The arc of the Hitchhiker's books -- and if you haven't read them, stop reading this and go read them -- is arguably about the growth of Arthur Dent from noob to bitter-vet to eventual contentment (maybe). Spoilers ahead, so skip the next two paragraphs if you haven't read the books.
While the books are funniest when Arthur is a noob, in my opinion Arthur's story is funniest when he's in the bitter-vet stage. By this point, Arthur has realized that many of his actions in the first three books result directly or indirectly in disaster, and the universe seems quite interested in making his life as unbearable as possible without actually killing him. By the fourth book of the series, Arthur has fully embraced his bitter-vet status. But once this happens, Arthur falls in love. His luck reverses from that moment; after that, (almost) everything goes well for him.
This leads to two or three amusing chapters of Arthur having to deal with that... and waiting for the other shoe to drop. The situation comes to head in a restaurant when Arthur grabs a waitress, points to his food, and demands "Why is this fish so bloody good?" like it's a conspiracy and the waitress is in on it. ;-) The woman with whom he's fallen in love looks at the waitress and says "You'll have to excuse my friend. I think he's having a good day at last." It's a classic bit if you're an Arthur Dent fan.(1)
And that brings me to Guild Wars 2. Why is this fish so bloody good?
Let's start with the basics. I've been inundated with multiple repetitions of two questions: "Do you like it? Should I buy it?"
Yes, and yes.
But before you rush off to find your credit card, let me open with a caveat: I'm still very early in my career in this thing, and I haven't tried PvP yet. So this post is about first impressions of the game, the mechanics, and the PvE, which are obviously subject to a lot of change. But those first impressions are very, very good.
Before I give you those first impressions, though, let me remind you of my MMO background so you can put what I say in perspective. EVE Online was my first MMO. I've never played World of Warcraft, never even looked directly at a computer monitor playing World of Warcraft. All of my experience with WoW is heresay, and what I've seen on various YouTube videos and the like. I'm familiar with WoW as a concept, of course, but I've never been tempted to play it or subscribe. I did play RIFT for a while when it was in beta but that's as close as I've come. Other than RIFT and Wurm Online, I've never played any other fantasy-based MMO either, though of course I'm an old hand at virtually every fantasy single player game that's come out.
As a result, some of the things that I think are well done in GW2 might be common to WoW or other fantasy MMOs that I haven't played. Got all that? OK, let's go.
The early game of this thing does so many things just right, it's really remarkable. Nearly every choice the devs have made is the right one. Character creation and introduction to the world is as good and smooth as I've seen in any game. Once you're in, anyone who is reasonably familiar with fantasy computer games will pick up the basics almost instantly. There's no tutorial, but there doesn't need to be. The basics will see you through the first couple of hours and by the time you need something not-basic, you are subtly encouraged to discover how it works.
That's the concept the entire early game is built around, as far as I can tell: subtle encouragement, at just the right time, to learn one new thing about the game and add it to the repertoire of what you're already doing. It's masterful game design, and a couple of examples will suffice.
Very early in the game, you're told about the game's dodge mechanic and how to use it. But the early creatures are quite easy to destroy without ever using it, so you can spend that time concentrating on learning other things. However, by the time those things are mastered, you're suddenly presented with a creature that looks like a standing rat. These standing rats can only attack once a week or so, but their attacks hurt. You find yourself thinking... "wait, how did that dodge mechanic work again?" and within minutes you're an expert at it. It's a fantastic example of player management in video game design.
Again and again and again and again, Guild Wars 2 does this. I've never seen anything like it, and I've been gaming for decades. Without there being a tutorial and without even knowing how you intend to play this game, GW2 places these obstacles in your path confident that once you hit them, you'll want to learn how to overcome them.
Here's another example. An isometric 3D platformer sounds horrible in theory, and yet GW2 has these elements in it. I groaned when I first realized that from time to time I was going to have to time jumps and leaps over obstacles from this perspective with a wonky camera and movement system (more about them in a second). But again, there's subtle encouragement: "vistas" which are multiple points for each map where you can get a glorious overall perspective view of your current area. Once you hit one of these vistas and the game gets to wow you with the visuals, you find the GW2 world is so beautiful that you want to see more of them.
And each vista teaches you more and more about the movement system and the wonky camera until you can use both instinctively and with relative ease.(2)
When you find yourself ready to try different weapons, they fall into your hands and you're encouraged to try them. When you find yourself ready to try out crafting, you're suddenly gifted with what you need to do it. When you find yourself wanting to see what other players are making, you suddenly find yourself pointed at the game's quite well-done in-game player market and are subtly encouraged to use it. As I said, this kind of thing happens again and again, apparently effortlessly. It's like the game was reading my thoughts and was showing me what I wanted to see next.
This isn't a learning cliff, or even a learning curve. It's a learning sidewalk.
So much for the mechanics. The early game itself is incredibly fun, challenging, and engaging. And again, there's subtle encouragement (and from time to time, subtle discouragement) used to guide you in the right direction. The world feels very open and populated and you can quickly and easily get yourself lost. But as you travel, the game subtly encourages you to take on creatures slightly tougher than yourself and then lets you know when you're at the right level with the best "near-death" system of any game I've ever seen. Push too far and you're gently pushed back. It's nothing overt and you can ignore it if you want to.
Even better than this, though, the game encourages player cooperation without requiring player cooperation. And even better than that, as players are out there doing their thing, you can jump into their things, and these "events" are many and varied in a way that I've never seen before. It makes the world feel alive and vital and active, and operating even when you aren't around. Groups will flow together, try to beat some major obstacle, flow apart and break into clumps or singles, the clumps or singles will take on various smaller challenges nearby and sometimes these smaller challenges will morph into a bigger challenge that causes the clumps and singles to flow together again.
Or if you want to skip all that and do your own thing, you can. But if it gets too tough for you, there's always a few people just over the hill that will jump in and help you through.
In short, the PvP is going to have to be damned good to beat the PvE, and from what I've heard the PvP is damn good. I'll let you know when I get there. For now, the game subtly encourages (there's that phrase again) you to get to level 30 before trying it out. You don't have to but it seems pretty clear that it would be quite advantageous to do so. I'm not there yet, so I am going to explore this new world a little bit more (he said with glee). It's no hardship: the world is a delight, filled with surprises around many corners. I've never been inclined to "explore" EVE, but I spent three hours doing just that in GW2 last night and not only did I enjoy it, I was subtly enco-- never mind. You get the idea. ;-)
All in all, based on my first impressions, I highly recommend this one! It's a gem. More to come.
(1) That said, I tend to be more of a Ford Prefect fan myself. ;-)
(2) However, in very close quarters the camera's still pretty bad, but that's something the devs can work on.