The End of Beta Game
After “beating” Queensdale, which I will return to in a sec, I headed to Kessex Hills, which is the humans’ second zone going from level 15-25. Kessex Hills is the Wild West warzone to the Queensdale bread basket. The theme of the zone encompasses the centaur battles in the north and mysterious or perilous occurrences ringing around the southern edge. One of my favorite spots was a bit of swamp in southwest Kessex Hills where a sylvari defense force valiantly defends against Zhaitans death minions, the risen. It’s nice to get a bit of sylvari feeling in a “human” zone with their Shadowheart defensive post filled with strange fauna, but the risen bring a new bit of gameplay pervasively found throughout the zone. The mobs are starting to get more tricks in their “classes”.
There is a brute risen, who appears always crippled. They walk about with one working leg holding a huge 2-handed hammer, and if they get close to player multiple knockdowns are imminent. Any players that have not learned to attack and move will learn to do it the hard way against the brute risen. Then there are some small asura risen. These guys work themselves into a gremlin frenzy and run at the targeted player like a fast zombie. They are glass-jaw attackers, but seeing something running at me at double the pace with an attack buff was a bit unnerving. The quaggan risen, if I recall correctly, were the ranged risen in this area that dealt poison. A bunch of these types of enemies all moving about in one area creates many different tactical situations that I needed to adapt to on the fly.
The centaurs, bandits, and destroyers (lava dragonspawn) all follow suit. Players that ignored things like dodging, weapon switching, and even simple combat movement will quickly learn all these things if they want to retain any sort of efficiency. One enemy bandit that I hated, in particular, dodged my attacks himself by rolling out of the way. How dare he use one of the player mechanics! It is a good time for a warrior to learn a ranged weapon or a ranger to pick up a melee weapon to be able to respond to the different threats. Still, I wouldn’t say that it becomes any sort of rock, paper, scissor game; it just becomes apparent that having 5 extra weapon skills in the toolbox really helps.
The starting zone does feel a bit more relaxed. There are plenty of areas in Queensdale where even a soft-armored necromancer can stand in one place and use skills regardless of the mob. Player efficiency will skyrocket if one simple tactic is used: circle-strafing, but it isn’t necessary. The ability to use skills and move does not make an active combat system when the mobs don’t care either way. I have a feeling many players, such as I, are going to wonder where this exciting active-combat system is going to come in to play. It comes in to play in the level 15-25 zone.
The sidekicking system was also really well done. As a level 30+, I journeyed into the Diessa Plateau (charr zone, level 15-25) with my human to experience some of that content on a developer’s tip. Even with my elite skills and better traits, there were definitely some challenging content as I was down-sidekicked automatically to the appropriate sub-zone’s content level. It is quickly apparent that there won’t be situations where I can just close my eyes and AoE until everything I over-aggro dies simply because I am 10 levels above. Missed or overleveled content will actually have to be played.
Events and Meta-Events
In the north of Kessex Hills there are constant battles between the centaur-folk and the Seraph, which seem like the human National Guard. These battles are expressed to the player as a meta-event. First, I have to talk briefly about events.
When an event occurs the UI updates in the upper-right to let players know what the heck is going on. The mini-map also helps unveil objectives. There are large gaps in some event chains though. For instance after a defensive post is rebuilt in Queensdale, which is one event, it might be quite some time for the centaurs to attack the post, another event. This tale of the defensive post as a wood bastion against the evil, hoofed monsters, while linked together, is not so much a story as a string of related occurrences.
A meta-event is a story encompassing multiple events. Like the event UI, when a player is in a meta-event zone the UI updates to let a player know the status of the story. In Kessex Hills, the centaur-human battles can encompass multiple events at once each at different battlefield objectives leading a player to attack on multiple fronts. Some of the meta-events have “win points” too while others, like the centaur-human battles, have lulls instead.
In the Godslost Swamp of southeast Queensdale, a shadow behemoth will rise out of a meta-event. Unfortunately, I did not get to play the whole meta-event as I always seemed to arrive during the shadow behemoth fight, if at all. In Diessa Plateau, there is the Flame Legion Battles meta-event, which are a chain of capture objectives between the allied charr and enemy Flame Legion. If players can push the Flame Legion all the way back, the Flame Legion actually open up a mini-dungeon called the Font of Rhand. Players can all enter this puzzle and trap-filled dungeon en masse. The open-world dungeon is closed unless the meta-event is beaten. I died a stupid death in the Font of Rhand, alone and stupid, and when I finally warped back near the dungeon entrance the Flame Legion had closed off the dungeon portal as they had reclaimed a part of the meta-event.
Meta-events are great, but sometimes it feels hard to delineate between a simple event chain and a meta-event. I was a little disappointed that one of the last bits of Kessex Hills, the Shadowheart, where the sylvari battle the undead risen, did not have a meta-event attached even though it had a constantly-active event chain. The meta-event in Godslost Swamp, on the other hand, seemed mostly inactive except for the UI portion. If the Godslost Swamp meta-event activated it must have been completed rather quickly from start to shadow behemoth death finish. The meta-events in Kessex Hills appeared to be unending wars. So, it just becomes a little confusing seeing how they plan on using meta-events.
I guess my biggest beef is with Secrets of the Swamp meta-event in Godslost Swamp. I spent a lot of time in the area trying to be part of the meta-event, yet most of my time was spent staring at the ‘swamp is all quiet’-status identifier. If the meta-event is going to be inactive or “won” or peaceful 95% of the time then it feels like a red herring to keep it up on the player’s UI. The meta-event identifiers for the rest were quite appreciated because if there wasn’t activity, it was always on the verge of activity. They act like beacons to draw player activity where it is usually needed.
One thing I really liked about Queensdale and Diessa Plateau was that it felt like there was a capstone to the zone. There was a thing to beat even if the majority of the zone wasn’t aimed at that event. ArenaNet has said there would be chains of events leading up to the two dragon bosses we’ve seen, and I am excited to take part in the open-world meta-event that would summon the dragon bosses. A culmination for a persisting zone is a nice way to move on rather than simply wandering across the next portal.
Hidden Bits and Lore
Before I head on to the final leg of PvE, the personal story, I want to take time to note all the hidden bits in each PvE zone. There is life everywhere. Children run around laughing. Seraph attack centaurs regardless of player activity. Quaggan are taken as krait slaves. Ettin fight destroyers over land rights. If time is taken to stop and smell the roses, players will definitely notice a ton of energy was taken to add all sorts of virtual life to each zone. This isn’t even touching the cities, which are absolutely teeming with activity.
There are also hidden gems around the PvE zones. Jumping puzzles are one such gem that will likely become wiki bait fairly quickly, but there are tons of other out of the way places that reward explorers. My favorite was a hylek village secreted away through an underwater tunnel in Kessex Hills. There’s a friendly giant living a hermit life in a less traveled part of Kessex Hills. There are secret underwater passages in the norn starting area, and I also really enjoyed the overlook near Beetletun in Queensdale.
Many of the hidden bits can be found in talking to NPCs. A human’s first meeting with the bird-men tengu will occur in southern Kessex Hills where destroyers are teeming out of a magma pool. There is also a huge wall blocking the southern portion of Kessex Hills, and the local renown NPC is a tengu. Mechanically, simply killing the destroyers will show players that the tengu NPC appreciates that, yet if a little time is taken to chat up the local tengu then players can learn about the wall, the tengu, the destroyers, and all sorts of things. For another example, in the Shadowheart area there is an event to stop some elite undead krait from raising an undead army to sweep the area. One sylvari pontificates on the relationship between the elder dragon of death, mastery of death, and the krait.
All these small things cement one huge point. Players that take the time to explore will get rewarded with fun experiences and trivia. Sometimes, like in the hylek village there will be things for sale, but ArenaNet made sure to reward explorers in a way I feel the E’s will appreciate.
The last pillar of Guild Wars 2 that I haven’t discussed yet as part of my press beta experience is the personal story. Although I played a handful of characters, my main personal story experience was as a human street rat that never found his sister’s body. There are other character creation questions that I answered, but I am pretty sure my socio-economic origins and my biggest regret started the path for these two story branches. I’ll try and be as spoiler-free as possible.
Guild Wars 1 players will feel immediately at home in the personal story because they operate like the “personal story” found within Guild Wars 1 missions. Players join an instance where their character is the center of attention. There are conversations, mysteries, and problems that act out more like a T.V. show than the organic experience in the persistent PvE zones. The main difference is that players will have choices, which will impact later stories as well as the character’s personal instance. These choices act as a tapestry of the player’s decisions and the character’s personal story. For vaporous example, if I decide to go save a friend, that friend could become part of the personal instance from then on, but if I forego saving my friend’s life, another NPC would fill that spot. So it’s never a “wrong choice is made” instance I feel in many BioWare games, where I feel I have to be the good guy to get more content. It’s more of a “which color for my tapestry”-decision.
Anyway, I enjoyed the personal story part of things. It was a nice guidemap to the PvE zones as the personal story does its best to correspond to play area and character level in the PvE zones. The instances were challenging and complete. The stories were pretty good too. But, I still feel like the decision-making part was what kept me coming back. The branches diverged at a wide angle so it didn’t feel like the end outlet would be about the same regardless of my decision. My favorite decision was made at the start of fixing my biggest regret when I was asked what my human nationality was. This was a character creation question expertly planted in the middle of a personal story. I had not even thought about it, but I stood there for five minutes trying to decide. I didn’t care about the results of the answer; I cared about the question. Making decisions like these is what I feel will keep players coming back to the personal story.
ArenaNet has made a really rich PvE game in Guild Wars 2. The original design was well thought-out, and although there are a few rough spots in the crush of content, the system holds together amazingly well. The constant activity of the renown tasks keeps players around for the fun events, which can lead to some pretty epic culminations, and the personal story gives players the feeling that they are the hero of this story. There are hidden gems throughout every area of PvE, and there is life everywhere. Then dungeons combine events and personal story into a shared group experience sure to challenge everybody. Rarely did I feel that the area I was in was simply a checkerboard placement of mobs for me to kill regardless of my actions. Rarely did I feel that anything was filler. There were no “Kill Ten Rats.”
My biggest regret was that I went so fast. I tore through content to be able to write content here. I enjoyed everything, but I didn’t give it a chance to sink in, which might be a good thing because right now I am absolutely fiending for more. I feel I came across the most complete, richest PvE experience in an MMO, and everything else seems to pale in its shadow. ArenaNet has raised the bar for MMO PvE, which is a great thing for our genre.
Abbasso la Kill Ten Rats!