Guild Wars 2
The sequel to the popular instance-heavy MMO has been out for months now, and an adequate amount of play time and content fix time has been allowed for a more accurate description of what's on the plate to offer. As you may know, MMOs can be a rather tricky genre for reviewers out there - as long as the game still has it's servers open and supported, the game itself can change anywhere from subtly to full out revamped in the course of its existence. Thankfully for you, you can just assume that these opinions are based on a time frame of 3/24/2013 and prior - which should give you enough of an idea to see how things are at it's foundation.
The land of Tyria is being cast into chaos by it's biggest threat yet. Set hundreds of years after the original Guild Wars, The different races of Tyria must learn to set aside their differences and band together if they are to survive the might of the Dragons.
There's a distinct amount of people that, unsettling as it is, seem to think that there is no real story to the game, that there is no background or lore to get into. Anytime someone says this of an MMO, it makes me giggle, because it probably means that they aren't bother to read any text that pops up on your screen - more troublesome when the main story (referred to as the "Personal Story") is nearly entirely voice-acted with in game character-chat 'cut scenes' as well (the occasional story-driven imagery cut scenes happen, although predominately you will be watching two characters at a time talking face to face). The personal stories differ from race to race up until you get to the level range where you choose a 'order' (one of three separate minded groups within the world - the military Vigil, the secretive Whispers, or the studious Priory), and then all stories become nearly the same as soon as one hits the point in the story where all the races/orders have joined together to try and take on the Dragon threat (minor path variations and choices happen throughout). There is enough plot here that you can play the game and be satisfied, with little "mini-stories" being told through Dynamic Events (which are as simple and short as "save X from Y" or large chains that end with boss battles), and (so far) monthly "living story" additions told through various different DEs and NPC interactions.
As far as back story, some is given through the Dungeon content, where you learn more about the dynamics and relations of the group Destiny's Edge (what used to be the world's premier dragon slaying group) before they broke up. Some is delivered through the personal story, and some from NPC interaction. The easiest way to learn the back story, however, is to go play the original Guild Wars and/or read the various Guild Wars related books that are out. It's not needed, but if you really love the world of Tyria or Guild Wars 2, it'll help flesh out the experience a bit more.
Although it's built so that it can run on lower end systems, it's not exactly something I would go out of my way to recommend people to do. My laptop I'm typing this up on, for example (A Pavilion tx2510us) will run the game on it's lowest settings, but does experience a bit of graphical lag that can prove troublesome during some more fine-tuned events/puzzles. It's easier to just show you the main graphical differences using the two separate machines, but be advised that on my main desktop, the game generally runs maxed settings at anywhere from 20-50 FPS (depending on what's exactly going on - larger events involve more people, and more people means more effect animations on screen at once).
Lowest : Highest comparison. Click to enlarge.
To note, this game probably has the best looking DX 9/10 water I have seen to date. I hope that at some point down the road after all their main bug-fixing and "necessary" content has been added in that they might update some aspects to run with the more modern settings of DX11.
The music here is stellar. It'll set the mood, and with all the orchestral involvement it helps to lend a feeling of being "epic." The vocal cast does a wonderful job for the most part - although there are a few random folks here and there that you wonder if they where trying, and the only issue as far as the players character's vocals is the fact that after playing many hours on the same character, you will end up hearing the same phrases a lot . As a warrior who has access to shouts, playing around me usually results in being buffeted with "FOR GREAT JUSTICE" and "ON MY MARK" relentlessly (one or the other roughly every 10-12 seconds), and by the thirtieth time hearing a character yell "I can outrun a centaur!" it does get kind of old - but these are problems of almost any game that has characters who say taglines. It's also an issue later in the game, when you start fighting a lot of undead creatures, who all seem to spout the same 3 or 4 lines upon engaging you and being killed off.
The sound effects on the moves comes out with nice variety, from meteors swarming down on foes to the pleasant "thunk" from a warrior's shield bash. Occasionally, some moves will cause a sound effect to get stuck until you do something else (I've had this happen numerous times with signet-born buffs, where the sound and animation get stuck until you use any other move), but for the most part they are well polished. Environmental sounds also do a wonderful job of adding to the feel of the game, particularly loving waterfalls.
The biggest part comes up again, and I think it might do me good to split it up here, so try to float down this river of info with me alright?
Smooth and responsive (lag withstanding), as one would expect. Thanks to the idea of a limited skill bar being kept from the original Guild Wars, there are also less active buttons a person needs to watch over to be effective as well. A player has a grand total of 10 moves with which they can use, 5 of which are determined by the weapons you wield (you can only change these by changing types of weapons) and the other 5 are moves you can assign after "purchasing" them with skill points. Of the latter 5, one is a healing move which varies from healing with benefits to regeneration over time and one of which is an "elite" skill (obtainable at level 30) that usually have cool down times that feel a bit disproportional to how useful the move is (looking at you Norn transformations). The other three moves can be filled with whatever skills you currently know, and are unlocked in three tiers by purchasing a set amount of skills from prior tiers (tier one costs 1 point, and after buying five you unlock the ability to obtain moves from the second tier, which cost 3 points per skill). It's a nice system since it gives you time to play with the skills and get a feel for them before you just jump to the "one skill to rule them all" that might not actually be that good anyways in comparison.
Jumping has been added to controls as well, as has Evading. Evading take a little bit of getting used to, as timing is everything and it's tied to a bar that slowly fills over time (or some skills will fill it as well), so if you don't watch your usage of it you will find yourself getting hit by an attack while your endurance recovers. Evasion is something that helps keep the fights more active, as the lighter the armor the more you want to avoid those attacks so you don't take damage. Also added is the usage of the F1-F4 keys for some classes, usually tied to a class's special ability (like an elementalist switching between elemental attunements) and add a little more distinction between the classes. Finally, weapon-swapping was added, which allows for on the fly in-combat changing between two sets of weapons. This benefits some classes more than others, but it adds for a tactical diversity and gives you the chance to pull out a bow and switch to ranged combat on particularly brutal baddies without ever leaving combat.
In any MMO, gear is important - not only does it give you better stats, but it can help distinguish yourself from the other players. The game is a typical treadmill of progression through the lower levels - get gear through crafting or killing wildlife (or buying it from other players), replace worse gear with the better gear, then rinse and repeat. If you find yourself liking a particular style, you can use a "transmutation stone" to copy the appearance of one item over to another (letting you pick between the stat block, appearance, and auxillary rune/sigil of another all at once), and although this isn't quite as nice as the systems present in some other games (such as LOTRO, where you simply equip the looks into a "costume" slot) it does provide a bit of flexibility over not loosing particular aspects of an item as you level (that rune with +10 power, for example). When you hit level 80, however, things take a bit of a nicer change. For the most part, the best gear you can get in the game is an exotic level 80 item (stat wise), and these can be found, crafted, bought, or rewarded from doing dungeons. At this point, the gear ladder goes horizontal, giving you the ability to just find the design you like most, and go after that (or use a "fine transmutation stone" to get that exact rune/sigil, stat block, appearance you desire). Legendary gear (which will match the current best in slot items) exists at the moment only as weapons, and take a ridiculous amount of luck and/or money to get (to the extent that I personally have no desire for them), but offer amazing design effects (most will leave colored footprints behind as your character moves, as well as having fancy animations and particle effects - sometimes even audio - to go with them) for those who strive to have a long term goal. To a bit of discontent from the community, Arenanet added "Ascended gear" to the game, which is statistically stronger (by a laughably small margin) to exotic gear, but it was enough to break the faith in much of the community over them getting rid of the vertical gear treadmill.
Also to note, a wide variety of weapons exist, although each class is limited to what they can use, and each weapon has a larger batch of skins to them. Armor itself has a different number of skins in the double-digits for each of the 3 types. Sadly, capes (one of the fine points of the original Guild Wars) are lacking and our backs are left mostly naked of fancy non-armor attachments (although you can buy backpack skins and I believe a quiver).
This is the part where it differs itself from the original the most. Guild Wars 2 is very much an MMO, with much of the main world being open to all at once. Dungeons and personal story tend to be the only thing instanced in the game, so remember that many players could be on screen at once (in theory). Currently, an issue with culling (the server removing things from your view) is being fixed and thankfully so, as nothing is more annoying that running around when suddenly a group of monsters you couldn't see (because the game omitted them from your view) appear on top of you. Quests exist in their most archaic form, but mostly as something called "Dailies" (and their more time intensive brother "Monthlies") wherein you find things such as "kill X type of creature" and "Do Y events in Z area," but they are entirely optional (rewarding players with a bit of different types of currency and experience). The more common thing to run into is a Dynamic Event - which is essentially a scripted event or chain of events that's overall outcome can change depending on player participation.
Dynamic Events are a great thing in theory - if you don't save that town, then maybe you can't fast-travel there anymore! On the other swing, however, the majority of events happen with such a short timer between them (some happen seemingly every 10 minutes) that it can make things difficult to really enjoy them - of course the other side of this is that it allows more people to do said events when they re-occur so fast, so you don't have to worry as much about "missing out" on things. In the long run, however, the DE system feels more like the normal form of quests with less NPC interaction (unless you include the killing of baddies that normally happens).
Combat is handled much like most MMOs on the market - although evasion and combing finisher-type moves with other players field-type moves for added effects add to the activeness of the combat (as do some classes traits of doing more damage from side/back and weapon swapping), it is still very much a move cool down management system that we all are accustomed too. The variety in the classes does help for replays, as the majority (I've played to max level on three classes, halfway on one and working on two more as well) of classes feel pretty unique thanks to different skills and weapon selections.
Unlike most MMOs out there, however, GW2 rewards players for exploration, as every new area, way point, and point of interest uncovered nets the player experience, and upon a total map completion, a chest of loot (usually 2 or 3 items) is rewarded. This is nice, as it gives you more reason to explore than just to see the pretty sights. Jumping puzzles exist strewn throughout the maps, and although they aren't generally very rewarding, can be fun if you enjoy challenges (a lot of the challenge comes from the camera here though). There are also mini-dungeons hidden here and there, which are more of a puzzle challenge then they are a good training session for the full fledged dungeons. The dungeons themselves function as a "end game" although when you can travel to any area and the game down-levels you to the appropriate area, everywhere surely can function as an end-game zone (and it also serves the benefit of making it more interesting to travel back and help low-leveled friends).
Guild are present, although at the moment player housing is not. Various upgrades can be purchased for guilds through a currency earned by logging in and doing things while representing that guild - usually (outside of the guild bank) the benefits all come as a temporary item that will give a buff to anyone who uses it for X amount of time. One can also change the name of ranks, and the specific privileges, of said ranks (who can add members, who can access the bank, etc.). No group finding functionality has been added to the in-game, so you will still run into players in towns shouting out "LFG," although many have taken to using websites tailored for this task instead, and outside of keeping tack of where someone is, using the party chat channel, or doing instanced content, there really isn't much need to be in a group anyways. As long as you participate with something (say killing a creature) you will get your own independent reward - eliminating poor behavior like kill stealing. This means that in essence, the entire map population is one big party as far as PvE is concerned.
A structured PvP exists for those who are more into beating up other players on equal grounds, and a World versus World exists for the folks who wish to take their PvE character into the realms of PvP. I have mixed feelings about WvW, being a non-competitive gamer in that regard, as for the completionist out there it is necessary to explore the entirety of all the four WvW maps (some points needed are within forts that can only be accessed if your world has control of them), which forces you into a generally hostile world (especially if your world is not doing so well). It's an interesting enough take on PvP, however, with castle sieges and outpost taking, with a mix of NPC elements and actual opposing player forces, and introduces nifty little things like battering rams and catapults players can build through the use of supplies.
- Fun factor
With five races to choose from, and 8 classes, the game offers a good amount of customizing one can do to make the character and play style they want. A lot of players feel pressured to do things they don't need to do (such as get a legendary) and it can hamper their amount of fun drawn from the game. For the casual player who just wants to have fun, they need not worry about this and can just enjoy the journey of exploring the world and doing their story and events as they go, which lends to the game having a very casual and relatively chill feel. The fact that most the player base you run into in game is seemingly kind hearted people (upon coming across a dead player, the vast majority of players I have seen so far will revive them, or at least ask if they wish to be revived) also helps to improve the overall enjoyability. Yes, the occasional jerk is out there, kicking you because of your class or whatever elitist reason they may have, but the system as it stands is set up so that every class can provide it's own benefit if played right. Death in the game is no big deal, as you can rally (pick yourself up by killing a creature or healing before you fully die), that can be helped along by other players, and the average person should learn from their deaths and therefore improve, making you have more pride over besting a particularly nasty foe, event, or dungeon (my first run through a dungeon was atrocious, and know of a few people who almost didn't go back until I coerced them to give it another shot and I'd show them some tricks I learned from other players. As it is, the fact that most of the game can be completed playing solo in less-than-best gear makes it very easy to just hop on, play for a few hours, and leave happy.
For the grinding crowd, plenty of things have been put in place (like legendaries) to give them a reason to grind and farm all the money and items they want/need, without killing the experience for the casual player (a person can gain 2-3 levels in a few hours easy depending on how they play) . The fact that all you pay for the game is the box price (unless you want to buy things from the in-game store such as more character slots or cosmetic items) also helps lead to not feeling pressured to play the game. If you miss a couple weeks of play, no money was lost, so it's easy to stop playing for a while and move on to other things (like life) and then come back when the next interesting content comes out.
Overall, it's a game I'd recommend, but not to everyone. There are people out there who, for instance, love this game more then they ever did WoW, and yet others who played this game for a couple months and then went back to WoW. As similar as they are sharing the MMORPG terminology, they are different enough that it's still easy to form a drawing to one more than the other. The more casual nature of GW2 makes it easy for anyone to come in and have fun, but the fact you won't find anything that's so challenging that you need to form a 50-man raid (or whatever they call it, I apologize but I've never really cared about WoW) to do it could be a turn off to some. Is it worth a try? For the box price of 60 dollars, you will probably get more game time out of it than some other modern-day releases (ie. Most 6-hour campaign FPS games), and since no monthly fee is involved you won't necessarily have to stick with it forever or feel guilty about it. All in all, there is a lot of hate from the community from time to time on stupid things, but I feel most of it is just the more vocal portions of the community that absolutely feel that they need to be catered to or else the game is bad - although their wording can be poor, they do sometimes have a good point though.
There is still much to come for this game in the future, and I'll be happy to play this game off and on for a long time (having already racked up over 400 hours), just remember that as an MMO, they all by default have a steady stream of fixes, content, and input-based changes over the course of time.
Feel I may have left something out, or curious to know more? Leave a comment!