17 Mar 2012

Guild Wars 2: Spellcasters Quick Guide

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you’ll probably notice that I have an ongoing love-affair with spellcasters in MMOs. Call it a mage, wizard or sorcerer – if it hurls magic then I’ll probably be playing it. Perhaps it’s because I identify with the thought of an intellectual magus studying to become proficient in arcane lore. Maybe I just have a primal desire to launch balls of fire from my hands. Who knows.

Earlier this week, ArenaNet announced that Pre-purchases of Guild Wars 2 will start on April 10th. As an added bonus everyone taking part also gets access to beta weekends. If you’re thinking of going for this MMO then I’d seriously suggest going for this deal, if only to get used to just how different this game is for spellcaster types.

As a result, I’ve gone through my notes from the closed beta back in February and pulled together this quick guide on spellcasters in Guild Wars 2, focusing on how they work, what the common features are and what sets them apart. I’ve also tried to explain how each profession feels in order to give you an idea of the playstyle. I’ve been a bit brief in some of my explanations, so if you have questions please let me know in the comments!

If you’ve been brought up on a diet of Warcraft, Rift or SWTOR then you’re probably used to the traditional style of spellcaster combat. There’s a meatshield at the front who’s job is to stand there and get hit. There’s healers mashing their keyboards desperately trying to prevent people from dying. And there’s caster DPS, playing their rotation like a orchestral symphony of destruction and occasionally interrupted by Bad Stuff on the floor.

As I found out during the Press Beta last month, that approach won’t work in Guild Wars 2. Instead of being able to conduct affairs from the back, we’re expected to get into the thick of things. And occasionally tank. And heal ourselves. And dodge incoming attacks. But although it was a painful experience, it’s the good type of pain that leaves you mentally exhausted and grinning like a madman. Since then, I’ve been putting myself in a training regime to help meet the challenge.

Switching from playing a spellcaster in other MMOs to playing one in Guild Wars 2 is a little like changing out a greying Gandalf for something from a martial arts movie. Deciding what to cast is just as important as where you’re standing and what weapon you’re carrying. At any point you could be dealing damage, tanking an enemy or healing yourself up – or all three at once. It’s a much more intense experience, which is something a lot of veteran spellcasters have been crying out for.

Oh yes, there’s also no mana bar. Instead of managing a resource and trying to maximise your damage output around it, Guild Wars 2 is all about using the right abilities for the situation at that time, with the flow of the game changing rapidly so that you’re forced to flex those abilities.

Although Guild Wars 2 includes three different types of spellcaster (Elementalist, Necromancer and Mesmer), there’s a couple of features common to all three of them. Your first priority is to find your self-heal ability and commit it to memory, as you’ll need to keep yourself alive rather than rely on others. The other thing you’ll notice is that you don’t get a huge amount of time to move out of the way of incoming attacks and AoE, which is where dodging comes in. It’s worth getting used to this technique before getting into the meat of the game, as you’ll need it to handle some of the tougher content.

The third feature that all spellcasters share in Guild Wars 2 is having their spells linked to the currently equipped weapons. Changing weapons gives you access to a new set of five skills, meaning that you don’t need a mass of hotkeys just to have every ability mapped. Both the Mesmer and Necromancer also allow you to have two sets of weapons that you can quickly swap between in combat. You can read more about weapon skills and other character abilities in my summary on ZAM.

With that out of the way, the final task is to choose what kind of spellcaster to play. Classes are known as Professions in Guild Wars 2, with spellcasters represented by Elementalists, Mesmers and Necromancers. There’s no dedicated healing profession, although you can tweak them (particularly Elementalist) to provide some groupwide healing. The great thing is that although each class will feel slightly familiar, ArenaNet’s approach really freshens things up.

Probably the easiest to grasp is the Necromancer. If you’ve played a Warlock, Shadow Priest or other class with a lifestealing mechanic then this will feel right at home. A fair few of your abilities will drain life from your enemies, with others inflicting poison, bleeding or crippling effects. The Necromancer basic heal is also pretty unique, as you summon a Blood Fiend that heals you every time it attacks. You can also pick up skills that allow you to summon other blood creatures if that’s your thing.

The Death Shroud ability is the Necronamcer’s signature move, putting them in an altered state that provides them with another set of skills and allowing them to turn their accumulated life force (absorbed from killed creatures) into health. If you’re going to be temporarily tanking a mob, switching into Death Shroud should keep you up for longer.

Mesmers are probably the next easiest to get to grips with, but also provide buckets of chaotic fun. One way is to create illusions of yourself, either as autonomous clones or attacking phantasms. Another way is to load enemies up with random conditions or debuffs. You don’t know quite what you’re going to get but that’s half the fun! If your mission is to create a character with a distinct Loki feel, this is for you.

As with Necromancers, the Mesmer also has a signature move. In this case it’s the ability to shatter illusions to disrupt surrounding enemies or reflect incoming attacks. While it doesn’t help as much with tanking damage as the Necromancer’s Death Shroud, there’s more flexibility when you’re getting paggered by a crowd. It allows you to be more nimble and flexible, almost being a spellcaster equivalent of a rogue or thief.

The Elementalist profession is possibly the most difficult one to master, but comes with the added benefit of a high degree of flexibility. If you’ve played mages or shaman in other MMOs, you’ll be used to the elemental spell types on offer here. As well as throwing fireballs or ice shards at your opponents, the Elementalist can also summon weapons for themselves and their party to deal additional damage. You can also summon temporary creatures to fight by your side depending on which elemental attunement you’re currently using.

That attunement is the Elementalist’s signature move. Instead of switching weapons like the Mesmer or Necromancer in order to change abilities, the Elementalist changes which of the four elements they’re attuned to. Earth will help with soaking damage, water can help with healing and fire and air provide alternate styles of dealing damage. This allows a skilled elementalist to quickly switch roles in response to a changing situation, but it does require a greater level of skill and/or practice to master.

There is one spellcaster gap with Guild Wars 2, and that’s the pure healer. Although you can try to force a Water elementalist into that role, the output just isn’t enough to be the sole supplier of healing to an entire group. Instead, everyone in the party is expected to deal damage, heal and occasionally tank. It means that responsibilities are shared more evenly between players, as well as making it much easier to assemble a party for group content.

Change is definitely coming to MMOs, with Guild Wars 2 offering some real challenges for those players looking for a fresh approach to spellcasters. While this change might not be for everyone, I can see arena spellcasters and raidiers suffering from malaise or boredom really going for something like this. If you’re contemplating getting into Guild Wars 2 then the best advice is to get in early, try out the spellcaster professions and see which ones work for you.

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