Watch out Blizzard, Guild Wars 2 is coming for World of Warcraft!
Character creation has undergone a major makeover too. The series has moved on from its initial offering of a single (human) race, and now features a selection of five – including the truly brilliant, enormous bipedal cat things, the Charr. Added on is a fill-in-the-blanks style questionnaire which is designed to customise traits of your character's personality, determining in turn how NPCs relate to them. These modifiers are largely nebulous ("Your character's totem animal is a ______," and so on) but at least they give the impression that, yes, this is a new MMO experience.
Combat itself follows an interesting path. Underwater fights against ocean-based enemies completely change your set of abilities and combine an Elemental Charr's spells with the water itself to create a mutated version. Fire spells become molten lava and steam, or "boil" the surroundings, for instance. It sounds like a superficial difference in writing, but it means that it opens up an entirely new area for fights in the world of MMOs. Where traditionally water-based combat felt like an odd, floaty second-cousin to above-ground fights, here it's been legitimised.
Even the notion of dying has been slightly revised. Healing classes have been ditched entirely with revival abilities dished out to characters of all classes, so the frustration of MMO deaths (particularly in pick-up groups where you're lucky to find anyone remotely competent at hitting the right keys) is lessened.
Similarly, you don't automatically die when your health plummets. Instead you enter a "Downed" state where you have access to a small handful of skills that allow you to keep fighting enemies while wounded on the ground. If you manage to kill an enemy during this state, you instantly get revived; it's only if you fail here that even need to depend on others to revive you.
Eight group dungeons will be available at the launch of the game, from level 35 onward. It sounds like a meagre helping but it basically doubles as each has two modes: story and exploration. So despite Guild Wars 2's narrative leaning, all dungeons are repeatable once you've played through story mode. Exploration then offers a new version of the dungeon, with its own specific enemies and boss fights.
But the game proves even superficial differences are as important to developing a personality as any changes to the fundamentals of MMOs. The cities of Guild Wars 2 have an architectural style you don't see elsewhere. The Norn starting area might essentially be the game's pseudo-medieval zone of feudal farmyards and coastlines, its buildings and colour schemes making its main areas look like a combination of Holland and a Viking Hilton.
ArenaNet has already openly stated it wants to fill the top dog spot in the genre. Guild Wars 2 will likely be battling it out with World of Warcraft and (potentially) Bioware's Old Republic at launch, but given the fact that it offers some of the most important advancements to the genre that we've seen in years, and that it's easily one of the most exciting game currently in development, this goal may not be as far-fetched as it initially seems.