The state of the modern massively-multiplayer online game is up in the air. From Diablo 3’s DRM debacle to Star Wars: The Old Republic’s failure to sustain itself under a subscription-based model, it has been proven to gamers that the MMO is in a transitional state as developers and publishers attempt to find a successful way to market their games.

One developer that has stayed steadfast in its view of how to sell an MMO to consumers is ArenaNet. The Guild Wars 2 head start ended last night as the servers were opened to the masses, and after spending nearly 20 hours exploring, crafting, fighting, and jumping, we came away feeling very positive about the future of the most hyped MMO of the year — despite some potential problems that could disrupt the carefully laid plans of ArenaNet.

The most important and ambitious innovation of Guild Wars 2 is the nearly endless amount of content available to players from the moment a new character is created. After completing the short tutorial for one of the five races, players are free to forge their own path, forgoing any and all quests if they so choose.

The much lauded quest system of the sequel is indeed more engaging and cooperative than the typical MMO laundry list that even the most recent entries in the genre have refused to break away from. Wandering into a dynamic event feels natural in a high fantasy world like Tyria, especially more so than providing services for a bunch of static NPCs with yellow punctuation marks flying over their heads.

That said, the action within the quests, whether they are within a player’s personal story or part of the tasks to complete the game’s Renown Hearts, is relatively standard MMORPG fare. You will gather items, you will kills monsters, you will save villagers, and you will continue to do these things until the progress bar fills up, rewarding you with gold, experience, and karma. This is not meant to be a criticism of the game, because completing these tasks is a lot of fun, especially when tackling screen-filling monsters with an army of other likeminded players.

Guild Wars 2 Initial Impressions Quests

The way Guild Wars 2 delivers its quests should be seen as more of a remix than a revolution, which is still much needed in a genre so stale that even attaching the Star Wars brand will not ensure success. ArenaNet obviously took a lot of care in balancing the new with the old, taking out aging elements of massively multiplayer games and replacing them with more modern mechanics and a fresh coat of paint.

Speaking of fresh, the combat in Guild Wars 2 is easily some of the most dynamic and exhilarating of any combat in a PC game in recent memory. Because of the fact that a player’s level is constantly scaled down to a region’s content, every fight can be fatal. After finishing up a level 18 Renown Heart, I warped back to an earlier zone I had not finished. Scaled back to level 12, I was ambushed by 3 enemies near my level. I did not make it out alive. As an MMO player from years back, it can be disheartening to realize your character will never be an overpowered titan, but making content relevant for all players at all times will likely work out in ArenaNet’s favor in the end.

The strangest success of all is that Guild Wars 2 has managed to strike a chord with everyone, from the most jaded of MMO veterans down to those who have never subscribed to World of Warcraft, just by removing the restrictions of every other MMO on the market. All the farming and grinding and loot stealing has been stripped away, replaced by an open world where everyone is free to participate as they see fit, and never punished for doing something their own way.

Guild Wars 2 Initial Impressions Combat

The PvE portion of Guild Wars 2 has its strengths and weaknesses, many of which will require much more playtime before we can draw any real conclusions about the overall quality of the experience. After these first 18+ hours, it is clear that this game was designed with non-MMO players in mind. Exploration is quick and simple, combat is skill-based rather than stat-based, and almost every activity players can participate in is unlocked early on.

Which brings us to PvP, the half of the game that gave Guild Wars its name to begin with.

The mode that has excited everyone the most from its announcement up to the game’s official launch today is World vs. World vs. World (or World PvP). Is this mode, three servers are pitted against one another on four giant battlefields, where keeps can be stormed, wars can be waged, and cattle can be slaughtered. I only spent a few hours in WvWvW, but I was surprised by how enjoyable running around massive fields with dozens of teammates could be. Siege weapons made overtaking enemy territory even more chaotic and entertaining by requiring the attacking team to be patient as the gates slowly crumbled before them, praying to Dwayna that the other team wouldn’t have time to amass a force large enough to foil their plans before the gates fell.

Guild Wars 2 Initial Impressions World PvP

With so much land and so few waypoints to spawn at, trekking across the Eternal Battlegrounds can begin to feel tedious even after a single death. It just isn’t fun running for ten minutes to meet back up with a group that may have disbanded by the time you return. Other than the issue of transportation though, World PvP is more than just an entertaining distraction, but worthy of serving as a replacement for the original Guild Wars PvP. Plus, everything a player does in World PvP, from gaining experience and loot to mining iron and chopping down trees, carries back over the the main PvE. Constant progress makes World PvP that much more rewarding.

The other mode, Structured PvP, should look familiar to World of Warcraft players who have dabbled in Battlegrounds, or basically any gamer who has had experience with King of the Hill modes. Two teams spawn on opposite sides of a map with three points to capture. Capturing those points starts a counter that ticks up to 500, at which point one team is declared victorious. Killing other players or specific NPCs is worth a set amount of points, as well. These battles are relatively short, but frantic and exciting all the same.

So there you have it, our first impressions of the most anticipated MMO of 2012. Guild Wars 2 managed to do the impossible and live up to the hype in basically every aspect it promised it would. What remains to be seen is how much lasting power this subscription-less MMO will have with a community of players constantly asking for more content. ArenaNet managed to maintain an exponential growth for Guild Wars — will it be able to do the same with this ambitious sequel? Check back for our full review soon.

Guild Wars 2 is available now on PC.

Follow me on Twitter @JacobSiegal.