There are a lot of Massively Multiplayer Online games out there. And they often have a lot in common. They're always full of lengthy quests. They're usually built on some kind of broad fantasy tale. And they're, well, massively multiplayer experiences. The game developers at ArenaNet carry all of those elements into their new Guild Wars 2 game. But it doesn't take much time manning your keyboard and mouse before you realize that these gamemakers aren't that interested in upholding the typical MMO expectations. They'd rather shake things up a bit.
It all begins again in the fantasy world of Tyria, some 250 years after the conclusion of the first game. Zhaitan, an undead Elder Dragon—along with other ancient dragons—have awoken and begun doing what dragons do: terrorizing the land and corrupting its inhabitants. Someone's got to figure out a way to unify the world's different races in order to effectively take them on.
That someone, of course, is you. So after creating a male or female character from one of five races—including humans, giant Norns, beasty Charrs, gnome-like Asursa and plant-based Sylvari—you get ready for the fight of your life by layering on one of eight professions that cover the typical warrior, ranger, thief, physical battler types and the magic arts spellcasters such as elementalist or necromancer.
OK, yeah, that's all pretty standard MMO boilerplate stuff. But here's where the changes start kicking in.
Choices Make the Game …
At the end of the character-creation stage, you answer certain biographical questions that uniquely shape your guy or gal. They're based on the race and profession you've chosen, and their answers—along with the choices you make later—fundamentally alter the story you'll play. That's a common design nowadays for many single-player RPGs, but it's a bit unique among MMOs.
Then there's that questing stuff. Yes, there are lots of adventures and level-ups to be had, but the structure feels very different here. Instead of a series of grinding marches toward mapped waypoints, it's all about the stories and events—which are tied back to your map to give you a sense of history. And as you move along your adventure, you'll also be alerted to any nearby "world events" that warriors in the vicinity are called to participate in. This not only affords better than normal experience points and quicker leveling opportunities, but it also joins unconnected players in a sense of unexpected camaraderie. You're suddenly part of an emergency that all conscientious citizens must face as the event grows from, for instance, battling a gaggle of warbeasties on a craggy hillside to suddenly coming face-to-face with a superpowered necromancer and his gigantic ice monster.
Even the normal meet-an-NPC-and-fulfill-his-needs quests have a new dynamic in this game. Those non-player characters are represented by a heart shape on the map, and their quests can be as mundane as fetching supplies or repairing a fence. But unlike most MMOs where you fulfill an assignment and receive a random trinket for your efforts, here you suddenly have access to whatever gear this character may have to sell. So each quest opens up new sources of trade and potentially gives you means to finding just the equipment you're looking for.
How one uses that equipment (read, in this case: weapons) against all those giant spiders, menacing Minotaurs, hard-hitting golems and the like, well, that has a lot to do with … more choices. Even the very weapons you use change the attack choices at your command.
… But Gamers Make the Choice
That ever-changing skill set, however, can be seen as a bane just as easily as a boon. The game doesn't take a lot of time to guide you through all the skill choices and changes, so the added complexity and explore-as-you-go effort necessary to just keep up (or stay upright) can be a daunting task for the uninitiated.
And speaking of problems: For all its uniqueness, Guild Wars 2 is still a game with any number of common MMO issues. All that melee combat, for instance—with swords, arrows, fiery and lightning magic attacks, firearms and explosives—leave characters and creatures dead and crumpled on the ground. While the general battles are bloodless, the cutscenes feature T-rated spatter; you can also participate in underwater battles that leave clouds of blood floating in the rippling deep.
Magic and sorcery practically meld with the landscape here. Female fighters can be clad in form- and cleavage-revealing armor. And alcohol consumption isn't uncommon during the local tavern activities. In fact, there's an odd drinking minigame in the mix that can leave you bleary-eyed and wobbling, or exhaust your health meter altogether. As for foul language, I never encountered it while playing—it's a huge game!—but the ESRB states that "a‑‑" and "b‑‑tard" are a part of the dialogue in some scenes.
That sheer scope, preventing me from exploring even a quarter of the terrain while writing this review, makes me want to end with a caution about the time-management side of things. Or to put it in gaming vernacular, with 80 levels of character development to attain, a beautiful set of cinematic vistas to see, guilds of like-minded gamers to join and a vast well-defined worldscape of caves, castles, mountains and moors to explore, this is a game that can gobble up your life as easily as a hungry dragon can gobble up a cave full of mountain goats.