Before I go on, I absolutely have to get something out of my system, something I desperately want to blurt at you: Guild Wars 2 is gorgeous, at least sometimes. Quite often it's content to be a gently handsome game, but at certain moments it can just bowl you over. Even in a world saturated with HD graphics, high-res textures and triple-buffered VSync, it still boasts some truly splendid moments and it's not even supporting DirectX 11 yet.
This is as much a triumph of art and design as it is any technical achievement. The city of Divinity's Reach, the focal point for the humans, is the highest of high fantasy, with its thrusting towers, shining causeways and winding, leafy suburbs, all populated by uncommonly good-looking citizens. The jewel in this crown is a splendid greenhouse-cum-orrery chamber, where enormous golden spheres circle lazily about the ceiling in a wondrous aerial ballet. It is, quite simply, grandeur.
While the rest of the land is rarely as visually stunning, it nevertheless rewards the wanderer and one of the first things I was pleased to see the game do was award experience points for exploration and for uncovering "points of interest," something that only encourages you to stroll even further off the beaten track. The game is decorated with little details, too, which fosters a nagging temptation to see what's over the next hill or under the next burrow. It's a game that likes showing off and it's often very good at it, too.
But while all this splendor may be inspiring, it's often only skin-deep. Fantasy MMOs so often suffer that strange contradiction between the glory they promise and the mundanity they offer, and Guild Wars 2 is similarly guilty. Do you want to be a hero of Tyria, a legend whose name rings like a bell across the land? Then you'll need to help out on the farm first by feeding the cows, or head to the monastery and deal with their grub infestation. One of the first challenges set before the warrior race of the Norn involves finding eggs that have fallen from their nests and daintily replacing them.
Though these gradually become more serious in their subject, such as a call to repel bandits or a raid on an army camp, much of the game's quests still revolve around collecting or destroying a certain amount of X, where X can be monsters, sprinkler valves, even apples for a pie. Escorting caravans or defending a fort are more interesting challenges, but each still feels like a mini-game where the objective is simply to hit a target number, perhaps occasionally within a time limit. In time, ArenaNet promise that success or failure in these dynamic events will have a noticable impact on the game world, but over this beta weekend any changes were largely cosmetic.
Many of these quests and challenges are co-operative, allowing nearby players to drop in to lend you their sword-arm (or donate an apple to the pie), or it might be you who rounds a corner only to find yourself suddenly in the thick of the action, able to provide a helping hand. In theory, this allows for much more spontaneous questing - and even some pleasant surprises - but in practice it has a funny feel to it. You can be waltzing through a forest to find you've suddenly fallen within the catchment area of a new quest and, killing a nearby monster, you accidentally help everyone else to complete it. Well done! A medal is your reward.
It's also equally possible for you to accidentally wander outside of one of these quest zones and into another. These trigger with the barest of exposition, without you bumping into an NPC or receiving any sort of offer from another player. There's no invitation necessary; you're simply asked to start rooting in bushes for a rancher's lost poultry, or to stamp on spider's eggs to clean out an infestation. Rather than a feeling of participation or teamwork, this suddenness actually gives a profound sense of disconnection, and these co-operative quests end up feeling more like high fantasy flashmobs, like a random collection of unrelated adventurers have been thrown together through some internet-organised event. Which, I suppose, is exactly what is happening.
Another MMO staple on display is the incessant, remorseless and brutal butchering of wildlife in positively industrial quantities. Once you set out into the wilderness it becomes all but impossible to avoid murdering the bats, bears, barracudas, bog monsters, birds and bloody great lizards that litter the land. Also true to form, as many of these turn belly-up beneath your blade they'll burp up all sorts of unusual items for you perusal. The lizard had a pistol. The bat was carrying a shield. The flightless bird was... wearing a hat? I'm not sure any more if it's incongruous when an MMO does this, or when it doesn't do it.
And Guild Wars 2 likes it when you kill all these buggers too, nodding with approval as it tracks your tally, encouraging you to add variety to your list of daily kills. Rats, raccoons and rabbits may be harmless, but that's no excuse to spare them. You'll quickly amass a healthy tally, too, because the sheer fecundity of these things boggles the mind; everything respawns the moment you walk twenty yards.
So it's a good job combat is so much fun. One of the most promising features of the game is its weapons and their attacks. Equip any combination - perhaps a two-handed staff; two pistols; a pistol and a shield or any mix-up you desire - and you're presented with a different selection of possible attacks, regardless of your character class. But not all of these are unlocked right away and even experienced characters need to practice with new weapons before enjoying their full range of abilities, meaning it's in your interest to try every combination you can think of, just to see what options it presents.
And the character classes also feel like a breath of fresh air, abandoning the tank/support/healer conventions that can weigh down the genre. From creation, every character has the ability to both heal themselves and fight like a loon in their own, special way, while the diversity on offer feels more akin to Team Fortress than World of Warcraft. My personal favorite, the Engineer, is a dangerous gunner but can also unlock a variety of turret types, including net throwers and even healing turrets. The magical Mesmers clone themselves or teleport away from injury, Thieves are deadly backstabbers in combat and Rangers have a menagerie of animal companions to choose from. Whatever you are, you rarely feel weak or useless.
Then there's the careful rationing of character advancement, which gradually unlocks both traits and skill points. These help shape a character in a particular direction, but are tightly controlled, forcing players to make important choices about how they want to develop. Skill points, for example, can be saved up and put towards powerful abilities, or instead spent on a variety of cheaper, weaker ones.
Right now, all this means that Guild Wars 2 gives you a lot of new things to play with, but still wants you to play with them in many of the old ways. Its balance is all out of whack and it can veer between boring fetch quests and engaging battles within minutes. In the same vein, while the humans get to enjoy Divinity's Reach and the fertile, exciting lands that surround it, the fearsome Norn I also tried began in much more modest surroundings and was reduced to the uncharacteristic feeding of bear cubs and that horrid egg hunt.
Of course, the whole point of this beta weekend was for ArenaNet to gather feedback on a game that they won't release until they're happy with and which they plan to add much more content to, even long after launch, so there's room for a great deal of change yet. Meanwhile, I can't quite work out if it's going to be a major step forward for MMORPGs or merely another pleasant and very pretty addition to the genre, though I think I can almost smell the potential from here. Or perhaps that's just apple pie.