Remember why World of Warcraft supplanted Everquest? Azeroth’s improved graphics and colorful history were a small part of the equation. It was because Blizzard took Everquest, replaced the parts players didn’t like and then polished the rest. Everquest had notoriously horrific corpse runs, lines in front of shopkeepers, and mandated that classes like healers join groups to level up. World of Warcraft had none of that and plenty of original features. You could get the same pleasant levelling and looting experience without a Norrathian headache.
After eight years of Warcraft only the most devout dairy queen would think this blizzard hasn’t gotten stale. The griffons that once ferried us happily across the vast landscape have become AFK Airlines. Quest design is better than ever, but the travel time back and forth between the quest giver and the quest area is as exciting as silence on the radio. We have copious bank space for our items, but carrying sackfuls of berries back to major cities is no one’s idea of fun.
Guild Wars 2 fixes those problems and more, giving us the same pleasant levelling and looting experience without a Azerothian headache.
ArenaNet’s upgrades won’t be apparent at first. What strikes you immediately about Guild Wars 2 is the sense of wonder. Divinity’s Reach (which I keep mistyping as Destiny’s Reach) is a giant of a city, an aboveground Ironforge apparently built for titans but inhabited by humans. Shaped like a wagon wheel set on its side and filled with houses, your first tour of the city is bound to be dizzying.
Non-player characters fill the streets, just varied enough to avoid identical twins talking to each other. Confetti explodes above your head when heading down the ramp. There are unique sights in each of the six districts: a zoo, a complicated music engine, a vast gorge. Shopkeepers actually run up to you and encourage you to craft trade goods. The heavy scripting creates the impression of Skyrim’s living cities, no easy feat in a massively multiplayer game.
With a city as large as Divinity’s Reach you might expect horses and griffons are required to get from one side to another. Not so. Mounts don’t exist. In their place are teleportation crystals, fast travel checkpoints placed all over the world that cost a few copper to use. Instead of dropping a huge amount of gold upfront to buy a mount - and still hoofing/feathering it to your destination - you spend a little here and there to instantly go anywhere you want (“instantly” once the long loading times are finished). The constant money drain creates a tight economy that tempts players to use the game’s real money store.
Without great monthly subscription fees comes great microtransaction opportunities, but Guild Wars 2 doesn’t abuse its players. You can buy extra gold, pets, and cosmetic items like funky hats and aviator sunglasses. Conversion rates are reasonable, so the joy the game inspires should translate to some well-deserved revenue.
World of Warcraft liberated its players to solo the entire game up to level 60 as formerly “squishy” classes like the mage and priest. You still had to work to create a group to take on elite monsters or wandering world bosses, but it was progress and we were happy.
Now we can go even further: all quests are free-roaming activities anyone can complete as an amorphous group of soloers. Wandering boss monsters are swiftly dogpiled under a mass of players who each receive loot and experience. Resources are instanced, so the guy running ahead of you mining is just making it easier for you to find ore nodes. Escort quests are actually fun! Guild Wars 2 takes the best parts of an online game - big groups of players using tons of abilities - and brings it to everyone. From level 2 on up you’re able to have the kind of great experience once reserved for level 60 characters. It’s astonishing.
And then there are the story quests.
I’m playing a human mage who never recovered her sister’s body. Things start innocuously enough: you defend your friend’s bar from hooligans and discover a former guard was responsible for your sister’s capture by centaurs. Overly melodramatic and wordy, but nothing terribly egregious. Your quest giver is Logan Thackery - “he’s so dreamy” coo the barmaids (barf) - a stereotypical honorable captain of the guard. I don’t think he ever surprised me with a piece of dialog. But it wasn’t long until I looked forward to the story quests only for the equipment reward.
It gets really bad when you start dealing with the factions. An undead crisis is breaking out and three organizations - the nerds, the soldiers, and the spies - want to deal with it in their own way. Despite the fact that each organization seems to report to Logan, he doesn’t have the authority (or the balls) to choose whose solution is implemented. Instead it’s up to you.
I feel like a presidential intern given the authority to direct the CIA, Army, and FBI. Isn’t this the president’s job? Isn’t this… anybody else’s job?
It’s very odd that the first time you hear of these factions is when you’re forced to choose between them. Is there a reason to pick one over the other? Is one group more suitable for spell casters than fighters? If so, why even let me choose? If not, why don’t I get more information before choosing sides? I ended up judging them by the most important undead-fighting criteria: who has the most badass fortress? The Durmand Priory nerds won that contest.
That’s the worst of Guild Wars 2: the story is kind of cheesy. Everything else is amazing.
Like combat: as a mage, some of my spells have target areas, so I can’t just fire and forget. I can switch from DPS to healing to crowd control with one button. An attack mage can actually heal people! Inconceivable!
You also have to dodge enemy attacks by pressing a special button. As massively online games rarely require real reflexes, I feel challenged. It reminds me of how amazing Half-Life’s reload functionality was in 1999. Of course, a manual dodge means monsters in Guild Wars 2 practically telegraph their attacks over the PA system, but you won’t ever be bored.
In fact, boredom is hard to come by in Guild Wars 2. Tired of fighting? Switch to a healing build and rescue other players. Antisocial? Go pick flowers and craft something. Want to explore? You’ll get experience by running around other realms and discovering vistas. Don’t want to do anything? Just sit in Lion’s Arch and people watch. Since nobody’s on a mount, you can see characters without them zipping by at a hundred miles an hour. There’s also PvP and World vs. World combat that I find utterly uninteresting but keeps many others happy, so yay for that.
This is how you beat World of Warcraft. Take the base formula and make substantial, meaningful improvements. Then take my $60.