“Just play.” That’s been my tagline for Guild Wars 2 PvE, and really all of Guild Wars 2, but PvE especially. MMO PvE is so mired in invisible rules. Don’t kill steal. Don’t help other people. Don’t waste time doing X if there is no quest for it. Pass through these tasks because this task is gated. I don’t know how many times I’ve given up explaining these ridiculous rules to other gamers. I feel even stupider when I try to answer their simple question of “why”.
Right from the start, it’s apparent that strict theme park rides have given way to a big playground. Sure there are still rides, and even a few lines, but at least I can run around! Here’s an account of my run through the Queensdale zone especially in regards to renown hearts and player guidance.
It starts with a small starting area, which is really more of a teaser. I imagine that it’s extremely sharded with people exiting the first ride into the real world or overflow zone. I’ll be honest. These first areas are really striking introductions, which have very little worth in learning to play. Those games, like Assassin’s Creed, where players have uber-skills at the beginning, which are then stripped, feel analogous. The beginning zones are for show. In the human starting area, there are centaurs marauding the village, NPCs yelling at me to keep moving, children crying, and people running. In this one area it’s hard not to feel rushed and pushed. They are really nice storywise though; very cinematic experiences.
The Queen’s Hearts
Which then leads in to possibly the worst experience I’ve had in Guild Wars 2: the first renown heart of press beta. This little farm is under siege by worms, bandits, hungry cows, and every new player ever. There was still plenty to do to complete the heart because worm holes were respawning very quickly, but it wasn’t that fun. A worm hole would spawn, I would get renown for stomping on it. A worm would pop up to attack me and four players (including me) would all hit it once, and it would die. Extra sadly, no events for the farm happened for me while I was trying to fill my heart and leave. (Later I did come back to kill a super huge worm, which was quite fun.)
Thankfully, that was it. After that renown heart, it was fantastic. Community Manager Martin Kerstein put up a heat map showing player activity in Queensdale, and the big white blobs in the upper-left corner are where that first renown heart is. Everything else is really nicely spread out. I think that for the most part this was just part of the learning experience for ArenaNet. They needed to see this happen (hopefully only once), and now they can respond to iterate that first part a little better.
The first five levels occur in the northwest corner of Queensdale, and from what I saw in the norn zone and the charr zone, each level 1-5 area is a little more separated from the rest of the world so players don’t just run into an insta-death location. Each heart in the map gives a rough level estimate so the game will lead players along a general leveling line. I’d say around level 7-8 it starts get a lot more open, and with many more weapon skills unlocked, a utility skill being unlocked, and a better idea of gameplay going against foes a level or two higher is managed fine. It definitely is a little more difficult to do it, but not bad.
I am a completionist. I hate leaving quest hubs in other MMOs with hanging quests. In Guild Wars 2, I had to complete all the hearts. I did end up getting 100% of Queensdale complete by unlocking all the waypoints, finding all the points of interest, completing all the skill challenges, and of course finishing all the renown hearts. It took quite a bit of time for the level 1-15 map. If I guessed it was about 6 hours, roughly, but I ignored crafting, gathering, and generally standing around admiring the game. I was on a mission. I fully expect that at launch I will spend likely double the time in Queensdale enjoying everything I can.
With the renown hearts, of which I think there were 20-something in Queensdale, never did I dread coming upon another one. I know I have dreaded quest hubs, which I have to complete, says my completionist inner-demon. With renown hearts I was very excited to see what was coming next. At one town, the heart was filled by training with local militia. There were a couple mini-games involving using weapons, such as attacking the defending soldier at the right moment to break her guard. Attacking her when she is behind her shield will knock the player back and down. There were two other mini-games involving a rifle and a shield. Other renown tasks involved trapping invulnerable crabs in traps, tricking ettins to go fight centaurs, or trying monastery booze.
Even the basic renown tasks to just kill mobs were nice because I decided how to play. In Godslost Swamp near the end of Queensdale, I could attack the mobs that I saw, help free spirits from their tormentors, which were invisible mobs that became visible when I wanted to help, or close portals to the Underworld to summon stronger mobs. Also completing events always nets a large chunk of renown.
Then once I completed a heart, the renown NPC would sell me goods for karma. The nicest were, of course, weapons and armor, which filled some gaps in my upgrades. In most other MMOs I ignore anything that makes me buy anything because 99% of the time it’s just better to stockpile. The axe bought at level 7 will be worthless in a few levels anyway, yet it felt different with karma. I wanted to keep buying all the cool stuff my new heart-shaped friend had to offer. In hindsight, it really is like they took out quest rewards usually given during the leveling process and let the player be in a bit more control. If I could make axes anyway, why would I want to waste time buying one with karma.
Light Touch on the Tiller
The most important thing is that I always felt like I was in control. The developers were saying “just play” instead of “play how we tell you.” If I wanted to run back to an earlier heart I filled to help with an event it felt rewarding. I would at least get karma. My carrot to keep playing was simply running after “fun.” If it wasn’t fun, like I preferred not to do escort quests unless a few other people were there, I didn’t do it, and I didn’t get punished. Yet, there was always the smallest amount of guidance so that I wouldn’t just feel overwhelmed or lost.
One light touch that I especially liked was that renown activities phased out of that heart was complete. It kind of simplified the UI and the area because completing renown tasks didn’t help anymore. Another was that once I talked to a scout who showed me unknown hearts on the map, the scout icon on my map disappeared. I could go talk to the scout again, but I felt as if the game was helpfully clearing away the UI for me as I went.
The one area where I did get a little lost was finding all the points of interest to get 100%. At the end of the map I had every heart, waypoint, and skill in my bag, but I was missing two points of interest. One was a cave with a jumping puzzle, which are supposed to be out of the way, explorer delights, but the other was the mansion on the northeast corner. I had been in that area many, many times but I had not actually gone up to the door icon, which is an unplayable dungeon I believe, to get that point of interest. I would’ve liked a heavier touch to help guide me to these, and I suppose that the wiki will be a siren’s call away when the game does go live.
The Player Herd
The most interesting aspect was how players reacted to the events. Swarm intelligence is one of my favorite hobby-science reads, and it was amazing how with very little communication players would react intelligently to the events. I was hanging about the Crossing Waypoint in central Queensdale. I think I might have been trying to sell some loot trash at the somewhat peaceful outpost. I saw another player or two killing wolves in the distance. An event struck, and centaurs were going to attack.
We instantly organized. The two players stayed on one front while I maintained the other. There was no question as to how we would beat this event and whether we would participate. There were no words said. We just played. Three of us in the middle of Queensdale beat back the centaur onslaught, and that was one of my favorite experiences of press beta. It was such an organic experience, that it felt like it transcended so many trappings of PvE in modern multiplayer games. This might sound stupid, but it felt to me like we were soldiers fighting the good fight together. There were many other moments like this during beta, but the this one stands out because the transition from peaceful farming to critical task was so abrupt.
More to Come
There are plenty of events, but the PvE game in Guild Wars 2 is not just about events. It’s hard to envision because the leveling game in so many other MMOs is just about quests. It’s easy, and wrong, to say that events replace quests because they really don’t. Playing how you want to replaces quests, and the world stays lively with events. The weirdest part is that I feel I barely scratched the surface of Queensdale. Yes, I achieved 100% completion, but there was so many things to explore. There were so many events I know I missed. Yet, I feel satisfied because I simply played to my heart’s content; nothing more, nothing less. I feel that’s exactly what ArenaNet wanted me to do.
In Part 2, I plan on discussing the level 15-25 zones, events and meta-events, the personal story, and even a bit of lore digging. So, stick around!