I was a massive fan of the first Guild Wars. It was what got me into MMOs proper and eventually led me to WoW. Sadly GW1 sort of petered out for me. I lost interest before the expansions came out and even though I later bought them, the year or so I’d spent in WoW had somehow spoilt the love I’d once had for Tyria. I never really got into the expansions.

However, as we are now in the worst WoW lull in living memory, waiting for Mists of Pandaria, and GW2 has just come out, it seemed a good time to sample the game and see what it was like. I never believe the hype surrounding new MMOs nowadays. I get sick of all the blather from the supposed WoW killers, who then fizzle out embarrassingly and go free to play.  Star Wars: The Old Republic really thought it was in with a chance, and was trumpeted as such, but where is that now? Gone free to play. Games like Rift and Aion, which I do like, hang in there because they have devoted followers, but really the last time I visited Rift the cities were moribund. So, will GW2 be a contender to share WoW’s crown (I really don’t believe another game can take it) or not?

GW2 is buy to play, which means you just buy the box or digital copy and you’re good to go. There is no monthly sub. But… there is a game store, and because any MMO has to finance its ongoing content provision, we can expect there will be a lot of attractive, if not game-enhancing, things eventually to be had through the store. However, for now, it’s not an issue. You can buy the game and play it fully at the moment and not pay a bean extra. If you intend to stick with it for years, then yes, you’ll find yourself dipping into your pocket, but it depends on how much you want to invest into the game. It can be played enjoyably as it is, and perhaps just left, as I left the original, when you get to the end of current content. It’s not an expensive game – although bizarrely the digital version is more expensive than the boxed, and forget the Collector’s edition, that’s just over priced – so if you’re bored while waiting for Mists of Pandaria, this could fill your weeks admirably with much fun, and you might also be tempted to keep dipping in even after Mists is out. There’s no sub with GW2 so you can play it and when you like with no additional fee.

My first thought when entering the revamped Tyria was that I was overwhelmed. There is a lot to learn from the start, and nothing is like the original Guild Wars. The UI and game play are also very different to WoW, Rift and Aion, which sort of share a common UI syntax, so that players can get into the games smoothly and without fuss. The first few times I played GW2 I wondered whether I could in fact get into it, because things were so different. I’m used to clicking on NPC’s, loot, and well just about everything, to interact with a game world. In GW2 you use the ‘F’ key for all of this. That took some getting used to. The game is complex, you can’t fault it there, but you can feel rather swamped when you first start. It’s beautiful, so you can amble incompetently about trying to pick things up, and I found the chat in the general channel generally had lots of questions and answers that helped me also.  You have different skills depending on what weapons you have equipped; and I’m still wrestling with that a bit. It’s often not obvious what you have to do to access new skills, or in the case of Rangers, even new pets. I just fiddled about, and continue to do so, until I discover by accident the right manoeuvres to get what I want.

My first character was a Charr Necromancer. Charr were a ‘baddy’ race in the original GW, a catlike people who were just well, beasts. Now, they have somehow acquired a kind of steampunk aesthetic and technology, so the leap from animals to engineers is rather a large one. Their city, the Black Citadel, is amazing and will appeal to anyone who’s into the steampunk vibe. My Charr reminds me very much of my Worgen girls in WoW. She even runs on all fours the same way. Like a worgen, but a cat creature instead. I love the race; they are what you’d call uncompromising. The females are probably what all the people who moaned about the female Worgen character models would like their WoW characters to look like.

My second character, because I’ll just have to try all races eventually, (being an altoholic), was a Silvari Ranger. I do find him a bit repulsive, I must admit, poor thing. There is an aspect of ‘Uncanny Valley’ in many of the GW2 characters and this one, while not being that human at all, is a bit too real for comfort sometimes. He’s sort of elvish, yet born from a tree, so apparently made of wood, with leaves for hair, and I get the distinct impression if someone trod on him, revolting yellow stuff would come out. I’m getting used to him now, but even though I tried to make him attractive when I created him, he did make me shudder for a few days, every time I logged him on. He’s pretty too, but just… bizarre. There is a stack of fighting pets for Rangers to collect in GW2, as there are for Hunters in WoW. They all have different abilities, and one cool thing is that if your current pet dies, you can call another from the 3 active pets you have with you. This is like a cross between Hunter pets and the forthcoming pet battles in WoW. Again, you have to get used to the fact you have different skills for different weapons, but thankfully it didn’t take me long to work out how to equip a bow. When you equip a new weapon(s) you have to play for a while to ‘skill up’ with them. You learn skills as you use those weapons, so if you try out a new set at a bad moment you might find yourself with only one skill to use. This is just something you have to learn about and be aware of. The Silvari city is immense and on multiple levels and reminds me very much of the world of Avatar. It is very beautiful, if somewhat confusing to navigate.

Character number three was a Norn Elementalist. Norns are based upon Norse culture, and out of the three races I first tried, I found this one (for me) to be the easiest story to follow and the least confusing. But of course this might have been because I was getting used to the game. Their home city is huge and icebound but also I thought easier to navigate than the Silvari’s ‘Grove’ and the Charr’s ‘Black Citadel’. Perhaps this is because it doesn’t seem to be on so many confusing levels one above the other, with ramps and elevators up and down all over the place. Norns can be big hulking Barbarians if that’s what you want, but my Elementalist is a flame-haired, svelte girl; I just preferred her that way. I’m currently using Fire with her, as her main element, but while playing my Charr tonight, I was fighting alongside an Elementalist in a public event who was using Water and that seemed to be far more effective than what I remember of GW1. Fire was the only spec worth using then.

Speaking of public events, there are a lot of them. Like Rift, if you take part, you get spoils, and depending on how much you do towards achieving victory, you get a bronze, silver or gold level of completing it. Unlike Rift, you don’t have to join a public team to take part. If you’re passing by, and there are some players dealing with some kind of attack or invasion, you can elect to join in or not.

Another cool feature is the revive ability. Any player (or friendly NPC) who dies nearby to you, you can press the all-encompassing ‘F’ key to resurrect. If you’re in a big fight, people are happy to resurrect all the time. But before death happens, if you should fall to a foe, you get the opportunity to ‘fight for your life’. You are given 4 skills to attack foes around you, in a last gasp attempt, from the floor, to take them down. If there are other players nearby, this often succeeds and you ‘rally’ or spring back to life.

Quests aren’t just exclamation points or similar over NPCs about the landscape. When you enter a zone, you’ll see various marks on the map indicating activities to take part in. This might be exploring ‘points of interest’ or seeking hard to reach ‘vista’ points, which give you splendid panoramic views of the landscape. There will be areas where a difficult mob might provide an extra skill up and there will also be NPCs who need your help. These are indicated on the map by empty hearts. Once you seek out those NPCs and start doing the tasks to win their favour, you will eventually have a solid heart displayed on your map to show you’ve helped that particular person/people. I would imagine it’s advisable to do all of these tasks, before moving on to a higher area. Once you get favour with an NPC they have special items for sale, which you can buy with ‘karma points’. These are accrued by helping people.

Much of your personal storyline is instanced, and some are quite difficult, at least for the newbie. As I’m still in starter areas with my characters I haven’t got to the point where an instance requires more than one person to complete. GW1 was notorious for having log jam points in the game, where players fetched up in a pile at a point in the game where the difficulty of the mission (or instance) meant it was hard to progress. In GW1 you had to move through different instances to advance through the game. Its successor doesn’t seem to follow that model, although I am still at the beginning, so it’s hard to tell.

I took my Silvari Ranger travelling to see what pets I could find. In the original game there was a major town called Lion’s Arch, which was reached after a particularly challenging instance. It was the only place where you could purchase guild halls, and had other really important features. I can still remember the words ‘Welcome to Lion’s Arch’ at the conclusion of that instance, accompanied by such a sense of relief, you were almost sobbing; you really worked for that major hub town. Now, I am somewhat surprised to discover that every major city has a portal gate to Lion’s Arch. If you pass through it, you find yourself in an area where there are portal gates to all the starter areas of the game for the different races. Fantastic for the newbie pet hunter. I went into the Human area, and found their capital city, Divinity’s Reach. This is what Stormwind in WoW should have been, or what we might wistfully hope for. It’s absolutely immense and gorgeously designed. Again it’s constructed on many levels and rather confusing on a first visit.

There are many more things I might mention about the game, but really you should give it a try. Yes, it is overwhelming to start with, and I haven’t even thought about things like professions – I’m still trying to get to grips with how my characters function – but the world is beautiful, there are myriad things to do in the landscape, and the many quests, or tasks as we should properly call them, aren’t about simply killing x number of creatures, or gather y number of items. They are far more inventive than that. As an example, in the Norn starter area, you will turn into various animals to complete shamanic sorts of tasks. As a newbie Charr you might find yourself servicing defective rat traps and clearing up workshops, or gathering up mortars and throwing them at invaders. Sometimes you might find yourself thrown on your back by faulty technology. The tasks are varied, and the ongoing story lines interesting.

So far I’m impressed, but I was also impressed with other games that eventually lost their charm. I can say though that the start of GW2 is huge and varied. Even if you only elect to play one character you can visit all the starter areas and be involved in the story lines. The game will adjust your level to be appropriate for your location, i.e. if you’re level 6 in a level 4 area, you will be adjusted to level 4. This is an interesting way to do things because it means you can enjoy lots of zones without getting to that stage of out levelling them so all the quests give no experience. It also means you’re never without a challenge. I don’t think GW2 is as difficult as Rift could be for low level characters, but it is harder than WoW. I’ve found myself ‘fighting for my life’ a lot, but not to the point where it’s annoying. Half the time I end up in trouble by not being careful enough. The voice acting is a bit dodgy though; I find myself wincing a lot. Some races work better than others and I must confess I find the American-accented races don’t work the best. I think the reason for this must be that the American accent sounds so contemporary and ‘real world’. European accents seem to work better for fantasy, perhaps because on an unconscious level they sound ‘antique’ or something.

Anyway, on a score of 1 – 10, GW2 is a 9.  Absorbing, beautiful and full of lots of things to do, but not easy for a newbie, and if you’ve never played an MMO before I don’t think you’d last 5 minutes.