One of my most common reactions while playing Guild Wars 2 is, “Well, heck, why didn’t games do it like this before?” There are all sorts of answers to that question, including the fact that some games did do it like this before (the MMO aficionado might recognize elements of Dark Age of Camelot, Rift, Eve Online, and Guild Wars 1). But the main answer is that these kinds of games have been in thrall to World of Warcraft’s success, which in turn is in thrall to it’s own launch date. Blizzard’s formula was so successful so quickly and so lucratively and for so long that it cast a tall foreboding shadow on an entire genre, freezing it in the year 2004. This was the way you do it if you want to be big and successful. This is the way it was.

After the jump, the operative word is “was”.

The established rules themselves aren’t necessarily bad. World of Warcraft is a fine game if you’re into that sort of thing. And the rules have been broken on smaller scales to varying effect. You’ll find minor infractions in all sorts of games, ranging from Star Wars: Old Republic’s single-player storylines, to Rift’s rampaging roaming armies, to the way Pirates of the Burning Sea played with ships, to DC Universe’s action-based combat, to Secret World’s atmosphere, to Lord of the Rings Online’s understated love of lore, to Eve Online’s many esoteric heresies.

But no game has so thoroughly renovated, reformed, and upgraded what it means to be an MMO as Guild Wars 2. No game sits as far from 2004. The foundations of combat have been overthrown and replaced. Fighting in Guild Wars 2 is fast, fluid, and varied, with different character classes that each play in various ways, flexible at your whim, and the product of sometimes difficult choices, and conducive to intricate levels of tinkering if you’re into tweaking numbers, gear, skills, and traits. Playing a character in Guild Wars 2 is a bit like getting a million dollar car that comes with a garage, paint shop, personal race track, team of drivers, and R&D firm. Sure, you can just tool around town if you want, but that’s just the beginning.

The world of Guild Wars 2 is boldly dynamic and alive with activities in ways no other MMO has accomplished, with nary a floating exclamation point over anyone’s head, without a quest log, without traditional breadcrumb trails leading you around, with broad options for where to go and what to do and how to play. It is a vast world, meticulously built for exploring and full of the sort of stuff that makes every literal and figurative hill worth climbing just to see what’s on the other side. The visuals are graceful and elegant, with a painterly love of scenery and an illustrator’s appreciation of fantasy fiction. It even runs on my gaming laptop. I certainly didn’t expect that.

One of my favorite things about Guild Wars 2 — I’m trying to resist making a top ten list, if only because ten is too few — is a nearly miraculous act of social engineering in which I don’t mind other people. I just came from Secret World, an evocative and distinct horror themed game in which lots of people in gaudy outfits run around screwing up the mood of my ghost story. Everyone knows what it’s like to rush for that ore node, only to get jumped by a Razormane Whatsit, at which point you watch someone else take the ore while you fight. Everyone knows what it’s like when no one wants to play the healer. Everyone knows what it’s like when someone else is hogging the experience points, or the treasure, or the loot. Everyone knows how online games can make you hate very specific people, and even humanity in general.

These things do not happen in Guild Wars 2, a game carefully designed so that hell is never other people. Yet you’re almost never spirited away from other people into little pocket dimensions (and when that does happen, your friends are welcome to come along). This is a world built to thrive on activity and population. Other players are a welcome sight, thanks in part to smart endruns around the fundamental economic principles of competition for limited resources; I expect the economy of Guild Wars 2 will eventually be an unmitigated disaster or the stuff of legend. Playing well or poorly are almost never a factor, because your success isn’t less likely because of someone else’s incompetence, or someone else’s powerleveled character, or someone else’s microbought advantages. Looking out for others always has some component of helping yourself. The rough social edges of online gaming have been sanded out of Guild Wars 2.

And yet, you can be as self-sustaining or dependent as you want to be. It’s a game based on warm and fuzzy values like sharing, cooperation, interaction, and helping each other, but without pushing these things. When you fall in Guild Wars 2, almost invariably, someone will come help you up. It’s a game about players supporting each other. It’s a game that makes you like other people. Furthermore, you can group with nearly anyone, no matter how much or how little he’s played, or where he is, or what class he is. Your friends don’t have to wait for you, and you don’t have to wait for them.

Not to say Guild Wars 2 doesn’t have competition. The player vs player arena competitions are brutal but accessible. The developers cut their teeth with this sort of gameplay in Guild Wars 1 and it shows. It’s also worth noting they call themselves ArenaNet. And even though the larger scale world vs world battles can be difficult to grasp at first — you’re liable to jump into these eternal battlegrounds, as they’re called, and find yourself alternatively lost, confused, and discouraged — this is one of Guild Wars 2’s greatest selling points. I have had no virtual experiences more epic then these world vs world battles, which involve capturing castles, defending castles, guarding supply lines, impromptu pitched battles in the open field, and even just anxiously scanning the horizons to see if the enemy is going to show up. If there’s any other game capable of getting a hundred people into battles this wildy gratifying and suspenseful, made from a canny cocktail of strategy, tactics, team spirit, and personal advancement, I want to see it.

And I cannot stress enough what a difference it makes that there is no subscription fee for Guild Wars 2. Furthermore, there is none of the stink of a mercenary free-to-play business model. Guild Wars 2 has options to spend real world money, but they’re reasonable, fair, easy to ignore, and even easy enough to earn by just playing the game. The amount of content Guild Wars 2 gives you for the price of a boxed game puts nearly every other game I’ve played to shame, and it doesn’t even have to resort to the phrase “procedurally generated”.

I realize I sound like a devotee selling you the latest utopia, and I simply can’t help it. I’ve been struggling with that myself. How can I convey the genius of Guild Wars 2 without shrieking excitedly as if I’d just discovered a four strength four stam leather belt? It’s hard to talk about Guild Wars 2 without going all starry eyed. The other option is to go all cold and analytical and descriptive, which doesn’t do the game justice.

The fact of the matter is that I can count on two hands the games I’ve loved as much as I now love Guild Wars 2. This isn’t just a great example of the genre and arguably the Second Coming of MMOs. It isn’t even just one of the best games I’ve ever played. This is what happens when a group of talented, smart, dedicated, imaginative, bold, consumer-friendly creators get together and spend years solving problems and making something wonderful.

5 stars
PC