I've played a lot of MMO's in my time, mostly without being given a choice. My older brother would start playing an MMO, pay for me to have an account and then we'd play together for a few months until one or both of us lost interest. We've run the gamut from Ultima Online, Everquest 1 and 2, Star Wars Galaxies, City of Heroes, World of Warcraft and even The Matrix Online for some reason. I've played more than that but honestly it all kind of runs together the last one was probably Dungeons and Dragons online which lost my interest in record time.
One of the things that always eventually put me off of these games was the subscription. The game might be fun but is it $15 a month fun? After more than a few months generally speaking I find that answer to be no. But that was why free-to-play games were so appealing to me when they started cropping up. Unfortunately the content of these games themselves generally didn't hold my interest any better.
Except for the original Guild Wars. The strong plot, simple but addictive gameplay and strong community (barring the usual bad apples) kept me playing it until my life was dominated by work and my PC being a giant hunk of crap. Eventually I had to give up on that to play console games that didn't just chug along at a mildly acceptable pace.
But with a monster PC sitting on my desktop and Guild Wars 2 being plopped on my doorstep I was ready this time. Having dumped a large amount of time into the PvE and a smaller amount into the PvP I can say without a doubt that Guild Wars 2 is getting the vote as my personal favorite MMO ever. For me Guild Wars 2 is the ultimate expression of those elements that worked without those elements that failed.
Starting up the game you'll get the choice of one of five races; the humans, the magic using Asura, the forest dwelling tree-like Sylvari, the human-like primal Norn and the animalistic but honorable Charr. After picking your race and class you're given a number of questions to answer to flesh out your characters storyline. In addition these choices will have a minor impact on your starting equipment and stats.
In service to making the single player portion of this game more interesting you're given a unique storyline for your character. It's generally the same for every character of the same race regardless of class but there are some variations based on your answers to the earlier questions. My personal character was a Charr Warrior and what started as my character's honor being called into question, taking over my warband, serving directly under Rytlock Brimstone and then hunting my traitorous father across the land to recover an item he stole.
The story goes on from there but it's quite interesting to actually have a plot to work with in between side quests. Guild Wars 2 uses side quests themselves in an interesting way in that they often ask something simple of the player. More often than not they only ask you to move around a small nearby area, kill some enemies, gather some items or protect a traveling NPC, and they barely take more than a few minutes to finish up. This keeps the player from getting bored by constantly giving them new things to do.
Making things even more enjoyable is the fact that there are various places to find on the world map. This free roaming aspect adds to the game nicely in that it gives the player a goal without being an actual goal. I found myself happily going back to earlier areas simply to find all of the waypoints, hidden skill point missions and the incredibly well hidden vistas that often require precise platforming skills. It's a bit odd to try controlling precise platforming in an MMO but it isn't actually as bad as one might think and the whole thing is actually kind of fun.
What makes this exploration kind of annoying is the level matching system. See every area has a maximum level attached to it and whenever you enter that area you are brought down to that level if you're above it. So if you're a level 12 elementalist and you enter a level 8 area you're scaled down to level 8. In theory this is a great idea since you'll always be able to game with friends in the same area and you'll never be able to just overpower a challenge. But this has two rather unfortunate side effects. Firstly if you can't figure out a way to solve a challenge well you're out of luck. There is no way to just muscle through most of them so you'll need to get creative. Secondly this means that you are forever going to have the same issues dealing with the aggro creatures in an area. If that giant boar gave you issues when you were level 8, you'll find him almost as hard at level 20 when you pass through the area again due to being leveled down. This can be especially annoying in areas with enemy masses such as in ghost heavy areas in the Charr lands.
But what quite possibly puts Guild Wars 2 ahead of every other game in the market is that it fosters cooperation amongst random players instead of competition. When I enter a cave to kill a Shaman for his staff (or whatever) in WoW I want the other gamers to just get out of my way so I can kill him. Having someone else get the item or, even worse, a line of people who refuse to party up outside of the shaman room waiting on respawns just kills a games momentum for me.
Almost as if in defiance to this notion of competition in the PvE side of things the developers have made every quest a cooperative venture with everybody else. Anyone who enters the area of the quest can participate in it and will get credit from the quest upon completion. Even better is that your rewards get better as you participate more so if you kill a bunch of enemies or spend a lot of time healing the party you'll get more XP than someone who killed one enemy and then went AFK. So there's never any real competition besides everyone competing to participate the most which, as might be guessed, makes things go faster. Since the quests themselves get tougher the more people that are participating it can make some fights start off simple and then just go absolutely insane which is always fun. Having a single warrior boss turn into a veritable raid boss, stunning and battering dozens of players at a time is always a good time.
This is a great thing but what isn't so great is how broken the party system is at the moment. When you swap between areas you can either end up on your server or in an overflow server. It's entirely possible for you to end up on the server and your party end up on an overflow, splitting you up so you can't work together. Then by the time a spot opens for them to come over you're bored of waiting and have started doing something else. At the moment you're honestly better off not even trying to work together and instead just working with whoever is near you at the time.
PvP follows in the same theme as the first game while mixing in this cooperation factor. You don't actually have to try to work together all that hard as many skills naturally synchronize making even a group of random people a rather effective fighting force. Being leveled up to maximum and then choosing whatever skills suit your style the best actually make this a whole lot of fun even for someone like myself that doesn't exactly enjoy PvP. Besides, nothing beats having a magic user stun someone long enough for you and your friends to just maul the everloving crap out of him with attacks that just so happen to combo off each other.
But honestly that's what Guild Wars 2 is all about. The game is designed for people who love and hate just about every aspect of an MMO. Like the gameplay but hate the competition? Well you'll be at home here. Thrive on the loot competition but not a fan of PvE? Well that's fine here since the loot is pretty awesome. Then the PvP and World vs. World is there for those who like the more direct competition. Paired up with the fact that the game is free to play there's something here for everyone, even the people who prefer the single player experience. It's a game with something for everyone and that's about the best thing an MMO can hope to be.