Guild Wars 2 (Beta Weekend 4/28)

This weekend I got to participate in my first ‘official’ GW2 beta event.  Although I already had a taste a couple weeks ago – it was on a buddy’s account so I didn’t spend too much time playing.  Still, during that short stint I began gravitating towards a pair of classes that caught my interest (Thief and Ranger) so this weekend I wanted to branch out and try new things before revisiting either.

The most important thing to note about this review is that I only had time to get a feel for each of the classes – most of them only made it to level 10, and only one to to about level 19 before the servers went down. As such, I realize that this is only enough time to get a base understanding of each, and that a full grasp isn’t obtained until max level and with ample time to test out many different talent build combinations.

Warrior

As most of the Norn males look somewhere between juice-head guido and The Incredible Hulk, I decided to run with it and spun up a Warrior with obsidian skin and a single white-striped face tattoo and named him after War Machine.  He was big, he was mean, and he was ready to rumble.

My first impressions were that it felt like being a fury and arms warrior put together (for those of you familiar with World of Warcraft).  I felt right at home with the adrenaline (i.e. rage) resource system and found an adequate pool of “close the distance” type moves, aoes, and ranged abilities which left me feeling capable in any situation.  Most importantly, I never felt resource starved like I did on the Theif – more mobs meant more entertaining punishment to dole out.

I started off leveling sword and board, but quickly abandoned this for dual axes and finally settled on a two-handed sword / long bow combination. As far as the weapons – dual axes was pretty fun. You get a nice mobile whirlwind/bladestorm kind of ability that I would use to circle-strafe around the enemies, dealing damage while avoiding their attacks.  The two-hander also gets a cyclone ability, but it’s coupled with a direct line charge which makes it kind of awkward at times (think Alizabal‘s blade dance) because you blow through the cluster of mobs and then get stranded out a ways waiting for the animation to release control of the character.

Between the bow, cleaving and whirlwind moves, charges and leaps, I can definitely see this as being an entertaining class to play long term.  My only fear is that even though there are seemingly a lot of health regen type traits and talents for the warrior, a lot of champion and boss type mobs in this game seem to radiate close range aoe abilities which are very difficult to keep track of  in the heat of battle, especially when you start getting 5-10 people beating on the mob and it’s getting lit up like an x-mass tree from everyone’s spell effects.

Necromancer

I’ll say this directly: It was this profession that I finally awakened to Guild Wars 2’s dynamic combat system.

It was sort of like Neo in the dojo scene, in the moment of realization after Morpheus whooped his ass.  Until then I was only “kinda” playing the game right, dodging the obvious giant red circles underfoot and not standing in fire, but I was still playing this game like a static MMO because the other classes I tried until then let me get away with it.

Not the necro – I started out getting my ass handed to me a ton and not understanding what the hell my role in combat even was. Why am I wielding an axe? Why do most of my abilities only trigger at mid-to-close range, leaving me open to getting owned because I’m wearing a bath robe?  Why is my pet completely worthless as anything other than a health pot?

It was in these struggles that I was finally pushed outside of the mmo rotation comfort zone – I started playing the necro more like a FPS version of the Zealot from warhammer – a mid-range kiting, hit-and-run kind of play style where I would set up a series of floor traps using the staff abilities, then swap to axe & focus to lay in some moves to build up life-force, then flip into death shroud (aka shadow form) to finish them off or to siphon out a ton of aoe damage with the absorb ability.

This class definitely helped reset my perception of how the other classes worked, and I can totally see having a blast playing this in both pve and rvr settings.  Although I didn’t have a chance to try out the Mesmer or Elementalist, this was also by far my favorite “visuals” class – the stylization of the spells is fun, fluid & engaging.

Engineer

The next class I tried was what I will dub the potential sleeper class of GW2.  To be frank, I did not find the first 10 levels to be interesting or enjoyable at all.  I was basically limited to a rifle with a boring set of obvious moves which did a fair amount of damage.  The blunderbuss attack was funny at first (you blow the target back) but annoying later (you also get blown back and knocked down).

I spent points purchasing both the flame and rife turrets as I assumed they would be the key companions to the Engineer – and found that to be a horrible move. The flame thrower comes out in a dazzling display of like.. one ream of fire and then appears to stop working and sit just there, and the rife turret comes out and shoots 1 round every 3.5 years.  Once the turrets were out, the icons change to a detonate ability which made obvious sense in an AOE situation, but functioned horribly if combat ended early.

You see, once the turret goes out, you have to either detonate it or “pick it up” to restart the cool down.  You detonate the turret by hitting the same button that dropped it, and you pick it up by mousing over the turret itself and clicking the gear icon.

Here’s the problem: Picking up the turret does nothing but reset the cooldown.  You don’t “carry” it in the intuitive sense allowing you to drop it somewhere else, it simply makes the turret disappear completely and you are left with the same cooldown you would have had detonating it.  This seemed awkward to me for such a “run and gun” type of a game, it felt like retrieving a turret should at the very least cut down or eliminate the cooldown of re-dropping it later. Given the option, my choice then would be to always detonate turrets as an execution move to at least get that benefit out of it.

It wasn’t until much later that I realized that it was the various tool belt skills where the engineer shines, rather than the turrets. I spent a few points on the grenade belt, activated it, and when I saw my rifle skills completely replaced with grenade skills, a little light-bulb went off in my head and I understood why all the weapon abilities were lack luster – an engineer will likely spend most of their time swapping between belts and not really using their equipped weapons like other classes.

This was a cool realization – but a late one –  my recommendation here for the design team would be some kind of guided introduction to this fundamentally different play style.   Maybe start out engineers with one of the more obvious utility kits already unlocked to balance out their clear lack of weapon combo choices, or weave-in some class specific RP quest line where a Senior Engineer gives you some tips about getting a particular belt unlocked and trying it out.

All in all, I could see where the Engineer will be quite tricky on the battle field, although the long term investment of having to earn and burn enough skill points to make things interesting is a bit of a cross to bear.  I would definitely like to spend more time fleshing one out in the next beta cycle to see if my perception changes.

Thief

I spent most of my time playing this class during the brief taste I got last round. I was inspired by the early skills video which featured a play concepts that made me giddy- awesome gun-kata type warfare, cool shadow-stepping bow and gun shots, and fun looking acrobatic melee.

Most of it held up, but I found some of the implementations to be a bit quirky and in some cases frustrating… but let’s start with the good stuff:

From a weapon standpoint, I do love the John-Woo inspired dual-gun abilities.  The short-bow is equally entertaining, I especially like the integration of the “early detonation” you can perform while the arrow is in the air to get a broad spectrum cluster bomb effect.

On the not-so-good side of the coin, I found some of the acrobatic moves (like leaping death blossom) to be jerky in situations where the mobs are mobile. It seems like some of these moves are meant to “lock in” on a particular mob before going through their animation, but if the mob leaves, you’re left sort of rooted in place doing this awkward dance until the animation plays out.  (I’m not a huge fan of sequences that rip character control out of the hands of the player)

I also found the Initiative system to be a taxing resource pool in long stints of combat, which is common during a lot of those “nearby event” type activities where waves of mobs are coming out.  I’m going to assume that this is solved at higher levels with skills and talents which increase initiative regen – but it was worth noting that, compared to the other classes, it seemed harder to keep a steady flow of combat going with the thief due to this, which was distracting.

My final gripe is on the behavior of some of the shadow-stepping abilities that specifically grant Shadow Return, allowing you to teleport back to the spot where you started. The return portion works less than half the time, and the feedback is never clear as to why it failed, and the ability bar is perfectly happy to let you fail then put the move on cooldown.

For example, there is a range limit to how far you can be from your Return spot. However, if you exceed that distance, the only feedback you get is that the small circle left behind on the ground despawns – that’s it.  Your ability bar will still (falsely) show a Shadow Return icon that is lit up instead of grayed out, so if you didn’t notice the circle is missing (or there are 15 other white circles in the vicinity because of other players) then you simply mash the button and nothing happens – well… something happens, you get owned because the teleport you were counting on leaves you stranded.

Other times, the return will fail simply due to (what I assume is) pathing or line of sight issues with the terrain. A common tactic I was trying to employ was to be across a small jumpable chasm or start across a bridge where I wanted to lure a mob around one way, then teleport and make the mob have to take the long way back while I rain down justice with my guns or bow.  Again, sometimes it would work, but may times it would just…fail… with no indication as to why.

My recommendation for Shadow Return is to not let the return point area despawn at the first sign of trouble. Instead, control what happens at the the action bar and, most importantly, provide feedback such as floating combat text for when the teleport fails.

For example: If the player runs too far out of range, gray the button out and toss up the “Out of range” floating message.  If the player is somewhere where the game cannot resolve a path back to, again gray the button out and toss up some “Obstructed” message to make it clear. Give the player the opportunity to react accordingly and correct to get the teleport off, and he can’t do so before the cooldown expires, then reset the skill and despawn the return point.

Still, despite a bit of needed mechanic polish, I found this class to be extremely fun to play. The mobility is all the stuff I ever loved about being a subtlety rogue and then some.  I’m hoping that the talents and skills will give the Thief some sustained sources of Initiative for the longer fights, and I look forward to watching some sweet videos of them in action at the hands of players who make playing them an art form.

Ranger

Last but not least; the profession I ended up taking the farthest. I’ve recently been enjoying the hell out of my WOW Hunter and wanted to see what GW2s interpretation was like.  I was pleased to feel right at home with the Ranger in this sense, but was pleasantly surprised to find it capable in melee range as well.

For weapon combinations, I wasn’t particularly impressed with setups other than the swords, and the long bow.  I found it kind of silly that the starting weapon was a single axe (at least give them a short bow to start with, c’mon) so much of my initial game play revolved around securing some kind of bow ASAP.

Having said that, the 1 & 2-handed sword styles are fun as hell, and the long bow is more than enough firepower to burn down enemies at range. Unlike the WOW Hunter, I really didn’t mind going toe-to-toe for a minute, twisting around them with serpent strike then firing off a knock-back arrow to create distance.

On the down-side, I found my pets to be quite fragile (even the bear), which I’m assuming is a task left to the talent / skill system to beef up – but I couldn’t excuse their pathing issues and found many moments where they simply freeze in place and refuse to fight anything or respond to commands to just follow me.  In most cases I was forced to just swap to my other pet to free them up.  One thing I did like about the pet-swap system was that it could be used to “put away” injured pets and pop out the secondary pet to fight for a while.  This seemed to let even a downed/injured pet to revive completely while put away, rather than having to take the time to revive him immediately. Nice feature.

All in all, I really enjoyed this class as it allowed me to take full advantage of the surrounding terrain in many instances – it felt advantageous to take higher ground, it felt like I was making tactical decisions in my attacks, and most importantly, it did not feel like a wet noodle when melee was unavoidable.

Overall Feedback

Although I spent the bulk of my time concentrating on class mechanics – I did want to share some positive thoughts on the overall game play and the world.

In short, I really dig it.

The side-by-side cinematic dialog sessions with NPCs draws in an aspect I really liked from SWTOR, making the lore and quests more engaging. Where GW2 took it to the next level for me was integrating the natural speech mapping in the character’s mouths, as well as the micro-expressions they exhibit at times during emotional exchanges or reactions to information.

I really enjoy the “area scout” npc concept, giving players a heads up of things to do in a particular area without having to aimlessly wander around… but not revealing all the potential things to do in one shot which leaves the player open to extended exploration. I felt this was a really nice balance especially as I moved out of the starting areas and into some of the larger neighboring regions. I felt aptly rewarded for exploring, but well informed when approaching the idea of progressing through a zone.

I was also happy to see the continued progression of the way-point system finally shedding the silly time-sync of putting the character on some kind of  “flight travel” between point A and point B.  It seems they finally recognized that there is nothing to be gained from wasting a players time flying between well known locations or having to find the specific NPC to talk to in order to “unlock” a new fly-to location.  The GW2 system works more like Skyrim – once you make it there you can always fast-travel back just by getting into the general area.  That’s the way to do it!

The economy system was also intriguing. Although I didn’t partake in much “crafting”, I did take advantage of the ability to put things up into trade from anywhere in the world – and was pleasantly surprised when I found buyers could put out requisitions which allow you to immediately sell items if the price is right.  I felt this was an incredibly smart step in evolving the generally static “wait and see” auction systems you find in other MMOs, or the annoying “where’s the nearest mailbox” game which discourages long stints of being out in the wild for long periods of time.

My only gripe about the auction house interface was a lack of search features that should be a given at this point of mmo evolution – like the ability to limit results to only items you can use “now” and have that automatically take into account your class, level, and other factors. Or the ability to sort by lowest buyout price rather than just lowest price (having to jump through 6 pages of zero-bid items to get to the stuff you can buy now sucks).  They should really just take the functionality found in WOW AH, coupled with the features the Auctionator addon provides for bulk selling & buying, and just make a universal game standard for trades in any game.

The cities and environments also seem well thought out. I will note that this is the first MMO I’ve seen with a proportional amount of children and animal NPCs running around, which is a nice touch for making cities and villages feel “lived in”. I even got to participate in a snow-ball fight with some of the local kids in a particular area, at least until a family of pissed off bears invaded. 😡

A  final word of  goes to the dynamic event system. I’m impressed. Some of these events are just down right awesome in grandeur, and these are just the ones I found in the first 19 levels of being a Norn.

In one event, we were held up in a castle attempting to defend against invading hordes that were attacking from multiple sides – as a ranger I was literally running around along the castle walls raining down arrows at the enemy at the gates, and even had the opportunity to “mount” a defense siege piece that let me dump burning oil down on the mobs as they beat on the gate. Eventually they still broke through, attacking and incapacitating NPCs within – and I found myself having to fend them off with other players while reviving the down’d NPCs for support. It really felt like a castle siege.

A different event featured an NPC shaman began channeling some kind of grand ritual which then spawned several massive portals, spawning out ice elementals while other npcs from the hostile tribe rushed in to attack.  A large group of us had to wade through the chaos to close the portals which then broke the shaman’s protective barrier, then fought him for a good 4-5 min while dealing with adds until he went down. It felt just like the invasion events I loved from Rift.

Between experiencing events like these early on, and seeing the promo video of this massively awesome fellow appear out of the sky, I have high-hopes for the lasting content in GW2 on up through end-game.  I believe they have all the right ingredients in place to make it entertaining for more than just a one-time play through – although I do need to participate in significantly more PVP to see how that feels before I become a true fan-boy.

Next Beta

I still have a few areas of focus left for the next round of testing. I would like to finish out trying the Mesmer, Guardian and Elementalist classes, and then take one of my favorites as a result and devote time to leveling it up to max level and participating in more pvp/rvr activities.

I would also like to give the Engineer another shot, and spend some skill points unlocking belt abilities early on and really give it a fair shake.

Finally, and probably my lowest priority, I want to get a sense for how the crafting works – and understand the ecosystem of gathering vs. the relative level of items that are produced vs. the investment in producing items at low levels (do they sell, is it worth making anything or just upgrading your gear via quests & random drops, etc).  I’ve never been much for crafting – I’ve seen enough evidence in games either way to know that it’s not a corner-stone for game success. In truth, there hasn’t been a truly great crafting ecosystem since Star Wars Galaxies – so I’m not expecting a whole lot.

Until next beta!!