19 November, 2012
For my birthday, a good friend of mine got me Guild Wars 2. Being the obsessive gamer, I decided to play it. :)
What is GW2 like through the eyes of a game developer? Happily for you, dear reader, I'm here to share that with you.
As I've mentioned before, I have a super-power when it comes to game analysis: I can play a game "for fun" and then analyze it later. Other developers I know have said they can no longer play a game purely for fun, the analytical part of their mind can't stay still long enough for them to enjoy the game. So, I can shift my mindset to that of a "typical player" (well, more typical than I am) to play the game, then dissect the experience later.
I think I might also be reacting to the massive amount of hype surrounding the game. ArenaNet did a good job getting the word out, but some people have continually gushed about the game during beta. This drove up my expectations, so I think I'm a bit disappointed that the game isn't better than what I experienced. Anyway, the tone of this post might come across as being negative. I think the game is pretty good and I'll probably play it a while more, but if it I could find no fault with it I'd put myself out of a job, wouldn't I? :)
I also notice that my analysis focuses strongly on what's missing. Part of this is because of my work with Storybricks, and I've started to think about possibilities of games and NPCs beyond what we currently have. I think of how things could reach the player on a more emotional level, and how it could create a meaningful world. Perhaps this is a bit unfair to a game that's been in development for several years, but this is how my analysis has come out.
I started with a Charr Guardian. I enjoyed that enough, got up to the 20s by completing the first zone, but wanted to play around with other characters. I picked a Norn Hunter, which was fun enough, but I wanted to try out a few others. I though a Sylvari Elementalist would stick with me, as I tend to like flexible characters (like the Druid in WoW), but something just didn't click. Syl posted her thoughts and said it was a tough class to solo with, so it might not fit with my current playstyle much. This was also the first character I tried jumping puzzles with, but Elementalists are the only class that do not have a trait that reduces falling damage. I tried a Human Necromancer, but found that not capturing my attention as well.
The character I ended up sticking with was an Asuran Engineer. Currently I'm level 63, have joined the Order of Whispers, and have been rampaging through the zones mostly in level order. Thanks to level downscaling, I can still play areas I've theoretically outleveled. But, the combination of ranged attacks and temporary "pets" in the form of turrets is something I've found quite fun.
Let's start with the positives. What makes GW2 a cut above the rest?
Art Style and World Design
First thing I noticed was striking the game was. The characters are very nice, allowing for a wide range of customization options not only in body shape and options, but also in clothing customization. The ability to customize the appearance of your gear by using other gear is something I've loved from other games; although GW2 does use a "transmutation" type system rather than separate appearance slots as I prefer. Luckily the transmutation stones are pretty easy to get. I also really like the characters, especially the diversity. The Charr characters look distinctive and interesting, obviously quite different from the Asura. Obviously these races draw inspiration from other sources, but they feel a lot more original than the standard races you get in games, or the freaky beasts that seem to make no sense in others.
I also like the painterly style of the art. From the way the fog of war on the world map looks like an abstract painting to the lovely concept art used as loading screens, you can tell the fine art influence on the game. It's a testament to the art team that they were able to take these gorgeous images and turn them into 3D spaces. I find many of the cities to be really interesting to just run around in.
I also like listening to the conversations that go on in the cities. On particular conversation in The Grove between a Sylvari and an Asura talked about the Asura asking questions of a golem and crossing its circuits. "After you asked it the questions about the turtle in the desert, and then asked about its mother...." Had a chuckle at that sly reference. :)
I wasn't sure how much I'd like these, as twitch action tends to be hit-or-miss in MMOs. I'm a fan of platformer games, having been a fan of the Mario games for a long time, but I'm less enthusiastic about 3D platformers. The jumping puzzles combined the right amount of puzzle solving, exploration, and twitch reaction to keep me happy for the most part. I'm not overly fond about how obscure some of the puzzles are, though. I found myself often looking at walkthroughs to find locations, for example, instead of having to slog through a zone to find the secret entrance covered in weeds that I needed to find.
Of course, there are a few frustrations, even though I enjoy these puzzles. Combat slows you down, making it harder to make the jumps; therefore, it's extra infuriating if you get stuck in combat for some reason as some monster is still trying to track you from half the area away. Also, invisible walls and deceptive jumps feel more like "gotchas" than legitimate puzzles sometimes. It really sucks to line up a jump only to run into a wall, or to break down and look up a walkthrough only to find out that the jump you could have taken was right in front of you.
I also wish there were a way to disable the "dodging out of the way" command when you double-tap a direction. I find myself plummeting off a jumping puzzle often when I'm using small taps to try to adjust my location to setup my next jump. (Edit to add: There is a way to disable it, in the options panel. Hooray!)
I really like that there are a number of non-combat things you can do in some places to fill out a heart. Some of my favorite quests in LotRO were the ones in Hobbiton where you were just helping out the hobbits with the demands of daily life. Of course, it felt appropriate in LotRO because you were low level and in a friendly location untouched by the larger war. Stopping in the middle of a war-torn area to wash a farmer's cows can feel a bit silly.
I find that in most games, I like the option to avoid combats if I want to. To me, it's fun to move around monsters instead of having to fight them all the time. Of course, most games reward you for killing monsters, so this is often not an optimal strategy. In GW2 you really do need to kill, and kill a lot if you want to craft. I'll go into that later.
As someone who tests high for Bartle's Socializer motivation (I often test as an SEK if you're curious), I like what GW2 has done to encourage social interaction. I've advocated for making grouping easier before, so I'm all for this. Allowing people to all benefit from a kill is a great design. I hope this trend takes root, and I suspect it will, as it started with RIFT's grouping system and GW2 took it one step further. My one complaint is that it does seem to remove the last little bit of interaction between people in the same area. Without having to group or even talk to coordinate, other people are transitory. They feel like single-serving party members.
Also, the ability to join multiple guilds is nice. It shows the reality of modern gaming where your loyalties don't necessarily belong to a single group. I think the guild system isn't very well explained, however, and one of my alts who was in a guild didn't represent the guild by default so I was cut off from some of the people I had joined originally.
Also, I still think it would be nice to separate out groups based on gameplay elements and groups who have a more social foundation. I've seen a few guilds recruiting that require you to represent them 100% of the time. Some people are going to be stuck in the old mindset of your guild is everything in a game, but I don't want to be cut off from friends. Having a gameplay focused group for raiding and another semi-permanent structure for socializing would be preferable to having to choose between a demanding guild and my friends.
Okay, so what didn't quite thrill me?
Overly Convenient Achiever Focus
Yeah, I understand why MMOs cater to Achievers. But, I find this focus detracts from the experience. As a player, I'm only rewarded for completing a heart, not for helping afterwards. If there are 10 cows to wash and I complete the heart after 5, the rest can rot for all I care. This seems like it would have been an ideal use for the Karma currency, where helping a heart after it's done earns you more karma rather than have Karma just be a third number after experience and money that you earn for other actions.
The convenience factor also hurts the game. While I appreciate the fact that killing 10 enemies while making my way to the quest giver will still be rewarded, I find myself less inclined to try to understand why killing the enemies is important from a story point of view. In fact, I tend to find myself mindlessly going around maps just filling out the symbols. Jump up to get a vista there, wash some cows to fill a heart there, etc. Quiz me on why I was washing the cows later and I'll probably just give you a blank look. The nice part about having to go to a quest giver is that you have the opportunity to read the story, even if you choose not to.
I find it all too easy to fall into the Achiever pattern of behavior, even though Achiever is my least favorite motivation.
The trend in MMOs has been to try to focus on storytelling, specifically in taking the player through the story written by the developers rather than letting the players tell their own stories from their experience in the game. Star Wars: the Old Republic, The Secret World, and now Guild Wars 2 have all boasted about having a great story for you to play through.
I'm not fond of this trend, and GW2 has done little to change my mind. One problem is that the game seems to assume some prior knowledge. A friend I was with commented about how a few of the points of interest were important from the previous game. Not having played GW1, these references were lost on me. I also don't quite get the references to the Destiny's Edge guild that forms a central part of the story and of the dungeons. Sure, that info is a Google search away and the initial dungeon "story modes" probably fill in details, but I seem to be expected to care about this group even though I only know one of the characters from the early parts of my story.
The other problem is that I really don't feel invested into the characters. Sure, my Asuran Engineer knew who Zojja was, but at the beginning of my story I didn't know why she was important. Perhaps I missed a bit of pre-release information or some cinematic in the game. But, I'd like to feel invested in these characters, to find out more about them outside of the quests where 80% of it is fighting. Perhaps some way to just go hang out with them and talk between quests would be nice.
I find this when I'm adventuring, too. Once I complete a heart, there's nothing left for me there. Sure, the person responsible for the heart will give me stuff in exchange for karma currency, but I don't feel that I've made a friend. Or that I've even really made a change, but we'll talk about that a bit later. I keep wanting to make an emotional connection with the world, but it just doesn't happen for me.
Ultimately, these aren't my stories. This is the story that unfolds while I'm around. The words coming out of my character's mouth aren't mine, but what has been pre-scripted and pre-recorded. I want my own stories. I've had my own stories in other games, but having a cutscene-based story diminishes the importance of the stories I want to experience.
Also, I just get tired of MMO stories trying to add a thrill by threatening character death. In a world where you have common resurrection spells or even more common ways to revive a defeated enemy, death makes no sense. Having my NPC "partner" make a last, desperate stand feels empty because death shouldn't affect him. He should, like me, teleport to the nearest waypoint. It feels like sloppy storytelling to try to add the threat of death to a world where (player) characters simply cannot die.
GW2 has followed the trend of making characters simpler and easier. You get a total of 5 primary combat abilities, 1 healing ability, 3 utility abilities, and 1 "elite" ability. Your combat abilities change based on weapons you are using, and you can swap out healing, utility, and elite abilities when not in combat. While this makes the character easier to play, it also feels like the strategic options are shallow.
Character development is pretty front-loaded. You start with only one ability for each weapon, and must kill monsters to unlock the second through fifth abilities. With a bit of concentration, you can unlock everything by level 15 or so. After that, you unlock healing utility, and elite abilities with skill points you earn at certain locations. At level 60, I have most of my skills unlocked, except for one expensive elite skill. But, honestly, I've found a few skills I like and have pretty much just stuck with them. It's kind of a hassle to swap out skills, especially in the wild where an enemy could set upon you and interrupt your swapping.
For my Asuran Engineer wielding dual pistols, every combat is pretty much identical. I could write a program to do what I do pretty much every combat:
1. Fire a Static Shot to blind enemy (next attack misses) and confuse them (using skills hurts them).
2. As they approach, fire Dart Volley to do damage and poison them. Darts seem to hit more if they're closer.
2a. Dodge out of the way if they're doing a big attack.
3. Fire my Surprise Shot tool belt ability.
4. When they're close, use Blowtorch to set them on fire.
4a. Maneuver to hit multiple enemies if possible.
5. Drop a Rifle Turret if the enemy is not near death.
6. Drop a Healing Turret if half health or below.
7. Drop a Rocket Turret and Thumper Turret if there are multiple enemies. (These have longer cooldowns, so I save them for multiples.)
7a. Fire off my Rocket tool belt ability if there are multiple enemies clustered together.
7b. Trigger any turret special abilities if enemies are still after me.
9. Continue to fire off any skills that aren't on cooldown.
That's it. Pretty standard stuff, and rather boring when you get down to it. I don't earn any other weapon skills, and I think I've found the utility skills I like.
I really prefer lots of abilities and options. EQ2 was my favorite game for this, where I had a ton of abilities to call upon for my Necromancer depending on the situation. In GW2, I either kill stuff quick, or I wait for cooldowns. I've focused mostly on Condition Damage bonuses, which give my poison and burning abilities a lot more oomph. I may not do much burst damage, but I notice the health bar disappear quick when an enemy is poisoned and on fire. :)
I also don't like how you can't re-arrange the skills on the bar. At least, I haven't found a way to do so. This ties into larger complaint: you can't customize the UI even within the game itself. The minimap will always be in the corner it started in. No moving it!
All that said, I do like the simplified stat options for a character. I like that Might increases your damage no matter what the character is. No more worrying about a few dozen stats, it's very clean. But, the system still suffers from the old problem: is +6 condition damage better or worse than +6 Might?
We see the difference between theory and reality here. In theory, server is supposed to not be limiting to your character. You pick a home server and your characters are created there by default. For a while you could swap between servers at the drop of a hat. There's supposed to be a system of "guesting", where you could play with friends on another server easily if you were in a party together.
The reality is that guesting doesn't currently work, and they've restricted server swapping because of PvP (World vs. World battles, or WvW) People were just swapping to the winning servers, so they restricted that. The end result is that I can chat with some people but can't play with them, despite this being a touted feature. And, having this across all servers has other problems as well, particularly with the "overflow" servers during heavy usage periods.
There are a few more things that I wasn't fond of: the Economy, Levels, and the Static World. These tend to be severe enough that I want to go into a bit more depth in a future post, plus this one is long enough already! I might also try my hand at some PvP before then, but no guarantees.
What do you think? Do these mirror your experiences? Or do you have a different take on things?