If I had to sum it up in one word, ‘flexibility’ is the word that most encapsulates what ArenaNet have created in Guild Wars 2.
Flexibility to make the character you want to make – and then remake them again for a different situation. Flexibility to wield different weapons for different encounters and have them radically change the way your character operates. Flexibility to play the way you want to play, from pursuing your personal story in PVE to simply jumping straight into PVP with one click. Flexibility to travel anywhere on the map at any time without having to worry about trudging around for hours. And, at its most fundamental, the flexibility to pick up or put down the game anytime without having to worry about ongoing subscription fees.
You can see this sort of flexibility in action as soon as your character enters the world. Quests are very open-ended, with a variety of ways you can achieve your goals. Want to just collect herbs, or want to help out by slaughtering pests? Either one is fine. Maybe you just want to chase World Events around, pitching in to help out with the wandering boss battles that spawn across the landscape? That works as well. All around you, opportunities have arisen for you to make your own choice about how to play – even if that choice is to ignore them all and simply queue up for some PVP action.
But the biggest way this flexibility impacts you as a player is in combat. There are no more cookie-cutter builds, no more instantly gauging how a player will work with a quick glance. You’ve got no way of knowing what an enemy can throw at you, especially in PVP, but that’s okay – because you’ve got no restrictions in how you can react. Equip your snaring and stunning skills for jumpy little people who like to kite you, or equip your damage-reducing and bubble skills when it’s time to cap the point, or spearhead the siege.
We’ve all read about this before and indeed ArenaNet took the unusual step of releasing a manifesto on the subject, but it’s really hard to overstate how much this changes the way you approach the game, and the lasting effects it will have on long-term play.
The need to roll multiple alts just to explore different talent trees is now vastly reduced, if not eliminated completely. The need to grind for the best possible gear and unlock all the abilities is now gone, replaced by a system that relies entirely on your ability to plan and execute battlefield strategies and keep an eye on your surroundings. The need to do anything at all has been removed. You’re free to just play the game however you like.
It’s clear that this has been ArenaNet’s intention from the start: create a game that offers the flexibility to handle both single-player and highly-competitive multiplayer mechanical demands in one. After two beta weekends, all that we’ve seen so far indicates they are very close to achieving that dream (although concerns about lag still remain unresolved for Australians). This is a phenomenal achievement, and one that deserves no small amount of respect and recognition.
In many ways, GW2 is shaping up to be the MMO for people who are tired of other MMO’s. That rings a lot of bells for me, because increasingly in this age of rapidly-cloned MMO’s, it’s becoming harder and harder for players to perceive any real differences beyond that of the setting. Dismissing SW:TOR as “WoW in space” may be a snarky comment, but it’s mechanically right on the money, and no amount of excellent voice work or personal storytelling can hide the fact that both it and WoW‘s mechanics are perfect example of what is now accepted as Generic MMO Gameplay.
A lot of developers are going to have a lot of eyes on GW2 when it launches (whenever that may be), because this is one of the few times that an MMO seems ready to live up to all of its promises. If the game is successful – and early indications are that it will be, especially given its lack of subscription fee – it may just be the kick in the pants necessary to get other, bigger companies thinking about how they, too, can improve a model that has stood stagnant for far too long.