The first Guild Wars 2 open beta concluded on Sunday after a solid sixty hours of almost entirely uninterrupted service for thousands of gamers all over the world. The servers were packed, bugs were found and squashed, and many gamers made their case for how fantastic or how disappointing the long-awaited MMO had turned out to be after years of waiting. As an adventurer, I spent a majority of my time in PvE, seeing how it stacked up against the original Guild Wars, as well as whether it held up on its own.

It is important for any Guild Wars players to keep in mind that Guild Wars 2 is a complete overhaul of the original game. Very little was maintained in terms of combat, instancing, and even moving around the world (i.e. jumping!). The connections are mostly cosmetic or lore-based, but despite all the differences, the world itself feels familiar.

Tyria has gone through many changes in the centuries since Eye of the North, but the atmosphere of that world remains mostly unmolested, thanks to the programmers and especially the incredible art team. Tyria itself is a work of art. I could not stop taking screenshots at every juncture, whether it was the desolate beauty of the Shiverpeak Mountains or the grandeur of Divinity’s Reach, the human city.

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Of course, looks are important, but they would not continue to impress so regularly without the implementation of gameplay to back them up. Exploring in Guild Wars 2 is unlike exploring in other MMOs. Rather than just being a means to an end, exploring is encouraged and rewarded constantly. Each region of the map has a specific number of important locations to discover that offer experience for the characters.

This is a great impetus to get players moving around in the world, leading them to the dynamic quests and Renown Hearts scattered around the map that comprise most of the PvE gameplay. ArenaNet has been promoting the Renown Heart events for months, and while there are issues, they are a vast improvement on the typical fetch quests and kill X amount of X creature checklists that pervade the genre.

Renown Hearts are large areas with several objectives for the player to pick and choose from. This fills up a completion bar, eventually rewarding the player with experience, gold, and karma, and effectively filling in the empty heart on the map. These tasks can be as menial as cleaning graffiti or, yes, killing rats, but one Renown Heart in norn territory had me chucking snowballs at children, and another in the human lands tasked me with “testing” beer. For the record, I did not even look to see what the alternate objectives were, I just drank the digital brew until the heart was filled (along with my Elementalist’s stomach).

Because of the influx of players desperate to get in as much as they could over their limited stay in Tyria, these events were often extremely crowded. The game is built for this exact scenario, welcoming groups of players to help out, bringing some life to the typically stale quest structure of MMOs, but occasionally it would be impossible to lock on to an enemy on account of the impenetrable crowd. This should not be a problem once the game releases and players disseminate, more likely just a casualty of beta testing.

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On the flip side of the questing coin are the dynamic events. These group-friendly, world-altering adventures were how I spent a majority of my time in PvE. Within each region of Tyria, there are constant battles for land and power between humans, beasts, and creatures that might not fit under either category. In Queensdale, a group of bandits were trying to poison the local water supply. Since no one was around to stop them, they succeeded with their dastardly deed.

I returned later to discover the locals were begging adventurers to kill some kind of slime creatures that had been creeping out of the infected water. Once we gathered enough of their gooey remains, we handed them to a man who used them to clean the water, saving all the thirsty townsfolk.

The stakes get higher in higher leveled areas, leading to spawn points becoming unavailable as centaurs invade and capture entire strongholds, waiting on players to fight them off, fleeing the scene once they are bested, and regrouping to fight another day. Watching the world shift with or without player interaction, for better or worse, brings tension and life into Guild Wars 2. It is fascinating to watch the events unfold from the sidelines, before rushing in to save the day.

Capping off PvE is the personal story, a personalized campaign for each player of the game. This story changes depending on the creation of the character, leading to dozens of possible stories for each time a player starts fresh with a new character. These story missions were relatively easy to handle for my street-raised, human elementalist, but gave my character a more solidified place in the world. By the conclusion of the beta-sized portion of my story, I had grown invested in my character’s story, further cementing me in this lore.

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The combat might be the biggest departure from the genre that Guild Wars 2 employs. Each weapon (along with each class) has its own set of skills – only one of those skills is available when equipping a weapon for the first time. The rest must be unlocked from killing baddies. This replaces the system from the first Guild Wars very effectively, always giving players plenty to achieve while adventuring. It will be hard to let go of the ravenous skill collecting from the prequel, but it works in favor of the revamped combat.

Movement is key to survival in combat. Because of this, Guild Wars 2 ends up playing more like an action game than a point-and-click MMO.¬†Early moa birds and plague worms do not require much strategy, but after the first few levels, the handy dodge roll can be the difference between life and death. Fortunately, an empty health bar only leads to a downed state, one in which players can still attack enemies. Killing an enemy in the downed state rallies the character, bringing him or her back to life. Resurrecting other players is also rewarded with experience, further advancing the game’s dedication to group play.

Guild Wars 2 has its issues, some a direct result of an unfinished product, others more worrisome for the longevity of this massive title. The important takeaway from the beta was that the innovative gameplay, beautiful environment, and friendly community dwarfed the technical flaws and imbalances ArenaNet is currently doing their best to fix before the next beta weekend event.

Ranters, did any of you get a chance to check out the first Guild Wars 2 open beta weekend? If so, let us know what you thought in the comments below. If not, are you more or less interested in the game now?

Guild Wars 2 will launch exclusively for PC in 2012.

Follow me on Twitter @JacobSiegal.