GW2 First Impressions
A wild GW2 appears! It uses Dynamic Events. It’s super effective!
Which is to say, all right, I admit, I’m really impressed by the way GW2 has evolved public quests from WAR/Champions Online. I honestly think this is the next step in MMO PvE, although there are still some bugs to work out and some minor flaws and drawbacks. I didn’t beta test this game, and avoided most of the publicity beforehand, and disbelieved much of what I did read, so I think it’s meaningful that I’ve been so impressed with this mechanic.
I’m getting ahead of myself though. Let’s start from the top and talk about the basic feature set of GW2.
This really needs to be front and center when discussing game mechanics, because it’s a huge one and it changes the way I approach the game. The basic idea behind dynamic events is simple: stuff happens around you, and you can join in if you like. The more you participate, the better the reward you receive. OK, that’s simple enough, but there’s a bigger point behind this one: in GW2 you’re less likely to plan your activities ahead of the time, which is to say, you’re less likely to follow a script. Let me explain!
In traditional RPGs, you have some NPCs that give out quests. Generally speaking, you need to talk to the NPC before you can do the associated quest. So when you enter an area in most MMOs, the most basic level of analysis includes some variant of “where are the quests and in what order shall I do them?” Once I get to know MMOs well, I develop “circuits”; optimized paths around areas that allow me to complete quests efficiently, one leading to the next. That’s possible because the content is always there and is waiting on me; things don’t happen in general unless I make them happen in MMOs.
In GW2, this mostly goes out the window. Oh, there’s still a variant of traditional questing (see the section on Hearts below), but that’s fairly limited. The real meat of the PvE system lies in the Dynamic Events, which are static, except when they’re not. OK, this will take a bit of explaining.
A Dynamic Event (DE) can be mapped out as a tree structure, where each stage has two possible outcomes, and those stages can also have two outcomes. Most of the time, especially in the newbie zones, the DEs are pretty fast and furious. Something happens, and a tidal wave of players arrives to help, and it’s rare to fail a DE. So I was pleasantly surprised to see my first DE failure a couple of days ago. There was an asura gate that some asura tech was working on, and we were supposed to defend it from the skritt that came to plunder it for parts. I think I was in the overload area at the time and not many people showed up, so the event failed (!!). The skritt stole the parts and ran off, and there was an immediate follow-up to recover the parts before they could use them to build something else. We did manage to stop them and bring the stolen parts back to the original gate, which was repaired.
The big picture view is where this gets interesting. On the one hand, this content is static; it’s prefabricated and won’t change with time. A victory in phase 1 of DE #527 will always lead to the same result. Moreover, time passes and everything essentially resets, so it’s not persistent in any longterm sense.
On the other hand, DEs seem to pop pretty randomly. Some of them happen quite often, others less so, but the point is that you don’t know what’s coming up next. In a given area there will be quite a lot of different DEs that can occur, which often tie together to tell a bit of a story about what’s going on in the area. The lore isn’t all that amazing though… but the impact on PvE questing is. You see… there’s no optimal path through a zone in GW2. Players are encouraged to more or less just go with the flow, and follow events around. Consequently, I find when playing GW2 that for the first time in my several-decades-long history of playing RPGs, I don’t plan much anymore. Oh, I’ll still pick an area to visit, and as a completionist I’m always hunting for vistas and PoIs and hearts… but once I’m in an area, what I do isn’t predetermined at all. Many times I’ve decided to wander over to visit something, and heard of a DE off somewhere, and wandered over to join it. One thing leads to another and one DE leads to the next and hours later I’m in a wholly different area, never having really paid attention to how I got there.
Many of the DEs fall into easily recognizable formats, of course. You’ll have your escorts, your invasions, and your single boss monsters to defeat. But you’ll also find some interesting variations like collecting raptor eggs or picking spoiled grapes, which keep things fresh.
One of the best features about DEs as a form of PvE content comes from the way they manifest what’s actually happening. In traditional MMOs, you very rarely see any of the events that NPCs complain about, and the “end” of most quests is highly arbitrary. E.g. we’re told that bandits are attacking a village, but we don’t see this; the bandits are off in a nearby field, standing around waiting for us to kill them. We’re told to kill a certain number, after which we’ll have “saved the village”. This feels odd though, when there are just as many bandits upon completion as there were when I started, and they’re still standing in the same place. All of which is to say, we don’t actually seem to be changing anything.
In GW2, by contrast, stuff actually happens, and the endpoints are obvious and logical. Instead of being told to kill 10 bandits or 20 bandits or whatever arbitrary number… we’re told e.g. to drive the bandits off. We’re done when the remaining bandits turn and flee the area. There’s nothing arbitrary there; it’s an objectively verifiable and logical place to say, “OK, you’re done”. It FEELS natural, which isn’t something that I’m used to in gaming; generally my disbelief struggles with the desired suspension.
As is always the case with static content, the real limitation here is how many DEs are available, and the main concerns are repetition (which can grow tedious with any content) and the question of what players are doing in between DEs. The solution GW2 implemented for the second issue comes in the form of Hearts.
King of Hearts
The Hearts system is the second half of the PvE questing system, and although it suffices, it’s less impressive than the DE system.
In short, there are NPCs scattered around the world who have Heart icons over their heads. These Hearts start out as empty, and you fill them by completing local content. Generally speaking, you don’t need to speak to the Heart NPC to begin working on the Heart content, which is an improvement over the common MMO model of quest-giving NPCs with punctuation (!) over their heads.
What works well with the Heart system? Well, it provides some engaging and random PvE content, and best of all it lets the players decide what to do. In any given area, there will be several things that you can do to fill that local Heart; often this entails fighting local monsters that are of particular interest to the Heart NPC, or performing tasks that are of interest to said NPC. The Heart system also provides some really fun and interesting content, e.g. transforming you into a wolf so you can play with puppies.
What doesn’t work so well with the Heart system? The biggest problem I see is that Hearts aren’t repeatable; once you’ve filled the Heart you’re done in an area. Other than exploring and pursuing DEs (which are random and thus unpredictable) you’re done in that area. To the extent that DEs pop often, this isn’t a problem, but sometimes there can be dry spells without much to do in an area. Having repeatable content would help a lot in this regard IMO; I’d consider something like allowing us to refill hearts for lesser rewards. Although the system is clever and flexible, it doesn’t feel like it’s quite filling in all the gaps left in between DEs right now, and it really needs to do so.
Can we all get along?
One thing GW2 does very well is provide a PvE environment where players aren’t ever in competition with each other. Literally for the first time ever in an MMO, I’m always happy to have other players around. I can’t overstate how important this is; this is BIG, folks.
Generally, in MMOs, players compete for several things: mobs, quest resources, and crafting materials are the foremost of these. If I’m on a quest to kill a bandit chieftain, and you kill him first, I have to wait for that chieftain to respawn. This leaves me standing around biding time, which is never desirable in a game. Likewise, if I need to collect a raptor egg, or if I want to collect some copper ore, and you grab it first, I have to wait for another one. If I’m killing monsters and someone else runs up, my first thought will generally be along the lines of, “Oh, great, now this guy’s going to be in my way.”
In GW2 this is all a thing of the past. If you helped kill that bandit chief, then you get credit for it. If you need a quest item and you grab it while I’m close by, I’ll get credit (or I can grab it for myself like with crafting resources). Crafting resources are instanced by character, meaning you can mine a copper node and it’ll disappear for you, but then I can run up and mine that exact same node (after which it disappears for me too). Dynamic events reward everyone who participates. You don’t need to be in a group to share experience for kills; really you don’t need to be in a group for anything mechanical in-game.
Consequently, there’s less need for groups, while at the same time, somewhat paradoxically, there’s a lot more pro-social behaviour than I’m used to seeing in MMOs. In most MMOs, there’s some hesitance to help others because when you attack “their” mob, you might reduce the experience they gained. In GW2, the more the merrier.
Oh, and there aren’t any healing classes per se either; instead, everyone can revive other players and NPCs who have fallen in combat. Not only that, but you actually get experience for doing so. When a player falls, it’s common to see several others rush over to help him or her back up. It’s little things like this that can shape the culture of a game, and I have to say GW2’s devs have taken some wise and deliberate steps to form a community that’s trained to help each other. That’s nice for a change.
You must be this tall to ride
Every adventuring area in GW2 has a preset level cap. If you’re above that cap, your level will be automatically lowered to the cap, and your stats will be lowered to match. The upside is that you can freely travel anywhere at or below your level and you’ll always find a challenge. This also allows the rewards to scale to your level; thus e.g. if you’re level 30 but want to hang out in a lvl 5 area for a bit, you’ll be effectively level 5 but your rewards will be lvl 30. The biggest upsides to this are twofold: it increases the number of places you can efficiently adventure at any point since you never truly outlevel content, and it also allows friends or any level to adventure together pretty seamlessly.
The one downside to this approach is that you can’t significantly outlevel content to make the game easier on yourself; that’s a common approach among MMO players. Since you’ll be autoleveled down to the cap in every area (assuming you’re higher level) you’ll never be vastly more powerful than your foes; you won’t find anything in game that’s utterly trivial to kill. Having said that, you do get to keep your skills and traits, and there’s a noticable difference between that lvl 5 player and the lvl 30 player next to him who’s been autoleveled down to effective level 5. Which is to say, you can outlevel content, just not by a huge margin.
It’s the little things that count
* There are no mailboxes. You can send and receive mail from anywhere.
* You can send any (or all!) crafting resources from anywhere in the world to your bank, freeing up inventory space as you go.
* Bank space is shared with all characters on your account, making it much easier to supply alt crafters.
* There are daily and monthly achievements, as well as all sorts of general achievements. These are also by account. I love this, because it means after I’ve completed my Dailies on one char, I don’t have to log into my alts and repeat. I’ve completed the Dailies every day just by playing normally without ever worrying about grinding anything at all.
* There are sizable exp rewards for exploration. Each time you visit a waypoint, PoI, or vista (usually these are in hard-to-reach places, often with jumping puzzles) you’ll get a nice chunk of exp. This is especially helpful for lowbies; run around and explore a bit at the start and you’ll be ahead of the curve.
* Which skills you have available will depend on which weapons you equip. The first three skill slots are for your main hand weapon, and the fourth and fifth are for your offhand. Or if you wield a two-handed weapon, the first five skills all pertain to that. The sixth skill is a healing skill, chosen from a small list. The seventh through ninth skills are utility skills that you purchase/unlock with skill points; you can assign any that you’ve unlocked. The tenth is a racial elite skill. Anyhow, the point is, changing your weapon for another type will change the skills available to you and thus change your tactics significantly.
* Underwater combat and tasks are common. Every character has an aquatic rebreather from the start so there’s no worrying about drowning. The underwater areas are often gorgeous and a lot of fun to explore. Your character will also use different weapons when underwater, meaning you’ll have new sets of skills to learn and use there. Variety is good.
* GW2’s use of dyes is the best I’ve yet seen. You can find dyes, or craft them, or buy them. Once you have them though, their use is very atypical. Normally one applies a dye to an item, or perhaps to an area of an item. In GW2, the dyes aren’t assigned to items, but rather to characters. So if e.g. I find a cerulean dye, and I double click it, I’m not asked to assign it to an item; instead, it’s not a permanent part of my character’s dye collection. You can dye any item you have at any time with any dyes you’ve unlocked on that character. Characters start with a decent basic selection of dyes, but once you’ve acquired some in-game, the options become really impressive. Clothing items have two or three dye slots, and you can assign any dye you’ve unlocked to any of the dye slots, making your own unique combination of two or three colors on each piece of clothing you wear.