Hands On with ArenaNet’s Guild Wars 2

After five years of development, fans will finally get a taste of what developer ArenaNet has been working on when the public beta for Guild Wars 2 opens next weekend. Publisher NcSoft gave us an advanced play through of the beta content at ArenaNet’s beautiful new state-of-the-art development studio in Bellevue, Washington, where the development team was on hand to help explore the massive world of Tyria.

A span of 250 years separates this new game’s story from Guild Wars’ Nightfall expansion, essentially opening up a brand new world for exploration. And what a world it is. The game’s living, breathing universe looks gorgeous. It’s obvious that art takes a central role in the game’s development simply by walking through the two floors of the open-space studio, where concept art paintings of various sizes adorn the walls.

“We wanted to make sure the quality of art work is noticed and perceived as an integral part of the experience and not an afterthought,” explained Daniel Docia, studio art director and project art director for Guild Wars 2. “The artistic treatment of a game shouldn’t be a side product or pretty layer that you package around, it should be an integral component to the experience. There’s a hand-crafted feel of every single game asset that goes into building these worlds. We don’t want anything to feel generic, dry or sterile.”

Tyria is anything but sterile, from its lush tropical forest home of the plant-like sylvari to the cold, snowswept woods of the norn’s Shiverpeak Mountains. Although we were given a limited amount of time to play, I was able to explore different parts of the world by creating five unique characters (one from each race – human, charr, asura, norn and sylvari) and starting the game from different areas of Tyria. The game has been designed to offer players a “personal story” based on the decisions they make from the very opening customization screen.

After choosing a race and a sex, there’s the typical, extremely detailed options of creating a custom character to your liking. And the level of detail in this area is sure to see a wide array of avatars roaming the lands from the Shiverpeak Mountains to the Tarnished Coast. But where the game dives into new territory is by asking players questions about the history of their character. It’s here in these multiple choice scenarios like “at a recent celebratory meet in Hoelbrak, I: a) blacked out, b) got in a fight, or c) lost an heirloom” that the “personal story” starts.

Players have 15 different story seeds to choose from that will lead to 15 different endings. Based on decisions the player makes between level 6 and 8, depending on the character class, everything throughout the story, including the ending, will change. These decisions focus on things like choosing between the life of your friend and the good of society. And there’s no “right” answer. If anything, there are many reasons to go back and play the game again to see just how different choices impact the stories.

There are also eight different professions: elementalist, warrior, ranger, necromancer, Mesmer, thief, engineer and guardian. This adds another layer to customization and allows more mixing and matching to develop an original avatar to play with. Each profession opens up unique attributes like the ranger’s ability to have loyal pets to distract enemies in battle or the elementalists’ conjuring of air, fire, earth and water during combat.

“The overall theme of the game is five races coming together to fight the Elder Dragons,” said Jeff Grubb, continuity and lore designer, Guild Wars 2. “But we tell this story in many different ways based on the decisions you make from the 15 beginning points. There are multiple layers, as well, with the mentors you encounter in the story needing to get together to fight, just as the varying races must unite to defeat a common enemy.”

ArenaNet has been talking about accessibility as one of its key tenants for Guild Wars 2, and the game throws players right into the heat of the action with all five races. Playing as a male human warrior, I entered the world to find a town under attack at night during a thunderstorm with centaurs burning down buildings and killing villagers. The game’s console-style action, which easily allows for clicking across multiple weapons and attacks, is intuitive and it’s easy to quickly get used to the controls by slaying the onslaught of centaurs.

Assuming the role of a female norn mesmer, I was tasked with hunting down and skinning an owl, dire boar, griffon sire or minotaur bull at night in the woods with plenty of wildlife to contend with. As a male charr engineer, a member of the Iron Legion, I was immediately ordered to defend the building from invaders. All three of these scenarios immediately allowed me to practice my various (limited) attacks – although these would upgrade fairly quickly over time, adding more skills and abilities to the bottom of the screen as I moved forward in the game. After the initial tutorial-based action sequence, the game opens up and allows players to interact with NPCs and explore the dynamic world to build up skills and experience points.

The dynamic events system works well visually, allowing players to see hot spots as they occur. In the human storyline, in the farm area outside of the main castle, a giant queen worm will erupt out of a field and require multiple players to take down. The worm can be seen from quite a distance, allowing players to see the event and run to it. Later on, that same field comes under fire again, this time by bandits setting the hay ablaze. In both situations, there are visual cues and audio cues as farmers cry for help. ArenaNet awards people for chipping in to help by offering every player a full complement of experience points and loot for their good deeds.

Mike O’Brien, the head of ArenaNet, said that his team of 270 people set out to create a new type of MMO, one that made playing with others a fun and interactive experience. It’s in these dynamic instances, as well as in the game’s world vs. world modes, that you really understand what he’s talking about. Seeing players run to fight a boss monster in the game’s main campaigns or align with one of three factions (red, blue or green) under a commander in world vs. world is quite a thrill. The variety of player-created characters complements one another, opening up interesting battles that are never the same.

As many as 500 players will be able to join together in one map to battle in the world vs. world mode, which keeps score over the course of two weeks before reshuffling the decks. ArenaNet decided to go with a three faction system in this gameplay mode to encourage more even fighting flow as players defend towers and castles across a map, while building up supply posts to create cool weapons like the powerful, but slow and lumbering Siege Gollum.

“We’ve designed a game that gives the players endless choice, from the way they create their characters to the way they play the game,” said Colin Johanson, lead content designer, Guild Wars 2. “There are hundreds of mini-quests to go and do, you can level up from 1 to 80 in world vs. world and never play the story mode. We want to offer a top-of-the-line RPG experience and that you can enjoy with friends in any way you like. There’s text and lore there for those who want to dive into the fiction, or you can play the entire game and skip that. It’s all up to the player.”

The upcoming beta will play an integral role in the fine-tuning of the game prior to launch. ArenaNet is already looking at tweaking some things in the game experience based on press feedback this weekend, including possibly toning down some of the special effects that accompany the epic battles that occur when a large number of players are fighting together, for the sake of being able to more clearly follow the action. They’re also exploring ways to help players get used to the new style of controls from traditional MMO games. Now it’s up to the fans to venture into Tyria and voice their thoughts on the virtual home they’ll very soon be calling home for many, many hours to come.

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