It's the most nondescript day imaginable. 2pm on Thursday afternoon, and a spell of British anti-weather (sun like a cheap lightbulb) has me feeling neither warm nor cold. But I am sweating, and I am rapt.
I'm playing Guild Wars 2's World vs. World mode, and - to repurpose a phrase from Vietnam - I am in The S**t.
Explosions rip at the landscape I'm stumbling through. Thick waves of particle effects pour over me, first red, then blue, then purple, shredding, soothing, burning, endlessly demolishing and rebuilding my health bar. In a moment of luck, I pick out an enemy soldier charging recklessly towards me, but my thief's arrows merely shatter the image into stray shards and butterflies. A mesmer's illusion.
"TOO MANY MESMERS," howls an ally in local chat.
A red ring appears around me, one of Guild Wars 2's ubiquitous area of affect attacks. I find myself in a tiny, localised rainstorm of arrows. As I scramble backwards through the shimmering mist, barging past my own allies, I chuck two handfuls of caltrops at the ground to slow anyone intent on chasing me down. If they are chasing us. For all I know, we could be winning.
If you haven't yet stroked Guild Wars 2's oversized "WORLD VS. WORLD" button in your hero menu, you're missing a trick. Not necessarily because it's good; forgoing Guild Wars 2's blindingly colourful world for bleak sieges in a barren landscape will, to many, seem a poor trade.
No - the reason you're missing out is because World vs. World is as mad as any of the game's capital cities. Guild Wars 2 makes tourists of us all, and the surreal, gamified warfare of World vs. World is one of its finest attractions.
For our own Tom Bramwell in our head start diary, it was the image of a hundred heroes locked in mortal combat with a door that won him over. For me, it's the the mass battles. They're simply unlike anything I've ever played: a kind of Planetside meets Braveheart, except instead of "FREEDOM!" and Mel Gibson, you fight in almost total silence in an army made up of bored, leaping, explosive demigods.
Before we get onto why it's fascinating, here's how it works.
Rule #1: Players spawn into an excellently asymmetrical world of keeps, towers and camps, and fight against players from two other servers to control it.
Rule #2: There are no rules.
Rule #3: OK, there are some rules. Any of the features on the map can be captured and held by your team, so their NPCs fight for you, you're let through their gates and so on. There's also some jazz to do with supply caravans, with "supply" points letting you repair places, upgrade them or spawn siege weaponry. But that's basically it.
Rule #4: Ooh, also, the amount of territory your "world" controls provides boosts for your whole server. More harvesting nodes and more XP from monsters, to name just a couple. As a bonus, if you're playing in Europe, you'll often be matched against foreign servers, resulting in amazing messages popping up in global chat like this gem:
"why are we even bothering to FIGHT the french. they're too good..."
Cute generalisations of countries aside, all this makes World vs. World sound quite nuanced, quite tactical. And perhaps it is if you're playing as a well-oiled guild, same as Planetside became a different game if you were part of an elite outfit. But for the likes of you and me? The "zerg" is law. It's like the old maxim says - in the land of the blind, the psychotic, mouth-breathing, pillaging mob of 70 players is king.
So, here's why you should play World Vs. World.
On the second day I spent prodding it, myself and half a dozen Charr players took a battering ram and quietly kicked in the door of a crumbling keep. Following a petrifying boss fight with the NPC commander, it was ours. We'd just helped everyone on our server and got a wealth of XP! A sense of well-being fell upon us like a fine summer rain.
Then, in global chat: "RED ZERG COMING SOUTH". In the movie, this is where my big cat buddies and I would have heard a distant rumbling. We'd have exchanged nervous glances. Someone would have removed a small crucifix and started rubbing it.
Then, the zerg came.
Video games always give us tasks we can triumph over, is the thing. One of the reasons I liked Planetside is that it accidentally drove home several realities of war - among them that it sucks for most of the time, heroes die, and smart men retreat.
Guild Wars 2 offers a similar poignancy. In buffing everybody to level 80, it becomes more about brute maths than skill. If you're up against three players, you're going to get ham-shanked right in the deli meat. If you're a thief and eight cats defending a castle from 70 warriors, you're going to die.
And so we had one of those moments that I play World vs. World for. We'd just spent 25 minutes conquering this place. Were we going to let it FALL into the clammy, UNSHAVEN HANDS of the ENEMY?
Yes, yes we were. We called for support in global chat. We watched our besiegers slowly crack their way through the door. Finally, we loped round to a rear section of wall, leapt off it and fled into some scrub.
There's something I find intoxicating and glorious in this. What have you achieved in Guild Wars 2? Have you climbed to vistas atop mountains? Slain monsters thrice your size? Created masterwork armour? That's great, hon. Call me when you've fought in a world so transparently uncaring that you'd better know when to run.
But witnessing a stampeding zerg coming towards you is only a lesser tourist attraction. Really, what the prospective Guild Wars 2 explorer should be looking out for is the sight of two zergs clashing.
This is worth witnessing for the sheer scale of the thing, for its tides of particle effects, both of which are as absurd as any of the maximalist vistas ArenaNet's concept artists could dream up. But really, what's best about these fights is the give and take of them. Because - and I wasn't expecting this - they play more like medieval battles than anything I've ever encountered.
It falls apart when one side is besieging a gate, but when you both meet in a field or village? It's poetry. A slightly exhausting, overblown epic poem, since it's extremely difficult to get anyone to lie down and stay down, but the momentum is the thing. You get actual retreats and swings of morale, not because of some game mechanic, but because that's just how things are. If you can force a retreat on just one flank, you can witness a rippling effect wherein everyone sees the warriors to their left run, so they start running too. Glorious. Then you can simply run the bastards down.
I remember one pitched battle directly outside an enemy castle: a wild, aggressive back-and-forth where we'd flee up to some high ground, then the enemy would flee to the castle gates, over and over.
Imagine you were there. Threading skill into skill, helping up allies, falling back when you drew too much enemy attention. Simply trying to stay on your feet, trying to make a difference, like a policeman in a mosh pit.
Now imagine you saw what I saw. All at once, a guild from your world erects three trebuchets behind you, one after another, like giraffes unsteadily standing up. Three vast, towering siege engines that will surely tear down that enemy wall if you can prevent them from being destroyed.
Then you see it - obviously, the guild built them on the high ground. That high ground that you've been retreating to. Suddenly, retreating isn't an option any more. Worse, you're fighting against a hundred heroes who know they're doomed unless they can rip those trebuchets down.
It was on.
I bet you'd like to know what happened next, eh? But really, who cares? That was only my adventure. You don't even know me!
The World vs. World button is right there in your character menu. It's a gateway for you to have wild adventures of your very own. If you own Guild Wars 2, you have to try it. Especially if you're playing on Gunnar's Hold server. We need every able body we can get. I'm not gonna lie. The French really are a bit too good.