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Monday, March 4, 2013

Review: Guild Wars 2 (PC)

I have a somewhat long, odd history with online games. I got into online gaming via MUDs around the mid-90's for a time. I got busy with college and quit playing for a few years, but then got back into them again around the time Ultima: Online was getting big. I tried a handful of other online games like Everquest and Dark Ages of Camelot, but none of them stuck beyond MUDs for me. Then I played World of Warcraft and got absolutely sucked in, like a lot of others did.

There is a reason I bring up World of Warcraft. It has been such a success for so long that it has regularly been seen as the standard other MMO's get measured against. In fact, when I played the original Guild Wars, I was still actively playing World of Warcraft and I measured them against one another. I played Guild Wars on and off for a few months, but gave it up in favor of World of Warcraft. Even though I appreciated that Guild Wars was not running off of a subscription model, I just found it lacking. The stories were not as interesting to me, the visuals seemed bland and the characters controlled in what I felt was clumsy fashion.

I did eventually give up on World of Warcraft after several years, occasionally teased back into playing for short bursts by Scrolls of Resurrections that friends would send me. Still, I had done most of what there was to be done, and worse yet I felt like I had to be playing - because I was paying. That monthly subscription model was fine early on, but over the years it gnawed at me more and more. There were times I felt just a little guilty, like I should be playing to get my money's worth out of my monthly fees.

Guild Wars 2 has been out for some time, and despite the many positive reviews it has received since then, I just never was impressed enough with the original to want to give this one a try. A couple of friends finally convinced me to pick this up before Christmas and after a few months I have had a chance to try several races and classes, participate in PVP and do some significant leveling.

My impressions? Incredibly positive. Guild Wars 2 looks and feels a lot more like World of Warcraft than the original Guild Wars in my opinion, but it does plenty of its own unique things as well. What we have here is a large, carefully crafted world that is fun to explore and controls fluidly. The visuals are absolutely astounding - impressive with a game like this. Even if you do not have a particularly powerful machine where you can crank up the visual detail, the art style behind Guild Wars 2 is impressive. There is a sort of hand painted look to many of the locals that gave it a distinctive touch, despite using vibrant colors that do lend themselves to a World of Warcraft or Kingdoms of Amalur comparison at times.

The music at first is what you would expect from a fantasy game, but there many of the tracks really stand out over time. Jeremy Soule is well-known for his efforts in The Elder Scrolls series and Neverwinter Nights. The sound effects are quite varied and often serve a practical purpose as you can hear combat from around the corner or some goblin-like creature screeching upon seeing you and giving you that moment's notice before it comes out of nowhere to attack. There is a tonne of voice acting in Guild Wars 2 as well. While not as consistently excellent as the music and sound effects, it does add life to the cut scenes and interactions that occur along the way.

Of course, with a game like this, the question often comes down to a handful of things. You want to have an interesting leveling system, so you have a reason to invest in your character. There is quite a bit of flexibility to be had here, so you can customize your characters in a variety of ways. I often felt like in World of Warcraft, there were maybe one or two builds to each class that were considered 'a must'. I recall many instances where I would not be invited along because my character was simply not specialized the way that the group leader wanted, right down to every last detail. There are certainly some builds that are more powerful than others, but it feels like you can be more flexible here because many of the skills you acquire cross class lines. My warrior, for example, has skills that heal him.

Combat is basically what you would expect. You auto attack based on the speed of your wielded weapons and you have specific commands that you can use at some combination of cost or cooldown. still, I found myself surprised at how different the classes felt when I began to dig into them. I almost always start a game like this by creating a warrior - generally of the two-handed sword variety. Guild Wars 2 emphasizes ranged and melee attacks though, and before long I found myself using a rifle to initiate a lot of combat and then quickly switching to my broadsword once the enemy got close. This same flavor of combat carries over to underwater battles, where you alternate between melee spears and ranged harpoon guns.

One of the earliest things I had to wrap my head around was the somewhat odd choice to let your characters breath underwater indefinitely. I was used to World of Warcraft and quite a few other games that allow you to go underwater, but without some magical aid - you run out of air and die before too long. The choice not to put that limitation on your underwater time struck me as odd and unrealistic at first, but it grew on me in time because there is a very vertical aspect to the underwater segments that gives it a different feel from combat on the land. This design choice allowed the developers to create much deeper underwater domains that help to vary things up quite a bit. The controls are a little strange at times - I definitely prefer land combat, but some of the deep water quests provide for some welcome variety.

Other common things found in MMOs show up here, from crafting systems to questing to karma (similar to faction or rank) points - things like that. They are all handled very well, and this is especially true with questing. The global or area quests that pop up are a treat. A good example early on was a forest I traveled through. There were spiders in it and as a typical quest in an MMO, you were to eliminate a certain number of them. However if other events occurred, you might be asked to collect apples as well, or battle a particularly large spider. Sometimes I will be wandering down a path minding my own business when a caravan happens by. You can join up with the people escorting it or simply carry on with your business.

These group quests often have different participation levels. If you show up late and do not do as much as escorts from the beginning, you get a smaller set of rewards to go with your bronze participation level. Kill tons of critters while helping others protect a farmer's crops, and you get max rewards with a gold medal. These sort of random events really add a lot of life to the world. Unfortunately you feel like your 'impact' on the world is a bit diminished when you see the same caravan come through again in half an hour or so, making it evident that some quests are much more repetitive than others, but they are still more interesting than many of the ones I found in other MMOs.

There is a lot of exploration to do, and you can find spots on the map indicating special vantage points that provide something of a challenge in and of themselves. Scale the strange, large plant on your way to a precarious perch above the ground and you can interact with it and view your surroundings. You get a small bit of experience and a lovely view of the landscape.

Fans of Player vs Player combat may be disappointed as there is no open world PVP, but they do have something referred to as Wold vs World and there are Arena options as well. I enjoyed the World vs World mode a bit more, as it pits a few servers against one another on huge maps. It seems like organized chaos at first, but the towers and keeps make the landscape feel like locations matter. People do need to learn to play their parts or your team will lose in the end, but I found it to be a nice diversion from the standard game now and again.

The actual game is much more storyline driven than most MMOs as well. You wind up partaking in a story that is about you. Certainly there is a bigger world filled with bigger events out there, but I thought the personalized stories - complete with choices to be made along the way - were an excellent touch.

That is not to say everything is perfect. Having tried several of the classes and races now, I certainly felt some were more effective than others. Also the main cities can feel quite daunting at first. There is not a ton of direction given early on. I had no idea where to take crafting supplies or how to even become a crafting professional. I did not realize the various options for storing things like crafting supplies from your pack (a huge, wonderful addition to the menus and gameplay, but not something I discovered until I had been playing for over a day). With a game like this that contains so much content, obvious not everything is going to get covered completely. That being said, it did seem like some details were glossed over or not touched on at all.

Your characters control far better here than they did in the original Guild Wars, but some of the view points in the world were really frustrating because they required platforming precision that a mouse and keyboard just do not provide the way a controller does for me personally. There were several of them I spent more time than I care to admit trying to scale, before just giving up in frustration.

Still, those last few points feel like nitpicks. I have more fun with Guild Wars 2 than any other MMO I have tried recently, including going back 'one more time' for a week of World of Warcraft. That it comes without a subscription fee of any kind only sweetens the deal. I can ignore it for four or five days and play something else and not feel guilty about it. Thing is, the game is so much fun I generally do not want to ignore it for that many days either.



- Nick H
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Review: Guild Wars 2 (PC)
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