A lot of people are looking forward to Guild Wars 2 and with good reason. While developer Arena Net admits the original game wasn't a massively multiplayer game, it was still a very popular online role-playing game with plenty of intriguing meta-game strategy. Guild Wars 2, on the other hand, will be a full-blown massively multiplayer game with giant, open worlds that act as shared spaces for however many players end up playing. And quite a few of them will want to try out the game's new playable races, such as the Viking-like Norn and animalistic Charr, as well as new playable classes like the guardian and the game's newly announced thief profession. On a recent visit to Arena Net headquarters in less-than-sunny Washington state, we had the opportunity to try all of the above and have much to report.
Our play experience started with the creation of a new Norn character. Guild Wars 2 will eventually have extensive visual customization options to make your character look however you'd like, but more interestingly, it also has a character background system for each profession. It will hit you with a handful of questions as you create your character that will then inform your character's background and potentially affect your character's future quests. These questions are not unlike the old questionnaires from the classic Ultima games or early Elder Scrolls games, and they also affect your character's starting disposition, as determined by the game's three personality values: charm, dignity, or ferocity.
Throughout the course of the game, you can speak to characters you meet using these three different tones, which will cause your character to be more or less weighted toward, for instance, charm or ferocity. Arena Net representatives suggest that characters that focus primarily on charm will be mobbed by adoring children when they enter their home village, whereas characters that focus on ferocity will frighten the same children away. In addition to these choices, you may make choices specific to your race and profession. Norn characters also make the choice of following one of the race's four sacred totem spirits: the wolf, the snow leopard, the raven, or the bear. This choice will actually change the way the game's first cinematic sequence unfolds. Your Norn characters, a member of a race that values glory and reputation highly, will boast (in their own voices) about how their strength echoes that of the bear or how their cunning is like that of the snow leopard. There were six different professions available for our play session: the elementalist (the game's damage-dealing wizard); the warrior; the ranger (the game's bow-and-arrow expert); the necromancer; the guardian; and the newly unveiled thief.
The thief is an unusual class that shares some of the skills of the first game's assassin, including teleport powers and stealth abilities. But unlike the assassin, the thief can steal; specifically, thieves can steal away powers from their enemies to use them in battle. Stealing is a skill that appears on a thief's hotkey bank (much like the teleporting shadow step spell and the profession's various combat abilities), and when thieves successfully steal a copy of the powers of their enemies, thieves are considered to be holding an item pack that temporarily replaces their current hotkeys with stolen powers. These powers will generally be abilities that thieves don't normally possess on their own (and in some cases, belong to some of the game's other professions). Stealing from the game's ostrichlike moa birds will yield the ability to stun enemies by hurling a fistful of feathers in their faces; stealing from a skull-belted ogre will yield one of the actual skulls, which can be used to trigger a fear spell normally reserved for necromancers.
Otherwise, thieves are deadly combatants who have a unique advantage in combat. To clarify, all of Guild Wars 2's professions, including the thief, have various combat skills tied to hotkeys (the game even conveniently lets you right-click the combat hotkey of your choice to make it your character's default auto-attack option that will be repeatedly triggered in battle if you choose no other skill). But every other character in the game will have a certain delayed cooldown after using any given skill before they can use that skill again. That is not the case with the thief. The thief can attack relentlessly without any kind of delay. Rather than being limited by recharge times, thieves are limited by initiative points, which are spent by using skills and recharged over time and with the use of other skills. This includes the profession's special backward-tumbling dodge, roll for initiative. (Yes, that's really what it's called. Don't wince.)
Otherwise, the thief is an ambidextrous character who excels at wielding a dagger in each hand, though the character can also dual-wield flintlock pistols. That's right, Guild Wars 2 will have firearms, and the thief is the first profession we've seen with the ability to wield them. Even more interestingly, your character's available combat skills will be based on which weapon (or weapons) you currently have equipped, so you'll have an entirely different set of skills available when you switch weapons to your character's secondary weapon loadout (which you can do by tapping your tilde "`" key). Better still, thieves will have entirely different skill sets when dual-wielding daggers than when dual-wielding pistols, which will also be entirely different when wielding a pistol in one hand and a dagger in the other. Many players have expressed concern that Guild Wars 2's removal of the first game's dual-character class system, which let you take on secondary skills belonging to an entirely different profession, might lead to less variety in terms of what each character can do. But you can swap weapons on the fly to enable different skill sets--to say nothing of how thieves can steal additional skills--so you should have plenty of different options in any given battle.
Once you've created your new Norn character, you begin in the Norn starter village, a rustic settlement built around a wooded mountain range. The design of the Norn and their habitation was clearly inspired by ancient Vikings. These tall, broad-shouldered folk wear animal-skin fur clothes and armor and horned helmets. And they direct their anger toward an ice dragon that drove them from their ancestral homeland. Their homes are built of rough-hewn logs, and for fun, they launch heavy kegs of ale high into the air and challenge their youths to catch them--or they just fight each other.
Our Norn rogue character started his career standing right in front of a quest-giving character, and we right-clicked on her to trigger Guild Wars 2's conversation system. Unlike pretty much every other massively multiplayer game out there, this one doesn't just hit you with a scrolling clump of text. Instead, the game pulls up a cinematic sequence that briefly superimposes itself on the screen, presenting your character standing tall on the left and the other character on the right, with both speaking their parts aloud and gesticulating expressively. Our first quest charged us to hunt down three different local beasts by flushing them out of the bushes or baiting traps and then carrying back their remains to the village tanner. The craftsman was so impressed with our work that we were called to join an event called The Great Hunt, which culminated in a climactic battle atop a mountain against a gigantic scaled worm that lunged out of solid ice to greet us and our computer-controlled Norn youth hunting party. We all piled onto the massive beast until it finally fell. At that point, we were instantly transported back to the village, standing before a village elder who suggested we seek out more problems to solve in the area, which would help the locals and earn us glory.
At this point, we opened the game's map, which superimposes itself atop the screen and shows key areas of interest. Guild Wars 2 clumps together quests and ongoing events in certain areas that are often located conveniently close to map nodes. Once you've visited them, they can be used as quick-travel points for a minor cost of in-game coin. The Norn starter area has four primary quests associated with the race's four totemic spirits. Most of them require you to engage in battle, though Arena Net is clearly trying to add variety beyond "go kill five of these critters." For instance, the snow leopard quest area is focused on a shaman who will change you into the shape of an actual snow leopard (with a brand-new set of snow leopard abilities). Then you must perform leopard-like activities, such as hunting down vermin or comforting newborn leopard cubs. The raven quest area is a mountain with row after row of raven statues that simply asks you riddles, and the more riddles you answer correctly, the closer you get to completing the quest. Guild Wars 2's quest and event system is built around an onscreen quest meter that gradually fills up as you perform actions pertaining to the quest or event. These may be killing off the marauding army of centaurs that has overrun a village or grabbing a bucket and putting out the fires that the beasts started.
We then switched our character out to play as a higher-level character; in this case, it was a guardian of the Charr race in the level-20 range. The Charr are beast-men that look like nothing less than half-men, half-lions (with lion's heads), but their origins pertain to their militant culture. One of the race's starter questions asks which member of your character's battalion you value most highly--the sly, stealthy scout; the powerful warrior; or the ruthless leader. However, we were playing a higher-level character, so we didn't play through the Charr's starting area and instead took our guardian into a territory shared by all the game's races and besieged by centaurs and pirates.
The guardian class works, as we've described previously, around powerful support skills that can control zones and heal allies. Among other abilities, guardians have three different virtues--skills that enhance their own abilities by healing damage, blocking incoming attacks, or causing your weapons to deal fire damage. While only one virtue can be active at a time, you can also retrigger your active virtue to lose the enhancement on yourself but add it to your companions (and to clarify, you don't need to be in an adventuring party for these skills to work; any other nearby player who is also working on the same quest you're following can benefit from the effects). The profession's other skills include summoned barriers that enclose areas to defend vulnerable teammates or performing weapon-specific attacks.
While the guardian isn't the game's most powerful warrior, he can clearly hold his own in single combat, and his powerful group abilities will make him a valued ally. Of course, the enemies we fought were a lot tougher than the low-level forest animals we'd tangled with as an early Norn character. In more than a few cases, when we got greedy and tried to take on too many enemies, they mobbed us and cut us down. However, Guild Wars 2 has a last-ditch fighting system that lets you attack a nearby foe for a limited time, with a limited selection of skills, if you're cut down. If you can kill a foe before time runs out, your character will recover and can get right back into the fight. Then again, Guild Wars 2 doesn't have a dedicated healer class; all professions have at least one way to heal themselves, and any character can revive any other character as well.
Guild Wars 2 has a lot of interesting ideas that are very different from conventional online games. Given the game's intriguing mechanics, solo- and group-friendly gameplay, and its beautiful art, we can't wait to see more. While there still isn't any official release date confirmed for the game, Arena Net and NCSoft do plan to launch the game this year.