Sunday, February 23, 2014

Guild Wars 2 - First Impressions

    My birthday was last week, the annual reminder that death is approaching, and my friend got me Guild Wars 2 for my present.  It is not a new game, this review is pretty old, but it's one of the few things I have to talk about at the moment, so here goes.

    The first thing that struck me about the game, which I really like, is that even though it is an on-line MMO you do not have to pay a monthly fee.  You just buy the game, or convince someone else to do that for you like I did, and you can play as much as you want.  That's really nice.  I don't like having to pay the constant monthly fees, or try to manage the free-to-play that is almost always a butchered and cut-down version of the real game (though not in all cases, Star Trek Online is a pleasant exception to the rule - though one of my favorites, Everquest 2, is virtually unplayable without paying).  So that was a strong point in its favor.
    The game came on 2 DVDs, after installing it updated itself, and the whole process took maybe 2-3 hours (I took a break which slowed things down).  Not that bad, given just how big most MMOs are - I've spent literally 6 hours updating Lord of the Rings Online.
    Logging in it seems to be a popular game, there was a massive list of worlds and almost all of them said they had 'high' populations.  I ended up on Vabbis, a European server (despite my being in the US) because it was literally the only one that had a 'medium' population.  Even though I don't mind playing MMOs, I'm not really a big group/party guy, I prefer to solo unless I can get one of my (few) friends on with me.
    Creating a character was a bit of a surprise and a really nice change form the typical MMO.  I made a plant-person called a Sylvari (just 'cause, they were the first choice highlighted and I knew nothing about the game to base a decision on).  In LotRO my favorite character is a Warden and I'm the tank of the group, so for GW2 I made my plant-guy a Guardian.  Then the real fun began.  I was asked a few questions about my character's background.  The Sylvari exist in The Dream and then they get called to be born in the real world, so I was asked about what symbol called me in the Dream (I chose a shield with a symbol of the crescent moon) and how I approached problems (I chose being honorable) and what my favorite possession was (I took the shoulder-armor) and a few other things.  This was a really nice touch.  As a big pen-and-paper role-player I liked that kind of feel of actually making a character.  Most MMOs just drop you into the game as a non-person with a burning desire to kill 10 rats and carry messages.  And what made it better was that my choices, some of them at least, had an impact on the game.  I did have the shoulder armor when I started.  My personal 'main quest' had me meet an NPC with the shield I saw, a sign that I was meant to help him.  But the downside was that some of the choices either did not have an impact, or else that impact is hidden.  My choice of being honorable seems to be some kind of conversation menu, I saw those choices in a quest trying to influence another NPC, but they are not explained and do not seem to have any direct or clear impact on the game.  Now, granted I could look them up on the wiki, but I really wish that game designers would put everything you need to know to play the game in the game itself - that is one of my top five hate, hate, hates about MMOs.  Still, minor gripe aside, the system was a great addition.  It may not be terribly deep, but it is much better than the nothing for background you get in other MMOs.
    Playing the game started with the obligatory tutorial zone, where I was dreaming and contacted by a living Sylvari.  And gameplay in GW2 is quite different from most other MMOs too.  I only had 6 abilities to start and 1 special from my class.  Which was the first thing I noted - there are not a lot of buttons.  You max at three class abilities mapped to F1 - F3, and five weapon abilities (1-5), one healing ability (6) and then 3 utility abilities (7-9) and one epic ability (0).  Those are the max, you start with only 7 of the possible 13.  That is a lot less that the typical MMO, which I have to admit was another thing I really liked.  I hate having sixteen hotbars of abilities cluttering my screen and trying to remember the specific circumstance I need to use them in.  I loved my LotRO Warden because I had 3 abilities that I combined to create my special moves - so all I needed was a single hotbar.  GW2 is not quite as nice as my Warden, but the reduced abilities are a positive feature in my book.
    The abilities are different also because 5 of them come from your weapon(s).  Three are the main-hand and two are the off-hand, or all 5 come from a two-handed weapon.  That's cool because when you switch weapons you change your abilities.  It's also a little odd, because in most games your abilities come from your class, basically from who/what you are - while here they come from what you're carrying.  Though, each class can use different weapons and gets different abilities from them, so it is still customized, but it does feel a little odd sometimes.  You also unlock the weapon abilities, you start with just the default attack and each monster you kill with the weapon earns separate xp to unlock the other abilities, I liked that too - it would be awesome if they included special weapons that had their own ability track (which would be a great way to make a magic weapon actually feel magical - just by having different abilities then the others of its kind), would love to see that in an expansion/update (though heck, it may be in there somewhere, I have not played a lot so far).  Each class can use several weapons, and they are geared for a certain fighting style.  My Guardian's two-handed sword is good for area-effect damage, while my mace lets me heal myself and nearby allies.  Overall the Guardian's weapons are melee, only two actually have a ranged attack, which reinforces the feel of the class.  And there are some odd weapons, like a torch, and steampunk-styled guns and rifles.
    Leveling-up is a bit different.  Levels 1 through 5 don't really give you anything.  At level 6 you earn your first skill point to start buying your utility skills.  Each list of utilities are unique to each class, but you can only have a few of them active at a time.  Also, you get a few class skills, and for my Guardian they provided passive boosts, but I could actively use one to get a bigger bonus which disabled it for a few seconds afterwords.  With most of the focus being the weapons and killing monsters, I tended to forget about my other abilities, and I chose most of the passive ones for the steady bonuses anyways.
    In the game itself were a few more pleasant surprises.  GW2 is very area-based.  What I mean by that is, in most MMOs you have a central hub of quests and those quests send you all over the map to other zones.  In LotRO you pick up a quest in Bree, and may have to go to the Shire to complete it.  GW2 drops that for a single quest-giver with multiple tasks in a single zone.  So, I woke from the Dream and entered the forest.  A little ways ahead I met a Scout.  Talking to the Scout gave me a voice-over narration of some back-story and filled in sections of my world map (which has fog of war) with who was where and what help they needed and what level their quests were.  It is great, awesome, wonderful and excellent.  I complained earlier about having to look outside the game for how to play, this was the right idea of keeping important information in the game, and making NPCs more useful.  Wish they did it more (former adventurers could tell you about monsters or quests and such).  Still, I like it, it works great - and it helps you stay in the zones that are for your level so you don't get horribly mauled by a monster you were not ready for.  From the Scout's directions I headed towards the nearest zone.  It was a dog pen, and I got to turn myself into a dog and interact with other dogs and fight spiders and sniff things out.  It was fun, and changed my abilities to dog abilities (which is how you use having only one hotbar, you change it with the circumstances).  While I was in the pen there was a local event, another part of the zone-based questing, where a giant mosquito queen attacked the pen, followed by another event where spiders attacked.  These events will appear by a schedule or will be triggered by anyone completing a certain quest in that zone and they pop-up on the screen if you're in that zone.  Which is cool.  It sort of makes the world feel like a living thing.  With my second character, whom I'll talk more about later, I was doing an underwater quest and triggered an event that turned every creature in the water hostile (which was not a good thing - and a reminder not to do a quest chain when you are a level below the recommended) so that effected not only me (I died a lot) but also anyone else in the water (thankfully I don't think there were too many, they might not have appreciated their peaceful swim turning into a bloodbath).  The 'triggered' events add a nice level of surprise and like I said add the feel of a living world.
    I ran around and cleared a couple of zones.  You can also earn xp by discovering locations, and even jumping-puzzles that give you a cutscene view of the zone.  I first saw xp for exploring in Everquest 2 and I liked it here as much as there, nice to get a little reward for running around.  You can discover waypoints and quick-travel to them at any time from the world map, also nice (swift travel always is) even if it does cost a few copper.  Eventually I went to the main city off the forest map.  I hate that stupid place, The Grove, just because it is a multilevel map.  Doing maps with floors is a hard thing when your mini-map is 2D, and while GW2 is not as bad as Morrowind, it is still very hard to make sense of what floor something is on and how to get there.  At least, it was for me.  Eventually I explored the place enough to get around easily, but that is a mixed positive/negative feature IMHO.  I also tried crafting, because I like crafting, and I was disappointed.  You have to buy a stack of harvesting tools, so you need to keep an eye on how many you have (which can only be done by opening your character screen) and nodes can only be seen on the mini-map and they blend in really, really well with the background so you need to keep a sharp eye out.  Lord of the Rings Online did it better, with a re-usable harvesting tool that could be upgraded to give bonuses and a special ability for each crafting class to highlight nodes of certain types on the mini-map.  Also, you only start with a few recipes, I took armorer as one of my two possible crafting classes and I could not make the shoulder armor or helmets (and I was hoping to be able to make a helmet which was my only missing armor slot).  Finding recipes requires experimenting with random drops and stuff and is a kind of hard to understand system - you have to just throw stuff out there and hope you can learn what you want.  Actually, that's the problem with crafting in GW2 - too much randomness.  You need random drop materials to craft with (oh boy, more monster grinding) in order to make virtually every item.  Grind, grind, grind.  Everquest 2 did better with books of leveled recipes and special recipes as drops, or LotRO where unlocking a new skill tier automatically gives some basic recipes and special ones drop.  If recipes drop in GW2 I have not seen it yet.  Crafted items are the same quality as things you can find, so you don't even really get any benefit from crafting - the only exception being the leather-worker who can craft larger inventory slot bags.  All in all crafting was a disappointment, and Everquest 2 is still the best crafting system in an MMO that I've found.
    After getting to level 10 with my Sylvari Guardian I decided to make a new character to try to get a feel for the other classes.  You get 5 character slots, and there are 5 races but 8 or 10 classes (can't remember which).  There is a store, so you can pay extra money to get upgrades, and no doubt extra character slots are something you can buy.  I haven't looked at the store because I am dead broke in the real world right now - but honestly I would not mind spending money on this game, so far it has been good.  For my second character I made an Asura Engineer.  That turned out to be an odd class.  I expected to drop turrets or make stuff, which I eventually got up to, but at start I just shot my pistol.  I got a shield, which turned out to be not really worth it - should have taken a second pistol.  I just recently found a rifle and am unlocking it.  There is also underwater combat and quests, and every class gets an item to breathe underwater plus a trident or harpoon gun to fight with.  Like that, wish there was more underwater exploring (something I loved about Morrowind) and not just combat.  Maybe there is later.  Also I discovered another great feature- all the money you earn is shared among your characters and your bank storage space is shared among your characters.  Awesome, awesome, awesome.  Hate juggling my LotRO shared storage (which is too limited to begin with).  Having every character on the same page is fantastic.  Also, while you have bank space, you also have extra space for crafting and some collectable items - again awesome, keeps your crafting materials from taking up all your space (the only part of the crafting system they really got right).  Achievements like things killed or places explored are also shared among characters, and that's great too.

    All in all I've only played for about 3 days and gotten two characters up to levels 10 and 6.  I have just seen the very beginning of the game.  And I like what I've seen.  I am interested enough to keep playing and seeing what the game has in store, and to start some extra characters and get a feel for the other classes.  There are a few things I don't like - but I could say that about every game, and they are minor problems for the most part (though, I am really hoping for a crafting revamp in the future).  In all, even if I had spent the money myself for the game, I would feel like I had gotten a good deal.  GW2 just feels different from the other MMOs I've played, in a subtle way, and I like it.  It runs well even on my two-year old cheap laptop and looks very nice.  It was a good present, and now I just have to talk all my friends into playing it with me (only fair play, they all got me started with LotRO).  If you're looking for an MMO that is a little traditional and a little different, and that you don't have to constantly pay for then you should take a look at it.  I'm happy with it, and I'll put plenty more hours into it.