Guild Wars 2 Is Here. How Does It Run?
(Update: Because we tested the game's beta client in order to get this story ready in time for launch, the Guild Wars 2 lead engine programmer, Chad Taylor, dropped us a line to let us know that the game was updated with performance optimizations in the final build. One key change was putting the renderer in its own thread so that blocking driver calls wouldn't create stoppages in the main game loop. He mentioned that this change should make a notable difference on machines with four or more CPU execution cores, and that a few of the graphics preset options were also tweaked.
As a result of these changes, we'd like to revisit Guild Wars 2 in the near future to re-benchmark CPU performance and update the driver settings images with examples from the full release. Stay tuned for the update, due in mid-September.)
(Update Sept 27: We've re-tested the game with the release client and we're not seeing a notable performance difference. The Core i5 gained a few FPS (as did the AMD FX-4100 to a lesser extent), but all of the other results remain similar to our published numbers. NCSoft let us know that they're working with AMD to improve FX-series CPU performance, and if this happens in the near future we may revisit Guild Wars 2 with new benchmarks.)
The original Guild Wars (back in 2005) was the premiere release from ArenaNet, a company started by ex-Blizzard employees. Guild Wars was the first MMO that I could convince a group of friends to join me in playing, mostly because it didn't involve an ongoing subscription fee.
ArenaNet’s business model involved charging a one-time fee for the game, and then charging again for each subsequent expansion pack. It worked brilliantly, and is one of the forerunners of today's free-to-play model. This is becoming a standard for MMOs. Even noted holdout Bioware plans to go free-to-play with its Star Wars: The Old Republic title.
In a crowded MMO market, can Guild Wars 2 achieve the same distinction as its predecessor?
The max-level PvP (player versus player) focus of Guild Wars was never a compelling aspect of the game to me, though I can certainly understand its appeal. If you're too busy to set aside free time that matches a guild schedule, you'll have a hard time deriving the richest possible experience from an MMO, much of which is designed for big groups. Some games have found ways to accommodate more casual players. However, you're usually forced into pick-up group queues with people you don't know or meta games.
The real solution is a way for players to log on and cooperate with others without being forced to wait for a new player group to form. As I was reviewing the Guild Wars 2 final beta prior to its August 28th launch, I was surprised to discover a potential answer: dynamic events.
The game does not attempt to explain dynamic events in any way. Instead, they simply happen naturally and fluidly. For example, I was playing my low-level Sylvari (a race of plant people with a heavy dose of Elf influence) when the town was attacked by a group of angry mobs. My natural inclination was to help fight off the invasion. In this situation, however, other players in the town lent a hand to stomp out the threat.
Thwarting the attack created a shared a sense of satisfaction among the group, and I realized we had just participated in a sort of player versus environment (PvE) group experience—a way to engage in an event without queuing, similar to what Trion Worlds achieved in Rift.
I later learned that all players involved were awarded the same amount of “group-PvE” experience. Eliminating kill-stealing, this creates a powerful incentive for players to cooperate, especially since Guild Wars 2 automatically increases event difficulty proportionally with the number of players involved.
ArenaNet claims that these dynamic events cause lasting consequences in the game world, affecting subsequent quests, too. My limited time with the beta prevented me from exploring the implications of this. But I find the concept quite interesting in the way it conceptually facilitates different experiences for different characters.
In addition to dynamic events, Guild Wars 2 also introduces several other interesting game play elements. Combat is based on skills and stats, but it also involves some twitch play; dodging and timing are important. Tactical positioning is crucial on battlefields where environmental objects can be employed. Basic melee skills are derived not from not the class of your character, but rather from the type of weapons you're wielding. There is considerable accommodation of unique play styles, and archetypes are not as strict as they are in other titles.
Guild Wars 2 features an array of characters and customization capabilities, including five races with their own unique starting area and story. They include the Asura (short mystical scientists; think WoW’s Gnomes), the Sylvari (plant people with more than a passing resemblance to Elves), Humans (the game’s underdogs, given their fall from power in the two and a half centuries since the original Guild Wars), the Norn (tall and stocky Barbarians from the north), and, surprisingly, the Charr (the first game’s antagonistic race of warriors that bring to mind the unholy union of a wolf, bear, and boar).
Add to this list eight professions: mesmer, guardian, necromancer, ranger, elementalist, warrior, thief, and engineer. With every character’s basic melee skills derived from their choice of weapon, there are many permutations for customization and playing a unique avatar. I should also mention that every character begins the game with its own pet, which also includes several options.
It is important to stress how fleshed-out and complete this game seems compared to its predecessor. The character creation process is joined to a letter-writing paradigm where personal and seemingly whimsical choices form your avatar. The Guild Wars 2 story is also much more compelling than the original right from the start. Each race has a unique area and art style, and conversations are often voiced along with 2D animations and slideshows that advance the story.
There is a lot more to Guild Wars 2's game play that I could discuss. For example, one of the main aspects of the game is PvP. But, given relatively little time with the beta and our focus on performance testing, there was simply no time to explore.