Guild Wars 2 Final Beta Weekend: PvE

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Guild Wars 2 had it’s third and final beta period this past weekend. It’s the last time most people will get to see the game before it’s release on August 28th We played the game for three days and we’ve got three days worth of thoughts on ArenaNet’s sequel to Guild Wars. Today’s entry will focus on the game’s PvE component with a third and final piece on Guild Wars 2’s PvP content coming later in the week.

The most disorienting and most exciting thing about Guild Wars 2’s Player Vs. Environment (PvE) content is that there’s almost nothing that looks like the traditional “kill 10 rats” quest. These types of quests are the bread and butter of MMO leveling and the fact that questing is dead in Guild Wars 2 has to rank as the game’s biggest innovation.

After a brief tutorial section that introduces you to your character’s abilities and the basic rules of Guild Wars 2 you find yourself out in a world with not a traditional quest-giver but a scout that points out various areas of interest around the map. Each of these areas asks you to complete various tasks and participating in any of them fills up a progress bar that completes the area and rewards you with a healthy dose of experience.

It could be argued that this is simply a quest hub in different clothing, and while that’s true to some extent it genuinely feels like a different experience. Instead of being forced to find one last boar or pick one last flower to make sure you’ve completed all the quests you can freely switch between tasks in an area as you come across enemies or items to interact with.

Or, if you find a task you prefer you can spend all your time just doing that. While it’s unlikely you’ll be able to level through Guild Wars 2 without fighting anything your options for non-combat questing and experience are numerous and create a great change of pace from the monotony of murdering countless NPCs. Best of all, since there’s almost always a non-combat action to perform, these breaks from combat can come on your schedule and not when your quest log provides one.

The real magic of Guild Wars 2’s approach to tasks comes in the form of Dynamic Events. As you travel around the map and explore you’ll occasionally come across or trigger an event going on out in the world. For instance enemy forces might start attacking an NPC settlement and attempt to steal supplies. These events are distinct from quests because they’re happening at one time for every player on the server. You don’t accept a Dynamic Event you simply notice it and choose to participate or not.

If not enough players show up to an event it can fail. That can trigger its own new event (a heroic NPC might attempt to raid the enemy camp to get back the town’s supplies, for instance) or it can simply mean the end of that Dynamic Event chain. In my time with Guild Wars 2 I ran across several dynamic events that ran through several phases. A particularly notable quest saw a small NPC hut accosted by ice elementals; after fighting through the enemy and defeating the shamans that summoned them I was told to head out to the frozen surface of a nearby lake for a counter-attack. There I found evidence of a dragon-worshipping cult that proceeded to attack us, summoning enemies from dark portals that had to be destroyed. After collapsing the portals we were accosted by the leader of the cult, a huge enemy that took several minutes to defeat and dropped a treasure chest when he was killed.

While that sounds like a traditional quest line, what makes it unique is that if I’d arrived in the area ten minutes earlier and finished questing and wandered off I might have missed the entire thing. Other players ran up and joined in the event halfway through, missing some of the story but helping guide it to its conclusion.

Dynamic Events tend to gather large crowds all working together to defeat the event’s enemies and complete the task at hand. To ensure these other players are a help and not a hindrance Guild Wars 2 has eliminated “tagging” enemies. Any player that helps attack an enemy receives experience and items from that enemy. Any player that contributes to a dynamic event is given a bronze, silver, or gold rating (depending on their level or participation) and rewarded accordingly at the end of the event. The result is that even casual dynamic events start to take on an epic scope as dozens of players all rush to participate. The battle against the cultist leader featured more players working in tandem than even the 40-man raids from World of Warcraft and he was just a random dynamic event for level 12 players.

At higher levels Guild Wars 2 promises to further mix up your leveling experience with dungeons and other breaks from map exploration, but since I spent the weekend exploring the starting experience of various characters I didn’t have a chance to explore these dungeons firsthand.

There are problems with these approaches of course. Guild Wars 2 can’t completely obliterate traditional quest mechanics and you’ll occasionally find yourself tracking down a specific NPC with a symbol over their head. But, these are almost always parts of your character’s personal story which makes quests seem more like special one time events than the regular cost of doing business.

Dynamic Events also have their own set of problems. The scaling has its quirks with some events proving almost impossible with too few players and others becoming trivially easy when half the zone comes over to participate. The Gold/Silver/Bronze rating is also an imperfect solution. Currently it seems to be based solely on damaging enemies and turning in items so players that participate in other ways, by helping to heal their companions or keeping other NPCs at bay, can sometimes end up with a bronze rating despite their extensive efforts.

Mainly though, Dynamic Events currently repeat far too frequently. As an example, I helped a Norn priestess track down a suspected yeti in a well-plotted Dynamic Event. The event involved a half-dozen discrete tasks as I helped her gather evidence of the yeti, chase down a jackelope and eventually track down and kill the culprit. Once it was finished, I followed her back to her camp and took a brief break from playing to eat some lunch. Less than two minutes later she had totally forgotten the revelation at the end of the quest log and had triggered the first task in the dynamic event chain again.

While repeating dynamic events is obviously necessary to make sure players that miss out on an event have a chance to play it, repeating the quest so quickly breaks the illusion of progress and changing the world that Dynamic Events provide.

Ultimately though, Guild Wars 2’s PvE content is its greatest strength and I would be shocked if most MMOs do not adopt the game’s “questless” dynamic in short order. The open-ended nature of dynamic events creates a world you want to explore not out of some completist sensibility but because a new and exciting story could be waiting for you almost anywhere.

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