Saturday, September 22, 2012

A Wild Mesmer Appears

So Guild Wars 2 is out now, and I've been asked a few times what I think of it and whether I think people should buy it.  My answer, in two words: hell yes; in three words: very hell yes.

The original Guild Wars, later retooled as Guild Wars Prophecies in order to differentiate it from later expansion packs, was released in 2005 and had some novel ideas for its time.  Chief amongst them was trying to offer an MMO experience without an MMO monthly fee, which at the time was unheard of.  Also a novel idea was the concept of having one single server that would simply load-balance between different districts (so you wouldn't choose a server at character creation, but the game would instead open new instances of zones as needed, and you might end up in #57 when you first logged in, for example).  Many people predicted that, despite ArenaNet's pedigree (all three of its founders held senior positions at Blizzard before leaving to found their own company), Guild Wars would simply buckle under the weight of WoW; that the industry could not support an MMO without a monthly subscription fee.

These people were wrong.

Whilst not my complete cup of tea, due to its heavy reliance on instancing and less of a feeling of an open world, Guild Wars did introduce me to the Mesmer class, one that remains perhaps my favourite class in any MMO ever made, to this day.  Two more add-on packs (that did not require the original game to play) followed: Guild Wars Factions and then Guild Wars Nightfall, both released in 2006, and then a true expansion, Guild Wars: Eye of the North in 2007.  With all sales combined, Guild Wars is the tenth best-selling PC game of all time.  This is no mean feat, considering that many expected the initial game to fail.

ArenaNet was operating on six-month release schedules at that time; committed to releasing new campaigns twice a year that introduced new classes and areas.  What was going to be the fourth campaign, Guild Wars Utopia, quickly turned into something more.  The designers realised that six month schedules did not give them enough time to do what they wanted, which was to tell a better story, in a longer format, with less instancing.  Utopia became a full sequel, and Guild Wars 2 was officially announced in 2007.

Fast forward to today, and while Guild Wars 2 may not be the perfect game, it does so many things right that previous games have been content to do wrong, it essentially rewrites the book on how to make an MMORPG.

At its core, Guild Wars 2 is all about co-operation.  You are rewarded for doing almost anything with other people, whether that is ressing a down or dead player (all classes can res), helping someone else kill a mob (you both get loot and experience), helping with public events (more on these shortly), even helping someone else in their personal story missions; all of these rewards all participants, at higher levels than it would be if they were to do it solo.  All players can harvest all resource nodes (mining, logging, etc.); there is no more racing to try and beat someone else to a rare node since everyone gets to use it.

Guild Wars 2 is still an MMO, first and foremost, but many of the more "grindy" aspects from traditional MMOs have been buried under a veneer that masks their harsher aspects.  For example, every zone has 15 - 20 waypoints that can be travelled to instantly for a nominal fee (once you have discovered them), so travel time is less of an issue.  Quests are not dispensed in the traditional "!" manner, but instead you are directed to various NPCs around the zone who could use your help with various tasks.  Perhaps a farmer needs help eliminating bandits around his farm, as well as cultivating and watering his crop and finding lost equipment.  Completing any of these tasks around the designated area will progress your renown meter for that NPC, and usually it takes 5 - 10 mins or so to fully complete that area for the NPC.  Doing so rewards you with currency and karma points, which is a non-money currency that can be used to buy various items from NPCs (renown NPCs turn into vendors once you have fully completed their renown bar) and also high-level weapons in various zones and cities.  It's a good system that tricks you into doing quests without realising that is what you are doing, and since each has several different things you can do then they rarely get stale.

Crafting is something else I wanted to mention.  Guild Wars 2 has quite a different crafting system than any other MMO I have played.  There are the standard professions, Jewelcrafting, Tailoring, Armoursmith, etc., and while you learn some recipes from the trainer, you gain the most experience (both in tailoring and full game experience for your character) from the discovery system, which lets you mix and match up to four crafting items to discover new recipes.  It's an interesting process that takes a little getting used to, since it isn't explained too well by the in-game help, but once you have it down you will see what ingredients are likely to fit with each other and will starting finding new recipes and gaining experience quickly.  As seems to be the standard these days, you are limited to two crafting skills per character.

Dynamic events are something that have been doing the rounds in recent MMOs, starting in Warhammer Online and continuing up to as recently as Rift last year.  They are essentially large, multi-stage public quests that reward all of the participants to the degree of their contribution.  In Guild Wars 2 they can often change the landscape around them, depending on the success or failure of recent events.  In one area there is always the constant threat of a centaur invasion, and they will control various camps around a certain zone at various times.  The success or failure of how much you are pushing them back will determine which camps they control, which events will happen and how dangerous the map will be at any one time.  It moves public quests along from just being something that happens every twenty minutes like clockwork, to actually having a profound impact on a zone's makeup and the PvE experience in that area.  In saying that, some are better than others, but still, it's something that has not really been seen before, at least to this extent.

Coming at last to PvP, it's a bit of a mixed bag here.  There are two main PvP systems: structured PvP which involves you making teams and going head-to-head against other teams in small PvP maps; and then World Versus World, a large open-world PvP system that matches servers against each other on four massive maps and has them duke it out for control of large structures which then award points over time.  Every week these points are tallied and the winners will go and play other winners from other matchups, whilst the (two) losers will be matched up against, ahem, "lesser-performing" servers in an attempt to find a better opponent for them.  One thing that must be said here is that there is zero lag, even when you have literally scores of people on-screen.  I have participated in large-scale PvP in games such as Warhammer Online and Rift, and every time it was battle of the framerates vs. how laggy can it get.  In WvW they have optimised the game to such a degree that there are no performance issues, just pure PvP chaos.  Real-life siege equipment can be purchased and constructed, including catapults, arrow carts and trebuchets, in order to help defend your territory or lay waste to an enemy's.  It's a very fun system that rewards strategic play but never feels like you have to be a five star general in order to contribute.

I have yet to reach the level cap (only 65 so far; Mesmer, obviously), nor am I in any rush to do so.  I am enjoying the game immensely and feel no compulsion to hit the max level (80) in order to begin playing the game, as is often the case in other MMOs.

Guild Wars 2 successfully reinvents the MMO genre, both for purists who may have become disillusioned with WoW-clone syndrome, and also for newer players who don't necessarily have large amounts of time to sink into a game but instead want to dip in their toe every once in a while.  Since it comes with a subscription price of $0 a month you never feel like it's a job, that you have to log on and do something to get your $15's worth this month.  Whilst it may not be the perfect MMO, it comes pretty damn close in my book.  If you are on the fence I highly recommend that you check it out.  Games like this, especially MMOs, are few and far between, and you would have to be some kind of idiot about both games and the gaming industry if you just dismissed it as the latest derivative WoW ripoff.  It isn't, and it should not be treated as such.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Ubisoft Abandons Ridiculous PC DRM

RockPaperShotgun conducted a recent interview with Ubisoft's worldwide director for online games, Stephanie Perotti, as well as their paid mouthpiece corporate communications director, Michael Burk, confirming that Ubisoft's stupid DRM system for their PC games is no more.

Whilst you should absolutely read the interview itself, because it's quite telling in how they still seem to believe it was a success and somehow prevented piracy but at the same time are removing it, it's still good news for PC gamers.

I have unashamedly beat the drum over this issue for the past couple of years, and have refused to buy any Ubisoft game on principle whilst the policy was in place.  Now that it's gone, perhaps I can finally get around to picking up some of the earlier Assassin's Creed games in a Steam sale or suchlike.