Well, it seems that in the last few weeks there’s been a flurry of betas released, with more coming soon. I was able to get in on three of them—Diablo III, Warcraft’s Mist of Panderia, and the one I was most interested in, Guild Wars 2. The Secret World and Neverwinter Nights are on the upcoming list, but I missed out on TERA—evidently it was close enough to the real launch that it almost wasn’t even testing but more like a pre-release. Of course, the really big news is that Bethesda has announced an Elder Scrolls MMO, which I discussed recently—the number of games coming out in the next couple years is staggering!
Here’s my take on the three after only a small bit of playing time—in no way can I give final judgment on any of these without a bit more playing, but it was nice to get in and get my toes wet.
It was nice logging in and seeing that good old top-down 3rd person view I remember growing up. The Ultima series, of course, was the first, but it made its way into Neverwinter Nights, Baldur’s Gate, and of course Diablo II.
Diablo III feels as polished as this style of game could possibly be in 2012, and running around burning down skeletons was like hopping on an old bike. I did find the class selections a bit strange – Wizard, Witch Doctor, and Barbarian, Monk and Demon Hunter – but I recall playing a Necromancer in Diablo II, so went ahead with a Wizard this time, remembering the odd backstory of this particular series. Picking up any of the Diablo games is incredibly easy and the character is immediately tossed into the besieged town of Tristram. The storyline was fairly straightforward to start (defend the town from invading undead), but the voice acting and the graphics are excellent, and even by the end of my short stay in the game, I found myself drawn in. The game will have multiplayer facilities, and in looking at the design notes, it sounds as if quests and puzzles have been sprinkled throughout the game to appear randomly, so that playing new characters should experience a significantly different story. Looking forward to seeing more of this game when it launches on May 15.
Mists of Panderia
I’ll pass on the Kung Fu Panda jokes, because they were all told on the day that Blizzard announced the latest World of Warcraft expansion would introduce the oriental-styled continent of Panderia, with pandas as the new character race and monks as the new class. My thought at the time was that it was pretty corny, and given that Blizzard was also introducing “pet battles” (a WoW version of Pokemon), they were obviously targeting a younger audience. At the same time, however, they also announced some other features, including a revamped talent system and more interesting, something called “scenarios,” which would create short instanced quests designed for 3 players—of any class (no tank or healer required)—to complete as a team.
I had relatively low expectations for the beta—Blizzard is conservative in introducing new features, but they tend to polish gameplay very, very well, and logging in, I wasn’t surprised to find that that the game looked great. There’s a new screen for creating characters, but still just a few options for customizing, and I went ahead and created the panda monk in relatively short order. It appears there’s quite a bit more voice acting in the quest giving now—almost every giver had a unique speech when handing out the quest, but other than that, the model is pretty much the same – find the guys with the yellow exclamation marks, pick up your quest, and head over and gather X objects or kill X bad guys. Some fun little variations here and there, one being balancing on poles in the water and defeating other monks. I did not get too far with the new monk skills, but I understand there’s more options in battle now, being able to dodge and roll. The music was quite good, a very nice oriental theme floating throughout the new starting area, and the voice acting were excellent. Within the context of the Warcraft cartoonish style, the landscape was beautiful and graphics were all around excellent—just don’t expect major changes in the way the game looks. The game plays very smoothly, and often felt like a finished product.
The second day, I went ahead and created a level 85 mage to see how things looked on the upper end of things. You’re given a bunch of rare purple gear right off the bat and are thrown into a battle against invading monkeys as the Alliance lands on the new Panderian shore. This is a phased quest, so once you defeat the monkeys and put out a number of fires, the beachhead is established, and the camp turns to normal. Checking out the new talent system, I found that, although Blizzard has greatly reduced the number of options you can pick—you gain a talent every 15 levels now instead of every 2—I found that I was able to pretty easily re-create the type of character I had at level 85 in current WoW. I actually found this a bit disappointing; I had expected that the Arcane Mage talents would be significantly different in the new system, and that I might need to devise a new strategy for playing that class. But the talents seemed very similar to current talent selections—perhaps slightly more powerful—but much less dynamic and fun than I thought they would be.
Overall, Mists of Panderia looks to be a modest evolution of the game, but nothing that appears to be earth shattering. I did really enjoy the feel of the oriental setting and music. Especially in the panda starting zone, it’s nice to adventure in an area with a light, cheerful atmosphere, and this I think may carry through a good part of the new continent. For those who are looking for something truly new in Warcraft, Blizzard appears to be taking baby steps. I have not yet had a chance to participate in a scenario or a pet battle, and will give those a try next time around.
Guild Wars 2
I can’t remember how I heard about this game—I think it was a friend at work—but I remember him saying that this was the game to look at if I was interested in something truly different in the MMO space. I haven’t played the original Guild Wars, but my understanding is that it’s a heavily instanced game, but leans more toward teamplay, and away from “level grinding.” There’s evidently around 5 million Guild Wars players, so it’s popular. Set in the world of Tyria, there’s sort of a fantasy/steampunk feel to Guild Wars, and the races are a bit of a departure from the Tolkien templates—the Charr are warlike cats, the Norn mountain barbarians, the Asura, diminutive (un-dwarf, un-gnome) technolophiles, the plant-based Sylvari, and of course, the Humans. No orcs, but centaurs seem to be the prevalent bad guys, and they raid and pillage regularly.
So there’s quite a few claims about Guild Wars 2—here’s the ones that I had heard before signing up for the beta:
- The game would be free—no subscription cost
- The game would not follow the Warcraft leveling, gearquesting model, but rather follow a character’s personal story throughout all levels of the game rather than the level-cap “endgame.” The idea is that each character’s story would be unique, based on background choices made at character creation.
- Character home areas; each character has an instanced home neighborhood where they have friends and family, all tied into their personal story.
- No requirement for dedicated warrior “tanks” or healers for team play. All characters have healing and tanking abilities and can switch abilities out as needed.
- Dynamic events instead of quests—that is, when characters enter an area, an event may be already in progress and players can help or ignore right away; no need to collect a quest or turn in. Rather than the bad guys standing around waiting for players to come take them out, they are active in the environment—you actually see the centaurs attacking the town rather than robotically pacing back and forth in the area.
- Three faction player-vs-player with an entire continent dedicated to faction play. Storm and hold castles, build siege weapons, the works. While I don’t do a lot of PvP, this sounded interesting.
- Incentives for team play—this is actually important since many MMOs actually create disincentives for grouping up:
- Sidekicking—lower level characters can be bumped up so that they can play with friends who are at a higher level, and visa versa. Some recent news on this: currently only lower levels characters can be bumped up
- Full experience and loot rewards for participating in group events. That is, if you help out in a fight, each character gets full experience for the encounter.
- No need to actually select a dialogue box to join a group—just pitch in right away
- Encounter scaling—higher level characters can participate in lower level areas and still get good experience since the difficulty will be scaled to their level
Quite a list, and it seemed the developers, ArenaNet, were serious about delivering. I was able to get into the beta on Sunday, a bit late, but I got a chance to explore the human starting area as a Ranger.
I can honestly say that ArenaNet has accomplished nearly all of what was promised, although to say that quests have been eliminated is a bit inaccurate. The beginning encounter puts you in the middle of a centaur attack on a local town – folks run right up to you and ask you to assist, getting villagers to safety in a local inn, and from that point on, you are free to help (or not) as you can. There’s no quest log, but you can clearly see the villagers who need help, and the attacking cenaturs. A very immersive beginning, which also ties into the background you select at the beginning. The character creation options are pretty impressive as well—lots of options to tailor your look, but more importantly a number of background questions that will determine your personal story. These are nicely interwoven as you go, and you have complete freedom to ignore or pursue that as you wish.
Soon after you help out the village, you meet several of your hometown friends, and are introduced to your home instance. In my case, a small section of Divinity’s Reach—the principal human city –was set aside, and you are the given the option help out a local innkeeper from being bullied by a local gang. I think it’s fair to say that quests have not been eliminated, but rather streamlined and pushed to the background.
Speaking of Divinity’s Reach, the city is huge – I spent a good half hour wandering around a never came close to exploring the entire place. The entire world is absolutely stunning. Far from the cartoonish aesthetic of Warcraft, it feels lived in, and….well, adult.
The exterior of the city is surrounded by farms, and wandering around, you have the opportunity to help out the owners with chores around the farm, or fight off local bandits. A local cave was the main hideout for the bandits, and there even was a tie-in between the bandits and my personal story (the bullies terrorizing the innkeeper in my home area). In no case, did I need to seek out a questgiver or turn in a quest. Once you finish some of the goals in the area, you are credited with the completion, and you can purchase items with “karma points.” In general, it just felt much more organic and immersive than the Warcraft model.
A couple of other really noteworthy features of Guild Wars 2 are item-specific skills and “downed state.” Each weapon in the game has a set of skills specific to that weapon, which are unlocked the more the item is used. Using a mace vs. a dagger will require a different strategy of play as you become proficient in those weapons, and have the byproduct of adding quite a bit of variety. Combat in general requires lots of moving around—you can’t just stand in one place and hit buttons if you expect to do well, and this is refreshing. When you get bested, characters are put into “downed state,” at which time you have several options—each specific to your profession, that could bring you back to your feet. If you are defeated, all characters have the ability to revive fallen heroes, and I was surprised to see people actually helping each other out in an MMO! Amazing what can happen when the proper incentives are put in place to facilitate team play, and I think many of the developers of the current crop of MMOs should be hanging their heads in shame at the many ways they incentivize player selfishness and greed.
All this in a short afternoon of playing Guild Wars 2, but I can honestly say this will be my game of choice when it goes live. I am definitely looking forward to future betas and the final release. Excellent job, ArenaNet—my faith in video games just went up a notch.