Guild Wars 2: It’s the Pinball Machine of MMOs

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Guild Wars 2 is one of those rare games that knocks your life off-kilter like a meteoroid banging into a satellite. That’s how it’s been for me, anyway. I knew it was coming, but, fool that I am, wasn’t paying attention. I’d planned on noodling with the pre-launch a little, just to get the character name I wanted and make sure it’d run on my computer, then come back after the game launched wide on Tuesday (today).

Fat chance. It devoured my weekend whole, kicking my The Last Story play-through to the curb. What can I say? Something just grooved a few hours in, though I partly blame the game servers for not crashing like a proper just-launched MMO should. I mean come on, ArenaNet, the least you could have done was go dark for half a day or two.

(MORE: Guild Wars 2 Producer: We’d Turn Off Sales to Preserve the Game Experience)

That said, Guild Wars 2 isn’t something that grabs you off the block, like, say, the series premiere of Breaking Bad. It takes awhile to get rolling. The Shiverpeak Mountains starting area (I’m playing a Norn Ranger) looked like a chaotic, cliched muddle when I first spawned, something you’d describe with words like “bosky” and “dale” crowded with hustling players often indistinguishable from NPCs. Finding stuff using the map — granular to the point of looking over-busy — can be a trick, with icons sometimes obscured by other icons and shopkeepers categorized generically as “merchants” instead of with helpful mnemonics like “Gunthar’s House of Harvesting Sickles.” Even the dialogue interface, trying hard to blend into the game’s “painted” vibe, feels a little jarring with its coarse-grained, rust-brown panels and initially confusing icon-based path selection.

But then you wander into your first dynamic world event, and it’s like what they say about cans of Pringles. Mine was something to do with the Norn’s preliminary bad guys, the swarthy, beard-braided Sons of Svanir. I was exploring a bit, minding my own business, then wham, a quest message pops into my screen queue and dozens of howling guys in headbands and dresses start charging the local Bear Shrine (the Norns wear animal skins and bellow stuff like “Halt traveler!” or “Hail, slayer of such-and-such”).

It was just me and a few others in the vicinity, so we started pummeling wave after wave. Then a few more players joined and the attacks grew more intense. Before you knew it: dozens of players, battling dozens of bad guys, in a melee scrum of arrows, lightning, arms, blades, flames, axes and bodies.

Now multiply that by “anywhere you go” times “pretty much all the time,” and you’ve got a sense for the manic compulsiveness of Guild Wars 2, which plays like the pinball machine of MMOs. There’s just never a dull moment. I’ve been in snowball fights with kids, timed hunts for worm eggs in icy caverns, barrel-gathering (and later catching) events, timed runs to gather scraps to help someone build a silly snowman and staggered events that built to epic boss smackdowns. I’ve helped defend homesteads from throngs of burrowing ice worms, protect towns from sweeping assaults by bear hordes and knock out enemy portals that spawned creatures like the Chitauri in The Avengers.

And that all plays in real-time — with, as Bono would say, or without you. Sure, those events repeat periodically, but they’re so multifaceted and there’s so much else to do that by the time you’ve seen it all, you’re well on your way to the next location or story event.

Speaking of: There’s an instance-based story mode that’s tailored to your character, and I’ll talk about that later (it’s great, too, and in some ways even more challenging), but each time I pick up that thread, I’m usually wishing I was back in the world itself, wondering what’s happening over there, just across the river, waiting to drop down from the ceiling in some underground cave-maze or surprise me outside some “secure” area I’ve foolishly pronounced “safe.”

That’s my experience of Guild Wars 2 17 levels in: unpredictable, relentless, exhilarating, unexpectedly stable and — except for a few head-scratchers like the still-nonexistent trading post, some reports of server unavailability (hasn’t happened to me) and guild tab malfunctioning (also hasn’t happened to me) — essentially bug-free.

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