"We don't intend to be number two this time. We certainly have our sights set on number one."
Mike O'Brien, president and co-founder of Guild Wars creator ArenaNet, does not seem like a man prone to overstatement. He comes across as a quiet, shrewd technician; at Blizzard, he programmed the Warcraft III engine and the original version of the Battle.net online platform.
And yet here he is, in ArenaNet's Seattle offices, saying what no other massively multiplayer game developer would dare say. After years of dashing themselves hopelessly against the granite cliffs of World of Warcraft's dominance, most have set their PR plans to 'manage expectations' and their business models to 'evasive action'. O'Brien, though, is quite casually calling out the elephant in the industry – and letting his former colleagues know that, after over six years, their time is up.
"We can make the highest quality MMO ever released. That's been our goal: this will be the highest quality game that the industry has ever seen... And it still has no monthly fees."
In the current repressed atmosphere in MMOs – when even titanic productions like LucasArts and BioWare's The Old Republic act coy – his words come as a shock. It's breathtaking audacity.
A good job, then, that Guild Wars 2 is the most exciting MMO we've seen in the last three years.
There have been more innovative-sounding genre mash-ups, but these either failed to deliver on their rhetoric (APB) or vanished into development hell (The Agency). There have been other big-budget WOW rivals, but from Warhammer Online to The Old Republic, the best they seem able to muster is to keep pace with, or straggle just behind, Blizzard's relentless refinement of its flagship. For the first time, in Guild Wars 2, we have a game that is clearly and confidently a few strides ahead.
Playing it, Guild Wars 2 doesn't seem as radical as you might think, or as ArenaNet and its owner NCsoft might suggest. The biggest step the series makes in this sequel is to move from a largely instanced game with social hubs to a full-scale persistent world, with all players on a server sharing the same adventuring maps.
Two huge and risky decisions have been made in its design: junking the "holy trinity" of character class roles (protective 'tank', damage-dealer and healer) and doing away with the quest-style architecture for game content. Yet, in moment-to-moment play, Guild Wars 2 looks and feels instantly and reassuringly like a fantasy MMORPG – just a noticeably fresh one.
It's a question of flow. Combat is still hotkey-based, but faster and smoother and more streamlined, involving more movement and positioning. The levelling curve is now an almost flat line, replacing the epic ascent with a steady journey where content, not advancement, is king.
Socialising and grouping have fewer obstacles and happen more organically; questing is replaced by a dynamic events system that bins all the busywork and box-ticking admin from your adventures. Storytelling and the world itself have more consistence and logic. Even the map screen has changed from a static window to a fluid, hand-painted drag-and-zoom affair, like a watercolour Google Maps.
The word ArenaNet's staff keep returning to when discussing the game is "seamless", and it's not hard to see why. It's equivalent to what Naughty Dog achieved for the action-adventure with Uncharted 2, but on a far grander logistical scale. Guild Wars 2 is an MMO where you almost can't see the joins.
A touch of class
On our visit to ArenaNet, we're given the chance to explore the starting area of the Norn – a race of tall, sturdy, Nordic-seeming huntsmen and women – as well as some adventuring from the middle of the game, around level 30. We can try out any of the six announced classes (there are more to come): Ranger, Elementalist, Warrior, Guardian, Necromancer and the freshly-minted Thief.
There are no healers as such; every class is effective in combat, can revive allies, and can equip one healing skill. Lead content designer Colin Johanson is emphatic about ArenaNet's rejection of the tank/healer/damage roles. "We're basically saying, listen, this as a core game mechanic is tired, we can do something better, we can do something more interesting than this... And that's what we've spent many years now perfecting and working on, and getting to the point that we feel we have a combat system that doesn't need it and, we feel, works better without it."
The Thief's healing skill causes this rogue-style combatant to leap backwards before healing itself, effectively setting up some of its ranged attacks, but running the risk of jumping into danger. It's a good example of how important imaginative skill-chaining and positioning are in Guild Wars 2.
Fall in a fight and you enter a "downed" state where you a have a small handful of special skills available to you. Finish one enemy with these within a time limit and you'll be revived; otherwise you can wait for any other player to bring you back, or resurrect at a nearby shrine. The downed state is exciting and panicky; I didn't manage to pull it off, but good knowledge of your downed skills and the ability to spot weakened enemies quickly should do the trick.
The class designs all have interesting twists. The Thief can steal items from any enemy that can be used against them as skills (steal a giant bird's feathers and throw them in its face to blind it); the Necromancer can summon and detonate crowds of explosive little minions (like Diablo III's Witch Doctor); the Guardian, a magical warrior, has attacks that are highly focused on positioning and different areas of effect, making it an unusually tactical melee class.
As in Guild Wars, you'll be collecting skills at each level – you can buy them ahead of time, for convenience – and slotting them into your mix-and-match 'deck' on the screen, split evenly between five attack skills and five utilities or buffs, including your heal. There's no base auto-attack, but any skill can be set to auto.
The skill design has been simplified, with a new focus on skills interacting with each other (shoot arrows through a wall of flame to add fire damage to them). Skills are also tied to your equipped weapons. You can switch between two weapon sets, and therefore two skill decks, at any time, effectively allowing you to hot-swap character builds in combat.
It's a fantastic system, offering huge flexibility but also streamlining and focusing your character, preventing the creep of dozens of buttons all over your screen that blights so many MMOs. Skills are mostly punchy and fun to execute, but their design is unproven. The principal worry is how team tactics will form in the absence of defined character class roles. ArenaNet assures us that interesting synergies exist, but we'll need to take that on trust; the clear advantage, though, is that players can fall into groups naturally without worrying about balanced composition.
The death of the quest
Falling into groups naturally is something that you'll be doing a lot, thanks to Guild Wars 2's dynamic events system, which is nothing less than a fundamental change in how MMOs are structured.
In themselves, the events are an evolution of an idea that began with Warhammer Online's public quests and was recently and extensively expanded upon in Rift. The events are dramatic, multi-stage battles or mini-adventures that scale for solo or multiple players, can be wandered into and participated in at any time, and offer automatic ranking and rewards at the end.
Evolution becomes revolution with ArenaNet's decision to use events for the "mass" of Guild Wars 2's content, meaning you never have to pick up or turn in quests, and everything other than your personal story (more on this later) is inherently multiplayer. If you see something happening, you can take part in it; if someone else sees it, they can join you, and neither of you will be penalised for that.
While quests are "one and done", as lead designer Eric Flannum puts it, events are repeatable. They repeat according to logical cycles of action and reaction, rather than simply resetting, Groundhog Day style, and also according to their own timetables: some will be rare, some will have environmental or narrative triggers that players will have to discover.
"Imagine if you're playing a game, and you walk up to a guy, and you click on a guy, and you have to read three paragraphs of text that explain to you that there are lions loose in the city and they're eating people," says Johanson, explaining the difference between quests and events. "And you look around you, and there might be a few lions that are standing around, and you get to go up and kill 'em.
"Or imagine that you're standing in the city streets, and you hear people screaming and running in all directions. There's lions running around literally eating people, there's people burning tyres to keep them away because they're scared of what's going on. You hear the sounds, you see all of this going on.
"Which of those would you prefer? Which game world do you want to be in?"
O'Brien argues that the way quests lock goals to a single player leads to "players not having the same motivation", queuing for kills, while non-player characters are stuck in nonsensical loops, serving individuals with the same pockets of story over and over again. Events, however, encourage natural co-operation.
"It gets people playing together," he says. "MMOs are supposed to be social games, and too often everyone's doing their own thing... It feels like we're building the first truly co-operative MMO." The team's motivation was "thinking back to the early days of MMOs, what were we all hoping MMOs would be? The promise of MMOs. And what we all hoped, I think what everybody still hopes today, is that it's really a world."
Events are slightly counter-intuitive to seasoned MMO players – testers would apparently run right past them, assuming they didn't have the right to join in – so ArenaNet has worked hard on the interface and introduced a system of "scouts", a kind of optional quest-giver who will tell players where to find the action. The developers have saturated the world with visual and audio cues: characters will run up to players and beg their help, while enemy raiding parties won't spawn on the spot, but will be seen travelling to their targets.
After a very short while, playing events seems utterly natural. There's more variety and dynamism to fighting monsters, more immediacy and less planning to your adventuring, a sense of camaraderie with other players, and a feeling of being part of a living world, rather than a living database.
Playing one of the mid-level events – a centaur siege on a human village – I noticed that I wasn't reading text or looking at UI elements to see where I needed to go next, but simply watching where people (NPCs or players? It didn't seem to matter) were running, and following them. In Guild Wars 2 an invisible wall between the player and the world has simply been lifted away.
A level curve
Balancing the democratic events system is each player's "personal story", essentially a single-player RPG for their character – though some of it will take place in the persistent world, and it will be possible to invite friends to share it.
This, like the rest of the game, is fully voiced, though it's much less prone to lengthy talking-head chat than The Old Republic. Decisions you make about your character's background and personality during the character creation process will affect the story, your conversational options, and how others react to you. "We really want it to be a great RPG as well as an MMO," Flannum says.
ArenaNet intends for the narrative flow of your personal story and spontaneous exploration of the world to drive your progress in Guild Wars 2, rather than a drive to increase the number after your character's name. "Levelling is not the goal in the game," says Flannum, "but a thing that is good at helping you mark progress." "We want this to be a game where you don't ever have to grind to get through levels," adds Johanson.
It's not that levelling is sidelined, but its importance has been deflated. Hence the flattening of the levelling curve after level 10, the skill deck system that prevents ballooning over-complication of the classes, a sidekicking system that will allow you to boost any friend to your level and a philosophy that "the endgame should not be different from the game you played to get to it," according to Flannum.
Of course there will be dungeons and PVP to run, but events, world exploration and your personal story will continue to be important at maximum level. Guild Wars' famously competitive arena player-versus-player matches will be joined by epic "world-versus-world" battles in which three servers will fight each other on a persistent map over a whole week.
More on Guild Wars 2
Review: Guild Wars 2 review
A new era.
"I'm talking to you with very little sleep right now."
Bramwell and Bertie brave the barrage.
Masses join MMO already.
The last, but very far from least weapon in Guild Wars 2's considerable arsenal is its stunning good looks. The art team led by Daniel Dociu has created a distinctive and sumptuously detailed fantasy world with sharp steampunk influences, sometimes colourful and homely, sometimes startling and otherworldly. Their aim is to give the whole game a "hand-crafted quality" and ensure that "any screenshot should feel like living concept art," Dociu says, and they're succeeding.
I'm shown an unbelievably intricate nautical town that is more Philip Pullman than Tolkien. It's all airships and bronzed statues and ramshackle walkways, and makes far more use of multiple vertical levels than most MMOs. Meanwhile, the Charr starting area blends an armour-plated industrial revolution with dreamy autumnal forests. A capable and well-optimised engine will render all this on surprisingly humble graphics cards, we're told.
Dociu says simply that he wants his game to be the most beautiful out there. While the ArenaNet team don't come across as arrogant, they're certainly not shy of setting themselves the loftiest goals.
"People... want an experience that matches up with a game that has four expansions already made for it," says Johanson. "We're not sacrificing anything. PVP... an open world full of events, your personal story chain, and all the different, branching versions that all the different races offer... repeatable versions of dungeons that have different storylines that branch that you can play through. We're tackling all of that. If that takes a while, then it's totally worth it."
Can ArenaNet really deliver a mature MMO from day one, made to a higher standard than the market leader and not missing a single component? It's hard not to be sceptical, but it's also hard not to be impressed by the team's ambition and execution. Guild Wars 2 is already polished, innovative and fun to play.
The beauty of it is, for all the bullish talk, Guild Wars 2 doesn't have to compete. As with the first Guild Wars, no monthly subscription will be required and the game will be supported through the sale of customisations and services as well as expansion or content packs in some yet-to-be-finalised form. (O'Brien is a staunch advocate of micro-transactions, feeling that they "align the interests of players and developers" and "the only reason debates happen is that there are some games that really screw their players.")
Since it's not fighting for your $15 a month, Guild Wars 2 can happily co-exist with World of Warcraft. The question, really, is whether World of Warcraft, in all its undeniable but ageing glory, can co-exist with Guild Wars 2.