Let me get this out of the way, because it’s important and, as I played the beta of Guild Wars 2, it was something I realized I’d nearly forgotten: Guild Wars 2 is a massively multiplayer online RPG.

That probably sounds obvious to a lot of people. I mean, it’s obvious to me on an intellectual level. But after being continually disappointed by MMOs, and fondly recalling the few that do things differently — DC Universe Online, Rift, the original Guild Wars — I think I piled too many expectations onto Guild Wars 2. So as I was playing, and as I sank into that comfortable groove, I started to smell something familiar: ennui.

Guild Wars 2, for all the cool stuff it does, will not change your opinion on MMOs. It’s very much a part of the genre. It is not the Second Coming of MMOs. It is not even the Reformation; a lot of things I like in Guild Wars 2, I’ve seen in other MMOs. It is, however, an epiphany. What I saw while playing over the last few days was a very good game, easily more polished than many MMOs at launch, and full of exciting content, bold design decisions, and beautiful artwork. It does things differently enough, smart enough, and gorgeous enough that the occasional whiff of ennui doesn’t make me any less enthusiastic about playing when it’s released.

After the jump, you’ve never seen a quest log quite like this

Wait, where is my quest log?

There is no quest log in Guild Wars 2. No journal. A J key that does nothing takes some getting used to. Instead, you have the M key, to bring up your map. Your map is your quest log.

In terms of moment-to-moment gameplay, the basics feel very much like an MMO. For the most part, I have to kill these things, or gather those things, or escort this thing. And in terms of how the world is structured, it’s obviously built to pull you through certain areas when you’re at certain levels. But Guild Wars 2 avoids spelling this out with a list. You know that ridiculous last list of miscellaneous quests in Skyrim, which read like a list of things you had to do after work on the way home? Guild Wars 2 will never do that to you.

Instead, you open the map. Here, for instance, is the human starting area (there are separate starting areas for the Norn and Charr).

I’ve already worked my way around much of the map. The blue diamonds are waypoints. As long as I’m not in combat, I can instantly teleport to a waypoint for a minimal fee. You can see icons for my class’s trainer (which I will only have to visit three times for any given character) and a broken heart icon where I can repair equipment damage. The green swirl icon shows that my next story mission — yes, there are story missions based on your choice of class, race, character background, and so forth — is inside that huge city. More on that city later.

But see those gold hearts? Those are what you get instead of a quest log. Each heart is a series of tasks associated with the region. Once I do enough of those tasks to fill up a bar on my main screen, the heart is filled in. I’ve basically “finished” this part of the map around the Village of Shaemoor. If I zoom out or scroll around, I can see this area to the east, obscured under Guild Wars’ trademark swirly paint style (it’s about as lovely a fog of war as you’ll ever get in a game).

You can see a couple of hollow hearts. Those are the places for me to go, and each will offer me a variety of tasks that will fill in the hearts. And I can also see a settlement, which I’ll later discover is Beetletun, in the northeast. If I scroll to the south a little, I have even less information.

However, those small telescope icons are scouts who will reveal the area’s notable landmarks, including its hearts. I can stumble blindly into terra incognito, or I can head for those scouts when I’m ready to explore the area, a bit like the towers in Assassin’s Creed.

But those hearts aren’t the only things to do in an area. Every area can spawn various dynamic events, sometimes with multiple stages. These will show up on the map, and any nearby events will be listed in the upper right side of the screen. In many cases an NPC will come up to you to tell you about the events. For instance, at one point, I decided I wanted to see the sea. So I headed south.

As I got near the coast, I met this guy.

At this point, I got a marker on my map to bring me to the village. Sure enough, there’s the sea, and there’s the village, and there’s an indicator at the top right of my screen telling me how many villagers are being carried away by the krait.

So my mesmer and her three illusion-selfs jump into the fray, where another player is already trying to hold off the krait.

This isn’t a heart quest. It’s a dynamically generated event unique to this location. We’re not doing well. If the krait carry off one more villager, we lose. We have to keep killing waves of attackers until this bar is empty.

Mechanically speaking, this isn’t very different from a typical MMO quest: kill x krait slavers. But it’s the presentation that sets it apart. The krait aren’t loitering around in the field. This event won’t always be here. What’s more, because it’s a part of the world and not a part of my character’s quest log, it has an inherent collaborative element. Me and this other guy, who was having a hard time of it until I showed up, are defending this seaside village.

It reminds me a lot of Rift, which was based on rifts opening around the world and spawning traveling armies. Player would come together to close rifts, hold back marching armies, and sometimes even mount offenses against enemy locations. But Guild Wars 2 has a larger gameplay vocabulary than Rift. Other locations have events based on rat folks stealing machinery, marauding centaur armies capturing strongholds, powerful boss monsters, harvesting vineyards, or accompanying patrols or caravans.

After the event, I get a message evaluating how much I contributed by giving me a gold, silver, or bronze medal. As you can see, I was late to the party.

I earn, from left to right, experience points, karma, and a handful of copper pieces. This is in lieu of the usual reward for a quest (I’ll get inventory items for story quests). The experience and money are self-explanatory. The karma is a resource you can’t trade. It’s used to buy some equipment and crafting goods. For instance, as a cook, I can buy all the flour and water I want with money. But some ingredients, like cooking oil and salt, cost karma. This is how Guild Wars 2 gates the economy so that you can’t just buy your way into everything. Karma, like experience points, comes from playing.

Many dynamic quests have multiple stages, or they can progress along a tree of possibilities based on whether you succeed or fail. In this instance, now that we’ve driven off the slavers, a new dynamic quest pops up.

The captured villagers have been taken the krait larder, whatever that is. The waypoint on the map is, wait, there? Way out in the water? Time to have a look. When you go underwater in Guild Wars 2, your character swaps to a different set of skills. Which I’m going to need if I want to free 11 villagers from this large underwater lair:

Up next, that ding ding ding