Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Guild Wars 2

Post-Launch Review
Guild Wars 2
Developer: ArenaNet
Released: August 2012

Warning: this is a very long review, because it's a very big game. As of this writing I've played well over 400 hours and I still have plenty more to do.
Also, this is sooner than I usually review a game, but I love Guild Wars and I couldn't not play it.


About

Guild Wars 2 is a fantasy MMORPG set 250 years after the first game. In the world of Tyria, the elder dragons have awoken, causing devastation and corruption on a massive scale. The five major races - humans, charr, asura, norn, and sylvari - must unite to defeat the dragons. The first and most pressing: Zhaitan, the undead dragon.

At Launch

Guild Wars 2 was received very well, earning an average review score of 90%. Critics were impressed with the scale of the game and its focus on cooperation, as well as the attention to detail and the removal or improvement of most of the problems associated with MMOs. Some reviewers complained about repetitive content, and some were disappointed that the game wasn't as revolutionary as its marketing made it appear.

Post Launch

Only two months in, ArenaNet's post-launch support is fairly incredible. The plan seems to be to release a major free content update every month that includes both one-time and permanent content that has a lasting impact on the world. ANet seems to be keeping a close eye on balance and includes frequent fixes and updates in that regard, but they're cautious to avoid knee-jerk reactions. In response to player feedback, ANet has done things like improve dungeon loot and scaling, re-balance too-difficult encounters and missions, and add requested features.
A year after launch, a lot has changed. Design philosophy has shifted, rewards have been boosted and upgraded all over the game, a new tier of gear is slowly being rolled out, and updates are rolling out every two weeks. So much has changed that I wrote a whole new article to cover the changes.

The Good

No Subscription Fee
You buy the game and that's it, you can play as much or as little as you want without feeling pressured to get your money's worth every month. There's a cash store, but it's entirely optional. You don't actually buy stuff directly with real money; instead you buy gems, which you can then exchange for items in the shop... or you can trade gems for gold on the player market. Coming at it the other way, it means you can use gold to buy gems and therefore cash shop items without spending any more real money. Unfortunately the gem/gold exchange is much higher than it used to be, but early on I managed to buy extra bank and character slots without spending any real money.
Graphics & Art
Guild Wars 2 looks great at high settings. Characters are highly detailed and very well animated. Even the idle animations look great - for example, my female sylvari warrior has an incredibly expressive face, even when just standing around. The environments are gorgeous, with tons of variety and many different climates and architectural styles. The attention to detail is impressive.
Classes & Gameplay
I never roll alts in MMOs or RPGs or whatever. I just don't see the point in playing the same content over again with slightly different abilities. But the classes in Guild Wars 2 do such a good job of feeling unique that I can't help but play all of them. At the time of this writing I have my main character, a level 80 elementalist; a 54 ranger; 62 warrior; 28 guardian; and 50 engineer, and I plan to eventually start work on thief, necromancer, and mesmer. 
Each class is extremely versatile and can fill any combat role, but they still each have a distinct feel to them. It's really cool. And you might think that "any class can do anything" means they're all the same, but you'd be wrong. Some classes are still better than others at certain roles - for example, the elementalist can't be beat for AoE damage, and the guardian is easily the best for support. But the thing is that they aren't restricted to those roles - I can play a tanky elementalist or a pure-damage guardian, for example.
Combat is hectic in a good way. Attacks don't automatically hit like in most MMOs, so moving and dodging are key to staying alive, as are controlling the enemy and supporting allies. Losing your health drops you instead of killing you, giving you a smaller assortment of skills. If you kill an enemy while downed, you rally to half health and continue fighting. Allies can also revive you. I've had some ridiculously fun and suspenseful fights where the entire party is dropped, only to have one person rally, start reviving others, and make a huge comeback and kick the boss's butt.
Exploration
There's SO MUCH TO DO. It's absurd. I'm a big fan of exploration; it's one of my favourite things to do in a video game. But Guild Wars 2 takes it to an extreme level. To achieve 100% world completion, you have 1,993 locations to visit and tasks to accomplish - and that doesn't include all the hidden jumping puzzles, secrets, mini-dungeons, or full dungeons. You get rewards for completing each zone (35 of them!) and a special reward for 100% completion.
With all the events and cool stuff that pops up as you play, it's very easy to set out with a goal in mind, get distracted, and an hour later say "oh yeah, I wanted to make my way over to that vista...".
Dynamic Events
Events are the real meat of Guild Wars 2's PvE content, and they do a pretty good job. The results of an event are not quite as permanent or long-lasting as the game's marketing lead me to believe, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Many events are part of a chain, and success or failure moves the chain one way or the other. For example, centaurs might attack a watchtower. If they take it down, they then move on the nearby trading post. If they take that, well, you can't access the trading post until you push back the centaurs, which will then allow you to push forward to liberate and rebuild the watchtower. Most chains tend to move fairly quickly so that many players can experience the events. Some move more slowly so that you'll see differences if you revisit a zone later.
Everyone who participates in an event automatically receives a reward based on their level of participation, which is unfortunately often counted solely by damage dealt, meaning heavily support-oriented players might earn lesser rewards.
One thing I have to note, though: the big world boss events are FANTASTIC. The dragon lieutenants and the starter zone bosses are pretty incredible, and will regularly draw dozens and dozens of players to participate in a colossal battle with multiple objectives, such as protecting the siege weapons or closing portals. A boss event like the Shadow Behemoth is something that would be an epic-tier raid boss in most other MMOs, but in Guild Wars 2 you can find him in the human starter zone. WHAT.
Dungeons
Guild Wars 2's dungeons are five-player instances with some neat quirks. The first time you play a dungeon, you go through its story mode, which across the 8 dungeons combine to tell the story of Destiny's Edge, a now-defunct adventuring group that once challenged an elder dragon all on their own. Story mode is designed to be accessible by almost all players, but they feature some really cool and unique encounters.
You can replay each dungeon in explorable mode, which will offer you a choice of 3 different paths. Explorable mode takes into account what happened in story mode - for example, in Twilight Arbor, you drive out Faolain, the leader of the Nightmare Court. When you return in explorable, three of Faolain's lieutenants are fighting to fill the power vacuum, and you can choose which of them you want to eliminate. Upon completion of an explorable run you're awarded dungeon-specific tokens, which you can trade in for unique rewards.
Dungeons tend to be quite challenging and require a well-coordinated party to be successful. Some of them have their tedious bits and are a bit lacking in variety, but overall the dungeons are pretty strong.
Crazy Free Updates
It's only been two months since launch as of this writing, but ArenaNet's free content updates are INSANE. The Halloween update was very impressive, including a brutal jumping puzzle, a huge scavenger hunt, two holiday-themed PvP modes, new areas, a dungeon, new crafting recipes and item skins, AND new events and achievements... but that was just the warm-up. The Lost Shores update was even bigger, adding a permanent new zone (Southsun Cove) as well as a weekend-long story punctuated by three one-time events. On Friday, the crablike karka attacked the city of Lion's Arch, and the players had to fight them off. This kicked off a scavenger hunt to find a way to damage the elder karka. On Saturday, the Lionguard made an offensive push, landing on the island home of the karka. This one-time event had players exploring and actually establishing the camps and waypoints that will remain permanently on the island. Finally, on Sunday, there was a massive attack on the karka hive and elder, a huge two-and-a-half hour long event with fantastic rewards.
Yes, there were some technical problems with both of these events. However, that means that ArenaNet will learn from their mistakes, and future events will be even better. The most important thing to keep in mind: these aren't paid expansions. They don't even call them expansions - they're "just" content updates. They're adding content faster than I can play it. Remember how I said above that the amount of stuff available is ridiculous? Well, it gets more and more ridiculous every month.
Hall of Monuments
Players of the first Guild Wars get a few exclusive bonuses for their dedication: unique weapon and armour skins, pets, and titles. Many of these look fantastic (particularly the light armour set) and are a nice carry-over for GW1 veterans. Even awesomer is that you can go back to the first game and earn these whenever you want - right now, for example. If you want to play the story of the first game before heading into the second, you can earn your rewards for GW2 as you do so.

Combos
GW2 has a simple but awesome combo system. Some skills create an area with some sort of ongoing effect, and are tagged as combo fields. Other skills can interact with fields to produce a bonus effect; these are combo finishers. There are 9 types of field and 4 types of finisher, and each combination creates a different effect. So, for example, shooting an arrow through a fire field applies burning to your target, but using a blast finisher within the same fire field grants might (damage bonus) to your allies. Good use of combos is a mark of a good player or team, since you can produce all kinds of effects that aren't directly attached to your skills.
Guild Wars 1 References
Hidden around the world are locations and landmarks that will be interesting to new players, but a blast to find for veterans. The ruins of many cities, temples, and monuments can be found (for example, Temple of the Ages, or Ascalon City and the wall), as well as certain iconic landmarks (searing crystals). There are also some new landmarks that weren't there in the first game but are references nonetheless - for example, the empty tomb of Saul D'Alessio, founder of the White Mantle.

Conveniences
There are so many little conveniences in the game that just make everything better. The best is the ability to deposit crafting items straight to your bank from anywhere in the world. That and the prevalence of merchants vastly extend the amount of time you can spend adventuring without having to return to town, which is great, because no one likes running back and forth between town and the field to clear inventory. You can also access the trading post from anywhere (though you do have to physically visit a trader to pick up purchased items or selling profit).
World vs. World vs. World
This is Guild Wars 2's big-ticket PvP mode. When you start the game you're asked to pick a "world" (or server or realm). This determines which team you fight for in WvW, a massive three-way, week-long battle for control of four huge maps full of castles and fortifications. Battles range from one-on-one skirmishes to small-group camp assaults to huge sieges with dozens of players on each side. Doing well in WvW gives your world bonuses in PvE play as well, so even if you're not hugely into PvP, it benefits not just you, but your entire server to put some effort into WvW. And you can claim a captured structure for your guild, which will put up your banners to show it's yours. Cool.
You get XP and loot as normal, while being scaled up to the stats of a level 80. In fact you could start a character and play 1 to 80 entirely in WvW, if you wanted to.
Asura & Charr
The best two races (IMO) are actually the least popular, and that's kind of disappointing. Each is pretty unique visually, they have strong physicality and animation, and their racial stories are (also IMO) the best by a long shot. The asura are my favourite for a few reasons, but the most notable is their animation: all races have the same speed and jump height for balance purposes, but with asura being half the size of a human and weirdly proportioned, their "clumsy/graceful" animations make them believable and hilarious to watch.
Community
People are just so nice in GW2. Part of that is due to the game's focus on cooperation, and part of it is due to strictly enforced community policies. Hate speech is not tolerated and will result in a ban (temporary or otherwise), so abuse is practically non-existent. Players are very willing to help each other out in the world because the game is built to reward everyone for everything. You get experience for reviving a downed player, for example. If you help another player kill a monster, you both get full XP and loot. In fact, you progress some events and tasks faster with more players, and I don't just mean it's twice as fast with two people, it's more than that. So there's no reason not to help someone, because it benefits everybody.

The Neutral

Personal Story
For all the hype of the story of Guild Wars 2, it's actually not that great. The lore is fantastic, but for the most part the story is a fairly generic heroic tale of bringing disparate races together to fight a threat larger than themselves. The lower levels are where the story is strongest, when you're dealing with your character's background and establishing your personality rather than determining the fate of the world. Asura gets my recommendation for a starting character because their stories manage to simultaneously be hilarious, show you the facets of asuran culture, and have high and personal stakes.

sPvP
PvP works fine mechanically for the most part, but it's still lacking in features. ArenaNet has revealed that they're working on more additions, some of which they've already discussed, so it will get better, but currently it's a little feature-light and doesn't have many maps. They're working at it surprisingly slowly, though, considering how they've hyped up GW2 as an esport.
Repetitive? Maybe.
For the amount of content, there isn't quite as much variety as some people would like. For example, there are nine basic types of dynamic event, but almost all of them involve a lot of combat, and the main differences are the number of enemies, whether or not there's a fail condition, and whether the objective is mobile. Fortunately combat is fun, but if you disagree you'll find the game repetitive.

Mostly Optional Grind
Eliminating grind has always been a big thing in Guild Wars, and curiously, Guild Wars 2 is just a slight step back. The problem is the time spent between steps in the story. Each story chapter spans about ten levels, but there isn't a story step at each level - usually there are 2 or 3 levels between steps, and one step doesn't give you a full level worth of XP. So to experience the story you typically play a story mission, wander around until you reach the level of the next one, play your story mission, then level up some more, etc. You can't just play the story straight through, you're forced to level up between steps. It's not like that's torture, since there's so much to do and a lot of variety, but it's a little weird for a game with so much emphasis on playing how you want. If I want to play through the story before I focus on anything else, well, tough.

The Bad

Looking For Group
For all the hype of making it easy and fun to play how you want and when you want, Guild Wars 2 is absolutely awful at helping players create a formal party. You need a five-player party for dungeons, but the LFG tool is atrocious. Here's how it works: if you open an obscure section of the friends menu, you can flag yourself as "looking for group". When you do, everyone can see that status... as long as they're in the same zone and looking at the LFG tab. You can't even say what you're looking to do. As a result, if you want to find a dungeon group, you stand around Lion's Arch or the dungeon entrance shouting LFG into map chat, hoping there are enough interested players. If you're lucky you can put together a group in ten or twenty minutes, but if you're not, you could stand there for an hour and not find anyone.
What's very disappointing is that ArenaNet has flat-out stated that they currently have no plans to improve the LFG tool or create a dungeon finder.
EDIT: it's been pointed out to me that ANet is in fact working on improving the LFG tool in some way. No specifics or timeline yet.
Culling
ArenaNet has a system in place to keep both your machine and your connection running smoothly in extremely high-population or intense battles. What happens is that when there are too many players or creatures, the server will only tell your client about the closest ones. The intention is to lighten the load on your internet connection and prevent your computer from struggling to render too many models at once.
The problem is that those players or creatures are there, and they're attacking and doing stuff, but your client doesn't even know they're there. So what can happen is that you're attacking a keep in WvW, and it looks like everything is going well and you're overwhelming the defenders, and suddenly your entire squad is wiped out for no apparent reason... and THEN the game renders the enemy force that attacked you from the side. There's no way to defend yourself because there's no way to know you're being attacked.
ArenaNet has stated that they're currently working on some optimizations to improve things, so hopefully that happens soon.
Home Instance
Each character has a home instance that will change and populate based on your choices on the story.
At least, that's what you're told. In reality the home instance is pretty much just a waste of space. Yes, an NPC or two might show up there after you rescue them in the story, but you can't even talk to them. They just stand there. Before launch it sounded like you could earn exclusive rewards and decorations based on your story choices, but that really doesn't happen.

The Verdict

Recommendation: play it, especially if you don't like MMOs.
Guild Wars 2 is not a major revolution or a completely new approach to MMOs. It's more of a quiet revolution in design philosophy - the entire game is built around the idea of cooperation, and as a result, the player base is tends to be very friendly and helpful. The gameplay is unique, deep, and action-packed, and feels much more active and varied than a typical MMORPG. You'll never want to go back to standing still to cast spells after you've played an elementalist or necromancer. It's also full of little modifications and quality-of-life improvements that make routine tasks (like inventory management) far better than other MMOs. Guild Wars 2 does away with almost all of the problems with the genre and looks great at the same time. It's currently my favourite game and looks to stay that way for quite a while.

26 comments:

  1. Great review. It puts the spotlight on both the good and bad parts of the game, and shows readers whether or not those bad parts are dealbreakers for them. Consider yourself another reader gained!

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  2. Thanks for being one of the few people who actually review an MMO after sinking hundreds of hours into it. Most reviewers play it for maybe 10 to 15 hours max and call it a day. It's reviews like this that give video game journalism a glimmer of hope.

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    1. So why don't you become the game journalist that plays a single game for hundreds of hours while having multiple deadlines for multiple games per month.

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    2. I do a game a week and I still had time for 450 hours of GW2 :p

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  3. I fully agree, Dominic! I've always wanted to get into MMOs but found the enormous grind, the competitive nature with other PvE players, the lack of real progress/effect on the world and the stand-and-swing combat systems off-putting. GW2 may not have revolutionized the MMO like they thought they would, but it definitely made it playable for gamers like me. I'm obsessed with it right now, and like you, it doesn't seem to be letting up.

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  4. There's no mention of half the talents and skills in the game being broken or useless, despite being over 3 months into the game's life cycle, with no fixes in sight.

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  5. They *do* have plans to improve the LFG tool, they're just taking a back seat to some other things that they feel are higher priority. It'll get fixed, eventually.

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  6. Good stuff, I love a lot about this game and there are a few things I miss from the original. Most of those are goofy things like what happened to all of my music instrument emotes?! LOL Everybody wants a GW2 band whilst waiting for an event or a party member to strap on their favorite weapon before running into the jaws of certain death!
    I do love the cooperation in GW2, I am running along and see a person downed, rez him/her and then help kill whatever downed them. I absolutely hated the issues some other MMOs had with quest ganking, I wait for a target to spawn, have it almost killed and poof some jerk swoops in and takes the killing blow leaving me to wait again for the chance to complete my quest. Not happening in GW2 swoop in and help please! It just makes the game that much more fun. I am totally with you on the races. Currently running a level 80 Charr warrior and working on an Asuran engineer, elementalist, thief, and mesmer. I am using Norn for my guardian and necromaner, I do like the Viking-ish storyline that they have.

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  7. Great review, and I agree completely on all your good, neutral, bad points. I would add one other "bad" point: People who get hacked cannot get their items restored. I think that is a pretty big deal, and should be standard with any MMO.

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    1. They are working on a roll-back system, but I'm not sure they've given a timeframe yet.

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  8. I think you went a little easy on them, but it's still pretty good review. I think you should have mentioned how they're are some very persistent bugs that have been lingering around since before beta.

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  9. No mention of legendaries? Isn't that the only real quest in this game?

    Great read thanks.

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  10. You should edit the review to include the fact that Arenanet does not have any form of account restoration feature and that if your account is hacked Arenanet will not do anything at all to restore your characters or items in any way.

    Everyone who is playing or thinking about playing this game deserves to know that 100% of the effort you put into the game can be taken away at a moment's notice and the developer refuses to do anything about it.

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  11. I think you need to put huge bold about the number one "the bad" for the LFG. It is just horrible. How can there not be a chat channel that people can simply join when looking for groups? Code for global channels already exists (guildtalk anyone?). Simply extend the mechanism to a second channel (heck you can almost treat it like a guild, in which you now "represent" LFG). Some minor changes and tweaks would be all that it takes. I mean, this is 2012 (almost 2013). There have been LFG channels in multiplayer games since 1994-1995 timeframe with MUDs! How can this most BASIC of all features for any game that requires grouping to do something not have come up in design testing, beta testing, and now takes the thousands of players who are all screaming for this because now with the addition of Fractals of the Mist dungeon (where everyone in the group needs to be at the same level, or else you can only do the last level that all players in the group have in common (or choose a specific level), you have just introduced even more requirements on finding a group, meaning you need to now narrowed your pool of potential group members dramatically requiring much longer time to find a group, or need a way to tell more people at once that you are looking for a group).

    This is really a MAJOR issue, especially for the "end game players" who's main thing to do is to run dungeons. And it is completely and utterly disaster trying to find groups. Especially when you add in the automatic spam filters which will block you from talking/using map chat for 20-30 minutes for saying the same thing (or similar things) too often (which is a necessary part of needing to find a group in the game the way it currently is setup since people are constantly popping into Lion's Arch, and/or getting put in a different overflow server of Lion's Arch, all of which have their own separate map chats, so that you can't even chat to everyone who happens to be in Lion's Arch at once due to being spread across a dozen or more instances of it).

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  12. Great review. I think u did a great job at summing up my good and bad thoughts about the game.
    I do feel like they should prioritise fixing bugs and LFG tool before adding more content, but that could be because im slow at playing and am only currently through half the content.
    But again thats avreason i love the game - if im busy i can just play it next week and no money wasted. Considering the wealth of things to do, its gotta be one of the best value for money games ever

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  13. Something I personally adore : an amazing quantities of dyes AND unlimited re-dying of the armors in so many ways, when compared to the horrid dye system in the original Guild Wars...

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  14. One major flaw I've been seeing in all these GW2 reviews and guides, is that NO ONE talks about combos. Combos can make or break combat, and are the bread and butter of cooperative play in this game.

    I'l throw down a Water Field to help heal a nearby ally with low health, and will expect them to start throwing combo finishers to heal themselves, or at LEAST just stand in it and take the passive healing, but no... they'll run out of it immediately.

    And there's SO MANY MORE COMBOS!

    I want a reviewer or game guide to open this part of the game to the world so everyone can see that despite how much the already enjoy the game, there's just so much more there.

    http://wiki.guildwars2.com/wiki/Combo

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  15. I also think you were too easy on them. There was no mention of how awful party play is in PvE. In order to stay with your party, you need to keep your eyes on the blue dots at all time. If someone goes through a portal, the party does not follow. Events are nearly impossible without a group, vistas are a lot of work for not much reward. The jumping puzzles are less about figuring out the puzzle and more about making sure your toon is on the correct spot to make that jump. The game is pretty,I'll give it that, but they sacrificed game play for graphics. After a while, the hearts (quests) feel like grinding. After several maps of do the hearts, see the vistas, get the pois, it got old. If you like to solo, you can't do the dungeons, and apparently that is where all the good rewards are. So, I went to WvW. That got old too. They winner is always the server with the biggest population. There's no reward for strategy, no reward for defense. It got to be zerg around the map, over and over again.
    I've gone back to GW1. GW2 made a big splash, but it couldn't keep me like GW1 did.

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  16. No wonder why Guild Wars 2 won the Game of The Year Award for 2012

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  17. Awesome review. You definetly got me to join it on my next day off. Eveonline and my gf might hate u for a bit. Lol

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  18. Great review man. Amazing game and amazing well written review!

    You have a new reader now!

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  19. Great review. It puts the spotlight on both the good and bad parts of the game, and shows readers whether or not those bad parts are dealbreakers for them. Consider yourself another reader gained!

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  20. LFG tool has been fixed by the community by a looking for group website (gw2lfg.com). Also, culling has been fixed(ish) by rendering less-detailed models, only if the PC can not handle rendering the full model. Otherwise you still render everything. Imo a decent fix for a complicated problem.

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  21. The costume designs are rather neat and appealing. You can expect much more than the generic armor and robes offered by other games in the genre. The type of armor and weapons you use will depend on the class you play. If you play as a magic caster, then you will wear cloth. Warriors get plate armor and heavy blunt weapons.

    Guild Wars 2

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    1. I'm actually thinking I might want to write a post on Guild Wars 2's armour soon!

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