I'm always the last guy to the party, it seems. Take Star Wars: The Old Republic for example. I've done several interviews with the team from Bioware, been in rooms filled with computers featuring the game, and never had the time to actually sit down and play. At E3 this year I got to click one button, pointed out to me by a happy Daniel Erickson, which summoned a vehicle. That's it. What's a MMO-loving games journalist to do when our schedules are usually so packed that we have no time to play the games on display?
For the longest time, it was the same with Guild Wars 2. Bengt visited ArenaNet back in February to interview the developers and play the game and I'm not even sure he even knows what terms like "DPS" or "DOT" mean (or I'm just being grumpy, but that's besides the point). How many times can I interview the developers without getting to play one of the hottest MMOs on the horizon? Many, obviously. So when NCsoft invited us to Hamburg for an extended hands-on and another opportunity to interview the guys behind the game, I jumped at the opportunity.
Following the fan-event ArenaNet held in the US last week, the main part of the event in Hamburg revolved around dungeons. This suited me perfectly. One of the things that I've been sceptical of since Guild Wars 2 was announced was the statement that the game aimed to kill off the "Holy Trinity" of DPS (Bengt?), tank and healer that is the standard in almost all modern MMOs. Dungeons, encounters and monsters are usually designed around this particular group-setup that the idea of abandoning the concept seems almost impossible. In short, it's easy to talk about, but at the end of the day you'll need to put your money where your mouth is and actually deliver.
After a brief introduction, where we more or less were set free to roam through the starting area of the Norn race (which Bengt already covered on GRTV after his visit to ArenaNet), it was time to gather around the dungeon entrance. I picked a female human Elementalist as my class of choice, mostly because you can never go wrong with fireballs. I had been playing around with the Engineer, the latest profession to be revealed, and had a lot of fun with it - giggling inside every time I fired of a shot so powerful that my Charr was thrown back several meters - but I ditched it for some classic magical powers instead.
Dungeons in Guild Wars 2 will come with two different modes. The first one is the story mode, which thematically follows up on the story told in the Guild Wars 2-book Edge of Destiny and delves into the lives and destinies of its main characters (which the developers refer to as the races' "iconic characters"). Writer Jeff Grubb pointed out that since the dungeons aren't mandatory in any way, their stories are separate from the personal story that every player will go through while still important for the overarching storyline of Tyria.
The difficulty level of the Story mode is tuned so that a "pick-up group of five players should be able to complete it." In short, the dungeons are not made to be a stumbling block for players on their way to the level cap. One likeness that the developers in Hamburg seemed to enjoy was that Story mode is like "a book where at the end of every chapter you have to fight a bear." Now, I don't know about the bears in Seattle, but in Sweden they are pretty big and nasty and would tear me apart in two seconds flat. Of course, bears in MMOs are notoriously wimpy (some of them even miss paws, ears and internal organs*) so they might of course have had them in mind.
The second mode dungeons come with is Exploration mode. Similar to Heroic (World of Warcraft) and Export modes (Rift), Exploration is a tougher mode aimed to the end-game crowd, especially the players that enjoy running a certain dungeon several times (and let's face it, MMO-players tend to). Exploration are meant to give players a proper challenge, demanding team work and co-ordination from the group. But as the name implies, Exploration will feature more randomized events and different parts of the dungeon - some not available in Story mode - can open up.
Story mode was on the menu for the day, though, even if I caught a glimpse of the devs playing through an Exploration dungeon towards the end of the event (they were one player short and got swarmed by monsters, better luck next time!). One of the developers joined the four attending journalists and into the darkness of the Catacombs we went, chasing after the Norn Eir that had decided to brave the depths to find the sword of the old king of Ascalon. Of course, the ghosts living down there aren't too happy about that idea; they are kind of upset after having had their city razed by the Charr and their king killing them all, as seen during the introduction of the first Guild Wars-campaign.
After an initial, and very pretty, cutscene (included at the bottom of this article) we were let loose in the dungeon. As you'd expect, the first thing I noticed was the visual, which looked just a great as the rest of the game. It's a pretty typical ruined catacomb, as the name of the place implies, but it has a nice epic feel to it, with beautiful statues lining the rooms and cramped corridors to be ambushed in. The map design, at least in Story mode, felt linear and I never felt lost - the whole romp through the dungeon was a fairly straightforward affair.
One of the things I really enjoyed was the fact that it wasn't filled with enemies. Looking back at dungeons in games like World of Warcraft, they are usually filled to the brim with groups of enemies that needs to be pulled and killed. Anyone remember Sethekk Halls from The Burning Crusade, or Drak'Tharon Keep from Wrath of the Lich King, just to mention two out of the whole bunch? Group upon group of what is usually referred to as trash mobs that need to be burned through before getting to the bosses. And we all know that MMO players go into dungeons mostly to punch the loot pinatas.
That's not to say trash mobs are inherently bad, there simply tends to be too many of them. In the catacombs though, I never got the feeling of being stuck in a room, pulling group after group just to get to the other side. Instead, the fights we did get into - usually against two or three ghosts of various shapes and classes - felt longer and thus more important than your average trash group battle. They did follow a pretty classic setup for the most part ("go for the healing monk first!" the developer that led our group would yell at us from behind his desktop), but by not ending within a few seconds I felt more involved.
It also meant that I was constantly moving, constantly shifting between the various attunements that the Elementalist got available. I'd spew fire, I'd use my Ride the Lightning-spell to get up close and personal with the casters, I'd shift to water attunement to interrupt a warrior ghost from healing himself. Shifting weapons makes a whole new set of abilities available in Guild Wars 2, so I'd replace my staff with a dagger and buff the group with some extra speed or armour if needed. It all adds to the feeling of being more involved. As someone who have always enjoyed playing a Rogue in World of Warcraft, even back in the day when you more or less only clicked one or two buttons (Honor amongst Thieves, how I loved you), it's a bit of a paradigm shift.
It took me a while to notice it, but as we made our way through the dark places of the Ascalon catacombs it dawned on me that our group setup was pretty weird. We had Guardians and Engineers and me as an Elementalist - and while I could throw up heals I hardly ever did, and nobody seemed to be tanking. In fact, the group didn't follow the Holy Trinity at all. We were all busy fighting or spell casting, using our own self-heals (every profession gets one) to keep ourselves alive with the odd backup from my water-based healing spells. No "heals plz," no "watch your aggro."
We were simply playing our characters in ways that were fun, while still functioning as a team. We kept track of each other, keeping track of how the fights played out, while not bogged down in any forced roles. I could blast away, throw supportive buffs and heal at the same time, abilities shared with several other party members. If someone went down, anyone could revive him or her. The overall feel was if Guild Wars 2 has borrowed more from co-operative games such as Borderlands or Gears of War in this sense instead of following a traditional MMO design. Jeff Grubb seemed to support this theory when he later made a point of mentioning that people at ArenaNet are gamers in general, not only MMO-players.
Of course, this was all in Story mode. Things might change in Exploration, which as I noted above I didn't have time to try out. The Elementalist might have to spend more time focusing on health bars, ready with a healing spell, and the Guardians might have to focus much more on grabbing aggro back from over-zealous DPS-players. I simply don't know what the aforementioned "team work and co-ordination" will mean for the dungeon experience. But I get the feeling that if the designers at ArenaNet play their cards right, it will be more like turning up the difficulty level to Insane in Gears of War than simply making the enemies hit harder. At least, that's how I hope it will all turn out.
I've been a dedicated DPS-player in more or less every MMO I've played, preferring to deal out damage and focus on that kind of gameplay in group situations, which is probably why it took me a while to realize and appreciate exactly what was going on. Thus for me, I'm not certain that the removal of the Holy Trinity will actually change that much. It's still an important step, as it shows that the Guild Wars 2-team aren't afraid to challenge tradition and change things around without reinventing the wheel. It will also make Guild Wars 2 a lot easier to sell to some of my friends who constantly find themselves locked into the roles of tanks and healers in order to not let down the group.
It also couldn't happen at a better time, with the discussion about how the communities in various games treat their tanks and healers. With Blizzard resorting to bribery, this might very well be the perfect opportunity to change things. Previously, the Holy Trinity wasn't really broken, it worked and there was no use in fixing it. Rift changed things around by letting rogues turn into viable tanks as well, but the Trinity is very much still in effect in that game. And going back to change that would take a massive redesign of previous MMOs' core designs.
Will Guild Wars 2 be the second coming that some MMO-fans have been waiting for? Probably not, it's still very much a MMO. It might have abandoned quests for events and might try to kick out the Holy Trinity of tank/healer/DPS, but how successful it will be in that regard is still very much up in the air.
Will the Elementalist find him/herself as a dedicated healer against his/her wishes, will the Guardians be forced back into the traditional tank-role by a community used to how things work in older MMOs? Perhaps. It's a real fear amongst some people, and understandably so. It will come down to ArenaNet to explain to people how things work in Guild Wars 2, how the game plans to shake things up. It will also come down to us to simply put our fingers in our ears, ignore the reactionaries and blow things up instead of healing. At least that's what I plan to do. Here, have a heal. BOOM!
* Yes, obligatory MMO in-joke. If you don't get it, you'll never understand anyway.