Guild Wars 2 from ArenaNet is approximately the seven hundred and forty second MMORPG to launch in the last few years. And looming over them all, as it has for almost eight years, the million pound gorilla-panda that is World of Warcraft.
In these tough economic times, and in such a crowded field a game needs more than a gimmick or two if the developers hope to snare enough players. And a reputation for being "the next big thing" won't impress anyone snoring through your me-too gameplay.
Fortunately Guild Wars 2 steers clear of many of the usual gameplay trappings with an evolution of the original game's smaller ability pool leading the charge.
Most modern MMOs give you new skills to play with every few levels, with players expected to juggle a dozen or more by the time they hit level twenty.
Guild Wars 2 gives you ten. ish. It varies depending on your class and chosen weaponry, but even an Engineer with all his selectable skill slots filled with deployable turrets only winds up with 14 skills to worry about at any one time. With cooldowns, passive abilities tied to not using a skill and the situational nature of other skills it's possible to whittle things down to the point where you only have five or six ability buttons to press. (You know, if you want to avoid an aneurysm.)
You can also go way off the deep end by having a different set of weapons (and corresponding weapon-based abilities) to swap to, or just change selected skills in between fights if you want. Couple it all with an active dodge-roll to avoid enemy attacks and you end up with a combat and skill system that can cater reasonably well to both the more casual, relaxed gamers while still offering the depth and twitch reflex based stuff the hardcore crowd appreciate.
None of that matters if the system just doesn't work, of course. As an Australian gamer there's an expectation of a certain amount of lag interfering with precise timings in MMOs and while this isn't entirely absent here, you can get in your dodges and interrupts and protective skills with enough consistency that it is rarely a source of frustration. World versus World, the game's showpony centrepiece for massed Player versus Player battles works beautifully, even with dozens of players on each side battling it out. Latency between firing off an ability and the results playing out remains consistent throughout, something many other MMOs have struggled with when trying large scale battles. I've written previously about the game's WvW mode, but the short version is this: It's amazing, deep and going to suck up a lot of people's game time.
An even larger departure from the norm is the decision to shy away from the "Holy Trinity" of RPG combat design. For those unfamiliar, this dictates the standard party be made up of a "tank" type character to absorb the damage, a healer to keep the tank on his feet and as many damage dealing characters as needed to fill out the group. It's a great idea and it works well across a huge range of settings, despite being a little obviously game-y at times.
Instead of having dedicated tanks and healers, Guild Wars 2 gives every player the ability to heal themselves, and plenty of options for avoiding, resisting or generally soaking up damage. Some classes also have skills that let them heal other players, protect them from damage or otherwise provide direct assistance, but the goal is to have those be nice bonuses, not essential components. Whether this approach will bear fruit in the long term is anyone's guess, but the early signs are very promising. Players are free to wade into the thick of battle with magic wielding classes, if they're built for it and the burly warrior types aren't stuck babysitting them. Large battles can become a little chaotic as a result, but it works.
And for when things inevitably go horribly wrong, you're not looking at a long respawn time or a lengthy trek from the nearest graveyard.
The first part of being defeated is simply being knocked to the ground, where you have only four usable skills and an ever dwindling health pool. If you defeat an enemy or can channel the self heal for long enough you spring back up into action. Other nearby players (whether grouped or not!) can also assist in reviving you. But even if you ultimately bleed out, all is not lost as other players can still revive you. It takes a lot longer, you can't help by channeling your own heal and a lot of players won't even realise you can be resurrected... But boy, it sure doesn't suck to have some random passerby pick you up in time to get that dynamic quest event finished.
This leads neatly to another deviation from the standard fare. There are very few quests in the form most people are used to. Other games will have you approach an NPC, have a bit of a chat and then you're sent off to kill ten rats. Guild Wars 2 has that style of questing for your personal storyline quests, but the wide open world is virtually living and breathing, ebbing and flowing according to the player interactions with various "Dynamic Events". One day you might approach a small outpost and help them fend off an ogre attack. The next day, you might login to find other players failed to hold the outpost and now ogres have set up shop and you need to push them back out. And when you're done pushing them out, the returning inhabitants might suggest you take the fight to the ogre's own fort...
This is all scripted, of course, and not truly dynamic. If the ogres take over every place they can because no players are around to stop them, they're not going to make a move on a major city, unless that is also scripted to occur. What is dynamic about the system is the way it adjusts the goals and strength of opponents based on how many players are in the area trying to complete the same event. There might only be two or three ogres of regular ogre strength to fight you and a friend, but if a dozen other players turn up you might find you're facing veteran ogres with nasty pets and scary spells up their sleeves. An end-of-event boss encounter may go from an enemy with ten thousand health to one with ten million. The odds may still be in favour of the players but it keeps encounters interesting. And everyone automatically gets their share of credit for participation. A player joining in just for the boss kill will only receive a small slice of pie if there was an hour of buildup to that event.
MMOs are not pushing many graphical boundaries, generally speaking, both in an attempt to cater to a wider audience and the long development time involved. Cutting edge technology five years ago (when Guild Wars 2 was announced) looks about average these days, at best. But ArenaNet has made smart use of available technology to turn out an impressive looking game. Water ripples invitingly, grass sways in the wind (both natural and caused by spells) and player models are intricately detailed and wonderfully animated, both in and out of combat. There's an occasional ground texture here and there that looks a bit naff, but spell effects can leave marks on the ground so it's hard to complain when you find some bad stretch marks in an obscure corner of the map.
I still hold reservations regarding the viability of melee combat, but that's a small niggle next to the otherwise excellent gameplay. You don't even have to worry you'll be badgered by friends into playing a certain class, because your guild will never "need" a tank or a healer. And if you don't have friends, you can make some by helping in public events!
Of special interest is the decision to launch Guild Wars 2 without a monthly subscription being required to play. The game will instead rely on a "Cosmetics and Convenience Only" cash shop, where players can spend gems to buy fancy pants and extra bag space. Gems may be purchased with money from the real world or traded for with in-game gold. ArenaNet are even setting a supply and demand system up to dictate the price when trading between gems and gold, or the reverse, to keep the system in some sort of balance. The hope is that this system will seriously curtail the impact of gold sellers, but not inconvenience players who just want to pay for some gold.
Time will tell whether all the risks pay off, but the game is remarkably well polished and looks set for a strong launch. Whether it can fend off the release of a certain panda-themed expansion next month is anyone's guess. People are, after all, weird.