Monday, October 22, 2012

Journey into Tyria: Two steps forward, one step back

It’s been more than enough time since Guild Wars 2 released to poke and prod at the way it handles genre conventions. Having played every weekend beta event up until release, and my time with it after, it’s evident to me this was not the second coming of MMOs fans were expecting. That’s not to say Guild Wars 2 isn’t a fun game. It is, but the design foundation seems to ask why certain genre-defining standards are the way they are with changes where ArenaNet saw fit. This works in some instances, but when all the game systems come together it feels like taking two steps forward and one step back.

One area where they chose wisely to tinker is the business model. Buying the game up-front is a smart way to attract players put off by the recurring subscription fee previously set as a market standard for MMOs. The subscription model is fading from the forefront to become the exception more often than the rule. Guild Wars 2 follows a model similar to free to play games with cosmetic options and services as microtransactions, and content in the form of paid expansions. The model also conveniently allows ArenaNet to skirt away from the anxiety of subscription numbers rising or sinking, since players aren’t technically subscribing.

Rogues still do damage no matter what game it is.

However, once you dive into the mechanics of the actual game, things aren’t as good. Despite their commitment to stray away from it, Guild Wars 2 does use the trinity of damage, healing, and tanking found in nearly every RPG since Dungeons & Dragons. While no class pushes towards a particular role, combat still revolves around mitigating damage, dishing damage out as fast as possible, and restoring health lost from damage. It’s only a question of who plays which archetype.

In a game like World of Warcraft, you’ll never be able to support and heal other players in a group as a warrior, but you can in Guild Wars 2. That’s not abolishment of the trinity, that’s severing the role-tied-to-class dynamic. You still need someone to take the brunt of the damage, someone to restore the hit points lost due to damage, and others to deal out damage faster than the enemy can. It permeates through combat regardless if you are playing in a group, solo, or with pets.

One of the most disappointing things I discovered when first playing Guild Wars 2 is the presence of quests in the game. One of the main features touted during marketing was the claim quests were absent and replaced with a dynamic event system. You’d no longer find NPCs with symbols above their heads telling you where to go, following the same path as everyone else.

What actually was implanted were NPCs with symbols above their heads telling you where to go to complete renown events. Essentially, it’s the same thing. You aren’t reading quest text from an NPC, but you’re still traveling across the land completing renown events like you were crossing off items on a grocery list. Call it dynamic events, public quests, or something else, but the spirit of the system is still the same: Find certain areas in a zone, complete the objectives in area until none remain for the zone, then move on to the next.

That little box in the bottom-left might as well not be there.

Through my journey, I’ve concluded Guild Wars 2 is the most non-social MMO I’ve ever played. Because of the way events play out, essentially as public quests, there is no need to group up. With no need to group with other players, the first step towards grouping, communication, is gone. Besides the obligatory chatter in general chat channels spiraling into tired Chuck Norris jokes or diatribes about why Guild Wars 2 is or isn’t better than other games, I had a hard time finding anyone actually talking about events, quests, or people looking for groups. When surrounded by 20 to 30 players, all working to satisfy requirements for a particular event, no one said a word to each other. This leads to a lot of solo play, which is how I spent most of my time.

The first character I created was a Norn thief. I traveled across the Wayfarer Foothills completing my renown quests and fumbling through mechanics that are never explained, such as water combat. Between the renown quests, I also had story quests that took me into the mists to rescue a shaman and ultimately face the evil terrorizing the mists. The quest recommended level 10 and gave me two companions and a pet to help, so I figured I was in good shape. After attacking the first pack of enemies, a group of five ranging from levels 9 to 11 with two more behind them firing cannons, doubt began to slip into my mind. Slowly I made my way through the cavern and found Styrr Frostblade, the evil shaman corrupting the mists. Engaging him summons five ice elementals, which make quick work of my companions and I. After reviving at the instance entrance and running back to where I died, my companions were still lying on the ground dead leaving me to battle Styrr Frostblade alone, as if it would be easier the second time without the help of my companions. I tried the fight a few more times before giving up.

After about four or five deaths, this is what I was facing.

At this point, I had two options, neither of which would solve my dilemma. I could either go back into the world and complete more renown quests and level, hoping my new stats, armor, or weapons would help me win the fight. However, thanks to the level scaling feature I would still be level 10 for this quest, even if I leveled up to 40. I would still do the same amount of damage and take the same amount of hits before dying. My other choice was to ask around for help from other players. More than one player would be able to complete this quest easily. But as I said earlier, I never even saw another word from a player in in the chat window in the 10 minutes I spent asking for help. After that, I went for my third option: Starting a new character of a different race and class. To this day, my thief still lies in that cave dead on the floor.

I made a human elementalist. Humans are usually my last choice in any MMO as they tend to have the least interesting character creation options and their narratives are cut and dry. The same held true for character creation, but the story actually had an intriguing hook. After saving a town from rampaging centaurs, they threw a party in my favor, only to have thieves rampage through the streets and kidnap a noble. This leads to a mystery of finding out who helped the thieves get into town and why they kidnapped the noble. Regardless of the fantasy tropes, it was better than trouncing around norse lands saving druids and communing with animals. I also made a Charr warrior, but couldn’t connect to any characters in the story, not even my own. I saved my clan from a ghost but they labeled me a traitor and had to earn my rank back in the army, or something.

For many, PvP in Guild Wars 2 is the main draw, but I found it hard to be excited about. From the time I did spend with it, which admittedly is small compared to my time spent leveling and exploring dungeons, it didn’t have much variety to keep me coming back. The idea and philosophy behind World vs. World may be new, but with MMO players, it devolved into a twisted version of Alterac Valley from World of Warcraft, where groups of players go around taking capture points, then abandoning that point for another. When two groups of opposing servers would come together, it resulted in a standstill that would last several hours with no real traction made for either side. I even saw random enemy players running past each other towards objectives rather than attacking one another, a phenomenon that still happens in Alterac Valley to this day.

It may say work in progress, but nothing changed when the game launched.

Cutscenes in Guild Wars 2 consist of two characters standing on either side of the screen facing each other, performing idle character animations while subtitles run across the bottom of the screen. That’s it. There is nothing exciting about them, and I found them a chore to bear with if I wanted to get anything out of my character’s story.

During quests or events, Guild Wars 2 forgets to explain to players how mechanics and event nuances work. Objectives often seem like they might be a good idea on paper, but are lost in the implementation. There is an entire underwater combat system, but at no point does the game tell you or explain it to you. At one point while playing my Norn thief, I was tasked to commune with packs of wolfs. That’s what the quest objective said, “Commune with sacred wolves to start a pack hunt.” After spending about 10 minutes trying to figure out whether I needed to click on the wolves, use a looted item on the wolves, or get a buff to commune with the wolves, I discovered I needed to be almost standing on top of the wolves before a prompt would appear to continue. At no point during these 10 minutes did I get an error message saying I was too far away or any details in my quest log hint at what the proper process was. Moreover, good luck trying to ask someone nearby doing the same quest.

Tyria is a big world to explore.

Guild Wars 2 is not a bad game. With enough time, you could explore the entire world, rank up in PvP, complete dungeons, and collect items just like in any other massively multiplayer online game. However, when the games positions to be an MMO for non-MMO players, it falls apart. Quests, or events, aren’t interesting enough to keep interest for 80 levels. PvP reduces to run-and-gun tactics without the strategy you’d find in other genres that keep them from being stale. End game activities are non-existent. All of this leaves me wondering what benefit you’d get from reaching level cap. If nothing else, with no subscription you could always jump back in after taking a break to play other games.

No comments:

Post a Comment