After much consideration it felt natural to start at the core of the experience - the social interaction between players.
A challenge MMO games have often faced is that other players often get in the way of your experience. You compete with them over enemies to slay, missions to perform or resources you gather. ArenaNet have figured out a way to eliminate these annoyances and create a truly social experience. If several players team up to take on an enemy they all receive experience and loot, regardless of each other. In addition to this, all resources are available at all times, regardless of what someone else has been up to.
The most important component in this regard is what ArenaNet call dynamic events. These missions play out in the game world, and everyone in the area can co-operate in order to complete them. I once experienced an instance where players called out to the rest of the zone that they needed help with an event, and all of a sudden dozens of players poured in to help take on the enemy. It was a thing of beauty and it almost brought a tear to the corner of my eye.
While the dynamic events are basically missions (as we know them from other MMOs), they have been dressed up in a manner that makes them feel different. You get the feeling that the world is living a life of its own and that you can choose to take part in it if you want to. You can just run around, notice that someone is in need of help and choose to help them or not. This also does away with the grocery list of quests you often end up with in other games.
However, dynamic events aren't without issues. Since everyone in a zone can take, the idea is that the level of difficulty scales as more players take part. This doesn't really work when more than 10-12 players are in one place, as the events get all too easy. Another issue is that many of the events don't really have a fail state, so you can just take your time and complete them. But even with these problems, dynamic events are an improvement upon traditional missions.
In addition to these dynamic events you've a main story arch to follow that starts up with character creation. You get to pick a background for your character, and when you jump into the game it starts out with this foundation. You start out with tackling the issues your own race is facing, but you quickly learn of a greater enemy that threatens all of Tyria - the Elder Dragons. The story itself is fine and there's nothing wrong with, but it fails to break free from the pack of similar fantasy stories out there. It does a good job of herding you from area to area, however, and it's a nice break from the rest of the game. It's completely volountary as well, so if you don't feel like it you're not forced to explore the storyline.
The dynamic events and the personalised stories make up the main part of the PvE content Guild Wars 2 has offer, but we should mention dungeons as well. Where dynamic events are meant to be easily accessible and with easier objectives, dungeons are there for those who crave a challenge. A good and proper challenge at that.
In one room we were tasked with defending a NPC from hordes of enemies, while at the same time destroying the tunnels from which they came. At first we worked as a group on taking out the tunnels one after another, but the NPC was quickly overpowered. Then we assigned one player to guard the NPC, while the rest took out the tunnels, but that didn't work either. After a while we split the group in two to work on taking out the tunnels, and after a great deal of trial and error we found the correct formula of doing it and progressed to the next challenge. And as we finally beat the dungeon four hours had passed since we started on it, and while this may sound a bit lengthy, it should be noted that dungeons are meant for the hardcore players who expect a stiff challenge.
That takes us to the combat system. Even if it uses hotkeys, it still comes across as active and satisfying. Movement is key, as you're not meant to stand still and absorb damage. In order to be successful in combat you need to keep moving and avoid attacks. In addition to this the skills have been designed in a manner where you can't just execute them over and over again in the same pattern - you have to adapt to each situation and shape your tactics depending on what your facing and who you're playing with. Your abilities rely on the weapons you have equipped and you can switch these at any point to radically alter your play style. The one gripe I have with the combat system is that when you're with more than a handful of players in the same spot, the effects tend to become a bit overpowering and it's hard to keep track of what is going on.
Speaking of the visuals, these are impressive throughout. Everything from the game world, to the menus has been given a painted look. I've often stopped in my tracks to simply gaze out at my surroundings. As far as sound goes Guild Wars 2 also delivers - it's by Jeremy Soule, the composer responsible for the soundtracks to The Elder Scrolls series, so you'd better believe there's an epic feel to it. The voice acting is good for the most part (special mention goes to the Charr race voice cast), but some of the background chatter between NPC's comes across as strange. Steve Blumm, Felicia Day, Nolan North, and Jennifer Hale stand out as the most recognisible voice actors in the cast.
The Player versus Player (PvP) component of Guild Wars 2 has been split in to separate modes - structured PvP (sPvP), and World vs World (WvW). In sPvP three same sized team struggle to gain control of three position, holding a position gives you points and the first team to reach 500 wins. In WvW three servers battle for two weeks over camps, towers and forts. At the upper limit, a massive 2000 players can take part in WvW, creating battles of epic scale.
As a player who has never really enjoyed PvP in MMORPG's (and that goes for the original Guild Wars as well), I have to say I was pleasantly surprised by both sPvP and WvW. I think the combat system has a lot to do with my enjoyment of sPvP, as you really need to make great use of your skills, and the battles with other players become very intense and exciting compared to the PvE. I still wonder how long this PvP model will keep me hooked, as there is only one game mode and four maps to choose from. It doesn't feel like enough, even if MOBAs have shown that one map can be enough as long as it's well designed.
In sPvP you're divided into small teams where each player's actions count heavily towards the outcome. In WvW on the other hand, the teams are so big that the sense of belonging to that huge group is what appeals - the sense of being a part of something greater than you. You're part of groups of 20, 50 or more players as you try and conquer towers and forts. Or you could focus on defending against an oncoming horde, or go with a smaller troup of scouts to try and penetrate the enemy defenses - there are lots of possibilities here. The problem with playing in these large groups is that it causes a great deal of strain on the servers, and if you don't have a very powerful computer you will experience lag. During days and evenings there are also hour long cues to get into WvW on the bigger servers, but hopefully this is something that will ease up with time. The fact that you can play something else while you wait in line helps the problem, but it doesn't solve it.
There are lots of thing I haven't mentioned or just scratched the surface of, but I know for a fact that this game contains hundreds of hours of content, and that it's polished to a level that most MMOs only reach after a few years on the market. Despite a few shortcomings, Guild Wars 2 represents a massive leap in the right direction for the genre as a whole. With its active combat, truly dynamic and social PvE content, and a PvP that succeeds in attracting players who normally stay away from that sort of thing, Guild Wars 2 is a masterful game. If you have even the slightest interest in the MMO genre, I fully recommend you give this a closer look.
This review is based on about 60 hours of gaming, something that only represents a small portion of the entire experience. Our reviewer, Jostein Holmgren, willl continue to monitor the game over the coming months.