Revisiting Guild Wars 2
by Tyler Edwards, July 10, 2014
It's pretty common for any new MMO to bring with it an excess of hype, but the fevered excitement surrounding Guild Wars 2 before its launch was on a whole other level. This was the game that was going to redefine dynamic content, put an end to the holy trinity of group roles, cure cancer, and deliver a puppy to every player.
I'm not someone who easily gives in to hype, but even I found myself caught up in the messianic hope surrounding GW2. After years of endless World of Warcraft clones, this was a game that dared to be different. I bought it at launch, and for a time, I was an ardent Guild Wars 2 fan. I reached level eighty on my Norn thief and explored Tyria with a small army of alts.
But over time, the luster wore off. The gameplay started to feel repetitive due to a lack of variety in the design of dynamic events and other open world content.
More importantly, though, what little story existed in the game was terrible. The dialogue, the plot, the characters, and the voiceovers were all amateurish at best. For me, story is crucial to the MMO experience. A single player game can coast on strong gameplay, but if I'm going to spend an extended amount of time in a virtual world, I need to care about that world, and GW2 utterly failed to make me invested in Tyria.
But my fond memories of the game were always in the back of my mind, and I often wondered how much the game had changed since I'd left. With content updates coming every two weeks, surely it must have become a very different experience.
With the so called "Living Story" coming to a climax recently, I decided it was time to return to Guild Wars 2 and see how I felt about the game so long after the initial hype, and subsequent disappointment, had faded.
Lion's Arch, we hardly knew ye:
I resurrected my account during the events surrounding the destruction of Lion's Arch, the game's main hub. Sylvari villainess Scarlet Briar had attacked with everything she had, leveling the city.
This destruction was not done by half measures. Much of Lion's Arch was reduced to a smoldering, apocalyptic hellscape. Fresh waves of her minions constantly assaulted players, and magitech airships roamed the skies, bombarding the city with crimson laser beams in a scene seemingly lifted from Mass Effect 3.
And you know what? It absolutely failed to give me any emotional reaction.
It should have been a brutal, emotional moment, but I felt nothing but vague curiosity. Lion's Arch wasn't a city I had ever felt any attachment to. It was just an ugly place with bad lag that I tended to get lost in.
Furthermore, having missed out on most of the Living Story up until now, I had no idea who Scarlet Briar was or why she was ransacking the place. I had been told there were NPCs in the refugee camps that you could speak with to catch up on past events, but I searched several camps from top to bottom and found no such thing.
ArenaNet has launched a Living World atlas on their site that covers past events, but it also leaves much to be desired. I ultimately had to look up a wiki article to figure out what was going on.
I struggle to understand why ArenaNet felt that centering their entire game on temporary content was a good idea. I can respect the ideal of an evolving world in the abstract, but the cons start to outweigh the pros pretty fast. It's so strange that they would work so hard to ensure new and returning players wouldn't be left behind in the gear race, only to guarantee that new and returning players are hopelessly lost on the story.
I'd say they must not care that much about their story - its quality supports this theory - but yet they've based their entire content cycle on story.
Nothing about this makes sense.
What I did see of the Living Story was as poor as the earlier story of the game. It also all felt incredibly detached from the lore at launch. What happened to Destiny's Edge and the battle with the Elder Dragons? It's like an entirely new game started while I was away.
The one good thing I can say about the story of GW2 is that it is relatively progressive. I was impressed that two of the main characters of the Living Story were a gay couple, for instance.
I could poke holes in their presentation - their dialogue is as awful as anyone else's, and going the "lipstick lesbians" route is a bit of an easy way out - but at least they're trying, which is more than be said for most games unless your name is Bioware or The Secret World.
The leaves the gameplay of the battle for Lion's Arch, and that also left much to be desired. The first phase felt little different from previous events in the game - kill this, escort that.
The second phase felt a little more advanced, but not necessarily in a good way. They clearly tried to make the bosses less of a mindless zerg experience, but the fight mechanics were still utterly basic compared to what you'd see in other MMOs, and the difficulty largely came from the "herding cats" issue with fellow players and from finding the patience to continue beating your head against the bosses' over-tuned damage and health.
None of my groups were able to reach Scarlet herself, and I eventually got so frustrated that I just watched the ending on YouTube. The next developments for the Living Story seem potentially more interesting, but given past history, I'm not optimistic.
Outside of Lion's Arch, I also explored a good chunk of the rest of the game. There were a few notable changes here and there. Kessex Hills has been heavily altered by the Living Story, and Divinty's Reach has gained a new district - though it doesn't seem to serve any purpose besides looking pretty.
Again, though, as someone who hasn't been glued to the Living Story, I felt no connection to these changes. They left me with a profound feeling of, "So what?"
Otherwise, Guild Wars 2 has changed surprisingly little, which has its upsides and downsides.
Most of the complaints I had before are still unaddressed. Mobs in later zones still have way too much crowd control, events and renown hearts are still lacking variety in most cases, the story is still lame, the auction house interface is still buggy, and contested waypoints still make me want to put my first through my monitor.
There are also some new hiccups. Most of the lower level zones seem to have been largely abandoned, and this makes completing some events difficult or impossible, especially if you're playing one of the less self-sufficient classes.
But it's not all bad news by any means. The core experience of GW2 is still thoroughly enjoyable. There's never any shortage of things to do, no matter where you are, and the constant potential for exploration is addictive. You'll always want to keep going over the next hill.
This is a game that will demolish your plans for the day if you let it.
No other game has captured the fantasy of the itinerant adventurer as well as Guild Wars 2, and the game flows very organically. It makes for a relaxing experience.
It's also one of the most gorgeous games on the market, with graphics that hit the perfect balance between stylized and realistic, and the business model is still incredibly player-friendly.
A good time despite itself:
If I was to describe Guild Wars 2 in a nutshell, I'd say that it's a great game that is utterly ignorant of its own strengths. The Living Story seems designed to focus on all of the things ArenaNet cannot do right - like story and group content - while rejecting the positives of the game, such as accessibility and freedom.
GW2 would be much better served by ignoring these poor attempts at telling an organic story and focusing instead on the adventure and exploration that is the game's true heart. It needs more new areas to explore and more ways to put power in the hands of the players.
I'm normally a diehard theme park fan, but if there's one game that would benefit from becoming more of a sandbox, Guild Wars 2 is it. Things like open world player housing and systems to encourage emergent gameplay would do wonderfully here. I can only imagine what good a player content generation tool like Neverwinter's Foundry would do.
And yet, for all my ranting, Guild Wars 2 is still a very fun game. The core of the experience remains strong, and I'd encourage every MMO fan to play it. There's so much to see and explore.
Just avoid the Living Story like the plague.