One of my favorite things about the original Guild Wars is it never turned into that typical late-game MMO interface of rows of hotbars framing the screen, each festooned with tiny icons of impenetrable meaning. In Guild Wars, whatever level you were, however many hours you’d been playing, you only ever had eight skills. Before an adventure, you picked any eight skills you wanted. Your character was always a flexible thing. You could freely rejigger Guild Wars’ equivalent of a talent tree, which tweaked your eight skills in unique ways. But playing Guild Wars was always and only a matter of pressing one of eight buttons.

Guild Wars 2 is both simpler and more complicated. But I’m convinced it’s better for a few reasons, including one reason that means I absolutely, positively, no-question-about-it must go into that swamp pictured up there.

Find out what’s in the swamp after the jump

During the Guild Wars 2 beta, the developers at ArenaNet hung out on Ventrillo channels to answer questions while we played. At one point, after routing a huge enemy force during one of the pitched world vs. world battles, we were charging forward and picking off the stragglers. Someone asked, “What’s a good class for ganking someone? You know, for killing them while they’re trying to run away?”

The ensuing conversation wasn’t about classes. It was, instead, about combinations of classes and weapons. Because when you talk about characters and character builds in Guild Wars 2, those are the fundamental bits of information. Pointing out that you’re a ranger isn’t going to do much good. What is your ranger using?

Unlike Guild Wars 1, you don’t arrange your skills in Guild Wars 2. They’re prearranged into categories, with default positions on the interface and default hotkeys. Keys 1-3 fire off abilities based on your main weapon and how it interacts with your class. For instance, a mesmer’s sword will do different things than a warrior’s sword. Keys 4 and 5 fire off abilities based on your offhand weapon. If you’re wielding a two-handed weapon, it will have five different skills. Furthermore, once you reach a certain level, you unlock a second weapon slot, so you can basically swap out the function of the 1-5 keys.

Key 6 is always your healing skill. Since there are no priests or clerics in Guid Wars 2, every class has its own set of healing skills. You slot here whichever one you choose. Then keys 7-9 are your class abilities, which gradually unlock as you level up. As you accumulate more class abilities, you can slot whichever ones you like, much like the original Guild Wars. You can rearrange these freely any time you’re not in combat. Finally, every class will have some unique mechanics attached to the F1-F4 keys, such as the type of magic an elementalist is using, or how a ranger will command his pet.

So a warrior with a greatsword is going to be a very different build from a warrior with a mace and shield. And a warrior with a greatsword is going to use his greatsword in a very different way than a mesmer with a greatsword. In fact, the primary ability of a mesmer’s greatsword is shooting out long range beams of energy that do damage proportionate to the range to the target. The other four skills are mostly based on maintaining that range. So you can’t just talk about how greatswords work. You have to take into account who’s wielding it. And similarly, you can’t just talk about mesmers. You have to take into account what they’re wielding.

Getting a new weapon is trivially easy. Just buy one for eight copper or whatever. Getting skills to slot into the 6-9 slots isn’t. Basically, you earn a skill point whenever you level up. You spend these to unlock your class skills so you can slot them. Some skills are more expensive than others, so it’s never a one skill point = one skill equation. You have to consider whether to spend your skill points now or save them up for something really juicy. However, ArenaNet does something even more insidious with skill points than making you decide whether to save them: they leave them lying around on the map.

For instance, here you can see I’ve come to the Delanian Foothills.

To the east, in the unexplored areas, there are two blue chevrons. Each of those it a skill point. If I go there, I’ll find some challenge that will give me a skill point. It doesn’t matter what level I am. But it gets me the same reward as leveling up. And you cannot pass up skill points. It’s just not going to happen.

Which brings me to that swamp. I don’t really need to go in there. My storyline seems to be taking me around the swamp. But the map shows a skill point smack dab in the middle of the swamp. I must get it, as surely as I must get an orb in Crackdown, a twinkling artifact in Rift, or one of those infernal question marks in Arkham City. Actually, even more surely, because those things are all collectibles. These blue chevrons are instrumental to my character build!

It turns out that the skill point is out in a stretch of shallow water. Oh, wait, it’s not so shallow. Now I’m swimming, with the option to dive underwater and discover a whole new area, at which point I automatically equip my underwater weapon and therefore change the skills attached to my 1-5 keys. The skill point is at a serpent shrine, where I have to meditate unmolested long enough to fill a progress bar. Which means fighting off these gar/crocodile things circling around overhead.

Plenty of MMOs give you rewards for exploring new places. I can’t think of many that leave such rich treasure out out on the map. Those blue chevrons will directly develop my character, as sure as a pile of experience points that gets me to the next level.

Up next, when worlds collide
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