Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Guild Wars 2 - Genocide Entertainment?

It was nearly eight years ago (February 2005) that I started playing Guild Wars Prophecies. Joining the beta testing team and falling in love with what then was an entirely ground breaking MMORPG. When the game was released officially in April that year the response was huge. Critically the game won several prestigious awards, IGN’s Best PC RPG, and Gamespy’s MMORPG of the Year. By August 2007 Prophecies, Factions and Nightfall (the first two follow up expansion packs) had sold more than 5 million copies. The game’s only true competition was World of Warcraft, which released on November 23, 2004 and is the undisputed leader in the battle for consumer dollars and time.

Unlike WoW’s monthly subscription model NCSoft and ArenaNet chose to make Guild Wars free to play. You bought the game license and then played as much as you wanted, at no charge. Arguments will always abound over which is the better game and business model. WoW’s clunky graphics and endless grinding have always put me off. Guild Wars on the other hand looks like art and plays like it too.

Guild Wars 2 had been rumoured for some time. The announcement of the follow up game first came out on March 27, 2007. The sequel announcement coincided with the release of Eye of The North, the final Guild Wars expansion pack.
Fans then waited a further 5 years for GW2 to be released. The amount of development required meant that no firm, tentative or other suggested release date was given. Utilising new, proprietary technology to produce a dynamic 3D world built around critically acclaimed concept art, Guild Wars 2 promised a totally different approach to MMORPG’s in a game where your choices and actions would change the environment around you. Where strategy and tactics would play a greater part in success and skills would be learned in an entirely different way. Oh and no monks (healing class) characters at all. You are on your own out there.

So does the game deliver?

This is where a critical review of Guild Wars 2 gets complicated. ArenaNet did the right thing in adopting many of the successful elements of World of Warcraft, we now have crafting professions, gatherable resources and dynamic areas where you spend a lot of time interacting with other players fighting monsters and achieving quest goals.

The graphics are still excellent, though they have retained some of the more artistic elements present in the concept art. This is restricted to the maps (where instead of shadow of war darkness over unexplored areas, you have a blurred, brush stroke like texture over the unreached areas of the world) and loading screens. It’s better than having sponsor advertising though (now there’s a hideous thought).

When it comes to gameplay, you still grind your way through endless mobs of enemies, all carefully levelled to be a challenge, without being unbeatable. Most of the drops are rubbish, but with the inclusion of the crafting professions you can use many of the teeth, bones, hides, and goo dropped by monsters in their death throes to make armour, weapons, jewellery, clothes and food.
The questing system is completely linear. Your personal story requires you to go from one quest to the next, often with a recommended level difference of 3 or more. This means you have to go off and do side quests to level up. The personal story line is intriguing and well written. The fun really begins in the exploring and the opportunities found in the dynamic world.
NPC’s are represented by gold hearts on the map. These are people who need items, or something killed and they are open to anyone coming to help. After killing a dozen monsters, and gathering a bunch of whatever item the NPC requires, you gain experience, and the option to buy what they are selling using karma as a currency (gold, silver and copper are also used with merchants).
This adds an entirely new element to the game. The dynamic world works best when the screen announces there is a new event nearby – and you join 200 or more other players in a live battle fighting against some great foe. It encourages the best in social gaming. When a stranger falls in front of you, you have the option to pause in battle and spend a few second resurrecting them. This also earns you experience.  The best thing about this is that these live and graphically intense battles are well managed and the graphics engine, game physics and general programme doesn’t crash or overwhelm a mid-level system even at the highest resolutions.

The rest of the time you explore, and earn experience by discovering waypoints (that you can teleport to for a small fee) and Points of Interest, which encourage you to explore the nooks and crannies of the map. The final feature are Vistas. These are high points that you climb up to, the view from there is a sweeping panorama that also earns you experience. Assisting each NPC with a gold-heart over their heads, discovering each Vista, POI and Waypoint – earns you a chest reward (with experience, buffs and currency in it).
The guilds still exist, and after some initial bugs the partying system works well now. Allowing you to team up with friends and guild mates to complete both personal quests, general adventuring and even dungeons.

This is a game designed to get you involved, and it does an admirable job of it.

While I have no problem discerning fantasy from reality, it’s the realistic elements that bother me in this game.  There is a sense of casual genocide that permeates this game. Every playable species (and every sentient non-playable species) believe that they are on the right path. They are the ones who shall inherit Tyria – the meek are going to be crushed, stabbed, slashed, burned, frozen, blown up and drowned. It’s not the conversations you have with character that you then kill en masse. It’s the finer details, like the way they scream when they are on fire. It’s quite off putting when you realise that the lumbering troll you are about to destroy has some strong personal views on the current socio-political landscape.  Humans, Asurans and Nords have all been displaced by catastrophic upheaval. This is a fantasy world set 250 years after the apocalypse. Tempers are still frayed. Humans are forcing themselves into Centaur lands, Charr have built a steam driven empire on the ruins of the human world, the Asurans are forcing their way into every corner of the world with the casual contempt they have for all races. Even the tree born Sylvari are exterminating other species in an attempt to secure themselves some nice woodland property.

The role you take in Guild Wars 2 is not noble. You aren’t so much the brave adventurer you were in Guild Wars, as a tool for nationalistic expansion and colonial assimilation. The only thing missing are the missions where you are asked to escort missionaries, or deliver plague laden blankets to primitive tribes people.  In Guild Wars none of your enemies talked to you, unless they were really bad guys and they were part of the greater story. They were also human and there was a sense of right in taking up arms against them. In this game, with its vastly expanded mythos, landscape and complexity of biodiversity – most of the creatures you encounter have something to say. The snow giants, once a complex and proud race, now farming potatoes and waiting for you to hack them up. The rat like Skritt, sometimes you have to wipe them out in their hundreds, and other times you have to save them from their obsession with shiny (and radioactive) things. The centaurs remind me a lot of Native Americans. Forced by an alien invader to take up arms – and based on the ease with which they die, they are similarly outclassed in technology.

None of these misgivings stop me playing the game. They do leave me with a lingering sense of unease and wonder if anyone else is noticing the depth of the game, or if we have all become too desensitised to violence in games to draw comparisons to real world issues.

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