So over the winter break, between wolfing down gingerbread and lamenting the latest damage from the winter Steam sale, I picked up <em>Guild Wars 2.</em> The pretty-looking newer contender to <em>World of Warcraft</em>’s MMO throne had always looked cool to me, and has no subscription fee to worry about over the busier exam-ridden months. Having recently gotten a character to Level 80, and the current patch season ending, I figured now would be as good a time as any to give it a look over. Rolling a character — in this case, a blue-haired elementist that definitely wasn’t based on Sailor Mercury — and entering the world of <em>Guild Wars</em> revealed a land of really clever design. It has a rather iconoclastic view of the classic MMO formula, rather than simply copying <em>WOW</em>’s hot bars and exclamation point quest markers. The experience of getting your characters from Levels 1 to 80 is impressively well crafted. The “My Story” mechanic creates a unique quest-line to your character’s race and allegiance. The usual questing grind of levelling is replaced by an intuitive system that shows quests and events on the map, letting you just stumble onto quests naturally and fluidly. It’s easily the best levelling experience I’ve had in a game like this. The big issue here isn’t in the levelling experience or the main story, it’s in the end game. While the levelling experience is wonderfully crafted, I get a far less sense of crafted experience in the end game content. The actual dungeons aren’t too bad, though they’re exploitable as hell. The few runs I’ve had included people straight-up skipping entire encounters for the sake of time and nary a patch to fix such a glaring issue. Unless allowing players to skip entire portions of a dungeon was intentional, it didn’t seem like adding a door that wouldn’t open until after an enemy was defeated was too difficult. Still, there are moments of brilliance — like throwing molten rocks at a lava mech, or dodging an electrified floor to reach safe platforms that step out of the mould of fighting waves of enemies and bosses — that make these playthroughs special. I got my character to Level 80, and after a couple of dungeons and gaining some cool loot, I was left not having much to do. I suppose I could level another character again, maybe a mustachioed Nord dressed like Gurren Lagann, or attempt to get the insanely hard-to-craft legendary weapons, but with no raids or anything that they’re drastically needed for, it’s not too tempting to continue playing. There was a bit of a focus on “Living Story,” a bunch of live events that follow an overarching story, which actually culminated recently in the destruction of a major hub city. While there have been some interesting boss encounters, they have some poor design, and the writing is lackluster enough that I don’t feel too attached to the NPCs involved. The developers themselves have admitted that, being a new concept, they’re having a hard time, so maybe the next season will have a better story, and it’s an encouraging promise of something new if pulled off properly. But for now, it’s just another insubstantial, impermanent facet of the game that only has me revisiting it once in a while. Still, the game rather nefariously uses achievements as a way of getting players to keep playing. The game provides achievements for everything from combat to exploration and even provides monthly and daily achievements that tempt you to log in even for a few minutes every day. These achievements actually provide rewards outside of a Gamerscore, giving special currency for unique items, even unlocking unique skins for weapons and armor. Even a non-completionist like me gets drawn in, wanting to get that new sword straight out of <em>Soul Calibur</em> by getting “cheevos.” The best recommendation for the game though comes from the combat system. Instead of relying on hands-off mashing of hot bars, allowing your gear and perks to robotically do the work, the game really rewards properly comboing abilities together in a fast pace. Dodging enemy attacks is satisfying and adds more agency than simply drinking a potion when your health is low, and a<em> Borderlands</em>-style last stand mechanic allows you to claw back from the brink of death if you kill an enemy while downed. It’s not perfect and lacks some teeth in the endgame, but with no subscription <em>Guild</em> <em>Wars</em> is easily a great purchase for students. It’s a game you can get hopelessly drawn into while it lasts, but allows you to leave it and come back if you want. A game that’s fun, lets you grind away with ease, and is simple to come back to when a new patch drops, without having to worry about subscription fees seems like a decent enough purchase to me.