This is part one of our Guild Wars 2 review. Check back on Friday for the final verdict.
The problem with MMOs is that they often don't feel very social. You're surrounded by thousands of players, but it rarely feels like it. Outside of groups of friends, everyone's busy silently churning through quests on their own. You might occasionally throw an emote or a 'thx' at someone, but that's about as far as the interaction goes. Guild Wars 2, however, is different.
You'll never forget your first world event. You'll be rambling through a forest, then a message will flash in your quest log: 'Slay the enraged cave troll' Suddenly, you'll see five players rush past you. Then ten. Everyone's charging to the objective en masse, and you join the pack. As you approach the troll's cave, you see a dazzling fireworks display of spells. More people than you can count are attacking the beast together; strangers working side by side. It's beautiful.
This gives you the chance to take part in massive battles and multi-part quests without having to organise as a group. They just happen randomly as you explore. You might never see these people again, but you've shared a moment with them. This side of MMO gaming isn't new, of course; but being able to take part in them, at any level, even if you don't have a group of friends to raid with, is something very special. When these huge battles are over, we often find ourselves forming parties with the people there and continuing our adventures together.
Regular quests are the same. Forget the usual MMO routine of picking up a quest from an NPC, completing it, then turning it in - here, all you have to do to start a quest is be in the general area. It won't be some banal 'collect 20 eggs' fetch quest; there'll be multiple objectives, all spread across a large area of the map. You might be digging up crops, scaring away bunny rabbits, protecting villagers from monsters, repelling bandit invasions, and any number of fun - and often bizarre - mini-games. For every one you complete, a progress bar fills up. When it's full, you've completed the quest and a pigeon swoops over your head and delivers your reward. It's remarkably streamlined, and eliminates any sense of grind or repetition.
But the best thing is that while you're doing these quests, so are dozens of other players. So if someone is fighting an enemy, you can join them and it'll count towards your own progress as well as theirs. Like the world events, this makes players forge social bonds on the fly. The idea of solo questing seems so archaic now. Items and enemies respawn quickly too, so you never feel like you're knocking heads with the people around you to complete objectives.
Another element of MMOs that's often criminally ignored is exploration. Guild Wars 2's world is absolutely stunning, and immense in scale. ArenaNet's art team have done a sublime job giving every area its own distinct personality. There's a richness of detail in some areas that put many single-player RPGs to shame. It's easily the best looking MMO to date. But it's not just for show; you're actively encouraged to explore and appreciate the beauty of your surroundings.
Each map has its own completion bar that you fill up by finding places of interest, hidden skill challenges and vistas. Activating a vista gives you a sweeping shot of the landscape around you, and nets you experience points. They're often hidden in hard to reach places, forcing you to complete a mini platforming challenge to collect them. In busy areas, watching ten other players trying, and repeatedly failing, to navigate these jumping puzzles is entertaining, but it also means that you can watch them to learn the path for yourself.