|I beat this up at level 3. Yep, that's frost on my eyeballs.|
I know a lot of you, much like myself, see NCSoft in any capacity and automatically go, "Oh yay, another Korean grinder." The term affectionately (or not so affectionately) tied to pretty much every game NCSoft has had its hand in (Lineage, Tabula Rasa, Aion, etc.), as well as all the others that fit the bill (Tera, Rift, etc.) You know the sort: remarkably pretty in the art department but also remarkably shallow in every other capacity, resulting in months after months of what equates to mind-numbing grinding of monsters with little to no actual content to compel you forward. Other MMO's at least try to mask the grind with fluff like quest-related stories and group activities.
But I digress, because much to my surprise that's not what Guild Wars II is like at all! You may not believe me at first because at a glance, the art direction makes it seem very, very much like that is what you can expect. Once you get into the game however you quickly realize this is not the case. In the course of three days I made it to level 15 without ever just having to senselessly kill wolves, or spiders, or bats.
Quests come in a few varieties and are voice acted, some better than others. There are personal story quests to advance your class/race/caste storyline which are somewhat unique. There are typical quests. Then there are area quests (much in the vein of Warhammer Online) where the overall goal is worked at by everyone nearby, not just you and whoever might be in your group. So long as you contribute, you get credit. Completing such quests earns a good portion of exp, whereas killing stuff just for the sake of killing it isn't half so rewarding.
Area quests may also have an actual impact on the environment, short term or not. Such as the entrance to a cave being blocked off, or a city being under attack. Which makes them somewhat more interesting than just things happening and then things no longer happening. If there aren't enough people around to finish a goal, there just might be consequences. You can "lose."
While it's all still questing it isn't a boring hassle.
You can also get a good amount of exp just from exploring, and there's plenty of unique locations around the world that are actually worth exploring. Kind of a win:win there. See cool shit and level up, why not do this?
Speaking of class/race/caste, I should probably explain what the hell that even means. During character creation you select your class as per usual and your race but you also select several other options that will later change the way your personal story progresses. Such as caste -- being a commoner rather than a noble (human) or being born in the dusk cycle rather than the dawn cycle (Sylvari). I have yet to play long enough to see the end outcome of these decisions, but I've seen far enough that I'm aware they have an impact on how the game will play out for you.
Character creation itself is nice. There are base faces from which to choose from and then sliders for things such as eyes, nose, lips, chin, jaw, etc., so that you may further refine these base options into something more unique to your character. There are also a variety of body types and a height slider. Hair options are currently tied into racial choice, but are quite detailed and numerous. And there are a ton of colors from which to choose for things such as eye color, hair color and skin tone. One of my personal favorites here is the attention to detail. If you choose to be dark skinned -- you will have light skinned palms.
Another way in which you can further customize your character's look is through armor dyes. Yes, you read that correctly. You could do this in DAoC way back when and since then it's a feature that has been largely absent in recent titles. It makes a reappearance here, starting you off with a few basic options and granting you more as you play through looting and perhaps other means I've simply not yet discovered.
There are a number of classes from which to choose, all pretty well explained on the game's official site, so I do not feel compelled to needlessly repeat that information. Same goes for the races at your disposal. One thing I will say, however, is that there is no stealth as stealth is traditionally presented in MMO's. Instead you have a number of abilities as a Thief that will put you into stealth, but only for a few seconds at a time. Some people will love this, other will hate it. I personally dislike it. During my playtime as a thief I had a number of survivability issues that would have easily been solved by being able to stealth for longer than 3 seconds at a time. It is beta however, I imagine these things will be taken into consideration before launch. Either increasing stealth time or improving innate survivability.
Artistically the game is beautiful. Character models, creature models, architecture, weather effects, and reflections are all lovely. Environments are large and spacious. The music is expressive and from what I've witnessed suiting to whatever situation you may be in at the time. There's also ambiance. People talking, birds chirping, foot steps in the distance, etc. All making you feel very much a part of the location you're in. Excellent for role-players, certainly.
Interestingly, despite being so damn pretty the game also runs well and loads quickly. I would say the graphics are easily above and beyond SWTOR in every perceptible way, but the game loads at least 4x quicker, with a more consistent frame rate to boot.
Mechanically the game is fun to play, with a combat system reminiscent of the original Guild Wars only more polished. WvWvW is a PVP mechanic similar to Dark Age of Camelot's 3 realm RvR system, so there is a lot of appeal to that. Three servers vie over a map, and the victors get special bonuses. Unlike Battlegroups in other MMO's these match-ups are not permanent and will alternate so that at no point are you gong to get stuck on the losing side as the under-dog forever. There are also quick match games, much like Battlegrounds in other games (DAoC, WOW, SWTOR, etc.).
The auction house is stable and you can check your mailbox from anywhere, which is nice. Though presently you cannot open trades with other players, the only way to transfer items or money from person A to person B is to mail it to them. Not a huge issue, just a little strange.
Much to my dismay there are not a ton of additions specifically for role-players. There is an extremely limited number of emotes presently in game, walk isn't a toggle, and you can't interact with the environment a whole lot (such as sitting in chairs). That said, people role-play anyway. It's rare to find in a game's beta, but I encountered more role-play in three days of GW2 beta than I have in most retail MMO's presently on the market.
There are chat bubbles and custom emoting is in game. Though, custom emotes have an excessively long range, sometimes carrying over almost the entire zone, which is a little weird. As a plus it means you can tell there's RP happening and go search for it. There was never a time where I dropped a custom emote and at least 5 people didn't show up soon after. Kind of nice.
There is also something of an appearance tab, though not in an incarnation you'll be overly familiar with. Rather than your combat armor/weapons tab taking stat precedence over your appearance tab, one replaces the other. Which I actually prefer. I have a strong issue with someone running around in a bikini only as it turns out it's actually got the magical stats of a full suit of plate armor. In Guild Wars II, if you have your Town Clothes on and leave the city to go try and quest... you are going to die miserably. As well it should be.
To wrap it up here, though I'll undoubtedly add more and amend things after future betas, the game has no monthly subscription fee, so you only need to pay for the base game. Which is $60.00 and can be preordered now despite that there is no set launch date at this time. This means even if you only play casually, it essentially pays for itself in the first few months (other MMO's charging $15.00 per month in addition to their base price). In essence, I don't see much of a reason at this point not to play.