Guild Wars 2 Head Start Diary

Read through Oli, Tom, Christian, John, Alec and Quintin's adventures in Tyria over the bank holiday weekend.

Guild Wars 2 is officially out on Tuesday 28th August, but several Eurogamer writers have spent the UK bank holiday weekend running around the three-day Head Start period reporting on our experiences. We'll do a proper review of the game once we've had more time to play it, but in the meantime you can see what we made of the game as we got stuck into it.

Oh, and we're still playing on Gunnar's Hold as Norns, so say hello if you encounter us! Tom Bramwell, Oli Welsh, Christian Donlan, John Bedford, Quintin Smith and Alec Meer are your intrepid reporters.

UPDATE #1: Tom's First Day

Between 8am and 4pm UK time on Saturday, Guild Wars 2 was a game of hitting alt-tab every few minutes to go back to the launcher and try logging in again.

"Guild Wars 2 has encountered an error," it would say. "The game client is unable to gain access to the log-in server at this time. This is commonly caused by firewall or router settings, security applications, or connecting through a campus network." In the bottom right of the screen it added: "Error Code: 42:0:9001:3927".

Fortunately, by late afternoon the potential for a Diablo 3-style foul-up was seemingly averted. A patch was issued and most of us - everyone in Eurogamer's adventuring gang, anyway - was able to pile into the game and start exploring Tyria.

It was a while before we were able to do this together, however. For the moment, at least, ArenaNet is sharding players off onto "Overflow" servers - mixed-nation and therefore mixed-language dumping grounds for players who are silently queuing for the server they actually want to be on. This info is in the public domain, but it is poorly signposted and explained inside the game, so every other question in public chat is someone asking why people are speaking German or where their friends are. Options to link up with friends were hard to find and didn't seem to work intuitively.

Eventually we got to play together, though, and started getting to know our new home. In our case, that's the Wayfarer Hills, because we're all playing as Norns. Look, here's my cute little Norn Guardian, Beefbeard.

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Hurrah for Beefbeard!

Beefbeard can often be found dancing, because apparently I haven't played enough MMOs to find that repetitive and irritating yet.

So what's Guild Wars 2 like, then? Well, today it's full of comically over-subscribed starter quests. Part of the early Norn game is paying homage to animal spirits at different shrines, one of which turns you into a wolf so you can rummage around in bushes preying on small animals. At the moment this results in 20 identical grey wolves running in circles trying to figure out how to pounce on a rabbit.

Although there are standard quest-givers, you're also pulled into nearby events, which you can engage in pretty much by just turning up and punching whatever everyone else is punching. At one stage this led to around 50 or 60 Norns scrabbling over and through each other's player models for a swipe at a group of "stampeding minotaurs". As one of the guys on public chat noted, "At the moment it's more of a stampede of Norns than minotaurs..."

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Somewhere in there is a thing you're meant to hit.

Honestly, half the time it's harder to work out if you're actually hitting anything, so swarmed are all your targets, than it is to get through the early content.

But is it fun? Most definitely. If you're a total n00b like me then there's a learning curve to the interface, but you're never in any real danger in these early areas (and if you do get knocked down you can "Rally" by taking down a nearby enemy while planted on your arse), and rather than get a grip on everything it can be fun to just float around getting into whatever scraps and quests the local content encourages you to attempt. Carry food down a hill to injured bunnies while their healthy brethren pop out of a minefield of rabbit-holes and try to knock you over? Sure. Swim into a cave and fight a bear shaman? Go on then. Solve a bunch of riddles for the raven spirit to get a cash bonus? Why not. There's absolutely loads of this stuff.

However, when we all finally got together, I had out-levelled the other guys and this made it hard to enjoy ourselves as a group. It was fun spamming the local events, but because my fellow adventurers turned up at different times I ended up having to replay the main quest sequence several times so their personal "stories" would advance. I'm sure Ferghen the Tracker is a nice man, but if I have to protect his caravan one more time I'm going to give up and type /dance again.

Each time I would get dragged into their instance (to be fair it is optional, but of course you want to play with and help your friends), I was dropped down to a character level more suitable to the local fauna, which is a nice touch. But later on when I brought them into my higher-level phase of the same quest-line, they weren't levelled up, so they were decimated. (Which was a shame, because it was a fun little mission, dressing up as a minotaur and staging a bovine prison break.)

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On my signal, unleash moo-hell!

A little later we tried to form up again and continue, but kept getting sharded into separate overflow servers when moving between the Wayfarer Hills and the adjacent Hoelbrak town interior. At this point, I basically gave up and said I'd come back later, which isn't a brilliant situation to be forced into. I didn't feel I could entertain myself all that much by sticking around - I could either run around with the guys (if I could even find them again) not being able to take full part in their starter quests (the shrine circuit being quite solo-y) or I could go off and explore the next area and get even further ahead, potentially exacerbating the problem.

With all of that said, apart from the early-day launch hiccups, it's been a lot of fun. The first Norn quests are varied and engaging - as well as turning into a wolf you get to solve a raven's riddles and feed baby bears, plus smash up the Sons of Svanir jerks who turn up to mess with their shrine - and I particularly enjoyed climbing up to each of the vistas, which give you a nice sweeping pan of the surrounding area. (My only criticism is that maybe some of them could be secret - simply following icons on the map is a little perfunctory and doesn't feel much like exploring.)

Hopefully tomorrow we can do some damage as a team.

UPDATE #2: Quintin is a Grumpy Mesmer

Guild Wars 2 is an MMORPG. Is it crazy that I'm surprised at that?

I think I got caught in the cogs of ArenaNet's splendiferous hype machine. I somehow believed that Guild Wars 2 would be not just an MMO, but some breathtaking evolution of them.

I had no idea what I'd be doing in this imaginary game - lunching with kings? Breeding birds? But then there I am, two hours into Guild Wars 2, jogging laps around a dungeon, shoulder to shoulder with other heroes in a kind of footbound velodrome. All of us waiting for monsters to spawn so we can be the first to trample them underfoot, each of us stoically inching our way towards completion of the same heroic quest.

I don't mean to sound like the grumpiest Mesmer in all of Tyria. This is an overwhelmingly polished and inventive MMORPG. A definite highlight has been finding mobs of stampeding minotaurs that don't just roam the map, but actively stampede across it, like they're running for a bus. Another surprise was the range of spells the game's gifted me with, even as early as level 5.

I've got counters, illusory walls, heals, dazzling debuffs, a whopping 10 skills in all. And that's not counting the all-new skillsets that show up like cheery friends whenever you're downed or underwater. So, that's 19 skills in total? Madness.

But then I'll be using all these skills, my fingers stumbling up and down my hotkeys like a crap pianist, and it'll all just feel a bit... hollow? There's no heft to my projectiles, no mass within their impact, and similarly poor telegraphing when I'm taking damage myself. Because, for all its art, will and sparkle, and what seems like a delightful lack of padding, this is an MMORPG. And I'm not sure I've got another one of those left in me. Time will tell, I guess. I do get goosebumps when I spin the scrollwheel on the world map and see just how much world there is to explore, but I'm a bit scared that won't be enough.

Hmm. OK, maybe I am the grumpiest Mesmer in all of Tyria.

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Grumpy socks.

UPDATE #3: John Gets Bored of the Fellowship

With the exception of a quick hands-on with the game at last year's Eurogamer Expo, I've worked hard to avoid exposing myself to Guild Wars 2 prior to its launch. Partly it's because of the rare opportunity to simply throw myself at the next big MMO with virgin enthusiasm, but partly it's because, for all of the hype, I can't help but dread the thought of another action-bar fantasy MMO.

The first day's full of surprises. I certainly am pushing buttons one after another, but it never feels repetitive, at least no more than firing a gun over and over in Halo does. Also surprising is that the game's performance is solid as a rock, early log-in problems notwithstanding. Even more surprising is that for someone who claims not to play MMOs much, Tom Bramwell is a natural. And by this I mean he has all the makings of the kind of raid leader you live to fear, instructing us and shouting at us to take the correct pathway to where he waits and dances impatiently.

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You could be one of the Norn, a towering race of hunters who won't let one lost battle - no matter how punishing - dampen their enthusiasm for life and the hunt...

The thing is, the reason I'd started to lag behind a bit and wander off for cigarette breaks is because I really wasn't into the gigantic Norn character that I needed to create if I was to party up with my friends in the early levels. Every bone in my RPG body dictates that I must always roll a glass-cannon archetype - I am a mage at heart, and only the Elementalist would do. But if I picture a wizard in my mind's eye, I'm not seeing much of Giant Haystacks, so I've had to leave my friends to their journey for now and tread a different path.

I also have an overbearing fondness for the sort of outlandish, distinctly non-human characters the best MMOs conjure up, and from my first look at the character screen I knew I'd end up re-rolling an Asura sooner rather than later. He grins like the Cheshire Cat, he rocks backwards and forwards if left standing still for more than a second, and he has a look about him that makes you think he might jump through the monitor and chew your face off if you turn away for a moment. It was love at first sight.

He also arrived in the world to an absolutely wonderful fanfare. Before being armed with even the most basic of combat skills, I was playing battle-checkers with miniature robots, jerry-rigging clapped-out golems back to life and electrocuting innocent creatures in the name of scientific understanding. Even earlier, I took part in an epic fight against a boss that might have been built from the shattered remains of Peter Molyneux's cube reformed into a gorgeous Meccano construct.

Since parting ways with my chums, I've been bounding around, admiring the arcane architecture of this little kingdom and melting people in the face with a more diverse box of magical tricks than I've usually acquired by the mid-point of most MMOs. It's been fun, of course, but more importantly it's also been the polar opposite of what I feared this action-bar MMO would ultimately be - more of the same buttons, more of the same skills, but maybe just a little bit prettier. Instead, fluidity and flat-out mayhem has been the order of the day, and I'm largely impressed.

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...or, like John, you could be one of these things.

I'm still struggling to break myself free of some deeply entrenched MMO habits. I didn't play much of the first Guild Wars at all, and so I constantly stand in toxic plasma, desperate to finish off a delicious spell-cast and reap the destructive rewards. As I continually have to remind myself, movement and casting are happy bedfellows in this game, and as I slip deeper into the fluidity of the game's combat, I'm finding my enjoyment of it increasing exponentially.

Yesterday, Tom talked about the server overflow system which more often than not prevents players from teaming together in a shared instance of the world. It really isn't ideal, but playing the game with an invisible wall between you and your friends seems like a lesser evil compared to the usual MMO launch, where you and your buddies party up to watch a player queue erratically tick down from a thousand or so. Better to play apart than not to play at all for my money, and this will hopefully only be a short-lived necessity until the population spreads through the wider world.

What about this much-trumpeted dynamic content? After more time in World of Warcraft than I can bring myself to think about, the absence of the dominant fetch-reward questing system really is a breath of fresh air. With that said, there's a little more clockwork precision to the delivery and timing of these events than I was expecting.

I'm not yet sure Guild Wars 2 is quite the MMO 2.0 many had been hoping for, but it is an absolute lorryload of fun and that may well be enough for you. It certainly is for me right now, and I'll worry about the long-term appeal when I've exhausted the game's levelling thrills. I suspect that's going to take quite some time.

UPDATE #4: Christian Presses F to Commune

There's something wrong with my PC at the moment, which means that the whole thing locks up randomly, ending all my fun with a nice little burst of static. It's a bit like having a helicopter parent who drops in every now and then to force me to go outside or read a book. Delightful.

Yesterday I got 10 minutes of Guild Wars 2: enough time to muddle through character creation and emerge with a hulking Necromancer type who looks - what with his scarlet robes and mysterious beard - like he belongs on a cruise ship cutting a delightful lady in half. Today, I got an hour of the actual game. An hour and 10 minutes, actually: level 1 to level 4 in the Wayfarer Hills, smacking giant worms around, gadding about with wolves (press F to commune!), stumbling into an instance that was way to hard for me, and finding out that there's a neat Second Wind mechanic.

Pleasant confusion is how I tackle most MMOs, as it happens, and Guild Wars 2 is proving surprisingly comfortable to slide into. Here are my skills to hammer away at, there are the queues for the early quests. Hey you: could you fetch me a bunch of eggs? It all seems a little more streamlined and accessible than many games of this type, though: you could really drop into this world with no idea of what's going on, and you'd be having fun within seconds. It's all a lot prettier, too. In between crashes, in fact, this is looking like one seriously stylish game.

So while the Norns are basically a nation of Tom Hardys, waddling around forests with gigantic feet, blocking out the horizon with enormous shoulders, Guild Wars 2 still feels like a wonderfully delicate fantasy. The Wayfarer Hills where I'm starting out are riddled with spectral trees and shafts of silvery light, while torches send up thin columns of smoke, and water splashes, laps and burbles delightfully at the shorelines of rivers. Squint and you could be looking at one of those 1970s animal prints beloved of old women who live in trailer parks: in between the massive event beasts and the blood fiend I can summon - and then promptly sacrifice for a health perk if I'm feeling like a jerk - there are deer and moose, watchful ravens and hopping rabbits.

At just an hour in I'm still starting out, of course, learning my way around the inventory, figuring out which bits of loot are crap that I can happily ditch to make more space in my pack. I've already learned a lot of skills, downed a lot of foes and seen a couple of lovely sights, though. I can't wait for more, frankly - even if it involves another egg hunt.

UPDATE #5: Oli Tries to Put His Finger on It

After a day's play, I reckon I'd side more with John than with Quintin: Guild Wars 2 feels fresh to me, and it's the first time in a long time that I've booted up a new MMO with a sense of eagerness and excitement to play it for its own sake, rather than because I've been forced to play it for long enough that the old, habitual hooks have sunk into my psyche.

Is it the way skills are handled? Partly - on my Ranger, skills are linked to weapons and unlock with use, the next hotbar icon in the row temptingly filling up with colour as you play. Find a new weapon type and you effectively get to level up all over again, in fast forward, which makes loot extra exciting - and you can come up with your own combinations of main hand and offhand weapons, too.

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You'll find some of ArenaNet's justly celebrated concept art displayed as canvases in-game. Nice touch.

Add in the ability to switch between two weapon sets on the fly (learned at level 7), plus secondary skills picked from a tree in more conventional fashion, and you've got a wonderfully immediate and flexible role-playing system. It's thrilling in the short term, but I'm a bit worried that by the end of my first session with the game, I've learned all the bow skills I'm ever going to see.

Is it the vaunted replacement of a traditional quest structure with dynamic events? Maybe - this may have resulted in some silly spectacles on day one, as Tom pointed out, but these joyous co-operative melees certainly beat the wary queues of adventurers competing to jump on the next untagged spawn in other games. I love how Guild Wars 2 is designed to throw people together at all points.

To some extent you're exchanging the tyranny of the quest log for the tyranny of the mini-map - this game is positively bursting with breadcrumb icons and tinkling progress chimes, and it could easily turn into an OCD nightmare. But it's certainly a more fluid approach that's far less eager to waste your time, and levelling happens quickly and excitingly wherever you go and whatever you do.

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Best map screen EVER.

Is it the world and the storytelling? No - not yet at any rate. Daniel Dociu's famous art team has made a gorgeous game, no doubt, but in the Norn area at least I find that its atmosphere is struggling to escape from under a blanket of systems and smothering cliché. The Secret World does a much better job of letting its stories breathe.

Is it just because I'm playing with friends? I wish - but while Guild Wars 2 seems to excel at throwing solo players together into a massively multiplayer mob, the good old-fashioned party of five seems to have been lost between two stools. Partying is poorly handled and inconsistent, with some story quests admitting friends and others not, and few reasons to group up in the world - exacerbated by the obtuse system of overflow servers which frequently separates us (though this shouldn't be a long-term issue). At the moment, our party doesn't feel like more than a private chat channel.

So what is it that has me so much more excited to stop writing this and log in than I was with The Old Republic, or Tera, or The Secret World?

This must be it: moment to moment, Guild Wars 2 is actually fun to play.

UPDATE #6: Special Guest Alec Meer Revives an Old Friend

Being a navel-gazing sort of fellow, my primary interest upon being presented with Guild Wars 2's respectably elaborate character-creation menus was to recreate my MMO characters of former games - worlds, obsessions and beloved avatars long lost to my own ennui. Foremost of these was my tiny, furious, obsidian-skilled cannonball of a superman from City of Heroes, The Entomologist.

While Team EG's choice of the towering Norn as a faction meant I could not relive dear Ento's pocket-sized stature, their inflated, hulk-like physique certainly fit the bill. It took a good 30 minutes in the creator to come up with what I wanted - small, round head, red hood, big blue gloves and big red boots on a black coat, with yellow trim. I appreciate this means almost nothing to you, but get lost, it made me happy.

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It also made me pleasantly surprised that my appearance wasn't being forced down a generic path. While Guild Wars 2 doesn't offer anything like the freedom of expression that City of Heroes did, I didn't have that crushing "oh, oh well" moment I usually do upon striding into a new world then immediately seeing 212 people who look exactly the same as me. I looked slightly more ridiculous than most other people, and that's pretty much my first requirement from a fantasy setting.

My second point of recreated reference was my preferred play-style. A couple of years trying out everything in World of Warcraft had proven without a doubt that I was a Rogue by nature. As befits my career, I suppose - throwing barbs from a safe hiding place. So far - I've just reached level 10 - I've had no cause to regret going Thief in GW2. Part of that is how beautifully incongruous it is to be a stealth character when you look like The Incredible Hulk, and partly it's because there isn't this awful drip-feed to get to the cool stuff.

Within half an hour of starting, I was teleporting to enemies to swipe them then teleporting back to a safe spot to let off a headshot from my pistol. Some three or four hours in I'm summoning angry attack owls, mass-blinding ice snakes, and I'm able to use a Scorpion-From-Mortal-Kombat grappling hook move when fighting underwater.

I've got some disappointments as to how risk-averse the game has proven to be after all those promises about leaving grinding and quests behind. It's all there, it's just presented in a different way - most pointedly, and hilariously, on-screen progress bars rather than '5/17 lizard scrotums collected'. There is great familiarity, and probably too great for this to be a long-term game for me - but there is enough new, or at least heavily revised and cleverly presented, for me to have not broken out in a 20-tweet string of moaning yet. By my standards, that's a glowing recommendation.

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The flat-as-Norfolk cut-scenes, all stiff-armed droning, are just the worst, mind. Ach, I just had to get one full-on moan in, didn't I?

UPDATE #7: Tom Loves Climbing and Ridiculous Melees but SCREW VIDKUN

Mixed emotions on day two!

Let's start with the good stuff. I've played pretty much all day and am about to tip over into a level 14 Norn Guardian. I've also exhausted pretty much all the content in the Wayfarer Foothills starter zone, so I guess after some mopping up tomorrow I'll be off into yet more Norn unknowns. (Yes, I like that joke so much I am repeating it.)

A lot of my progress today was down to stuff that looked like this:

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Not to mention stuff like this:

tomday2-2

If you read my first diary entry, then you'll know that yesterday I was mocking this sort of insane melee where you can't really pick out the enemy you're going to hit because it's being swarmed, spammed and smashed relentlessly by dozens of other players, most of whom are not just jostling for a blow but occupying the same physical space as you.

But it's not just funny - it's fun. Yes, it's a bit ridiculous, and you're in no real danger at any point because there are so many people around that you're guaranteed to be revived, but it's where the sharp end of Guild Wars 2's diamond-cutter combat feels most vicious. There's so much fury in that mess of overflowing animation, fire, ice, steel, iron and tooth that you find yourself sucked into the maelstrom and desperate to make your mark. When the bad guy finally falls and you're given a gold award for your contribution - and a fat wedge of XP - you're elated. So then: FUN.

I also spent a fair bit of time today doing stuff like this:

tomday2-3

I love climbing all over open worlds. Whether it's Crackdown, Assassin's Creed or Batman, my favourite environments of this generation have been those that don't just have scale, but which you can scale (incidentally, there's a nice best-of countdown in Outside Xbox's first Show of the Week, if you'll excuse the plug). Not knowing a lot about Guild Wars 2 going into it, this has been one of my favourite surprises.

I said yesterday that I sort of wished these viewpoints were for you to uncover rather than simply to range between using the map, but after a day of roaming around the Norn starter zones checking them all out, I'm happy to go with this approach. It sends me to interesting places out of my love of climbing stuff, and - despite the slightly clunky physical relationship MMO avatars always seem to have with their environments - there's enough actual platforming at times to feel like you're really mountaineering.

There have been downs as well as ups today though, and they're perhaps best epitomised by two f***ing pricks in particular.

Vidkun and his Dragon Beast are the bad guys at the end of the Minotaur Rampant personal story quest, and I've not enjoyed my time trying to beat them. Part of my initial failures - of which there were many - were down to my not being much of an MMO player. It took a bit of encouragement from my friends to fiddle around with my skill setup until I found the right combination to block the relentless assault by the Dragon Beast long enough to take it down, giving me more time and room to deal with Vidkun. (The key, if anyone else is struggling with the same thing, was to harvest skill and trait points from the rest of the zone and fill out those ability slots with signets and boons that kept me mobile and suitably buff, using the traits to increase vitality and stuff.)

But - and maybe this is a kneejerk, but hey this is a diary - part of it felt like shonky design. For a start, Team EG - and loads of other players - are still suffering at the isolating hands of the overflow server system, which keeps us all apart from one another, but this doesn't even seem to matter in the case of the Minotaur Rampant quest, because even when I managed to get to the entrance to the instance with Oli or Alec in tow, the game left them behind with no option to join. What's more, it deposited us back on different shards when we left the instance. And yet other early story quests did seem to let us join forces. The inconsistency and lack of in-game explanation is very frustrating.

tomday2-4

But the bigger problem isn't anything special to MMOs or Guild Wars 2 - this quest just doesn't seem to be set up as a fair fight. Vidkun is the easier to kill, but if you take him down without slaying the Dragon Beast first then he just regenerates all his health. The Dragon Beast, meanwhile, will aggro you constantly. If you die, you can respawn at the checkpoint round the corner, but they get their health back, whereas your armour's taken a beating and your NPC allies are probably down and indeed of revival. Oh, and the Dragon Beast seems to get his health back at unexplained intervals anyway.

Levelling isn't the issue - I was level 13 by the time I beat it, but the game drops you down to level 10 for the instance - and of course it was possible to overcome in the end, but it wasn't a satisfying victory, only a relieving one. If I'm going to have one-sided fights like this that are a little on the cheaty side, at least let me do them with my friends.

All the same, besting Vidkun and his Beast was enough to get me excited about roving beyond the Foothills tomorrow. The post-quest rewards mean I've got a new sword to look forward to, as well as new horizons. All the things I like about Guild Wars 2 are still outweighing the things I find irritating by some margin.

Mixed emotions, then, but it's still a potent mixture.

UPDATE #8: Christian Introduces Cue-balling

You have to stamp your mark on an MMO. They're so big, so deep, so riddled with daunting complexity, that you simply must find a way to feel at home as quickly as possible. To borrow the language of X Factor, you have to take these games and make them your own. You probably have to give the whole thing 110 per cent, too. This is for you, granddad!

I have always had a simple solution for this sort of stuff: made-up terminology. I know nothing about the world of Guild Wars 2, and since I'm not doing an actual review, I make no apology for that. I don't know who the Norns are, why they love smacking bears around so much, and why they think bright purple robes are a good form of camouflage for the deep greens of the woodland where the local quarry likes to roam. I didn't even know the game's setting was called Tyria until Quinns mentioned it earlier. But I do know that Tyria's a great place for cue-balling.

cueball

Cue-balling is my first piece of Guild Wars 2 made-up terminology, see. I play as a large, mainly hairless Necromancer who likes to wade into battle without much of a thought for the consequences. These Norn guys like the hunt, right? Well I'm role-playing, and I'm revelling in the thrill of the hunt. Cue-balling is my phrase for what happens when an overweight bald man who hasn't paid attention to any nearby enemy levels races into one of the live events that takes place around, y'know, Tyria, and proceeds to try and mess up some monsters.

Often, of course, it's the monsters who do all the messing up. That's the problem with cue-balling: if I approached it strategically, I'd probably pick my fights and be more of a force to be reckoned with. Strategy and fight-picking is the antithesis of the cue-balling spirit, however, and so it's head down, into the action, and on to my inevitable death and hopeful rallying burst.

I don't do this where packs of other players are gathered, obviously, because that would make me seriously annoying. If you are deep in the wilds of Norn territory, though, and you see a strange man taking on a huge beast in a manner that suggests some serious brain damage, do drop by and say hello. We can cue-ball together.

UPDATE #9: John Works Out How to Get Wood

I feared this might be the undoing of the wonderful levelling rush. I'd rushed headlong into the battle, ignoring whatever text the game presented to me in order to get stuck into the next treat. At around level nine I became stuck, unable to take enjoyable part in events that were now above my level. As it turned out though, I'd simply overlooked another source of XP that would have added slowly to my gains from the start - gathering materials.

You have to have played an awful lot of MMO in your life to truly appreciate Guild Wars 2's most welcome treat: gathering nodes for all. They appear on the map, visible to everyone, but they can't be stolen - an eternal irritation in other MMOs where you often clear an area of monsters, only to have some scamp rush in and steal your precious minerals while you're finishing off the hard work. Here, everyone gets their own shot at harvesting a node before it vanishes for you and anyone else who's tapped it.

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John's OK.

Unimaginably exciting, too, is the banking system. All of this lovely exploration and freedom of levelling would be undone by the need to return home constantly just to bank the goods you've collected. Here you just open up your bag, click a button, and whoosh, all your collectible/crafting items are sent to the bank for later. You still have to get rid of junk at vendors, but they're everywhere so it's not a big deal. It's one of many little things that make you wonder how we've put up with so much of this crap in MMOs until now.

Unfortunately the auction house has been down for maintenance since launch so I've only had the most teasing glimpse at the crafting system, but I like what I've seen of the system so far. I've chosen the Tailor and Jeweler professions for my Elementalist as I figure the bags, cloth armour, and jewels can only assist his levelling.

Rather than running backwards and forward from auction house to bank, from crafting station to mailbox, you just access the crafting window and grab what you need from a little bank tab - hallelujah. Overall, it looks to have the standard system that underpins crafting in most MMOs, where you create endless numbers of an item to level your progress. There is an intriguing discovery system by the looks of things though, and you can throw a few items into the pot, lose them forever, but maybe discover a brand new recipe in exchange.

Day 2's been all about the little things for me, then. It's slightly frustrating that I've discovered all of this through a spell of annoyance wandering around the map, looking for the next dynamic event to squeeze some XP out of, but if I'm honest I only have myself to blame for not paying attention in the first place.

UPDATE #10: Christian Discovers That It's All Kicking Off at the Bear Shrine

I've had bear envy these last few days. Terrible, crushing bear envy. Due to crashes and glitches and weddings and whatnot, I'm only level 4 at the moment - although I'm steadily creeping up on 5 - and that means it wouldn't be much use playing with the rest of Team EG even if I could get to them. (I can't, obviously, thanks to the overflow system.) Instead, I've being inching through the personal campaign a little, and then exploring the rest of the world.

And I keep spotting people wandering around with bears. What's the deal there? Man! I want a bear, too. As a necromancer, I can summon a blood fiend who looks a little like a hovering trachea with shoelaces dangling out of the bottom - and I can even sacrifice him for extra health when things get nasty - but he's a poor bear substitute, if we're being honest. He doesn't have that cute, rounded form, those sweet little eyes, and I doubt he could grab a fish and then scoop its guts out if his life depended on it. I'm not sure he's even alive in the first place, actually.

Anyway, I figured that I'd passed up on my chance to team up with a bear when I chose my class so quickly, and largely based on how funny they looked - but that didn't mean I couldn't hang out with bears, right? With that in mind, I pulled up Guild Wars 2's pretty, rather complex map, and set a course for the Bear Shrine.

I got to the spot where the Bear Shrine was meant to be, though, and I couldn't find it. What gives? Was it too busy? Was it some kind of overflow nonsense? Was it- At that point, I fell through a hole in the ground and landed with a bump. On a bear. I had found the Bear Shrine! Hooray!

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Oli's latest pet is a juvenile Arcdotus, which is basically a wolf and a bear at the same time. In your face, Donlan.

Even better, the Bear Shrine was under attack from Sons of Svanir. Srsly: what kind of dicks attack a bear shrine? Spectral, frosty-armoured dicks, by the looks of it, and there were hundreds of them.

Luckily, there were dozens of us, and I was soon powering my way to level 5. I got a new skill that allows me to summon locusts, and I found a dandy horn thing that helps me smack people around with greater efficiency. Thanks, Sons of Svanir!

World events like the attack on the Bear Shrine represent the very early parts of Guild Wars 2 at its best, if you ask me. You're not split off into some lonely instance wading through lore, you're out there in the map, fighting alongside strangers, knee-deep in corpses and loot. In the personal campaign I've travelled into the spirit world, explored enemy-riddled caves and visited various noble folk in gigantic hunting halls - but outside, wandering between these free-for-all moments, I've fought Minotaurs, stolen food from various grovelling meanies and been involved in massive, endlessly churning dust-ups that leave the ground covered in corpses.

It's fun because you're really playing together with large groups of people, and it's useful because fighting amongst crowds in an MMO is a bit like window shopping: you get to see what all the other classes can do, whether it's the guy who can gather a massive flaming spike from the air, or the other guy who can shoot beams of lightning from his hands. Then, of course, there's me: snubbed by bears, hanging out with a floating trachea and spitting locusts into the sky.

I think I may have chosen the wrong class. That said, I've never had this much fun in an MMO before hitting level 5.

UPDATE #11: Tom and John Join the War Against Enemy Doors

Tom writes: Today in Guild Wars 2 began like any other in its short history: four silhouettes down the side of my screen as none of my party and I were able to get together in the same place and do anything. The overflow servers and inability to group together through personal quest content are still the most frustrating aspects of the game for me, although at least none of the story missions I undertook today were anything like as daft as the Vidkun debacle.

But today won't be remembered for that. Nor will it be remembered for the four hours I spent before lunch continuing Beefbeard's adventures in the wild, even though this is what I was really looking forward to doing when I signed off last night. This isn't because the ranch-lands of Diessa Plateau aren't exciting - there were glorified fetch-quests, sure, but also some great sieges among the farms and quarries, a bit of Wac-A-Mole, and even a little dressing up as a cow. (I'm still not sure of what this was in aid, but you'd hardly pass it up.)

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This is because it all pales into comparison next to the majesty of World versus World.

John B is going to be along shortly to talk about how WvW - or WvWvW, since this is actually a three-way fight between servers across four large instanced maps - compares to his experience of PvP in virtually every other MMO ever made. Since I have no experience of PvP anywhere, I was interested to see whether - after 16 hours of levelling Beefbeard in PvE - the transition would be particularly challenging and what it would take to start enjoying it.

WvW is actually surprisingly accommodating for a novice. As with a lot of the quest content in PvE, the game dynamically adjusts your level (in this case to 80) so you don't feel out of place. Not only that, but while there are multiple battlefronts to contest there are also hundreds of players to fight these battles, so there is no real pressure to start making a difference to your team's goals immediately; no experienced players singling you out in the chat window because you ran from the waypoint in the centre of the map to the nearest skirmish and got wiped out in seconds. That's your shame to bear alone.

Even better, it's your shame to bear with your friends, because - unlike in the PvE world - it's really easy to find them. Hello Bedders!

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And hey, it's a shame that you may only have to bear a couple of times before the structure of the thing starts to present itself pretty intuitively. For a start, it helps that there are so many players that you can just follow the herd of green-named allies - helpfully indicated on the mini-map - swarming between objectives.

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The objectives, it turns out, are locations dotted around whichever vast area you're contesting. In our case it was the Gunnar's Hold Borderlands and the various towers, keeps, supply camps and castles that cover its mountains and ice shelves. The idea seems to be that players load up on supplies and use a combination of weight of numbers and siege weapon assemblage to break down defences and storm whatever's in front of them.

Gates, for example.

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It's fun. You feel even more like a part of something than you do in similar group event situations in PvE. And like a lot of Guild Wars 2 combat, it's also funny. When you finally storm the gates, and you mop up anyone dumb enough to be left inside, you also get to take out the local NPCs sworn to the opposition, like the Guildmaster. But these NPCs are obviously meant to be pretty difficult to take down when a tower or keep is still held by friendly players, so they are buffed to the absolute nines, and this lasts for a minute or so after the ground is taken. There's almost no point attacking them at this time.

Obviously, however, nobody pays any attention to that, so you end up with my favourite thing in all of Guild Wars 2 so far, just brought together at a scale that was previously unimaginable. That's right: dozens and dozens of players, fingers jabbing number keys frantically as multiple cooldowns elapse, spamming the living s*** out of the same immobilised NPC in the same space for minutes at a time, laughing uproariously.

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If you've also discovered the bewitching charm of these ridiculous melees, then now does seem to be the time to jump into WvW, too, because while people do seem to be getting the hang of it, there are still plenty of occasions when the horde descends on an objective, held by a barred gate, and it turns out nobody has any supplies on them.

"Does anyone have any siege? No?"

No. What happens then?

Before I tell you, let me give you some context, which I assume will be true for everyone reading, but is still worth restating: I have fought all sorts of things in games.

I have climbed mountains that fought back, I have annihilated gods, I have battled my inner demons and perversions made real before my eyes (and bumped them off in a QTE). I have broken cuddly animals into pieces with a spade and feasted on their chocolate innards. I have shot bullets round corners, dropped people on spikes, sunk people into molten metal, ooze and rainwater, and most recently I've blown people to pieces with bombs. In Spelunky, I am currently trying to run from one end of the game to the other, pretty much, which requires absolute perfection in the first few mine levels. When I fail to do this, I plant all my bombs at my feet and explode myself through the environment to achieve a quick restart.

However, there is very little that I have done in games of late that has made me giggle and bounce in my seat as foolishly as the sight - if you can even work out enough of what's going on to call it that - of one hundred frenzied players in Guild Wars 2 going to town on a door because nobody has any supply material.

So much so that after a while I just backed off and drank it in.

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So yeah, give WvW a go. It's ridiculous.

Anyway, this is probably my last Guild Wars 2 diary entry for the time being, and it turns out I've spent the whole UK bank holiday weekend playing it, even though I wasn't sure I was even going to like it. Oli is writing our review - he's played more of these games and knows more about them than anyone I've ever met, and I'm sure he'll be firm but fair about where it sits in the grand scheme of MMOs. And I don't want to undermine what he's going to say all that much by slinging around recommendations or any purple prose as I sign off.

But, as must be obvious, I've had a ridiculously good time. Once the overflow stuff sorts itself out, I'm sure I'll have an even better one. And with a week off coming up in a few days' time, I can imagine it won't be long before Beefbeard's adventures continue. See you there.

John writes: No one here knows what they're doing. Not us, not anyone. The map is enormous, with each realm having an apocalyptic border where the action breaks, before spreading towards supply chains, fortresses and gateways on enemy territory. Without any direction or experience, we can only wait for a roaming blob of allies to band together, grab onto their coat-tails, and then head out together. Anything else seems to result in certain death.

With no pre-release knowledge of the game I'm baffled, but what I do love about this enormous scenario is that it feels just like the early days of World of Warcraft's Alterac Valley - a sprawling, raid-like clusterf*** of roaming elite monsters, wide-spread objectives and bitter faction feuds. These individual battles could last for hours - days even - before the stifling player demands of honour-per-hour efficiency forced Blizzard's hand, and they were adjusted to 10-minute stampedes. Guild Wars 2's version is different and yet familiar, and the idea of grinding for glory rather than mere gear is incredibly seductive.

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L-R: Oli, Bedders, Bramwell.

Yesterday I re-rolled to an Asura character. One of the reasons for doing so is that there will always be those who click on targets rather than tab-target, and so his smaller frame allows him to hide in bushes, frustrate assailants, and unleash meteor storms upon dozens of players at the same time. It's always been magnificent to cause people to burn in ignorance from the sidelines - while they fight their petty small-scale feuds - and it always will be.

Or at least, it's magnificent until the separate mindsets of a group of enemies snap together, and they realise they're all on fire for a very suspicious reason. As in all MMO PvP, the thrill of these encounters comes from telepathically understanding when that collective penny's about to drop, then running for the hills to get out of their range. Or, in this instance, telling Tom to stand exactly where he is, no matter how far I run away from him, and for no particular reason. Honest.

Objectives? I've no idea. There are flashing purple doors on the sides of forts and barricades. I think if you go through them you're meant to emerge on the other side, although I remain convinced that I teleported back to an earlier part of the map on at least one occasion. When it worked, I found myself able to clamber onto the rooftops and take pot-shots at the attacking force I'd only just been running away from. It's wonderful, and does much to offset the typical zerging with longer-term strategy.

In six months' time the chat channels will be filled with the righteous fury of a thousand bedroom Stalins, each screaming at the incompetence of players assaulting the wrong part of the map. That's sad, but inevitable. For now there's the simple pleasure of a camaraderie forged from collectively achieving something that we can all understand. We don't know what we're doing - even the most informed of us - but the object of our aggression is definitely targetable. That door's going down.

UPDATE #12: Oli Samples City Life

If you ask me, the soul of an MMO is found in its cities. In their artwork and atmosphere they do more than anything else to define the virtual culture you're hanging out in - and by providing somewhere to socialise, trade, craft and generally hang out and enjoy downtime, they serve as the glue that sticks these worlds together. It's the cities, above all else, that make a massively multiplayer online world feel like a place.

So I left Tom and John beating up their doors in World vs. World and elected to do a little tourism, using the convenient portals in the global hub, Lion's Arch, to jump between it and the five racial captials.

First things first: if you want to see what ArenaNet's artists and technicians are really capable of (and it's a lot), the cities should be your first port of call. Every one of the six is stunning. The architecture is striking and original, the views will make you gape, and the complex, layered layouts over multiple levels are way beyond anything you've seen in an online game before.

I was already familiar with the Norn city of Hoelbrak, and while its sprawling layout of giant halls and monuments makes it seem a bit stark and empty, those gigantic ice statues need to be seen to be believed.

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Lion's Arch is World of Warcraft's Booty Bay in excelsis - a smuggler's heaven, a tangle of sandy coves, sunny plazas, shady backstreets and piles of buildings styled after ship's bridges.

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Rata Sum, home of those irritating little furry goblins the Bedfords (sorry Asura) is the most exotic of the lot, a sci-fi metropolis of pyramids and cuboid motherships buzzing with automated defence systems and overgrown with lush vegetation. Outlandish and truly stunning.

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And if that's not enough to convince you that Guild Wars 2 doesn't just do trad fantasy, try the Black Citadel, home of the warlike cat-people, the Charr. It can only be described as a rusting, industrial-revolution death star. Like a lot of Guild Wars 2, catch it in the right light and it can look like a concept painting.

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I didn't tarry long in the Grove because its plant-elf inhabitants, the Sylvari, creep me out a bit. Although its deep, tiered structure is inviting and the lighting is fabulous, this looks the most like any other video game to me.

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Human hangout Divinity's Reach made up for it though, with its burnished medieval utopia of marketplaces, solaria and mossy Disney castles, streaked with autumnal sunlight.

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But what is there to do in these places? There's your usual assortments of banks and vendors, obviously, while Hoelbrak is also blessed with a silly but entertaining player-versus-player mini-game called Keg Brawl, which is basically MMO rugby. Your personal quest will regularly bring you back to talk to important characters, too.

There's something missing though, and it's the crowds of players milling around and running their errands that make a virtual city truly come alive. In Guild Wars 2, you can access the auction house and deposit items to your bank wherever you are, while the game's network of fast-travel Waypoints negates the need for cities to act as transport hubs. There's no 'rested' bonus for logging out in a city either, so you don't need to go back before logging out for the night.

It's one of the awkward contradictions of MMOs that convenience doesn't always go hand-in-hand with a sense of community and immersion in the world. In fact, it usually acts against it. Guild Wars 2 is heavy on the convenience, which makes playing it a far brisker and more painless exercise than most. But there's a price to pay for that, clearly visible in the underpopulation of those magnificent cities. They look glorious - but will they end up feeling like home, the way WOW's Stormwind and Orgrimmar did?

It makes you wonder if the vast effort that went into their construction was worthwhile - but I, for one, am very glad ArenaNet took the trouble.

We'll be updating the Guild Wars 2 diary throughout the Head Start period and hopefully beyond.

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