The saying "familiarity breeds contempt" has little meaning when it comes to videogames. On the contrary, it takes a degree of familiarity and experience to properly differentiate and understand a genre. In the MMO genre, for example, many games look the same at a glance. An inexperienced viewer could be forgiven for not really knowing the difference between Aion and Rift, or not quite understanding that Warhammer and Lord of the Rings Online are completely different styles of game. Only by playing these titles, and investing significant amounts of time into them does it become apparent where they differ.
Guild Wars 2 initially looks not too different from any recent fantasy MMO, such as TERA, Rift or Aion. It's slick, polished, and undeniably pretty. Most particularly, though, aside from a massive graphical improvement it doesn't really look to offer anything new to those who have previously experienced a major MMO like World of Warcraft.
But dismissing Guild Wars 2 as "just another MMO" in the crowded market would be premature. It has a lot to offer, for lovers of MMOs in general, and even more so to refugees from World of Warcraft. And with that game looking long in the tooth and feeling just a bit played out, those refugees are in abundance.
For a start, the game is pretty. That needs to be said from the outset, as it's immediately noticeable. Part of it is just outright graphics, with high resolution textures, complex lighting effects, shaders and water effects. All the things that make the difference between an MMO released in 2004 and an MMO released this month. But the main thing that makes Guild Wars 2 look beautiful is design. There is art here, not just buildings and baddies.
This aspect is one reason World of Warcraft dated quite well. Though hamstrung by the outdated engine the art and spectacle of that title was undeniable. Guild Wars 2 improves on this standard significantly. A larger scope, bigger levels, and more dramatic environments are now possible.
The cities that serve as hubs for the game's races are massive, sprawling townships and, though curiously empty of the life expected in a real city, they are spectacularly designed, with giant spires, and imposing edifices.
The game world is similarly extremely large, approximately the same size as Azeroth in the original World of Warcraft release. As an aside, it's a testament to that game this comparison can still be made. Aside from the actual size, though, the world of Tyria is much more densely packed with wildlife, quests, and interesting things to see and do.
There is variety here. That's one thing Guild Wars 2 has plenty of: variety.
It starts at character creation. Instead of having a choice between "the good humans" and "the bad humans" (a major flaw in Aion, and little better in other games), GW2 gives a range of options. Though regrettably chiefly humanoid (no giant spider monsters, or sentient blobs) there is something for everyone. There are humans, of course; the Norn, giant viking-like humans; the Asura, who look like Harry Potter house elves; the entish Sylvari; and the savage, ursine Charr. The player then chooses a gender, of course, for all races in the universe exhibit sexual dimorphism and coincidentally human secondary sexual characteristics.
The remainder of the process is as expected from an MMO, with customisations to eye shape and nose length, jaw width, and a myriad tweaks that can edge characters in and out of the uncanny valley.
As ever, where it stops being traditional is when it starts being more interesting. The player must decide their character's backstory. This involves choosing alliances, past events, motivations, etc, based on the questions asked. Doing so creates a unique story arc for an individual character, and this affects later gameplay by having diverging main storyline quests. It very effectively makes the character central to the story, rather than a mere observer of events, and occasional helper.
As expected, the shiny new character heads into the world and begins embarking on a series of quests. Like any MMO, quests form the core of the gameplay, and are the main way players will accumulate the experience to level up, and obtain new items and currency. Quests are well designed, and generally avoid the "Kill 8 rats" cliches. The main method for achieving this is that the quests involve helping someone in an area. This could mean killing the attacking enemies, or rescuing baby animals, or testing equipment, or any of an almost unlimited array of things. Each of these activities will fill a bar to varying degrees, and when full the quest is complete. This means the player can choose what they prefer to do, avoid what they don't, or (more likely) do all of the options to complete the quest as quickly as possible. Most particularly, though, it adds variety to the questing gameplay.
Not all of the quests use this mechanic, though. There are a number of quests that follow the story of the character, creating an arc for the player character's experience in the world. These are carefully spaced through the game, with progress blocked by being in higher level areas, or locked until completion of other quests.
Still more quests are group activities, or public world events, where something happens and everyone in the area is invited to take part. A single large enemy, for example, or an invasion of waves of smaller enemies are common. At the end of the successful completion of these quests each participant is given a medal (gold, silver or bronze) based on their contribution, with XP and other rewards similarly distributed. These quests enliven the world, and, yet again, add some variety.