As Justine Bailey, my Human Engineer, I had bested the final challenges of Queensdale, the human starting zone, and after having charted the area thoroughly, rather than embark on the next leg of my character's racial story, I instead decided to venture off to lands unknown, see sights unseen and adventures un... uh... ventured! Thus I made way for the gates of Divinity's Reach, capital of the human nation of Kryta, my portal to the world at large, to start my journey anew.
Knocking on Heaven's Door?
Guild Wars 2 does things a little differently from other MMOs. While not quite the paradigm shift many may have expected, one way in which it differentiates itself is an emphasis on exploration. Players are encouraged to explore by way of the games open ended regional quest structure, incentivized by achievements, gear, collectables and rewarded with experience each step of the way. Every map is littered with useful fast-travel Waypoints, lore rich Points of Interest and scenic Vistas which both help to immerse players in the game's many vibrant and varied environments as well provide objectives to work towards. Here the game doesn't so much decide your path for you through quest chains and progression as you choose yourself, based solely on whatever you desire.
Passing through the city's gates for the fist time since having started my grand adventure, I found myself amidst the bustling streets awestruck, jaw agape, at the sheer size of the metropolis before me. It was a sight unlike any I had yet seen in an MMO since, and lacking any foreknowledge of Guild Wars, I was caught completely off guard. Divinity's Reach was a city, much more so than what typically passes for such in most games.
This place is BIG!
Typically, a city or town in an MMO is no more than need be, with just enough to facilitate the player and often little else. Such leads to either tiny, cramped towns or spacious, empty cities, neither of which are often exciting. Here Divinity's Reach thrives, packed with buildings, literally layered with them, and full of townies hurrying about the city streets on business all their own. Countless conversations and the cacophony of civilization help the city feel alive, rather than silent and still like so many of it's contemporaries. There's all you'll ever need and quite a lot more within those towering walls.
Like, RIDICULOUSLY big!
My initial intent was to travel to the other racial starting areas, to quest and wander about new locations. I was still fairly firmly locked into the typical player mindset of efficient progression, mostly concerned with leveling and gear, both of which would be easily accommodated by the game's scaling rewards. It doesn't matter what level the monstrous menagerie you slay, you'll be awarded experience and loot appropriate for your level allowing players to explore any area without feeling as though they're wasting their time. The sights of the city helped break that mindset. Progression could wait, I had a sprawling urban center to lose myself in.
Even the potholes are HUGE!
And so I did. I spent well over an hour combing every street and terrace, finding every mark on the map and intimately familiarizing myself with the city's many shops and work stations. Once finished, achievement and reward in hand, I ordered my affairs and set off once more, bound for riches and power. My destination was Caledon Forest and to reach it I had first to make way through Lion's Arch, the capital of capital cities and the center of civilization in all the lands of Tyria. There would be the portals I'd need to effortlessly traverse the otherwise tiresome and treacherous expanses between cities and that which would facilitate my transportation was known as the Asura Gate.
Behold! Star-Asura Gates! Now in your choice of four designer colors!
Stepping through the swirling pink vortex I popped out the other side, after a brief load up, amidst the very portals I'd need for my travels, but just like before I once more found myself overcome with the urge to explore, such a thing very few games so readily inspire. Lion's Arch was large and vast, more so than Divinity's Reach, and with no particular goal in mind I set off northeast from the portal hub, wrapping southwards, passing by the farmlands near the southern gate when I noticed something peculiar on my map. Points of interest, waypoints and vista are all clearly marked as you chart each area, showing you exactly where to go but not necessarily how to get there. City maps are automatically unveiled so you can easily see where everything is located. Here I noticed a stray vista buried deep within the barrier hills surrounding the city, and curious still a stray weaponsmith not far off.
I poked about the crop fields and neighboring storehouse for an entrance but no such luck. I surmised, dejectedly, that the only way through would be to exit the city and work my way back in from the surrounding area, a task I thought impossible at my then low level. Defeated, I pressed on, determined to find all that I could. I didn't get far. That lone vista was mocking me. Everything else had been firmly rooted within the city limits, immediately accessible with little more than a bit of ingenuity, so to must that be. Atop the walls of a nearby garrison I surveyed the fields once more, hoping my vantage point may reveal a way through. Finding nothing, I returned to the storehouse for one more thorough inspection discovering a stack of hay bails along the side of a shed. Up and over, into the clearing behind, I looked around and quite literally stumbled through a passage in the cliff face, obscured by foliage, and found myself on the steep, grassy hillside beyond.
Making my way up, through another hidden entrance and after ascending rocky outcroppings I found my prize. Activating the vista rested camera control from me to pan about the small clearing I found myself in, until it stopped, suddenly focused on what looked like a gaping mouth jutting fourth from the surrounding cliffs.
A Massive Mineral Maw of Mystery!
Plunging into the darkness, I regained control, and precariously placed on the precipice of one stony tooth, I stared down into the abyss. I was done, my objective met, I should've been on my way, off to check the next box on my infinitely long list of "Things to Do 'till 80" just as I was trained to do. Nearly ten years of training, in fact. As every MMO I had played before, I was conditioned over the years to focus on "The Grind." Questing, leveling, gearing, dailies, dungeoneering, raiding, focusing on efficiency, more like a machine than a man. Everything I had learned, was taught, told me to be off to something more productive, and yet I did not move.
There was nothing obvious down there, the remainder of my objectives lay elsewhere and yet something about this hole gave me pause. Intrigued me. Why was it here? MMOs, by their very nature, are massive, with vast open spaces that might at first seem meaningless but most often facilitate progression by some means. There's almost always something to do, or kill, or both, otherwise it's empty, wasted space. The occasional Easter eggs not withstanding, such mindless diversions tend not to exist in the genre.
So there I stood, pondering shortly, finally deciding "Frak it!" and took the plunge. I was either to die or live and neither would carry penalty. I had nothing to lose but time. With my decent went the last vestiges of "The Grind." Even in my exploration I was still fixated on progression. Here, I simply didn't care. This was different, something to do off the beaten path. If ArenaNet can take the time to develop erroneous additions to their world, I can spare the time to experience them. Down I went, plummeting like an eagle... flying a blimp.
Much to my surprise, I was met not with hard, unforgiving stone but instead soft, safe water. I barely had enough time to orient myself before I was greeted by an ethereal voice echoing through the chamber. Old, raspy and a little off kilter, the voice of one Captain Weyandt welcomed me to the cavernous catacombs buried beneath the city of Lion's Arch. Taunting me with treasures for trials trumped triumphantly, I pressed onward into the dark.
Apparently, ArenaNet does nothing small!
I soon found myself in a maze of stone, a ghostly blue sphere, the Captain, as my absentminded guide. Round corners and through fake rock walls I emerged as he beckoned me further in, ascending through the mighty chasm ever higher. Up and over a small water fall, I found myself surrounded by hewn stone walls concealing traps of spiky death. Tempting me further, I dashed madly through, out the other end nearly unscathed. After some perilous platforming I came to a final test of skill. A room, black as pitch, unlit by the many otherworldly torches seen prior, and I tasked to traverse it's many flattened stalagmites sight unseen. At first it seemed daunting, nearly impossible, then I remembered what I was. An Engineer.
An Engineer with a flamethrower! Lighting my path as I bandied about the rocks unimpeded I came to the end, a divergence. One final task lay before me. Just as I had arrived, I now had to plummet once more, down one of three shafts. Choose correctly, treasure! Choose wrong and I start all over. The answer was obvious. The entrance, lit red, was deliberately similar to the very maw that first caught my interest. A quick drop down, once again into the drink and I emerged victorious! Finally, I could claim what was rightfully mine!
The Court of the Not-So-Crimson King
One final chamber, at the back of which stood the Captain, corporeal, more or less. Congratulating me on a job well done, he welcomed me to my prize, then cursed me to eternity in his tomb. Humorous, as even had I lacked the ability to teleport to the nearest waypoint at will, the large fissure in the stonework wall nearby would grant me freedom from such fate. I took my well won parcels, surprisingly useful armor and an accompanying upgrade, and bid the Captain and his cavern farewell. Slipping between the cracks, the old ghast's shock was palpable, but short lived, He'd had his fun and promptly returned to his inane rambling as I left the confines of that earthen womb. Out once more in the fresh virtual air, I found myself atop the waterfall of the inlet stream feeding the city's central bay.
INSERT WITTICISM HERE
There I found the Captain's First Mate, Shane, the errant weaponsmith I'd seen previously on my map. The shambling corpse was selling pirate themed weaponry, far to high level and rich for my tastes. Leaping over the falls, down into the stream below, I swam ashore and paused a moment, first since I had found the cavern, to reflect on my recently concluded adventure.
In the end, progression, in the form of vaguely defined treasure, had been the ultimate motivation, but initially I was moved by pure curiosity, something few games, and not a single MMO, has ever done. I'll stop to admire fine aesthetic and pretty graphics but rare is it I find reason to wander off and truly explore. This was but one such occurrence, of many the game still has to offer, affording a felling much more akin to Bethesda or BioWare than a typical MMO. Odd, as there are many games about exploration, but few which focus so intently elsewhere that can still spark the urge of discovery.
Guild Wars 2 is a fun game. The combat is satisfying, the PvP engaging, the WvW thrilling and dungeons challenging, all that atop a beautiful aesthetic and great music, but what I never expected was a game that was so much fun to simply lose yourself in, explore, and discover. Inevitably, I'll grow bored of it and move on, as happens with all games and such flights of fancy. Until then, however, I'll have a damned fine time playing the game my way, progressing my way and charting the uncharted my way. Who knew something so simple, a bit of freedom, could be so fun?
If you're playing on the server Ferguson's Crossing, hit me up! I'm always up for some virtual adventure!