A Gorgeous, Living World Sets Guild Wars 2 Apart

We all have our personal gaming quirks. I, for example, have a habit of leaping into any new game as a thief, rogue, or assassin type whenever possible. I prefer to move slowly and cautiously, in stealth and shadows, choosing my targets with utmost care. I operate alone or, when in teams, as a scout and sniper who can be relied upon not to be seen.

The flip side of this preference is that when very suddenly faced with a devastating forty-foot-high enemy boss, everyone else in the room can stand at a safe distance casting fireballs while I have to run in close and poke ineffectually at it with a puny bit of metal. Someone in this fight has foolishly chosen hard mode, and it's not the folks with the magic. The massive elemental hands rising from the earth crushed me. Thoroughly. More than once.

At the end, I managed to ding level 2. So concluded the prologue and tutorial area of Guild Wars 2.

I spent about six hours, spread out over a few play sessions, wandering through Guild Wars 2 during its public beta event this past weekend, and in all honesty it wasn't nearly enough. ArenaNet badly wants their new MMORPG, a follow-up to 2005's Guild Wars, to feel different from the countless other high-fantasy single and multiplayer universes out there. In some ways, they succeed dramatically. In others, not so much.

I began my adventures in Tyria on a high note, falling hard for the art on every screen. Graphics are hardly the be-all and end-all of importance when it comes to enjoying an MMO, but the heavily stylized, almost hand-painted quality of menus, cut-scenes, and backgrounds were immediately appealing. I was landing in a pastoral, medievalesque pastiche of a fantasy continent, but the bold strokes and splashes of color made it feel touched by human hands.

A Gorgeous, Living World Sets Guild Wars 2 Apart

Meanwhile, my adventures in stabbing my way through the world were less immediately rewarding. I've dabbled in a fair array of MMOs over the last seven years of my life, but the last time I felt so immediately, if momentarily, clueless when confronted with my hotbar and skillset was back on the first day I ever laid fingers on EverQuest II in 2005, my first MMO experience.

Guild Wars 2 very clearly had no intention of holding my hand, and in one sense I appreciated it for that. The structure is very much about the world, and about the openness of the world. The character has an individually tailored storyline to play through, but otherwise the game offers very little traditional guidance about where to go and what to try next. I focused at first on my story, but very quickly I found that the suggested level for my next chapter was two levels ahead of where my character was, and I couldn't handle the newer, stronger baddies. She simply wasn't strong enough yet to continue her own story.

A Gorgeous, Living World Sets Guild Wars 2 Apart

So out I struck, into the countryside, seeking my fortune. Scout NPCs helped uncover my map and indicate where I could find quests. It seemed my job was to win over the hearts — literally — of the farmers, fishers, and craftsmen in the area. The map and loading screen for the zone both helpfully indicated where teleport waypoints were (and how many I had discovered), where skill points could be earned (and how many I had received), points of interest in the area (and how many I had found), and how many hearts could be won (and how many I had turned).

On the one hand, the vast array of information was all a bit of a heavy-duty info-dump. New to the world, and still trying to figure out how, exactly, the dagger skill with the flipping-over icon actually worked, I popped open my character window. There I found not only tabs for my skills, equipment, and stats, but also a thorough rundown of daily, monthly, and overall tasks and achievements. I was apparently 2/13 of the way to being 100% done with the day's challenges.

While the glut of information was overwhelming, as an irredeemable explorer I also found it hugely helpful, and a bit empowering. Knowing that Queensdale — the farmland and forest through which I was wandering — had 17 hearts, 16, waypoints, 21 points of interest, and 7 skill points to find and earn gave me a mission. I would know when I had reached the corners of the map; I would have clear, neatly outlined proof of when it would be all right to go elsewhere and seek stranger tides.

And so I ended up bounded by the same impulse that finds me brokenly crawling around every single possible centimeter of the map, activating every location, in a game like Fallout 3. There were numbers, percentages, and goals in front of my face; I would not be letting them go!

A Gorgeous, Living World Sets Guild Wars 2 Apart

Except, of course, that I would. Because of the way that quests and missions pop up around the world, as live events, it's easy to get carried away. Step across an invisible perimeter (which then becomes visible, on your map), and you're in range for a ring event, quest, or straight-up mass melee. Up comes an alert, whether it's for a farmer whose corn you can water or for a giant wasp who's so far got a full dozen players running for their lives. Cross out of the circle again, and you're on your own, the plea for aid vanishing from your screen as if it had never been.

Trained by other MMOs, I tried to stay respectful. When someone was fighting a centaur, I backed away; when someone was harvesting apples from a tree, I moved to another node. Only after several hours did I finally realize that the game was aiming for cooperation, not competition, and that kill-stealing was more or less impossible. If a nearby character and I teamed up on a kill, we both got credit and full loot, even without being grouped. Likewise, spawned bosses, like the giant wasp, are fights for any and all hands in the area. Anyone can heal themselves, and anyone can revive others. The game actively encourages the human impulse to come running over and lend aid in a crisis, which for me made a delightful change from the usual gruff "stay out of my way" mood I have felt in other games.

Of course, Guild Wars 2 is famously not only about cooperation but also about direct competition. I tried my hand, warily, at some PvP for a while. The PvP game takes place in almost an entirely separate sphere from the PvE game. I zoned in, surprised to find myself at an extraordinarily powerful level 80 and wearing, it must be said, some truly gorgeous, kick-ass armor. This is by design, an ArenaNet employee explained to me; the idea is to have everyone on equal footing so that winning consistently becomes a matter of skill rather than brute force.

PvP has never been my strength or my preference. I played a couple of rounds of essentially a capture-the-flag style of team mission, which looked very nice but was in very few ways distinguishable from any other "hold the point" type of mission except for one key difference that had me cackling with glee: the trebuchet.

Each team has a trebuchet on its side, for aiming and firing at structures, players, or really anything your mad little heart desires. In the rounds I played, the opposing team seemed to have forgotten theirs existed. But for someone like me, who can line up a few smart, careful, devastating shots in a round but just plain stinks at running around causing mayhem, it's the perfect support role. Dropping an enormous boulder into a point the enemy holds and watching them scatter is, it turns out, enormously satisfying. I could get used to that.

A Gorgeous, Living World Sets Guild Wars 2 Apart

Ultimately, though, my main impression of the weekend is a buoyant sense of having been carried away with the joy of exploration. Taking time to stop and complete missions, or to advance my story, felt almost like being swept aside from my real goal: seeing and finding everything.

The city of Divinity's Reach was so populated with both players and NPCs, with exactly enough background and ambient noise, that it actually felt like a city. A fantasy city, to be sure, in which people don't behave the way they would on the streets of New York, and in which residential and market districts don't necessarily make any sense from an urban planner's point of view, but a city still, with life and soul. The countryside, too, seemed to have a soul, in a way: tying missions to their areas, rather than making them burdens that a player carries around from point to point, adds a sense of boundaries and of urgency that I haven't felt in most other games.

That, in the end, is what may truly set Guild Wars 2 apart, when it's done. I felt that not only did my character have a story, but so too did the land in which she found herself. Hundreds of little stories, overlapping and flowing in and out of each other with the ripples of tiny tides. Sweeping vistas as grand as the eye can imagine are everywhere, but a country that cares who walks through it is much more rare. I hope that sense persists beyond the barest beginnings I was able to see for myself.