Alliance and Aetherblade temporary dungeons (relatively difficult and played with new combat mechanics), the permanent Fractals of the Mists dungeon (high-end stuff with some very cool boss fights), the Queen's Jubilee and Bazaar of the Four Winds festivals (with cool new environments and both cooperative and competitive elements), the Tower of Nightmares (that showed us ArenaNet was willing to permanently change the world and could deliver dungeon-like play in the open world), and the attack on Lion's Arch (blew up the world's capital city and provided some great boss battles).

The first half of Living Story season two has show us the lessons ArenaNet learned from season one: that players want permanent content and expansions to the world. As opposed to a long drawn-out mystery, season two leaps right into the growing reach of the awakening plant dragon, Mordremoth. Season two missions are free unlocks for players who log in during the update period, and cheap purchases for those who missed them (200 gems per episode, which works out to $10 for the first half of the season - entirely reasonable). The quality of the storytelling has improved noticeably, and season two is giving us more at a time than season one did. While the shift to instance-based story episodes means we haven't seen anything quite as epic as season one's world bosses (like the marionette), the most recent episode really shows that ArenaNet wants to maintain that sense of scale and impact.
Canyons in Dry Top
Season two also gave us Dry Top, a new zone which is (in my opinion) easily the best zone in the entire game, both visually and mechanically - it's a rocky desert badland that's swept by sandstorms every hour, which change the available events and reduce visibility. It's also full of location-based rewards to keep players coming back.
And that's only talking about the story additions. There have also been huge updates to functionality and quality of life. There's been a new tier of gear, a looking-for-group tool, expansions to guild functionality, improvements to crafting and storage, a trading post overhaul, achievement rewards, the megaserver system that ensures you're always in populated map, and all kinds of other major and minor stuff.

Probably the most significant addition is collections - the wardrobe for weapon and armour skins, and achievements for various collectibles. The wardrobe is an account-wide system for collecting gear appearances, allowing you to accumulate and change between different looks without having to store equipment. And collection achievements reward you for finding all of a certain  type of item - spoons, particular gear sets, and books, to name a few examples. The collection system encourages you to visit every nook and cranny of the game, and provides a gigantic check list for completion-obsessed players.

Finally I have to say that this is still a fine looking game. Not quite as impressive by comparison to other games as it was at launch, but the world is full of spectacular vistas, and creature and character design is top-notch. The concept art is gorgeous (you can see a lot of it on loading screens) and there's just so much about the world that's visually impressive. Try to keep an eye on your surroundings instead of just running to the next objective, and you'll be constantly amazed.

Recommendation: play it.

As I mentioned in my original review, Guild Wars 2 has gorgeous visuals, action-packed combat, a friendly and helpful community, and tons of stuff to do. Core systems have improved dramatically since launch, and almost everything is easy to find and understand. But by far the coolest element of Guild Wars 2 is the living world, both in terms of frequency of updates and how they're evolving and developing the game world. There's always something new to do, and the quality keeps going up.
And sometimes it's an acid trip


  1. i played the first one and it's the only MMO i've played to date. the graphics were nice, but i couldn't care less about interacting with people, and most of the time i found having other people around doing dance moves and talking in internet-speak just distracting. and playing an MMO while hating all the other players and wanting to do everything alone gets incredibly boring incredibly quickly, so i was done within 5 hours.
    this sequel looks good but maybe one day NCSoft will make a single player RPG for the rest of us, since they won't be busy gouging money from people every month, WoW style Games Online

  2. I'm still playing Guild Wars 2 these days and loving it! :D