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12:52pm on Sunday, 17th September, 2023:

203h 6m


I've been playing Guild Wars 2 in my evenings for the past two or three months, racking up a total of 203 hours 6 minutes across four characters, with 107 hours 8 minutes on that on my main.

GW2 was the last major on-going virtual world that I hadn't played (excluding EVE Online, but I'm not crazy), and I've been putting off playing it for years because I don't like its pay-to-win revenue model. Still, I thought I'd better bite the bullet and have a look, because That's My Job.

As soon as I began, I found myself showered in gifts by the system. This may be because of the type of account I bought, which I thought came with all the expansions but (as we'll see later) apparently didn't. I had no idea what many of these things did, nor how rare they might have been. It turned out, for example, that I shouldn't perhaps have used some kind of resurrection bauble quite as casually as I did, because those things normally cost real money. Then again, other consumables that were only useful at low levels, I kept hold of because I didn't know that. There were even a couple of straight-to-the-level-cap (80) potions I didn't use because why would I pay for a game and skip a hundred hours of what I'd paid for? On my alts I did use some of the XP boost potions that came my way through regular gameplay, though, not that they made a great deal of difference.

This lack of information provision persisted throughout the game. I was told I had gained points that I didn't know how to use, and when I figured out how to use them I wasn't told what the things I used them on did. There were multiple systems that seem to have accreted over the years, which I hadn't a clue whether they were important or not. Some that seemed really significant, such as specialisms, did nothing when I selected them. Others appeared to have an impact in that I saw their visual effects, but in terms of gameplay they didn't really perform. I was offered rewards if I did something I'd never heard of in a place I'd never heard of. I was told at a low level that I could learn how to craft something by visiting some NPC somewhere so far away that it was merely a smudge on the map. Potions arrived to give me bonuses in unexplained concepts (whoopee, WvW, that must be world-versus-world, which is what exactly?). Magic shards let me use a forge that I had to look up offline where it was. Things that had to be done within a time limit somehow managed not to convey that information. The whole game seemed to assume that the player already knew how to play it, which may be true if they don't get many newbies, but it's not a lot of fun if you are one. Sure, you can find out some of these things by experimenting with clicking on HUD buttons, but if they suddenly dump you into a PvP zone with no obvious way to get out of it that's a good way of putting you off.

As one might expecte of a mature virtual world, GW2's social side is not newbie-friendly. I was asked to join guilds in Dutch and German, but not in English until yesterday when I'd already made the decision to quit (and as it said it was a "friendly levelling guild", quite why it chose to advertise in a level 80 zone is unclear). Individual players did speak to me to say "ty" after I resurrected them, but that's all. Actually, it may not have been all: things could have been appearing in my chat box but I didn't notice. Messages need some kind of audio alert to let you know to look, otherwise you're likely not to look. As for dungeons, well I didn't do any: I really can't be bothered to learn boss dances these days when I know I'll stop playing within a few months. I think there's a "story mode" version of dungeons that you can enter on your own, but I didn't try that either; the story isn't all that riveting.

Characters are scaled for zones. If you're level 80 and go to a level 15 area, you'll be scaled to level 15. This means that old areas can be reused later (typically for instanced storyline events) and you can play with your newbie mates. Although this sounds as if you're likely to be beaten up by frogs, the scaling doesn't apply to skills so you can still make short work of the local mobs by using, say, area-of-effect abilities you wouldn't have if you were just starting out (unlike with Final Fantasy XIV's dungeons, which do remove your skills). The loot remains unscaled, though, so you're not going to get level 80 gear from killing level 6 mouse-people. This is a fair compromise, I suppose, at the expense of making no sense within the fiction. You do, however, get scaled points for: doing the jump puzzles (vistas); finding the teleporter locations; finding points of interest; and completing hero challenges (which are either boss fights or getting somewhere awkward). If you do all of those and all the quests in a zone, you get an extra reward; this is always intended to be good but is often useless. Some people seem to leave doing these activities until they have a flying mount, because it's a lot quicker that way. I did them all on the way up, though: I played through every piece of such content of every zone I entered. As a result, I hit level 80 much sooner than the game expected, but it didn't care because it was scaling me down anyway. Consequently, when I reached level 80 zones, things were a lot harder than I was used to because I'd been playing at the top end of the scale before and was now at the bottom end.

There was good control of character income for those of us who were never going to spend a penny on buying gold; I did occasionally decide not to take a teleporter because the cost was too high, for example. The balance was not so good for crafting, though: it took much, much longer to level up crafting than it took to empty a zone of things to do, with the result that you ended up in zones that didn't have the right kind of tree or metal or leather that you needed to grind up the necessary craft skills. I never did manage to get the ability to make iron (level 2 metal), because it took so long to collect the copper (level 1 metal) I needed to craft throwaway things and level up my skills. I suppose I could have bought it from a bot in the auction house, but I wasn't sufficiently enthralled by the crafting system to do so.

Most of the voice-acted characters in GW2 speak with American accents. I'm sure these must carry subtle connotations, but they're lost on me. The ones who are basically tree-people, however, speak with what I believe are meant to be English accents. They're a bit uncanny-valley, though: they're close to being a crisp, home-counties accent, but are not quite right in an occasionally-disconcerting way. I can cope with pronouncing the word "centaur" as if it were pronounced "sent hour", but some of the over-enunciations were creepy. Maybe they're meant to be creepy, but I suspect not. All this was while having to listen to some rather poor, in-your-face dialogue (for the main NPCs — there were a few nice conversations between background NPCs that were amusing on first listen). Oh, and having every single NPC armour-repairer say "Good as new! Unless you start bear-wrangling, this should last you a while" isn't funny even the first time, let alone the other hundred times.

The character storylines offer some choice in which way to take them. Do you want to kill this bunch of bad guys or do you want to obtain information (which will involve killing a different bunch of bad guys)? Do you want to engage in a full-on assault or a stealth assault (and end up in a pitched battle either way)? This did add some variety, which was welcome. The chapters of the character storylines unlock every 10 levels, though, which means you have to grind up the levels in between to continue them. This can take awhile, so by the time you get the next installment there's a fair chance that the NPCs' assumptions that you're still engaged with current affairs are false. Many of the set-piece components of the main story are instanced, by the way, usually with just you in the instance but sometimes with other players, too. These instances can take different lengths of time to complete, and there's no way of knowing when you start them how long they'll be. Sometimes they're ten minutes; sometimes they're more like ninety. If you weren't expecting to be going to bed at 1am, the latter can be annoying.

One of the more interesting features of GW2 is that its quests (which it calls "tasks" — there are maybe 15 or so per zone) are multi-faceted. You can, say, collect Xs or kill Ys or do things to Zs that will produce Ys to kill. There are usually three things that will satisfy the quest-giver, sometimes more. They may not even be listed: resurrecting dead NPCs will usually get you some points towards quest completion, for example. On occasion, the quests aren't balanced well and it takes an age to do them whatever combination of methods you try, and sometimes you get no credit for killing a mob because you stepped across an invisible line and killed the right kind of mob but in the wrong place. Still, on the whole this worked well. The quest options were very samey in their mechanics, but that's true of most MMOs and at least you can switch between them in GW2 a lot of the time.

The rewards for completing quests are some money (enough for a couple of teleports) and some karma. Karma can be cashed in for items. I didn't cash in my karma except at the start because I soon realised that I already had items better than they were selling me and would level up beyond them soon anyway. I guess that later on there might have been some cool things I could have obtained, but I stopped looking after being let down by the weak offerings too many times. At level 80 there are more things you can buy (for vast amounts of karma — gawd knows where you're supposed to get those kinds of amounts) but they're not all that impressive either.

The believability of the world is often subserviant to quality-of-life provisions. If I pick up crafting resources, I can make them appear in some kind of shared bank account that all my characters can use. It wouldn't be hard to come up with some fiction to cover that, but there is none. When believability actually wins and quality-of-life improvements do not hold sway, it's usually because you can pay real money to get said improvements (such as a bank account large enough to hold more than just the free stuff the game has given you).

Believability is also often subserviant to gameplay or story. For example, invulnerability is used to stop speed runs: you can't even scratch the later NPCs in an instance until you've got rid of the ones you're supposed to kill before them so you can have a conversation with a companion NPC first.

NPCs are generally ineffective in the boss battles of story instances, to make you feel powerful. That's unless you keep getting killed. Then, they'll take great chunks out of the boss to make sure it eventually goes down. This isn't the case in non-instanced events (which GW2 helpfully calls "events"), where any friendly NPCs in the area are swiftly mowed down and it's up to the players alone to despatch the boss.

I wasn't impressed by the music, probably because it was repetitive. I kept hearing the same pieces over and over again. That said, I did like one track (Knight of Embers) enough to add it to my playlist.

I like the way the monsters don't just fade in when they spawn, they make the effort to appear from somewhere.
I like the way you can ride while carrying things.
I like the way that getting on your mount is pretty well instantaneous.
I like the ability to take stereoscopic screenshots.

When I stopped playing yesterday evening, I still had some character storylines to pursue and some combat variations to explore (I appreciated the different options available to each character classes wielding a different weapon combination — although not the fact that I couldn't reorder the actions on the action bar). I could, therefore, easily have kept playing. The reason I gave up was that my main reached pay-for-DLC territory. I'd killed the undead dragon and the irritating mad woman (several times, in tiresome "winning a fight isn't actually killing me" fashion), but the next installment was behind a paywall. The installment after that was not behind a paywall, though, so I started it. Apart from the fact that my gear was now an installment behind where it needed to be, which made playing even more of a chore, I found that the story was now broken. I was in conversation with some bloke I didn't know with whom my character had some kind of strong professional relationship, making reference to something really important that I didn't know the meaning of while suggesting that one of the mainstay characters had gone off the rails somehow and talking about some named evil power as if I knew who the blazes they were but I hadn't a clue. My ability to visit all the points of interest was curtailed because some of the areas of a zone were inaccessible without having bought the DLC. This made me even less invested in the main NPCs, none of whom I liked except a chirpy tree woman that a couple of my alts knew (whom I suspect was about to sacrifice herself to save the world, like all the other NPCs in her position did) and a femme fatale detective who spoke like she was out of a film noire (yet who disappointingly for me turned out to be a lesbian).

Added to this, I was supposed to be getting a flying mount at some point here, I believe, but I kept being told I had to get some kind of mastery points (I don't know how) from various sources (some of which I'd never heard of). After falling from a tree with a 15-second drop before it killed me one time too many, I made the decision to quit.

Overall, well I still don't like the pay-to-win elements. Given it's called Guild Wars 2, there weren't a lot of guilds and not that many wars, either. I may as well have been playing a single-player RPG most of the time. It was inoffensive, but it has too many layers of crud built on top of the basics and it needs to be cleaned up somewhat. Still, I don't regret playing it and it did have its moments.

Of the three new-to-me MMOs I've played this year — Guild Wars 2, Lost Ark and New World, the one I'd choose to go back to if paid to do so would be New World. It has a good basis but is in the process of slowly being broken, and slow-motion car crashes are always good. GW2 is more like a city that has an old town that's quite appealing but the business district ruins it. LA is like playing skittles.

Right, Baldur's Gate 3 next, I think!

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