Let’s face it, every game developer and his dog has a massively multiplayer online project in the works, or at the very least an idea for one kicking around in their collective consciousness. They’re a dime a dozen already, but as World of Warcraft has proven, if you can nail the formula, you can name your price. At Gamescom 2010 we got a fresh look at Guild Wars 2, a game that hopes to cast off many of the legacy encumbrances of its competition by building an MMO experience with significantly more personality, and one that encourages true social play.
Ironically while the first game deliberately set a low level cap with hopes of achieving more accessible endgame content, community response has given developer ArenaNet something to reconsider. As a result of feedback, the game will now give you the chance to continue to play beyond level 20. Another core area of differentiation between Guild Wars 2 and its competition is the way it handles social play. In many MMO titles, starting and questing areas become juvenile verbal slinging zones as players battle to control quest items and targets to kill. Guild Wars’ mantra is to encourage cooperative play without requiring groups. Rather than force players to party up to complete goals, where inevitably one player is ahead on the quest chain, or another isn’t part of the posse, any players who are near and involved in a quest will receive credit for participation. This also extends to world bosses, which dynamically scale in difficulty and in many cases unlock additional offensive and defensive abilities in line with the number of people involved.
The two examples of this we saw were world bosses Drake Broodmother, a midsized beast with a nasty tail swipe that came into play when enough people were attacking her, and a level-40 dragon who provided a communal loot chest players could grab items from once it had been defeated. This social interaction design philosophy continues on to resurrection, and while many games require a dedicated class to heal and bring players back from the netherworld, anyone can lend a hand in Guild Wars 2 by clicking a fallen stranger on the battlefield and returning him to the fight.
Naturally, if you’re going to spend any time in a virtual world, you will want to present your avatar in a way that best aligns with your own (or your role-playing character’s) personality and aesthetics. Beyond the usual swag of character customisation options like skin colour, hair type, and race, Guild Wars 2 introduces a unique way to bring players a step further into the world. During creation, you will be able to select your toon’s social standing (commoner, nobility, or street kid), choose your biggest life regret (being passed on for the chance to be great, failing to recover your sister’s body, or never joining the circus), and even get the chance to pick which god you believe in. While they may sound like gimmicky additions, each faction has its own race-specific kit-out, adapting the story and putting you and your choices into cutscenes rather than the same old slab of generic text about someone else’s problems.
The sequel may make some assumptions on the capabilities of its first-timers, but the tutorial zone of Shaemoor throws you straight into the action as a centaur attack rages. After saving a handful of local villagers, we're told that the nearby garrison has fallen and is in want of a hero. News comes through a voiced cutscene, and we're told that the final game will include in excess of 60 feature films' worth of narration. Running over with our elementalist mage archetypal character we started cracking skulls. An ability called "elemental attunement" allowed us to switch between our fire and water elemental skills on the fly, changing our action bar and letting us dish out fiery pain or control targets more readily with ice. You don't just stand around watching bars fill to make fireballs; instead, combat is active, requiring you to move your character to avoid enemy strikes and dodge away with steps and rolls.
Guild Wars 2 hopes to turn what it believes is currently a very insular online role-playing experience into a much more free-form and communicative universe. Taking a page out of its biggest competitor's book, ArenaNet says the game will ship on the PC when it’s ready, and we’ll be following its lofty goals with interest.