What We Know: Guild Wars has a massive following that is hungry for any sort of information about the follow-up, Guild Wars 2. It's being developed at ArenaNet, same as the original, by a team made up of former Blizzard employees. NCSoft acquired ArenaNet, and now serves as the publisher. Guild Wars, or Guild Wars Prophecies, the original, first appeared in 2005 as a standalone campaign, and since then we've seen Guild Wars Factions, Guild Wars Nightfall, and culminating with Guild Wars: Eye of the North as the only expansion pack to the original title in 2007.
What We're Seeing Now: NCSoft decided to skip E3 earlier this year, and focus on having the sequel be playable at both Gamescom and PAX. They had a massive presence on the floor in Germany, with an enormous booth playing the new Guild Wars 2 trailer. There were timed gameplay stations ringing both sides as well, giving players roughly 40 minutes with the game. That's where we decided to dive in.
With a game like Guild Wars 2 that spans a massive story in a living breathing world, 40 minutes will only present you with the tiniest sliver of the entire experience. In fact, it only hints at what might yet come, as anyone who has ever set virtual foot inside of an MMORPG can tell you. Although ArenaNet hopes to shift the MMO paradigm several notches to the left, there's still some low-level winding up that just can't be ignored.
However, they've even taken great steps to change that up. Building a character in Guild Wars 2 is an extremely creative process, and one that looks to create an entire backstory instead of just letting you pick a race, class, and color of your ponytail. There's a sort of Mad Libs presentation where you pick and choose your entire background. For instance, the game will prompt you "I was raised ..." and your choices might be "by commoners," or "among the working class," or "as a member of the nobility." and so on.
These choices both change the look of your character, and their Story, which becomes a large part of your particular experience with the game. There's a "My Story" tab in the menus where you can later access and refer to this type of content, but once it's picked, it is locked in place. You might choose what element you work with, and I choose fire when given the opportunity for my elementalist. This gave a reddish glow and aura to the tiara worn by my female character.
Touches like this are meant to ground you more with your selections, and make that character more real for you. Your level 37 Dwarf Ironbutt in World of Warcraft might not have much of a backstory, other than the one you've created for him, but in Guild Wars 2, that character has a fully fleshed out path that you can chart, making him or her that much closer to being a real person.
After tailoring your character, you'll encounter NPCs who point you towards different quests, which, while familiar, also was presented in a novel fashion. The character you're speaking to will appear large on the screen off to the side, while their dialogue fades in at the top of the screen, and in most cases a map fades up behind them, animating what they are talking about and telling you where you'll need to go.
For my demo, I took part in defending Shaemoor, a village in the Divinity Coast, as they were besieged by Centaurs. Another level had me fighting a fire by dumping buckets of water on a burning mess. When there was combat, it was fairly simple (I never faced anything I couldn't take down alone), and the active spell system is a nice change. You don't have to sit through a windup animation while the spell gets ready to cast. It just happens.
Also, if you switch to a melee option, you'll see that the choices in your action bar change accordingly. Another nice touch that means you don't have to map multiple actions to the screen all at once, since you're only presented with the controls that you need at that moment. It makes things a lot simpler. The interface will obviously look familiar to MMO regulars, with a health and mana globe representing your health and magic points (to use a D&D term), but they've tweaked things wherever necessary in an effort to streamline the gameplay.
By the end of my time (40 minutes flies by very fast when playing this game ... addiction ahoy!), I was part of a group defending a garrision, when an enormous pair of skeletal hands erupted from the ground. That became our new target ... and my time was up. It should be noted that I chose to start as a beginning human character in the game, although they had Charr characters available at much higher levels.
As far as the game goes, it is presented in a very nice graphical style that is eons above what you're used to in an MMO, and that's mostly because WoW is nearly six years old, and the pixels are starting to like tired at the seams. Guild Wars 2 has MMO players at its heart designing this game, and they know what works, and hopefully what doesn't. I hadn't paid much attention to this game in the past, but I'm now thinking about becoming a full-time resident of Tyria.
The game will also be playable at PAX soon, and we'll be checking it out again in what looks to be an MMO worth picking up and immersing yourself in when it comes out in 2011.