"Guild Wars 2" is a phrase which sends thrills down the spine of any RPG addict or MMO fan. The first game was launched way back in 2005, and it looks like ArenaNet has spent the time in between looking at what other MMOs were doing - and what they were doing wrong.
Recently, I was invited into the beta test for the game - and the few short hours I spent in Tyria were enough to convince me that ArenaNet its definitely on the right track - and miles ahead of its competitors.
My alter ego for the weekend: A female Charr engineer. She's a mean-looking humanoid cat-like creature who wears an eyepatch, has large curved horns and tabby-like markings. She's pretty awesome, even though I spent most of my time staring at her back as she romps around the countryside.
That said, I know that she's awesome, because I designed her that way. The GW2 character creation is a very slick affair: Pick your preferred race (there are five) and profession (there are eight), and then pad them out with a back-story that might seem random and unrelated (Who was your best friend, growing up?), but actually adds up to a complex tale which has some pretty significant effects on your character's experiences. These extend beyond the character creation screens and into the game world, with apparently simple interactions with NPCs adding further layers to your character's history and unravelling the secrets of Tyria.
This is something that Guild Wars 2 is particularly proud of - the storyline experienced by the player can change completely, based on their actions. It's something we've seen many times before in single-player RPGs, but a new concept for something involving multiplayer.
Another major difference which sets GW2 apart from the rest is the lack of a traditional questing system. You're no longer wandering around huge maps searching for people with exclamation marks hovering over their skulls - instead, tasks are triggered simply by walking near the appropriate area. For those of you who like a nice clean quest tracker, as you walk out of the area, the item disappears until you return. It's a nice touch (if a little confusing at first). No drawn-out conversations with NPCs, and no having to hunt for that floating punctuation.
The tasks themselves vary pretty significantly even in the early levels - none of this "starter" stuff where you simply go kill ten rats or the equivalent. I was collecting unexploded mines and placing them back in the armoury, fixing fish traps and gathering ingredients (as well as one or two which involved dispatching demons and ridding a field of troublesome baby wyrms).
The game itself is set 250 years after the last Guild Wars expansion, Eye of the North. A lot has changed over the centuries, too. The Charr have reclaimed their ancestral homeland, Ascalon. Natural disasters have beset the once-dominant human race, pushing them out of their land and into new spaces (the war with the Charr obviously didn't help things there either). There are also three more races battling it out in the nation of Tyria: The proud Norn, hunters from the north, who are being forced south. The Asura, to the west, are being forced to live above ground. The Sylvari are newcomers to Tyria, with only 25 years' history - and while they're not being pushed out of their homeland, they're somehow connected to the Elder Dragons in a way which makes the other races nervous.
The Elder Dragons, of course, are the reason we're all here today: All five of them have woken up, and are causing a little mayhem and destruction.
The only way to overcome the Elder Dragons? Defeat the undead Dragon, Zhaitan. That's a simple matter of combining the strengths of all five in-game races - no small feat. To get a little practice, your personal task is to reunite Destiny's Edge - an old adventuring guild made up of members from each race. It's like a miniature version of the bigger world problem, and definitely demonstrates the trial that is co-operation between each clan.
Even after seven years of development, it's still early days for Guild Wars 2 - and even earlier days for my experience with it. The few short hours I spent in Tyria were nowhere near enough to explore the map (I can admit to being easily distracted by sidequests and easily overrun by bad guys), but it's definitely something I'm looking forward to revisiting again in the future.
Quite when that will be though, we're not sure. ArenaNet has recently opened up another Beta intake, promising to ramp up public test events in March and April, but as yet, there's still no official date for release. When it does hit shelves though, there's another reason you should pick it up. Not only is it gorgeous, immersive and incredibly personalised, Guild Wars 2 is free to play, with no subscription fees at all. If you've got a PC and an internet connection, you can jump right into Tyria and never leave.
I like video games and music and cups of tea and noodles and beagles and colour-cycling LEDs.
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Jimmy the Geek