Thursday, September 13, 2012

Guild Wars 2 Impressions, part 1

Oh boy! My very first impressions post! I hope at least that it is the first! Damn you photographic memory, why do you fail me know. At least I still have photogenic memory! That made no sense…

So Guild Wars 2, ey? This is a very exciting launch, at least based on all the hype and the promises.  One thing you don’t know about me is that I am an MMO enthusiast. I have played World of Warcraft for years on and off. I was never super hardcore, preferring to subscribe for 2-3 months at a time at key content launches and I was a semi serious raider (DPS mainly, a little bit of healing) in a few guilds that never aspired to any extraordinary feats like world first or full heroic clears before standard nerfs, but we did clear a lot of content and it was great fun. I love raiding. I also tried quite a few other MMOs, since I kind of got tired of the WoW formula. Out of these tries, the last two are worth mentioning.

The first was Rift. Now Rift was a pretty good game. It was pretty much the first fresh MMO that launched with very few technical issues and it… was… *gasp*… complete! In a world where MMOs launch with only the bare minimum features and pretty much die out before getting any meaningful content patches, a launch like the one Rift had is a minor miracle. And if all you care about is game mechanics, dare I hang my head out there with a bold claim: it was a better WoW than WoW. Because that is what it was: a WoW clone. Like all other “WoW killers” before it, Rift was a WoW clone. Silly silly MMOs. You can’t beat WoW at its own game. I’ll get into this more, but you probably could have mechanics 100 times as good as the ones from WoW and it would not be enough to really kill WoW. Because mechanics are not all that counts. And the rest of Rift was kind of bad. The world was large but bland. They had good graphics but zero aesthetics. Some probably talented people worked on creating a lot of large hilly areas with very little distinguishing marks. Story was shit and you couldn’t tell what is going one. On the other hand, Rift pumped out new content like no other one and I was surprised to see it “die” so fast. It still lives, but there was a major exodus of players. I left before that, because the whole world was so bland and uninspired, that I couldn’t stomach the mind-numbingly stupid and uniform leveling bit so I could get to the good part: raiding. I even paid up front for 6 months that pretty much went to waste.

The last MMO that I tried was SWOTOR. I really wanted to love that game as a KOTOR & KOTOR 2 (and massive Bioware) fan. But while Rift was a very competent and complete WoW clone that did improve upon WoW technically a bit, but was ultimately a barren and uninspired world, SWOTOR was bad, incomplete and not taking any risks right out of the gate. A play it safe, not innovate for the life of it, hopefully some story and Bioware/Star Wars fans will keep it alive WoW clone! Sure, the story was good. At least for my class. The first act was a nice little personal story that even reached a conclusion that made me feel something and I actually wanted to reload and try a different ending. Something that never happened before in a MMO for me, only in single player story driven games.  And the first 10 levels of “heroic combat” were pretty good, mainly because of the very improvisational feel of using random abilities to dispatch larger groups as fast as possible and all the pussback abilities. Lobbing of a foe from a cliff is always fun. But after level 10 it got into the same rhythm of hot key based rotations, where you use the same rotation for pretty much all your gaming time if you want to be efficient. And the game was otherwise shit, with catastrophically uninspired zones. Nothing of the Bioware spirit came though when you were not doing a story quest. And the server died while I was still wanting to play (unlike Rift, wehe I left the game at full population numbers). Server transfers? Working AH? “We don’t need that. Our game is fine!” I think that because of the state they launched, the ambitions it had,  the support it got and the lack of an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the historical mistakes other MMOs have made and SWOTOR happily repeated, it deserved to die. A 200-300 million rumored expense game should have done better!

So on to Guild Wars! I was looking forward to a fresh experience, because while WoW was the best MMO, orders of magnitude better than the competition, I played enough WoW. And Guild Wars promises so much.

The hype machine around that game is so unstoppable, that GW2 is no longer hyped as the “WoW killer”. It is hyped as the “Jesus MMO”. Is it the Jesus MMO? No. Is it a WoW killer? No. Does it have the same longevity I expect form a MMO I can call home? No. Is it a good MMO? It is great. Do I like it? I love it!

There, done! That’s my impressions. See you next time!

I kid, I kid... So while WoW has nothing to fear from fully losing its dwindling but still million strong subscriber base to GW, I suspect it will feel the presence of, like they do for all massively successful games from any genre, like TF2, HoN, LoL, etc. Let’s hope that GW2, being free and all will have comparable success.

For the rest of the post and post series I’ll give a short description of a bullet points followed by a description for that point. If I put it in quotes, I am paraphrasing something that people out there are saying, probably idiots, followed by my view on the subject.

Needless to say, what I am going to write is nothing but my subjective but honest opinions on the game, based mainly on my personal experience leveling and Elementarist and also getting a few levels in some other classes, after launch and a beta event. So if I say, e.g. “Elementarist is a poop deck scrubber”, that does not mean that you will have the same opinion or that I wouldn’t have a different opinion should I have leveled a different class. People on the Internet have a very hard time with objectivity vs. subjectivity, facts vs. opinion, general rules of discourse and argumentation, and are generally shit heads. Shameless generalization because I too am on the Internet. Don’t take this the wrong way. They are tons of intelligent people you can talk to out there, and people you do know or had a chance to interact before are probably civilized and not at all idiots. But a random stranger, especially if he/she is under 12, protected by the anonymity of the Internet, in 9 cases out of 10 will turn out to be an idiot, at least in your first few interactions. Just a fair warning, in case you were wondering why I will be calling people idiots a lot in this series. Or at least I plan to…

And I’ll start with 3 things that Guild Wars does so well, that in my honest opinion these points are an extraordinary achievement that no one can ever take away from Guild Wars. GW might turn out to be the sole cause of a global pandemic that will wipe out 99% of the human population, and the 1% that are left alive but miserable and cursing GW2 for the rest of their sad and miserable lives, but they will still say “Well, at least those 3 elements of GW2 were still great.”.

It is the first truly organically cooperative experience in a MMO
MMOs are strange beasts. We judge them differently than we do normal games. We put emphasis on different things. We are willing to stomach a lot of subpar experiences that would doom a single player game so we can have some other kind of experiences that only MMOs give. One of these is the feeling of sharing the world with thousand of different players, having unique unscripted encounters and experiences that result from those people interacting, joining sub communities and even making friends. And yet, in your day to day experience a typical MMO is not a thoroughly cooperative experience. You don’t jump up in joy seeing a random person. Their presence does not automatically enrich yours. Playing with friends and guildies might turn out to be such a mutually beneficial experience, one of those 1 + 1 = 3 scenarios, but a random stranger is generally not a good thing. Most of the time they are a nuisance. They will still your kills, steal your node resources, block your mailbox or AH NPC, spam your chat and do other things that can be considered at least mildly irritating. This without taking into account PvP ganking. Now open world PvP is one of the best times you’ll have in a MMO. I do not like organized PvP, but open world PvP is great! When you are in the mood for it, there is nothing like some random fights, especially if you are relatively matched level wise and all are trying to progress on quests. A 5 minute kill quest in a remote region has transformed for me in a few hours long super fun skirmish of PvP goodness. But if you are not in the mood for PvP, that experience might ruin you fun and planned progress.
But this is where GW2 is different. In a normal MMOs a random player is not instantly helpful and may be detrimental to your experience, while in GW2 a random player is often helpful and at worse can have no effect on your experience, almost never being detrimental. GW2 fosters true cooperation between random individuals, without having to exchange a single word or having to form a party, and does so organically. A couple of weeks in the game and still, if there is someone around and I go down in battle they come to resurrect me. They might even go a little out of their way to resurrect you, since everyone can res and resurrecting gives great XP. Massive events and dungeon runs often get you killed, but a res is never far away. Other players around can make combat more entertaining and challenging, while at the same time making it easier. A weird balance.  And someone can never fuck you over. There is nothing they can do that is detrimental to you. If you are fighting something and someone attack the same foe, you still get your loot roll and experience. If they did enough damage, you both get the original amount of XP that you would get if you only killed the mob solo, and you both get a separate loot roll. Neither of you can reduce the chance of another to get loot. And doing enough damage is easy. Often, it is enough to just hit a mob once with one of your stronger attacks. While I am out and questing, when I run past a mob someone else is fighting and I am in a hurry to get somewhere so I don’t hang around to help him (but I often do hang around), I still give one solid hit to that foe. This without breaking my stride or anything since I am an Elementarist (but in GW all classes have some ranged combat options, and melee can still walk a few steps towards the mob, hit them, and go on to their destination).  I still go straight to my destination, but when in range I let one flying towards that foe. The one fighting the foe will be happy that he has to do less damage, and we both get XP. My loot is gone because most of the time under this scenario I won’t be returning to see if the foe dropped any loot, but still free XP and an atmosphere of cooperation. This applies to dynamic events, resource nodes and other activities. If you put the effort in, you get the reward, and having more than one person does not reduce you reward. There is nothing a person can do to fuck you over. There is no open world PvP. I don’t really like this, but it goes hand in hand with the idea that another person is never a threat: they are true allies and you are cooperating to achieve a goal. And attacks often AoE buff, heal or interact with each other, so combat in groups is more complex, but in a kind of passive way, so you’ll get the benefit without having to worry about the people around you.
Actually, I did notice two minor things that someone can do that you may find annoying. One is mob training. Sometimes a person runs around trying to reach a goal with a bunch of mobs chasing you. They eventually give up and return to their spawn point. But sometime you will meet them on their way back. You are just minding you own business or fighting a mob and surprise! More mobs! In GW2 combat is great and dynamic, but often challenging. You can die fighting normal mobs. This almost never happens in other MMOs where solo combat is trivial, routine and boring.  So having to fight 2-4 extra mobs trained by somebody can kill you. Another theoretical thing that could happen is a lot of people showing up for an event thus making the vent hard and then AFKing. This never happened before and I doubt it will, because people do want their XP and events are short and engaging, but it is a theoreticaly possibility. Even if this would happen, you can still walk away. So will probably get even a good contribution ratting for the event.
So there you have: GW2 inspires cooperation like no other MMO before it. After experiencing GW2, I can’t imagine going back to another MMO and cursing out loud players for node stealing or high levelers AoE killing all mobs on screen in one blow even before I can get into range. MMOs should be about cooperation, yet it took so much for one to truly embrace this? How?

Combat is very mobile and dynamic
Another major point and game changer. This is the current trend, MMOs are starting to get action-y, so this is not 100% a GW think. See Tera and other upcoming titles. 
I am going to break combat into two parts: mobility and the actual combat.
And the mobility part is the great one. I am incredibly mobile when fighting on all classes. I circle strafe, circle kite and dodge attacks. Sometime I can go through a tough combat encounter on my glass cannon Elementarist without taking any significant damage. And often I bite off more than I can chew and have to fight 2-3 times as many mobs as planned. That is an incredibly engaging and tense experience, where I do my best to circle kite all mobs while still doing OK damage and dodging big hits. I don’t always make it, but surviving with 3% health and a small army of corpses at my feet is a great feeling. While looking at what is going on the screen, not some GUI element. The game is really the game. It is not just some window dressing, while the real game is the overlaid spreadsheet like GUI with dozens of bars and numbers everywhere. And if you played other MMOs and classes that are cast time based, you could find it exhilarating that you can move around while casting/channeling without canceling your spells. 
So while GW2 is not the only MMO that claims to have action combat and mobility, and the concept might not be original, the mobility of combat is so enjoyable that their implementation can truly be called innovative.
The rest of combat, on the Elementatist at least, is not that great. And I noticed this on other classes too. There is at most one weapon combo per class that is fun, the rest are efficient but not fun or utility based. Now utility is great in PvP and dungeons, but in normal PvE I want fun. I want to tear shit up. For Elementarist dagger/dagger is great and you fell like the ultimate bad ass when you apply your mobility based fire skating skill. Staff is an effective weapon and has great AoE but is slightly boring. It allows you do be great at circle kiting (while dagger/dagger is more of a hands on approach) so it is even easier to take down mobs in PvE without putting your fragile self at a lot of risk. Scepter is not very fun for me. What is this talk about weapons? Well, in GW, your first 5 skills change based on what weapons you have. You cannot swap them around. So if you like only a few of the skills your weapon combo gives, you are stuck with the rest. And you unlock all weapon skills very easily, so after a few levels there are no new weapon skills or weapons to look forward to. Elementarist can’t even swap weapons like the other classes can, instead swapping their elemental attunement. Fire is great damage and Water is low damage but good healing and a little defense. I use these two exclusively. Air should be good single target damage with some control, but in practice I find it less efficient and fun than fire, so I rarely use it. And earth, I just don’t get Earth except when using a staff. 
In future parts of the impressions I’ll get more into detail in a negative bullet point why I don’t like the actual hit stuff part of the combat, but the mobility and skill interaction make up for it. Heck, mobility on its own is so fun that it could carry a game on its own.

Exploration & aesthetics
And the final mega positive bullet point! Exploration! Guild Wars does it sooooo well. Most single player experiences that claim to have a strong exploration element don’t have such great exploration. It is the best kind of exploration, where you explore without having someone tell you to or point you in the right direction. The kind where you don’t do it for the reward and there isn't even always a reward at the end, but you still like it.
Exploration is greatly helped by the way the game looks. While the engine is not really technically that impressive, it is still good for 2012 levels. Not a technical marvel or a rendering powerhouse. Actually, it is very poorly optimized (a negative bullet point for later). But aesthetics and levels design are superb. The level of detail in every single zone is incredible. Great texture work and fantastically detailed models create beautiful landscapes you just can’t help to explore. Even snow covered areas that are often boring in other games are intricately detailed here. And major cities are huge, with even more detail. Even small villages with two houses are detailed. There isn’t a bit of copy & paste scenery in the whole game. And the artistic style is very painterly. They further embrace this with the style of the cut scenes, which look like paintings have come to life and should extend the longevity of the game’s art. A more abstract art style, where artistic vision is at the forefront always ages better than realistic graphics. Because we know how reality looks, and when technology advances, we can clearly say: yes, this looks objectively more realistic.
The lush and insanely detailed world of GW blows completion out of the water. Rift was a huge field with 3 landmarks (I’m exaggerating). SWOTOR looks brown and boring in most areas, but still felt more divers than Rift. But GW2 is like a new WoW. WoW gets a lot of crap thrown towards it because of the cartoony graphics, but the people at Blizzard are great at creating aesthetically pleasing games that are technically not that impressive and at creating zones with a unique look and fell. And so are the artist from ArenaNet. Aesthetics are hard to judge objectively, but it is clear that GW2 has tons of more detail than WoW and subjectively I say that the artistic style is a lot more inspired.
It looks great. Period. And the looks make your exploration more pleasant. While exploring you will often traverse levels with great verticality: hills and mountains have hidden paths to the top of them, water is present in almost all levels and underwater areas are again very detailed, very deep and even fun, you often find caves from small to large, often covering large underground areas under some place you explored the top of, portals to other areas than can be only opened after some dynamic events and that take you other parts of the map that can’t be accessed otherwise, jumping puzzles, regular puzzles, skill challenges, hidden events that you yourself trigger only when interacting  with some object in a remote area and more. And often when going though this, you will find one insanely detailed model of something that an artist worked their ass off for. That serves zero practical purpose. Relatively speaking of course. Not detailed for a set piece in a DirectX 11 four hour long corridor shooter. Insanely detailed for an object most people won’t see hidden in a massive MMO. Or you’ll find an elaborate cave that is huge and looks great, a small maze even, and while such caves will often contain one of the structured exploration elements, sometimes they won’t. Sometimes they will even be empty, as in no mobs. Hey, you went off the beaten path, and your reward is only what you managed to see. You don’t always need a huge shinny pop-up with a reward. But you often do get a reward, and if nothing else, the bonus XP from mobs. In GW2, mobs give bonus XP based on multiple factors, including their age in the world. If you are off exploring in some remote areas where no one has set foot for hours, you can get huge bonus XP. Monster grinding is not an efficient way to level, so the bonus XP won’t mean a lot in the long run, but it is still a nice little bonus that does make the game better and creates more the illusion that ArenaNet are obsessive about all the small details.
And even when not exploring, the maps in GW2, besides the renown hearts that kind of suck and I’ll talk about later and dynamic events that are generally great, feature other structured exploration elements, like points of interest and vistas. Points of interest are just some interesting and often more detailed locals on maps that really don’t serve any purpose, but do give XP. On each map, a few of them or slightly hidden and off the beaten path, encouraging exploration. Then we have vistas, which are in 99% of the cases in hard to reach locations. I have a love/hate relationship with Vistas. Getting to them is generally annoying. You do learn to read the hints in the landscape for possible access points, but on every map there is at least one that takes me minutes of very annoying searching around to find the path to them. Once you figure out the path, executing the jumps is generally easy, except for a handful of them. And some are even on top of mini jumping puzzles, where both figuring out the path and executing the jumps is hard. And even removing the fog of war form maps (which is very easy and you’ll do without trying just by traversing the map) gives XP. Like in WoW. There are also skill challenges, which unlock a new skill points after you beat a foe, eat some item or just commune with a place of power. And a few more activities.
But actual jumping puzzles really make me throw out my computer from the window. So annoying! Luckily, they are optional and only give some loot and an achievement. So I must do them!
And if you did all renown hearts, skill challenges, points of interest and vistas, you get you 100% zone completion bonus! Non-scaled loot (why?), a good amount of money, XP and some crafting mats.
And because of the level scaling (more on this later), going to a new low level area in order to 100% it can still be fun and quite lucrative!

This concludes part one of my impressions post, where I talked about the 3 things that I think really set Guild Wars 2apart from other MMOs. In part two I’ll talk about other points that I like, but also that I dislike. So if you thing that this part is overly positive and I would give a glowing review to the game where I a reviewer,… maybe, maybe not. Wait and see!

Visiting ye U.S.A!

Last time you heard from me I was preparing to leave for an early weekend. I was at a music festival. It was great! This being an unplanned vacation plus the Monday after the weekend having zero productivity caused by a whole night of driving back (I wasn't doing the driving, but still) left me a little bit behind schedule at work so I had to push hard in this rather busy period. Thus I did not really have time to work on the game, this being the first week I managed to get some work done.

Meanwhile, I also had to visit our glorious capital to get my VISA. Because I am visiting the United States of America on a business trip. I'll be leaving on this Saturday and will be staying about 11 days!

Now after giving up parts of my civil rights and having my finger prints taken, I hope that the rest of the stereotypical image that Europeans have about Americans turns out to be just that: a stereotype and I am going to have a great time in America!

BTW, if you never hear again from me, it means that (at least) one of the six planes that I will be taking has crashed. God forbid! I do not like flying. International diplomatic airport incident, here I come!

But as said, I did get some good work done this week and I'll post about that, maybe on my flight. It is a very long flight and I'll probably get bored shitless. Do they serve alcohol on planes? In abundance?

But before that, I am going to post something else. Being that busy at work these days, I was in no mood to go home and code some more on the game, instead trying to use my free time for entertainment purposes. I played some Guild Wars 2, and I am going to write my impressions about it. It will not be a review, because: a. I am not a reviewer; b. I did not "finish" the game yet.