Let me just say that this past weekend was not only one of the most exciting beta experiences I've ever had but that all of my fears about ArenaNet ruining the Guild Wars franchise were quickly squashed.
During this second closed beta test, press was invited in to explore certain racial starting areas from levels 1 though 30. The Asura and Sylvari races were locked for us, but all other races and every one of the classes were ripe for the picking. So these impressions are based on my experience with the Norn, Charr, and Human races, every class, and my insatiable case of alt-aholicism.
Overall, my time with Guild Wars 2 this weekend was full of discovery and astonishment, with only two bug reports and one crash. I do want to break down my experiences for you, though, as it's almost overwhelming to take the awesomeness all in one chunk.
Creating a character is straightforward and versatile. There are choices for certain aspects of the body, but the sliders and predetermined choices aren't overwhelming. There was a big deal made by players of earlier demos about the choices you make when you first create your character and how that will affect your story, but you don't need to fret about making wrong choices. These questions help determine your background a bit (such as whether you were raised on the streets or born of noble folk), and the opening cinematic will come together based on those choices. It's a fun addition to the game that will carry through your storyline quests as you progress. For example, if you were raised by noble blood, the first NPC who will aid you in your story will be a snooty lord. Yes, he can fight, but he just hates to get his expensive clothes dirty.
I played through every class (deleting others to make room), but I soon realized that making a list of favorites would be futile. Each class is so different with its own unique features that there's not one that I wouldn't play to completion at launch. If I had to pick, though, I'd say Mesmer and Engineer are the ones that stuck out the most. Anyone who knows me knows that I am a Mesmer fanatic, thanks to the Guild Wars 1 Mesmer, but the Guild Wars 2 Mesmer is a whole new ballgame. I could seriously write another entire article on just how amazing (and complex!) this class really is.
I thought quests and questgivers were easy to comprehend and clearly marked, and the cinematics made for a refreshing change from the norm. There are quests you grab from marked NPCs, ones you can get from random unmarked NPCs who may call out for your attention, and there are storyline instance quests that progress differently for each character, depending on other choices you've made.
In addition to these, there are events all around the world that open up when you enter a certain area. These are very similar to Warhammer Online's public quests or RIFT's rift tears or dynamic events. The best part about these events is that they can be solved multiple ways. As an example, there's an event in the Human area in which bandits are invading a farm. You can gain points by either killing the bandits, putting out the hay fires that they start, killing the Plains Wurms that erupt from the ground, or feeding the farmer's cows, who are starving all around you. There are also more specific (and less frequent) events that can happen in the same area based on how you progress through earlier tiers of the original event. For this farm example, the Plains Wurm Queen can pop out of the ground, requiring a small group to take her down for extra bonuses.
All in all, Guild Wars 2 takes questing way beyond the normal kill-ten-rats that we grew up with and has enough extras in there to keep us busy and entertained for a very long time. You're not going to want to rush through maps to follow your storyline; you're going to want to stop and smell the red iris flowers for a while.
Character progression trotted along at a fair pace, and I wasn't level 10 in 20 minutes, as often happens in MMOs that want to rush you to endgame.
You have your normal leveling progression, but there's also a running count on the map screen that shows you the completion percentages for the area you're in and the entire world. These are broken down by side tasks completed, waypoints discovered, points of interest found, and skill challenges finished.
Skills and items
The skills in Guild Wars 2 are determined by what item you have in your hand combined with what class you're playing. So a Thief with a pistol will have different skills than a Mesmer with that same pistol. In addition, you can combine weapons in each hand for skill combos. So for my most beloved Mesmer, I had a scepter in one hand and a pistol in the other. This combination gave me the Illusionary Duelist skill in slot 4, which creates an illusion (clone) of my character that unloads dual pistols on the enemies. Taking that pistol away and adding a one-handed sword gives me an Illusionary Swordsman skill that works similarly.
With each weapon you wield, you start off with just one skill, but using that item more often will eventually open up more and more skills on your bar. You can actually see the percentage of progression toward that next skill evolve as you use that weapon more often. So you can become proficient with a sword, but when you find an axe with better stats and switch to that, you're starting with one skill for that axe until you unlock the rest. This also applies to which hand you use, as well. You'll need to unlock main-hand and off-hand skills on each weapon where that's available, which then unlocks it on every weapon of that type for that particular character. It's not as complicated as it sounds, but it is exciting for the completionists among us.
Art and style
If you played the original Guild Wars, you know that gorgeous character models and landscapes are a staple. Guild Wars 2 takes that proprietary ArenaNet beauty and cranks it to 11. We weren't allowed to use our own screenshots for this particular reveal, but I can almost understand why. There's no real way to truly capture what Guild Wars 2 lays down in front of you, and until you can experience it for yourself, you wouldn't believe it. In fact, the human starting city of Divinity's Reach is hands-down the most jaw-droppingly gorgeous city I've ever seen in any video game.
I have to admit I'm pretty emotionally involved in the Guild Wars storyline. The original Guild Wars has only human characters, so you learned to love the world from that particular point of view. But in Guild Wars 2, you're playing as these other races you met in the first one. Granted, it's 250 years later, but there's still plenty of bad blood for the Charr over what they did to the Ascalonian homeland. So when I created my Charr character, I felt like a bit of a traitor.
The starter Charr area still has crumbling remnants of the Great Northern Wall that once divided the nations. Running around in Ascalon again is an experience that genuinely feels like revisiting home after being away for years. Everything from the River Drakes to the Skales to the Rogue Bull to the red iris flowers swaying in the wind -- it's all there. ArenaNet certainly doesn't disappoint in the nostalgia department, and long-time players are rewarded with so many references to the original game.
So overall, I was beyond impressed with Guild Wars 2. I didn't even scratch the surface of what's available, but I'm very excited with how this game presents itself at this point. Come launch, I do believe Guild Wars 2 will rock the MMO world with a much-needed dose of what an MMO should be at this point in 2012. Ladies and gentlemen, this is the MMO you've all been waiting for.