With the Guild Wars 2 headstart beginning tomorrow, many of you will be playing the game for the first time. Some of you may still be on the fence about whether to purchase it or not (hint: you should). If you haven't played in any of the beta weekends, or even if you have and just didn't have much time to explore, there are a number of things about Guild Wars 2 you need to know that aren't directly apparent.
We often joke about a "right way" and a "wrong way" to play games, but it's a concept that I truly believe applies to Guild Wars 2. It may look similar to other MMOs -- you'll see a few quests, some hotbars, traditional MMO classes -- but the fundamental mechanics stray significantly from most other games in the genre.
Unfortunately, the game itself doesn't exactly hold your hand. If you try to play Guild Wars 2 like World of Warcraft or the Old Republic, looking for connect-the-dots quest chains to grind out, there's a good chance you'll find yourself confused, frustrated, and wondering what the big deal is.
Don't worry, I'm here to help.
If you have any familiarity with other fantasy MMOs, here's the most important thing you need to know when selecting a character: the Trinity is dead.
There are no "tanks," or people whose job it is to soak up damage and manage aggro and threat, no dedicated "healers," and no classes whose purpose is to dump out damage and do nothing else. This seems to be the number one biggest thing that people don't understand, even when I explain it to them, so I want to reiterate: the Trinity is dead. Everything you know about tanks, healers, and DPS is wrong.
When I say that, I should be clear about what I mean. It's not that there is a "different kind of tanking." There is no tanking. Monsters can and will regularly attack everyone in the party, and everyone has a responsibility to mitigate or avoid the damage. There's not a "different kind of healing." Everyone has a self heal, and can spec to also have some weak group heals on long cooldowns, but healing is not and will not be a central focus of your gameplay, beyond your own responsibility to occasionally heal yourself.
Every class is capable of dealing serious damage, and every class has the ability to act in a support capacity, throwing buffs (positive status effects) on their allies and debuffs (negative status effects) on their enemies (called "boons" and "conditions" in Guild Wars 2). And most classes have the ability to hand out some minor healing or regeneration to allies. Despite the notion of everyone being able to do "everything," each class feels quite different from one other because of the weapons they are able to use and their unique mechanics, so the best thing for you to do is read up on the classes and pick which one sounds most interesting.
Don't fall into the trap of trying to pick based on archetypes. If you normally enjoy tanking in WoW, don't think you have to pick a Warrior or a Guardian -- there's no tanking because there's no reliable threat management. If you normally play a dedicated healer, you're not going to be standing back and healing anyone in Guild Wars 2, so find a profession that sounds cool and try it it out. Unlike virtually every other MMO on the market, every race can play as every class without any penalty or stat differences, so play around until you find a class that works best for you.
Once you have your character created and you've moved through the very short introduction section, you're somewhat unceremoniously dumped right outside your city's starting zone with little direction. You'll see one green star on your map, indicating a portion of your story quest, and not much else. An NPC will direct you to what also appear to be quests -- different hearts on the map indicating people who need help.
Your first inclination may be to run straight to your story quests or toward the heart quests -- after all, that's what we've been conditioned to do in almost every MMO since EverQuest. DON'T DO IT!
One of the biggest fundamental shifts in thinking you'll have to do when playing Guild Wars 2 is to understand that the game is about exploration, not just running in a straight line. In most games, the best way to level is to do as many quests or dungeons as possible in a short amount of time. In Guild Wars 2, it's much different; the more time you spend wandering around off the beaten path, the more things you'll find to do.
In this game, there are many ways to earn experience. You get experience for finding waypoints and points of interest on the map. You get experience for killing things. You get experience for reviving other players. You get experience for World vs. World PvP. You get experience for gathering crafting materials and making things out of them. You can even go back to old zones you never completed and get experience from them -- the game downlevels you to whatever zone you're in so you can do the content without blowing through it, while getting appropriate exp rewards for your actual level. These aren't just tiny amounts of experience, either -- they're significant.
It won't be immediately apparent out the gate, but the best way to level in Guild Wars 2 is to do as many different things as possible as you play. In fact, to earn your first level out of the tutorial/intro mission, I recommend turning around, going back inside your race's major city, and exploring the entire thing.
When it comes to actual "questing," the majority of "quests" in the game are randomly occurring events. As you walk around and explore the map, events will suddenly begin, or you'll move into range of an in-progress event. These events form what will likely be the core of your PvE experience, and you should always be looking to participate. Again, the best way to find these events is to just wander around exploring the map -- those who only run in a straight line to the heart and story quests will miss out.
Events will occupy much of your time in the game, but if you ever get tired of them, or if feel like you are too under-leveled to move forward (and, if you only do story and heart quests and nothing else, you'll hit this point pretty quickly), remember all the other things you can do. Spend some time gathering materials and crafting items, go check out the World vs. World combat, or even check out the other races' starting areas. (Getting to them is simple, although not obvious. Lion's Gate has portals to all five major cities, and can be reached either through the portal in your own city, or by entering the sPvP lobby through your Hero Menu and taking the portal found there.)
Remember -- don't focus just on quests, don't be afraid to aimlessly wander and explore, and don't be afraid to check out other zones. The more you explore, the better off you'll be.
One of the other aspects of Guild Wars 2 that will probably take some adjusting to is the fact that it's a social game. Not "social game" in the sense that you're spamming farming invites to your friends, but social in that there's a very real incentive to work with other players, and luckily, doing so is simple and generally doesn't require any futzing with parties or raids. Hell, you don't even have to technically talk to anyone, but you will have to work with other people.
Again, it's not immediately clear, but working with people in this game is ALWAYS beneficial. There's no kill stealing or even kill tagging. You can't take loot meant for someone else. Even gathering nodes will be unique to your character, meaning no one will swoop in in front of you and snag that ore chunk you had your eye on.
If you come across other players, help them! Start attacking their monsters -- they won't mind, since you'll both get experience and treasure. Happen upon a downed or dying player? You'll want to try to revive them, since there's a bit of experience in it for you. If you see a group of people wandering around, follow them. You'll all help each other out, and there's a good chance you'll come across a random event together as a group. Similarly, if you see a whole bunch of players all running in one direction, definitely follow them. A major event is probably about to start or already in progress, and you won't want to miss out.
Later in the game at around Level 30, when dungeons become available to you, you WILL have to start dealing with a party system. The dungeons are all five-mans, but, again, remember that the Trinity is dead. It shouldn't be super difficult to find a group, because virtually any group composition should be able to clear any dungeon in the game. You don't have to sit around waiting for a tank or a healer -- you can grab the four nearest Engineers and still have a reasonable chance of completing the dungeon.
Simply put, if you're the kind of person who tries to play MMOs solo (which, I admit, often describes me), you're going to have to shift your thinking, or you're not going to have much fun in this game. All that said, my experience in the beta weekend has been that once all the barriers to co-operation are removed, people generally seem to act a whole lot nicer to each other.
Now, we get to the combat itself. First off, your main skill set is tied to the weapon you're currently using -- the first five skills on your hotbar correspond directly to your equipped weapon. You start with only one skill in each useable weapon, but they quickly unlock as you kill things -- within two or three hours of play, you should have unlocked most if not all of your weapon skills. Your other five slots are a healing skill, three utility skills, and an elite skill, all of which you can choose from a set that you will unlock as you level up.
When it comes to actually killing, throw everything you know about priority systems and rotations out the window. Guild Wars 2 isn't the kind of game where you stand in one place mashing buttons; you need to be moving CONSTANTLY. Almost every skill can be used while moving, even most channeled ones, and as such you should be constantly strafing and circling your target. Generally speaking, you have less skills overall than in most other MMOs, and the skills you do have come with significantly longer cooldowns. The time you're not spending mashing skill buttons instead goes to combat positioning and avoidance.
In addition to just moving around your opponent, you also need to learn to dodge. The dodge skill is absolutely critical to survival in the game, and once you move past the first few areas, you'll find that even basic monsters can easily kill you if you're not careful. Many enemies have extremely powerful attacks that can one-shot you, so you need to learn the tells so that you can dodge out of the way.
In the event you do go down, don't worry! The downed state, which you should be introduced to in the tutorial, is an expected and normal part of the game. Being downed doesn't necessarily mean you've done something wrong (although there's a good chance you're down because you blew a dodge), and you should quickly be revived by another player in the area. You can also come back from being downed by contributing to an enemy kill while downed, and it will be obvious how to do so when you first enter the state. If you do end up dying, you'll just respawn at a waypoint. As you move through areas, keep an eye out on your map for other downed players -- reviving them will grant you some experience, and they'll certainly appreciate the help.
Finally, a few notes about loot, dungeons, and the "end-game."
The "end-game" concept central to most MMOs is not present here. In Guild Wars 2, the time it takes to gain a level is designed to be roughly equal, whether you're leveling from 29 to 30 or from 79 to 80. Rather than gating content at the level cap, the content is more evenly spread throughout the entire game. When you do ultimately hit the level cap, you have an opportunity to go back to all the areas you've missed and try them out -- because of the downscaling system, you won't be just blowing through them without a challenge.
Five-man dungeons are present in the game, and the first isn't available until level 30, but they don't exist to gear you up. Equivalent versions of all of the loot from dungeons can be found out in the world or crafted -- they instead serve as cosmetic rewards. Loot in general is significantly scaled back from many other games, and you'll find that you're pretty naturally upgrading your gear as you move through the game without any kind of dungeon or raid grinding. Instanced raids don't exist at all, but many will find that some of the major area events serve as de facto, non-instanced, mini-raids, and these are available as early as the starting areas of each race.
As should be clear from the above, I spent a significant amount of time in most of the beta events, and had a really positive experience. I think a lot of you, even if you don't normally like MMOs, will enjoy the game as well. That said, I'm sure it won't appeal to everyone, and sadly I think a lot of people may be turned off from it simply because they try to play it like World of Warcraft or Old Republic. That's not to crap on those games (I still have an active World of Warcraft account and a great guild), but it's just to note that you really do have to change the way you think about and play MMOs to really "get" Guild Wars 2. If you read this guide the entire way through, you should have a pretty good idea of how to do so.
See you in Tyria!
[Jordan, Chris Carter, and I are planning on rolling on the server Ferguson's Crossing, and we expect a few other editors will be playing there as well. We don't have any kind of solid plans for a guild at this point, but if you're looking for a server, feel free to join us!]