All these years of MMOs desperately hoping to steal a modicum of World of Warcraft's success, always trying to do more, then being caught by the commercial fear of being too different so just winding up being the same but with bits on. Guild Wars 2 cuts straight to the heart of the matter, laser-focused on being better rather than reinventing.
Over long years of hype, it's made plenty of noise about being a whole new approach to massively multiplayer games, but the reality is very different. What it's done is boiled the genre down to its core elements - levelling up, player vs player combat, exploration, crafting, self-expression, the need for players to pay - and then worked out how to improve each one. Nothing tried and tested is replaced as such, it's just constructed in such a way as to allow far more flexibility.
Superficially, this might not be evident. While Guild Wars 2 is a terribly pretty game, with its lush, detailed landscapes and its painterly approach to user interfaces, it's still very much a fantasy world and very much an MMO - magic, swords, skittering beasties standing in fields waiting for death, /dance animations, statistics, collecting coins, the works. The difference is that it neither nails you down to a fixed path or asks that you soullessly grind away at repetitive actions if you want to progress.
Run around its sizeable world of snowy mountains, mystical forests and blasted heaths and you'll naturally run into trouble - massed fights against powerful monsters, leftfield collection quests, surviving waves of marauders assaulting a snowy inn... Sure, there are only so many variations upon a theme, but critically your activities happen organically, springing up around you rather than requiring you to fill your questlog with prescribed tasks. This makes it all too easy to lost vast amounts of time: there's always something going on, it's unlikely to be something you've already done, and you will be rewarded for participating in it.
Combat, the bread and butter of most MMOs, is similarly flexible. Whatever class you pick, you'll have a choice of inventive skills rather than be stuck with whatever the game had pre-determined they can do. Equipping different weapons gives you access to different skills (and you can swap back and forth at any point), while exploring far-flung corners of the maps and surviving brutal boss fights will reward you with skill points to spend on new abilities which, similarly, you can swap in and out with your existent ones. Cobble together the skillset that most appeals to you, and from there work out how to master it rather than simply tap number buttons in a set order. Add in the ability to dye your clothes whatever colours you want whenever you want and you've got the holy grail of MMOs - a character that feels unique and personal, not a mere template.
There are an awful lot of numbers to juggle, mind - a raft of different in-game currencies splintered across Player vs Environment, Player vs Player and World vs World modes, an auto-balancing system that alters your level to match the zone you're playing in, four different types of exploration icon to collect all of per zone, and all this on top of the more traditional experience points and weapon/armour statistics. (Experience points are shared between modes, however, so whatever you do you'll be levelling up). Guild Wars 2 has an impressive amount going on at once, and no shortage of things to do, but it could be that much more fearsome to the casual player than its competition.
Launch-week bugs that prevent groups being in the same place as each other and access to the in-game auction house won't help, but those at least will be smoothed out in time. Helping ease in those players more averse to the frantic but compulsive PvP and free-for-all open world quests is a per-character personal storyline, which reflects choices made during character creation. As a piece of storytelling, these can be a bit flat - a parade of quickly-forgotten characters muttering stiff-limbed exposition - but they do mean a sequence of dramatic fights uninterrupted by other players , and a few curve balls that feel at least vaguely unique to you.
All this for one fixed entry price too - Guild Wars 2 is not a subscription game, despite having all the hallmarks of one. You pay for the game, and then, in theory, you could keep playing for free. Mostly likely, if you're suitably enraptured by the game, you'll actually end up buying something from the in-game store - perhaps a pair of decorative sunglasses, or some higher-capacity loot bags, or a key to that magic chest you found. Much of this can be bought with in-game gold, or you could shortcut but stumping up real cash. Obviously it's impossible to say at this stage how this will play out, but it does seem like the balance is pretty spot-on. The base game doesn't feel like a glorified shop-front, and does little to actively suggest you pay for extra items, but the knowledge that cool new things are there has a strong pull.
However it pans out, the lack of any requirement for a long-term financial commitment together with a highly-polished, highly-attractive MMO positively brimming with choices and activities would seem to suggest this is the first dead-cert MMO smash hit since World of Warcraft itself.