Playing Guild Wars 2 feels a little like playing in a painting—disable the UI, and the resulting screenshots look like they jumped off the drawing board of one of ArenaNet’s concept artists. Other games might have better graphics, still others might have better overall features, but few possess such a confident art style that pervades every aspect of the experience. In a world where beauty is commonplace, these are my 15 favorite haunts.
As the human starting zone, Queensdale presents few surprises. Farmers toil in the shadow of cozy cottages, a walled and spired city dominates the horizon, and the zone as a whole exudes a sense of comfort even in the face of threats from centaurs and bandits. If hobbits were humans, this is what the Shire would look like. And that, indeed, is part of its appeal. Few if any MMOs get this conventional concept so right, and it doesn’t hurt that the abundance of dynamic events make it one of Guild Wars 2’s most popular starting zones.
Diessa Plateau: Anya Fairmind’s Strawberry Patch
Guild Wars 2 actively encourages exploration, and that focus sometimes extends far beyond finding new quests or vista points. Every now and then, the most unassuming landscape feature leads to a wonderland. Take this hidden area in the western half of Diessa Plateau in the Charr homelands. Scrambling behind some gears and jumping into an overgrown water pipe reveals this unforgettable view, as well as a handy strawberry patch if you’re inclined towards cooking.
The Edge of the Mists
One of the early complaints about Guild Wars 2 was the tendency of The Mists—the game’s expansive, siege-oriented world-versus-world battleground—to condemn players to waiting in lengthy queues during peak hours. The Edge of the Mists was designed as an overflow area of sorts to remedy this inconvenience, but it easily outdoes the Mists themselves in visual attractiveness. Almost every major region and race has its own themed island here, afloat in a clouded landscape that evokes awe at every turn.
Frostgorge Sound: Dimotiki Waters
Just as many wonders await in Guild Wars 2 await you underwater as they do on terra firma. ArenaNet doesn’t highlight the game’s underwater combat as much as it once did, but luckily for us, there’s still plenty of beautiful underwater sights. My favorite (out of a considerable pool of contenders) is the kelp-strawn trenches of Frostgorge Sound’s Dimotiki Waters. It’s comparatively short, but it presents almost every variation of the game’s underwater landscapes before ejecting you into a stunning ice panorama beneath the region’s many icebergs.
Malchor’s Leap: The Temple of Abaddon
Not all of Guild Wars 2’s best views await in the outside world; some are found in the dungeons and story instances. Among the most remarkable is the Temple of Abaddon, far off the present-day coast of Straits of Devastation, which encapsulates the ruined glory of the lost civilization of Orr that surrounds it across three zones. Almost entirely submerged, the high-level main story instance features a ruined Orrian temple that culminates in a looming, threatening statue of a lost god.
If Queensdale represents what ArenaNet can do with the conventional trappings of the fantasy genre, the Asuran capital of Rata Sum shows what the studio can achieve when it lets its collective imagination run wild. The jungle city, stuffed with floating metal cubes and lumbering robots, seems as though it comes from a future as far removed from our present day as the homelands of the humans and Norns distance us from our past. At the same time, the vines that snake around its structures suggest that nature need not be distanced from technology.
The Garden of Dawn: The Grove
Another hidden area, this little garden awaits exploration-minded adventurers (or characters on specific branches of the main quest) deep in the lower reaches of The Grove, the home city of the leafy Sylvari. The grove is full of visual treasures in itself, but this little garden’s towering bamboo shoots and bubbling waterfall begs for repeated visits. Be warned, though: it’s a popular spot for erotic roleplayers.
Frostgorge Sound: The Kodan Sanctuaries
Easily among the most striking sights in Tyria are the so-called “Sanctuaries” of the Kodan, a race of polar bear men who share an Asian-inspired culture much like World of Warcraft’s Pandaren (but without the humor). The sanctuaries themselves look like Tibetan monasteries jammed into the sides of towering icebergs, themselves propelled by sails that must be a hassle to furl. They’re majesty incarnate.
Divinity’s Reach: The Planetarium
Too often games like this focus all of their attention on the martial aspects of the Middle Ages and Renaissance; very few pay homage to the stabs at the sciences and the occasionally beautiful creations that emerged in the same period. Guild Wars 2 turns that convention on its head with the Planetarium of Divinity’s Reach, which hangs from the top of a gigantic glass dome outside the main palace. It’s mesmerizing to watch, regardless of whether you visit it by day or night.
Timberline Falls: Naui Waters
The entire zone of Timberline Falls arguably belongs under this heading—it’s a magnificent zone where the snow-capped Shiverpeak Mountains surrender to lush valleys filled with lakes and evergreen forests. But all this beauty best comes together at Naui Waters in a little lake surrounded by one of the game’s most memorable mountain views. I’d live there if I could.
Iron Marches: Hellion Forest
For a game that places such an emphasis on beauty, Guild Wars 2 features almost no forests. The most you’ll usually get is a stand of trees standing unusually close together; even the plant-focused realm of the Sylvari features fewer trees than its leafy setting suggests. That’s what makes Hellion Forests so magical. While not huge, it gets the job done, and it includes both a spooky subsection teeming with ghosts and spiders and serene wooded vistas hugging the edge of a placid lake. Regardless of which you prefer, it’s always lovely.
Iron Marches: Chaos Crystal Cavern
I first found Chaos Crystal Cavern by accident; I was jumping along a ridge when I accidentally fell to the bottom of a deep pit. At the end, beyond a flooded tunnel, awaits this marvel. It’s a cave, crammed with an assortment of purple flowing crystals that reflect their brilliance on the glassy floor. Like so many of Guild Wars 2’s more haunting locations, it’s a jumping puzzle, which means that at least you have something nice to look even if you’re frustrated over your ability to press the spacebar at the right time.
Kessex Hills: Cereboth Canyon
Kessex Hills has had a rough time of it lately. Once one of the game’s most cozy zones as a whole, much of it was destroyed during one of Guild Wars 2’s “living world” events when a sky-piercing tower shot up from the lake. Thankfully ArenaNet left alone this bucolic region of the zone’s eastern half. Whether you approach it from above or below, the canyon never fails to inspire.
Mount Maelstrom: Hidden Garden
ArenaNet teases you with this jumping puzzle: you can only access it by killing one of the veteran creatures surrounding the volcano of Mount Maelstrom. When you do, a portal appears with a warning that dire things might await you if you venture inside. Step through, though, and you’re faced not with death but with this splendorous zone where waterfalls cascade off distant cliffs and fungi-laden trees wind their way up soaring piles of rocks.
The Labyrinthine Cliffs
Man-made stuff is more than capable of beauty on its own, as evidenced by the Labyrinthine Cliffs that appear once a year during the Festival of the Four Winds. (And if you want to see it, it’s currently live until July.) The zone centers on a community of merchants who fly about the sky in lavish airships and hawk their wares in cliffside markets that recall Chinese bazaars.