Several months ago I moved across the country in search of change, and change I found. While it’s all been welcome and a great improvement to my life, I have found myself in a drastically different situation when it comes to gaming; as more of my life became taken up by silly things like work and commuting (I’m actually beginning to type this up on my cell phone from the bus), it seemed inevitable that change would have to be embraced in my hobbies, as well. The time just wasn’t there for the hardcore sandboxes I yearned for in previous articles, and for awhile, I laid MMOs to rest completely. It will come as no surprise to my fellow addicts that this just didn’t stick.
Guild Wars 2 recently announced its expansion, and although the game has earned its fair share of my criticism in the past, suddenly, its relatively progression-free endgame held some appeal, as I would no longer run the risk of falling behind from patch-to-patch if gaps emerged in my play-schedule; would ArenaNet’s updates to the game, coupled with my evolved needs as a consumer, be enough for the game to now hold my interest? It was time to find out.
No Barriers to Re-entry
One of GW2‘s greatest marketing strengths is its one-two combination of having no subscription fee and no progression. When I first considered returning to the game, the lack of any barrier to my reentry, be it financial or through in-game character and item obsolescence, made the return to Tyria a far more palatable option than that of any other MMO I’ve revisited in the past. All I had to do was hit the update button on the client and the next thing I knew, I was back in the thick of it. Worthy of note is that this will stay true even through the game’s upcoming Heart of Thorns expansion, which will not be accompanied by any level cap or gear tier increases.
Note: any references in this post to Guild Wars 2 not having progression specifically refers to a transitional gear treadmill, wherein continually heightening statistical benefits are a primary objective within the game. GW2 has many forms of progression; the key difference is that once you’ve reached the ceiling, it isn’t raised above you shortly after – or ever.
At this point, I know many experienced MMO veterans will be thinking – no gear progression? Then what do you do? The answer, truly, is whatever you want.
True as it may be, that’s also a pretty terrible answer, so let’s go a bit deeper. Guild Wars 2‘s endgame feels almost sandbox in nature – not because of the content (which is pure themepark), but because of the importance of self-made goals and objectives. Much the same as in games like EVE, you’re given a variety of things to do and work towards, aren’t really pointed directly at any of them, and are left to set your own path on your journey through Tyria. This style of endgame isn’t intuitive in a game as unambiguously themepark as GW2, and it certainly took me more than a few attempts at playing the game for it to really click, but for those that get it, it really works out to be a pretty great system – though this still doesn’t really answer the section’s titular question.
One of the key points in Guild Wars 2‘s pre-launch manifesto was ArenaNet’s “no grind” philosophy for the game, a tenet that was quickly clarified to mean no forced grinds, because oh boy does this game have grinds – they just aren’t materially tied to your performance. Hunting down skins, working on achievements (which reward skins at certain achievement score intervals), crafting legendaries – all of these goals are going to take a lot of time – the primary difference in GW2 is that completing them won’t have a real effect on whether or not you’re able to complete content.
Controversially, ascended gear (a tier above exotic, the standard endgame gear quality), was added to the game shortly after launch, and is gated behind a significant amount of time and effort. While this gear really isn’t necessary outside of high level Fractals of the Mists (a special endgame dungeon with its own progression system), and only provides an incredibly slight advantage over exotic gear, it is a good goal for those interested in getting the absolute best gear, and will require a significant amount of effort to achieve.
Regardless of what your goal is, a huge portion of achieving it is going to come down to simply farming gold – and this isn’t a bad thing; when the standard currency obtained from every activity in the game holds value, it means that you’re always progressing, no matter what you’re doing. This encourages doing more with your time than farming the same dungeon or raid a thousand times, as you would in many other MMOs. In practice, this is somewhat analogous to a lack of PvP/PvE gear separation being applied to the game’s reward system; not only are you not statistically penalized for stepping outside of your chosen gameplay type, but you’ll likely continue to progress towards your goal even from outside of it.
There are, of course, rewards specific to each activity; most of the game’s different areas offer their own progression systems and unique rewards (skins, titles, achievements, etc…), with legendary crafting requiring a little from everything.
When the game first launched, many were dissatisfied with the content that was available – and frankly, a lot of it wasn’t good; champion-trains in particular (running around in a massive blob and zerging down event NPCs) remain a serious contender for the worst activity ever to be considered endgame in an MMO. ArenaNet has added a lot to the game over the last few years, and while a lot of it still isn’t good, one of the amazing benefits of the progression-free endgame is that the good stuff will always be available, and will never be invalidated. Here’s a quick overview of some of the more prevalent things to do at level cap.
World Completion & Exploration
One of the first things most players work towards at endgame is reaching 100% world completion, which involves completing nearly all of the base game’s open world content. This is one for the explorer types, as you’ll be seeking out all of the heart quests, vistas, points of interest, waypoints, and skill point challenges, eventually to be rewarded with a title, a golden star on your nameplate, and a unique item required to craft a legendary.
Although in many games this would be an unbearable chore, Guild Wars 2 really is an explorer’s dream. The game’s massive world is easily one of the most beautiful I’ve ever encountered, and is full of hidden areas, secret non-instanced mini-dungeons (which come with a chest and achievement for completing), and just plain beautiful scenery. While these aren’t required for world completion, if you keep your eyes open, you’ll find many along the way. If you consider yourself an explorer in MMOs, you’re doing yourself a great disservice by not playing this game.
Jumping puzzles, essentially platforming levels, are another form of open-world content you can do in Guild Wars 2. Mercifully excluded from world completion requirements, these challenging areas instead reward players with a chest (each is lootable once per day) and an achievement for reaching the end. Although these can be frustrating, many include unique designs and settings, some of which are among the most beautiful areas in the game.
Guild Wars 2 launched with 8 dungeons, each of which comes with one story mode, and 3-4 different explorable paths that can be completed daily. With a competent group, dungeon runs are the most profitable activity in the game, but that margin decreases rapidly if the competence isn’t there.
Unfortunately, GW2‘s dungeon designs leave a lot to be desired. The boss AI and encounter design is truly inexcusably bad, with many fights being trivialized simply by LoS pulling the boss into a corner and stacking. While encounter design in more recent content has truly been worlds beyond that offered in the original dungeons, ArenaNet has shown no intention of revisiting dungeons to bring them up to par with the rest of the game.
For those seeking a real challenge, speed-running has become a popular way of clearing dungeons, with groups trying to complete dungeons as fast as they can. This has lead to the Berserker-meta, where players using only Berserker gear (Power, Crit Chance, Crit Damage) burn bosses so quickly that they can kill them before their active defenses (dodge rolls, block skills, aegis buffs, reflect skills) run out. These runs require a lot of coordination, exact knowledge of mechanics, and lot of individual skill on top of it, and is both a fun and profitable way for those looking for a challenge to play the game.
Fractals of the Mists
Added shortly after launch, Fractals of the Mists are Guild Wars 2‘s answer to traditional PvE progression. Functionally, fractals are a 4 part dungeon, where the game randomly chooses from a pool of different possible maps and bosses each time you go through. Fractals also come with a scaling difficulty of 1-50, with each tier adding new mechanics, and an increased reliance on the unique-to-fractals Agony Resistance stat, obtained through infusions which can only be slotted into ascended gear.
The encounter design in fractals is quite a bit better than what is offered in the vanilla dungeons, and as a result, they’re quite a bit more fun.
Guild Wars 2 features an always running schedule of open world boss content, that while not always challenging, can be fun and rewarding. Though most of these are simple and zergy, some of the bosses launched with decent mechanics, while two have been revamped so far to be significantly more challenging, and to feature their own achievement challenges. During achievement attempts, these fights are significantly more enjoyable and engaging, and I’d be interested to see if ArenaNet could find a way to reward players for completing some of these achievements every fight.
World bosses are one of the many areas that look to be significantly improving with the coming expansion, as the one we’ve seen so far shows signs of much improved mechanics and encounter design.
Guild Wars 2‘s content introduction model is based on a concept known as the “Living World”, more or less an extension of the personal story that progresses as time goes on. Though there are gaps, content is added at an ambitious 2 week patch cycle, and while not all of these patches are major (some are simply skins), they all help to keep the game fresh.
The Living Story has introduced major changes to the game’s world, from the destruction of Lion’s Arch, to entire new zones being added to the game. While the first season of the Living Story added only temporary content that is now unavailable, ArenaNet learned from its shortcomings and as a result, the second season is still fully available, though if you did not log-in when each chapter of the story was active, there is a minor gem cost to unlock it.
The new Living Story features a lot more than just a story as well, and comes complete with achievements (with cool rewards), fights with some of the best mechanics in the game, and scales to your group size, enabling you to try for the achievements with up to four friends. The improvements realized between the game’s original encounters and those in the Living Story are massive, which gives me a lot of hope for what we’ll see in the upcoming Heart of Thorns expansion.
The Silverwastes, one of two zones added during the second season of the Living Story, is one of the most popular farm spots in the game (virtually putting champion-trains in the grave), and arguably the best example of open world group content we’ve seen to date. In it, players wage war against NPCs under Mordremoth’s control to capture forts, escort supply to upgrade the forts, and defend them against waves of enemies, culminating in a unique boss fight at each fort before pushing for the final assault on the enemy boss. Cleverly, every stage of the zone’s event progression is split up into different areas of the map, keeping players separated and removing the ability for bosses to be zerged down. While limited by how challenging disorganized-group content can be made, these encounters do feature solid mechanics, and it’s not uncommon for groups to fail parts of the events when they don’t adequately respond to them.
In addition to the main event chain, players can engage in chest-farms, where groups run around with shovels obtained during the events, looking for fortune and buried treasure.
The Silverwastes’ design is a great improvement to the way events have been farmed in the past, and it seems we can expect to see many similar elements present in the new zones added with the Heart of Thorns expansion.
Given the game’s name, the lack of importance placed on guilds at Guild Wars 2‘s launch came with just a bit of irony. Sure, you could group up and complete events together, but beyond World vs World groups, there wasn’t much to be gained from doing so. Evidently, ArenaNet recognized this problem and stepped up with guild missions.
Guild missions are events designed to be completed by large groups of guilded players, and reward players with guild commendations, a unique currency that players can use to attain ascended trinkets and other rewards. Guild missions come in a variety of different forms, ranging from hunting down a champion that patrols a large area in a zone and killing it, to completing an obstacle course, to jumping puzzles designed to require multiple people working together to complete them, to challenging boss encounters with special requirements to complete.
Note: guild mission completion also provide benefits to guild administration, but an explanation of this is a bit beyond the scope of this article. You can read more here.
World vs World
Guild Wars 2‘s answer to RvR, World vs World pits servers of players against each other in ranked tiers to fight over camps and castles for glory. In my limited experience on a tier 1 server (for the Toast!), WvW is an acceptable option to soothe an RvR itch, but if that’s your main activity, there are just far better options available. While the most notable problems from back in the day have been fixed (culling and exploits being the obvious example), GW2‘s maps are a bit too small, the combat is a bit too zergy (granted, this is a larger problem on tier 1 servers than anywhere else), the rewards are too low, and the game mode is a little too low on the developers’ priority-list for it to be seriously seen as the main draw. It’s not really bad – but crucially, it’s not really that good, either.
Where WvW is Guild Wars 2‘s RvR offering, Structured PvP is its answer to small group arena and battleground PvP. In quick, objective-driven 5 vs 5 battles, players vie for supremacy to increase their rank and earn unique rewards. ArenaNet is even working to promote an esport community here, and while I still don’t really believe eSports have any place in MMOs, in some ways, GW2 comes about as close to getting it right as we’re going to get.
This is a result of GW2 completely divorcing its sPvP from any of the progression in the rest of the game. Gear stats are selected from within a menu, and can be changed on the fly at no cost in between games. All skills and traits are unlocked for everyone. All players are level 80 while in the PvP maps and lobby. While class balance issues do exist (as they will in any game) and variety in map design could certainly be improved, the level playing field does a lot to make GW2‘s sPvP a place where skill, and only skill, decides matches – a welcome departure from genre norms.
Commentary on Notable / Controversial Design Decisions
At its launch, Guild Wars 2 set out to change quite a few of the paradigms ubiquitous to the MMO status quo, and made a few notable departures to what was, at the time, standard MMO fare.
By far its most controversial feature, Guild Wars 2 has eschewed the traditional role itemization-specialization trinity in favor of their own soft trinity – that of Damage, Support, and Control. There are numerous reasons this hasn’t worked out terribly well, ranging from support and control not being supported by itemization, to the very design of PvE and mob AI, which encourages stacking and burning incredibly quickly, not really requiring support or control to begin with beyond the presence of certain defensive utility skills on a glass cannon’s bar.
In the past, I’ve written in favor of MMOs abandoning the trinity, criticizing Guild Wars 2‘s lack of a replacement for it and commending the work of AI Designer Dave Mark as being the type of solution that could one day move us beyond it as the go-to PvE design solution – and I’ll be damned if ArenaNet didn’t go and hire that exact person shortly after. Does this signal a change in future content to better fit a trinity-free PvE design? If the greatly improved mechanics in recent content additions are any indicator, that might just be the case.
Although this is beyond the scope of this article, I do reject out of hand the notion that the trinity is required for strategic gameplay; very few of the strategies to beat the mechanics of challenging PvE encounters in other games directly rely on the trinity, and the trinity flat-out doesn’t work in PvP – a game mode often requiring levels of strategy that exceed those found in PvE encounters.
Whenever you visit a zone you’ve out leveled in Guild Wars 2, you’ll find that your effective level is lowered to match the intended level of the zone – including dungeons -, and that you are continually rewarded at your actual level regardless of where you are. This is a reflection of GW2‘s original design as a level-less game, and is an essential part of your ability to fully utilize the game world in your day-to-day play. It breaks down the barriers between new and veteran players and helps to make sure that all of the zones are teeming with players.
Some have considered this a bad change, as they feel that the downscaling reduces the feeling of progress – to some extent, I agree. It’s weird seeing your damage numbers fluctuate from zone to zone, especially when you consider that the level 35 dungeon is still endgame content that you might run every day. While Guild Wars 2 may have been better off as a level-less game in this regard, ArenaNet chose to follow feedback that the game felt too aimless and progression-free in that format, and that’s likely for the best given that in a lot of ways, it still feels aimless and is progression free. From my experience, the downscaling does far more good than harm, and is one of my favorite features the game has to offer.
The Guild Wars 2 community heralds open mob-tagging as the savior of MMO communities – a messianic feature that will usher us all in to golden utopia of peace, love, and dragon slaying. Others, including myself, have toyed with the idea that open mob-tagging and open-grouping remove incentive for actual social interaction by essentially making it too easy to collaborate, and allowing players to work together in anonymous silence.
The truth is that Guild Wars 2, a game largely based around open world cooperative completion of events, would never work with a closed-mob tagging system, and, anonymous silence aside, that this was the clear choice for the game.
Sort-of Action Combat
Guild Wars 2 combat isn’t quite the archaic system we know from World of Warcraft and other tab-targetted games, but it’s not really in the same realm as games like The Elder Scrolls Online, Tera, and Wildstar, either. The game features tab targeting, but with a heavy emphasis on melee cleave for many classes and builds, a heavy emphasis on dodge rolling, and a limited-action set skill bar.
Guild Wars 2 is the mid-point between the old and the new, and it’s a perfectly acceptable way to play a game that can appeal to players on both side of the old-school vs new-school combat systems debate.
Black Lion Claim Tickets
One of the more unfortunate aspects of “the fashion meta” is that many of the coolest weapon skins added to the game end up being claimable only with Black Lion Claim Tickets, an item obtained by piecing together Black Lion Ticket Scraps, a medium rarity drop from opening Black Lion Chests. These chests are opened with keys that can either be purchased from the cash shop, or farmed by leveling new characters, completing the first steps of the personal story, and deleting them to do it all over again. The weapon skins can be sold on the trading post to other players, and are quite valuable.
While hardly a situation that sets off alarm bells, it’s just annoying that so many cool skins (in what’s largely a skin-based game) are obtained through an RNG cash shop item, and that very few are regularly added to be obtained through in-game content.
Pay-to-Win Not Even Possible
Luckily, that’s about as close as Guild Wars 2 comes being pay-to-win, which is to say it doesn’t come close at all. With GW2‘s level playing field and lack of progression, there aren’t really any underlying game systems for advantage to be sold on to begin with. This is a huge bonus in a non-subscription game, where the threat of pay-to-win content additions are always very real.
Hype of Thorns
After all the allusions to upcoming improvements in Heart of Thorns made so far, it should come as no surprise there’s a lot to be excited about in the upcoming expansion. Here’s a quick run-down of the feature list so far.
The Mastery System
The lack of progression in Guild Wars 2‘s vanilla form wasn’t for everyone, but statistical improvements via gear wasn’t the answer; enter the mastery system. Inspired by old-school platformer games, the mastery system is an ability unlock system in which players will be able to perform feats and dedicate earned experience towards unlocking new abilities, expanding their options in combat against new enemies, unlocking a valuable legendary precursor, and even opening up new modes of travel to previously inaccessible areas – gliders (which I love), jumping pad mushrooms, and potentially more as the game expands.
No expansion is complete without new zones, and given what ArenaNet has produced in the last season of the living story, I couldn’t be more excited for the new ones. The new zones in Maguuma’s jungle will focus heavily on verticality, with multiple content levels of each zone, from the canopy to the ground below. In a zone event reminiscent of The Silverwastes, players will work to fortify camps and forts in the jungle by day to prepare for the zone’s deadly night cycle, when Mordremoth’s most dangerous minions come out to play.
Specializations are essentially subclasses that players will be able to spec into to further differentiate their character. Most excitingly, this will open up a new weapon and new abilities, said to be focusing on providing a bolster to areas of the game the bases were weak in previous to the system’s introduction. Notably, this includes the confirmed addition of Greatsword for Necromancers (who are badly in need of a power-based melee cleave weapon) and the basically confirmed addition of Longbow for Guardians, who previously did not have many good ranged options.
A new heavy armor class with the mechanic of slotting heroes from the game’s past to channel as stances, changing their animations and utility skills along with it. The Revenant is also the second class to be powered by a resource mechanic, and can be expected to have short cooldowns primarily gated by resource consumption. This may be worth a look for players who found themselves missing resource management in what was previously almost completely cooldown driven gameplay (with the exception of the thief).
We don’t know much about this yet, but at worst, it’ll be a nice fluff feature strengthening guild bonds and giving yet another benefit to being part of a guild community.
New SPvP Map: Stronghold
A new PvP map is being added to the Guild Wars 2 sPvP rotation, and it’s a major departure from anything else currently available in the game. One part MOBA and one part Alterac Valley, Stronghold seemed like a strange concept when I first heard of it, but according to those who have played it – it works.
New WvW Borderlands
As revealed in a recent video preview, the new borderland is bringing some much needed change to the game’s World vs World scene.
With an increased emphasis on verticality, actual strategic value being given to towers by having them guard travel chokepoints, elemental shrines providing buffs to the owner’s faction when near their respective keep, and an exciting periodic zone event, it certainly looks as if ArenaNet has learned from the Borderlands’ initial iteration and is planning on refining those ideas. Hopefully, this is just the beginning of future WvW updates.
I still don’t know if Guild Wars 2 has what it takes to hook me as a long-term game, but it’s getting a lot closer than it ever has before.
The game has matured well over the past (almost) 3 years, and if recent content additions are any indication, its future is bright. Guild Wars 2 is the perfect MMO for a dabbler – the person that wants a little bit of everything, and doesn’t want to fall behind because they haven’t focused on a singular game mode. As each of GW2‘s major game modes continue to grow, unhindered by obsolescence inducing level-cap raises, that’s only going to get better.
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