MMO beta weekends are odd little snapshots of gaming; throw a bunch of early-adopters into a expansive game world for 48 hours and watch most of them never make it out of the starter zones before you shut up shop and delete everyone’s progress. That said, the hours I sunk into the Guild Wars 2 beta this past weekend were anything but wasted.
I could wax lyrical for hours about the things I loved about GW2 – my Asura’s personal story of stolen inventions and warring tech enclaves; the communal events that rewarded people for playing together without being dicks about it; that not once did I have to deliver 20 rat scrota to some guy with a punctuation mark halo – but I couldn’t help but consider how GW2, alongside other interesting examples of the latest wave of MMOs, are helping to progress the genre away from its stereotype of ‘grind monsters for loot’. No matter how good the world and the lore and the end-game content of an MMO are, if the primary aim of the game is simply to kill the same gaggle of foes over and over again for hours at a time it becomes like working a shift on a production line. Endless repetition, broken up by occasionally sweeping up discarded debris from the floor.
The trick seems to be to make a game which actively rewards doing interesting things, then filling the world with fun stuff to do. In GW2, you gain more XP from exploring nooks and crannies than you do from smashing an army of random mobs. You get big XP bonuses for killing more than ten different types of enemy a day, or for clambering to the top of buildings and mountain peaks for Assassins Creed-style camera-swirl viewpoints (even if the actual jumping controls are decided unsuited to the precision being asked of them). You progress even faster by joining randomly-occurring local quests which flash up in the corner of your screen, quickly degenerating as an influx of players struggles to cooperate, stringing together combo attacks or working to revive downed players. And it mostly works.
After a weekend of play, Guild Wars 2 reminds me of Disney World. You wander through brightly-coloured worlds full of automata spouting pre-recorded lines, and there’s always something new to look at, some new toy to play with or ride to experience. And just when things are beginning to feel predictable, a spontaneous parade erupts and everyone’s cheering and having fun.
Until you come back again for the second day; you’ve already been on the rides you gave a damn about, and when an identical parade erupts just as spontaneously for the new arrivals as it did back when you saw everything with neon-tinted glasses, the illusion begins to waver. The world is never as dynamic as you think it is, but while you can believe in it you’ll have a lot of fun.
But I can’t imagine going back to Disney World for a third day; all I’d have to look forward to is the slow degeneration of fine illusion into mundane reality. Perhaps GW2 can sidestep that through progression – by day three I’d be levelled up enough to move out of the starting zones and into the wide world – but whether the full game can keep up that sense of momentum throughout is beyond the bounds of a weekend of play. And if not, at least I won’t be spending fifteen bucks a month for the pleasure of grinding my way to level 80.