Guild Wars 2 is a game of a thousand subtle innovations, taking the MMO and quietly turning it on its head, to a state where it still looks like an MMO, but somehow the guts are all around a different way. It’s some kind of magic. One of the biggest and quietest of these changes is to how levelling up in Guild Wars 2 works, and what that means to the game.
Traditionally, in an MMO your level means two things. The first is an indicator for your own personal power. It might not be a surefire thing, as items often have a lot of influence, but you know that a level eighty character is going to gobble up a level twenty without bothering to involve their molars. You unlock skills and you make your existing skills more powerful, all along the predestined path that the developers have worked out for you, through rigorous balance testing.
The second is that it dictates what content you get to enjoy at any one time. If you’re that tasty looking level twenty, you’re not going to be able to survive in the level eighty area for longer than it takes for you to travel down the intestinal tract of the first ugly monster to come across you. More interestingly, though, it means that if you’re that level eighty powerhouse, you can’t muck about in the level twenty area. Not only would nothing even remotely challenge you, but you wouldn’t get any reward out of it. No XP, no usable loot. You may as well not bother.
It’s this banding that makes what should be an incredibly social experience into something that forces you into cliques and sects. The max level cool kids get to fight in all the best battlegrounds, and do all the most epic dungeons, while everyone else is spread out among all the other levels, segregated from one another and forced to cling to anyone even remotely close to them for company. It works against the philosophy of an MMO, which is to be multiplayer, first and foremost, right?
In Guild Wars 2, your level, nominally, means those things. It seems like it acts as you might think, with you climbing in power as you complete its areas and gather up loot, but there’s more than a few caveats that make it fall on its side, changing from a vertical levelling system to something far more horizontal.
Yes, the level eighty character will destroy a level twenty, were they ever to occupy the same space with all their power and items to bring to bear, but ArenaNet have made a game where that’s simply not possible. If you go into any PvP zone, everyone is automatically bumped up to level eighty and given competitive gear to compensate. They’ve claimed that a ‘natural’ (that is, someone who’s spent the time to level up to eighty) will always be a little more powerful than an artificially levelled player, but that it will never be unfair.
So that sorts out one end of the levelling gap, but the other is that if that level eighty player hops down into one of the starting areas they get an ‘effective’ level, which will be appropriate for that zone. So if you spend months working through all the content, remember fondly some event back in Queensdale, you can head back there and you’ll scale down to the area, making it challenging but enjoyable, once again. Not only this but it means you can play with your friend who just got the game, and they’ll still be wowed by all your shiny items and spiffy skills.
The way those work, too, is aimed far more at making all players equal rather than forcing you to forlornly pine after some epic skill that you won’t get for sixty levels. Everything you can do with a weapon you can unlock in an hour or two of starting the game, as they’re tied to how many kills you’ve got with that one weapon, and they really don’t take all that long to grab. Everything else, your ‘utility’ skills, are unlocked using skill points that you accrue both through levelling up and completing tasks around the game world.
What’s especially interesting about these is that the only restriction based on level is how many you can have active at once. If you save up a level or two you can unlock the most expensive of these very early on, or grab a bunch of cheaper skills so you’ve got more versatility. It means the higher level you are only affects what you can do, rather than how well you can do it. More of that vertical turning horizontal.
All of this works in concert to create an environment that’s inclusive rather than exclusive. Yes there will be areas in the PvE that you can’t access until you’ve got to a higher level, but because everything is going to be new to you anyway that shouldn’t be all that much of a problem. More importantly players who’ve played for months still get their rewards, but they also have the option to play with people new to the game, both in PvP and PvE. The way levels work in Guild Wars 2 engenders player interaction across the board, and should keep the earlier areas alive long after the initial rush has surged by, because the content itself is fun.
Even for those players that like to play solo, it gives you much more choice, which can only ever be a good thing. When you start the game you can head straight into the WvWvW PvP, jump into battlegrounds, or just head out into PvE. All of them will level you up, get you gear, and give you that hankering for progression you want, but none of them will narrow your options in any way. You could level all the way up to eighty in WvWvW, and then decide to work through the PvE content from the very first area.
If you’ve got half a year to set aside, that is.