Players gather on the staircase leading down to the Ascalonian catacombs, filling local chat with group requests. A few run about, periodically charging up a nearby hill to repel another assault by harpies on a Durmand Priory dig site. Others dance, or run a sleep emote. A significant number are crammed in underneath the waypoint that links this part of the plains of Ashford to the rest of the world of Tyria.
Within the Catacombs, a norn ranger – Eir Stegalkin – searches for an ancient weapon that could help reforge her old guild, Destiny’s Edge. These heroes are the key to defeating Zhaitan, the Elder Dragon threatening the world. They also serve as mentors for each of the game’s five races, accompanying you on personal story missions. Another Destiny’s Edge member, Rytlock, has followed Eir into the catacombs, angry that she’s trespassing on his people’s land. We’re here to stop them from killing each other.
I’m grouped with an asura warrior, a tiny sword-wielding gremlin in red and gold armour – Pinky and the Brain in platemail. He’s telling me about his build. He has stacked an array of slottable utility skills – passive bonuses, in this case – and combined them with an advanced character trait that grants an extra boost for having several abilities of the same type. This is one of many builds that are possible across Guild Wars 2’s eight professions and dozens of weapon combinations. He’s proud of it: his critical hit chance, he tells me, is very high.
This is what waiting to do a dungeon has looked like since World of Warcraft first placed a swirling portal between five players and the rest of the world. That slight disconnection between theory and heroism, that tension between action and boredom. The moment stands out now because it’s the first time in over 30 hours with this character that I’ve found myself in it.
As a human, I began my journey in Queensdale – rolling farmland ransacked by centaur warbands during a time of political discord, a symptom of a once-dominant race now in decline. If I had been an asura, I would have come from the jungles of the southwest, via a science fiction-fantasy story that drags in everything from mind-controlled golems to time travel. Tyria’s youngest race, the sylvari, are plant-people inspired by celtic folklore and Arthurian myth, making guild wars 2 gold among the branches of a big tree.
The bestial charr, Guild Wars’ former villains, have been reintroduced Klingon style: Ashford is their homeland now, but the fragility of their warrior culture creates tension both within and without their race. The gigantic norn, who spend their early levels working their way down from the frozen mountain where they spend their exile, struggle the most to stand out: their Norse-derived society, which values individual glory above all else, is a pretty on-the-nose metaphor for what most MMORPG players spend their time doing.
Whatever choices you make at character creation, the result is a breathless charge into this new world, and it’s only when the game delivers its first instance at level 30 that the brakes are applied.
I’m not disappointed, exactly. MMO downtime produces friendships – even marriages, from time to time. It’s just that the journey to this point has been about anything but waiting. I’ve charged off into the countryside and fought bandits. I’ve intervened to defend towns from centaurs and disguised myself as a pirate to win a drinking competition. I’ve painstakingly customised a suit of armour – from stats to colouring – and warped sideways into a wholly different game, a sprawling fantasy conquest mode where whole servers crash into each other in the phenomenal, punch-the-air return of Dark Age of Camelot’s much missed factional PvP. Theorycrafting while waiting for groupmate number five is like getting the bus to work on Monday morning after a spectacular lost weekend.
It’s easy to make flash judgements at moments like this. Here, ladies and gentlemen, is one of your massively multiplayer online roleplaying games. We queue and talk shop: we sit on the bus and wait patiently for the next fun thing. Look closer, though, and every aspect of this picture has been made strange by ArenaNet’s bottom-up recalibration of the genre. Those group requests? They’re not class-dependent: Guild Wars 2 has no healers or tanks, and therefore no roles that must be filled before fun can be had. Those players charging up the hill? They range from level eight to eighty, with more powerful characters downscaled to match the encounter, the elite player rubbing winged pauldrons with Jimmy Leatherjerkin. That waypoint? It links to every part of the game I’ve previously visited, allowing me to instantly go off and do something else if I want to. These are the innovations and conveniences that make the game so enjoyable, that make it a viable prospect for players traditionally unwilling to step onto the MMORPG treadmill.