Norrath to Tyria: Skills – Kitchen Sink or Deck of Cards? (Part 1)

Skills are the bread and butter current mainstream MMO combat, whether you want to call them combat arts, abilities, spells, or whatever.  Pressing a skill icon on your bar (by clicking a hotkey) activates an action to attack, heal, buff, etc.  This style has generally become known as “hotkey MMOs” by many, sometimes even in a negative connotation.

Seeing as how combat is a very large part of most MMOs, these systems tend to be very complex and pretty deep .  There’s a lot more work going into these systems than just what you use during combat including how you gain them, how you improve them, any customization options available to provide different strengths, etc.

While EQ2 and GW2 both fall into the hotkey style, the method in which they utilize it are significantly different, so let’s take a look at the two systems.

EverQuest 2

This is in the middle of what I’ve seen for hotbar setups…

EverQuest 2 definitely takes more of an “everything including the kitchen sink” setup, allowing you to have every spell or combat art available to your class skill on-screen at once regardless of its usefulness, as well as all Alternate Advancement abilities, item clickies, consumables, macros, etc.  The UI supports this as well, allowing you to create more hotbars than you even need.  In practice, this also takes up a significant chunk of screen real estate, with between 4-7 hotbars being the norm from what I’ve seen (when you include consumables and clickies).  Only 2-3 will be used in combat, the others are mainly used for ease of access to certain buffs, macros, or items.

There are benefits and negatives to this system.  A major benefit is that you have more you can do in combat…and a major negative is that to be efficient in combat you have to constantly be using skills.  Also, if you take a break you can easily forget where everything is, making it difficult to get back in the swing of things.

This has become a standard system across MMOs since 2004 when EQ2 and WoW (which, honestly, likely had more influence towards this setup) were released.  With all of your skills available, strategies come down to being able to use the right skill when needed.

For those coming from these games…Guild Wars 2 does things, well, a little different.  Okay, a lot different.  Fair warning now, there’s a lot to cover so I apologize for the length and if I ramble.

Guild Wars 2

That’s all you get.  Make it count.

Guild Wars 2 continues its predecessor’s style of a limited skill bar, providing space for only 10 skills on-screen at any one time (not counting profession-specific skills in the upper left), and is much closer to a “deck of cards” setup from CCGs like Magic: The Gathering where you only have a certain amount of cards available in your hand to play out of a larger pool of cards available.

While not in combat, players choose which skills they want to bring, creating a “build”.  They are then locked into that build while in combat.  This introduces a large amount of variation into the profession.  In contrast to EQ2 where any character of a specific class can be generally assumed to be the same as any other character of that class regardless of the player behind the screen, each character in GW2 can be built to play significantly different from even other players of the same profession simply by choosing different skills.

Initially this system may seem a lot more limited in what you can do, and it’s certainly hard to argue against that when you have tons of skills available on-screen in EQ2 but only 10 in GW2.  It’s important to understand that the gameplay styles are very different between the two games, and there’s more going on in GW2’s skill bar than a quick glance will show.  Through various means the GW2 skill bar can actually hold far more than 10 skills at once.

Weapon skills

The most important difference between the the two games is that while EQ2 provides almost the same skills to all players of the same class no matter what choices they make, the majority of the skills you will be using in GW2 are based on the weapon you are wielding and your profession.

These are your five weapon skills, to the left of the health orb.

The left half of the skill bar contains what are known as your “weapon skills”, and will change depending on which weapon(s) you are currently wielding as well as your character’s profession.  For example, if you equip a sword on a warrior you get sword-related skills, no matter which sword you equip.  Equipping that same sword on a guardian will also result in sword-related skills, but they will be different skills from the warrior as a guardian uses the weapon differently.

These five weapon skills are your main abilities as they have  the lowest cooldown of all your skills, and have the highest influence on your build compared to anything else.  Each profession has a specific list of weapons they can use, and no profession is capable of using all weapons (even the warrior, which is stylized as a master of weapons).  Some are restricted due to lore such as the ranger’s aversion to guns, and some are due to mechanics such as the low weapon availability for thieves and engineers.

Seems simple enough…  Note the swap icon to the left of the weapon skills.

The way the weapon skill allocation works is that weapons carried in the mainhand determine the first three skills on the left side of the bar and the offhand determines the last two.  Two-handed weapons provide a full five skills as you cannot use another weapon with them.  Each weapon type provides specific skills for the mainhand and offhand depending on which slot they’re put in (i.e. putting a dagger into offhand will not give you the same skills you would receive if it were in mainhand), allowing players to pick and choose  their weapon skills by picking which weapons they will equip.

Thieves work a little differently…

The sole exception to this allocation setup is the thief profession.  As mentioned in the profession post, the thief’s third weapon skill is determined by the combination of weapons used instead of only the mainhand weapon.  This skill is officially known as the “Dual Skill” as the skill uses both weapons together in a combination attack.  In a sense, this means the thief is the only profession that truly dual-wields weapons.

Healing Skills

Get VERY familiar with this skill slot…

Immediately to the right of the health globe is your heal skill.  The only skills available to be put in this slot are other heal skills so you will always have one available.  Each profession has about 3-4 skills to choose from with varying side benefits and efficiencies, so you can pick the best method of healing based on your build and personal style.  Unlike many heal skills in EQ2 (outside of the Priests, obviously) this will be your most powerful and most reliable source of healing in GW2, even taking other players into account.

I can’t actually stress that enough.  In GW2, these heal skills are how you will be healed 90% of the time.  The earlier you learn this the better off you will be.

This slot is unlocked at character creation and a default heal skill is automatically unlocked and slotted.

Utility Skills

You only get three slots…make them count.

These skills are the next part of your build after your weapon skills, and are located immediately to the right of the heal skill.  These three skill slots hold abilities which expand your capabilities and help define your playstyle and build.  They generally have longer cooldowns than your weapon skills and are intended to fill out your build with additional abilities.

Each profession has their own pool of about 20 skills to choose from, separated into groups of similar abilities.  For example, warriors receive skills such as stances and banners, whereas the ranger receives skills like traps and spirits.  Certain skill types are common amongst multiple professions such as shouts and signets.  Players can only slot three of these skills (unlocked at levels 5, 10, and 20), but can change them anytime they are outside combat.

Elite Skills

Fear the might of the Moa Bird transformation!!

Elite skills, located on the far right of the bar, are especially powerful skills and generally have very long re-use times.  Their main purpose is to provide powerful effects that can change the flow of combat, allowing players to turn around a fight from a loss to a win.  They are generally very visual and highly noticeable with flashy effects and looks.

Professions generally have around 4 profession Elite skills available, and they can do various things like transform the player into a tornado and toss enemies around (elementalist), root and bleed all foes in an area (ranger), turn you into a hulking juggernaut with brawling skills (warrior), or turn enemies into a Moa bird (mesmer) cancelling anything else they were doing…including other Elite skills!  The skill slot unlocks at level 30, making it the final new ability a player will learn.

Unique Mechanic

Each profession has access to their own unique mechanic.  While most skills a profession can use can be similar to skills from other professions, due to how the skills in GW2 are built, the unique mechanic skills are exactly that: unique.  These are abilities or mechanics you won’t find in other professions, even if one or two aspects seem similar.  They contribute a significant amount of the feel of the profession as well, as they encourage certain playstyles.

On the top left of the bar is the space reserved for each profession’s unique mechanic.  The skills/systems located here are directly related to which profession you are, and gives you access to unique mechanics not available to the other professions.  Some mechanics are relatively separate from the profession’s normal skills (such as warrior, guardian, ranger, and necromancer), whereas other mechanics are intricately connected to the normal skills (such as engineer, elementalist, mesmer, and thief).

You will see something different depending on which profession you are:

  1. Elementalist – Four elemental attunement skills (changes available weapon skills in lieu of weapon swap).
  2. Warrior – Adrenaline gauge and burst skill (based on current mainhand weapon).
  3. Ranger – Pet controls, pet health bar, and pet swap button.
  4. Necromancer – Life force gauge and death shroud transformation skill
  5. Guardian – Three virtue skills.  Flames appear above the weapon skills based on Virtue of Justice progression.
  6. Thief – Steal skill and initiative gauge (replaces weapon skill cooldowns)
  7. Engineer – Four toolbelt skills (based on which heal/utilities are slotted)
  8. Mesmer – Illusion counter and four shatter skills (destroys all existing illusions for effects)

Stacking the Deck

Alright, that’s the layout of the skill bar.  It’s a pretty big difference from EQ2’s hotbars, but it gets better.  Having the limited number of skills, even after learning how to play using GW2’s system, still feels very limiting compared to EQ2’s system.  Luckily, the developers packed the skill bars with more uses than you might initially think.

Weapon Swap

Use the swap command to change between weapon sets.

One of the key aspects of the GW2 combat system is the ability to swap weapons in-combat, giving you up to twice as many weapon skills available.  After level 7, players can swap between two weapon sets using the button icon directly to the left of the weapon skills (or the tilde “~” key).

Swapping weapons increases your capabilities, and allows you to change your playstyle on the fly.  Cooldowns do not carry over between sets, so swapping when everything’s on cooldown is a valid tactic.  There is a short cooldown on the swap itself while in combat, though, so switching to the other weapon set during combat does have an opportunity cost.

Chain skills

Chain skills are skills that, when attacking an enemy, will swap between multiple skills (usually three) in order as they are used providing different or more powerful damage or effects on subsequent hits.  These are always on the first weapon skill as that skill has no cooldown and are mostly restricted to melee weapons.  This essentially makes the skill three different skills in one.  The practical effect is that weapons with a chain will have a basic attack that chains into multiple effects automatically without losing three skill slots to do so.

This mesmer sword chain focuses on debuffing mobs.

For example, the mesmer sword includes a chain attack on skill 1 that does two separate slashing attacks that debuff armor, and then a third attack that removes an enemy buff.  All of this is combined into a single chain skill that cycles as it is used, providing a very distinct style for the weapon even when performing basic attacks.

Sequence skills

These are special skills that, upon use, swaps to a second skill that often affects the result of the initial skill.  This second skill is only available while the first skill’s result is active.  These skills are sometimes called “chain” skills by players since it works similar to a 2-skill chain as opposed to a 3-skill chain, although the game does not designate them as chain skills like it does the ones described above.

An example of this is the thief’s Infiltrator’s Strike.  This skill teleports the thief to her enemy and changes to  Shadow’s Return.  For a few seconds, the thief can use it to teleport to her original position, regardless of whether she’s moved since.  She cannot use Infiltrator’s Strike again until she either first uses Shadow’s Return, or waits for the skill to reset.

We find this skill used a lot in pet summons, as it naturally limits the number of pets out at the same time while giving more functionality to that pet.  A necromancer will use a skill to summon an undead minion, and that skill switches to a second one that destroys the minion for a special effect.  This means the first minion must be destroyed, either by the necromancer or from enemies, before he can summon another.

Signet skills

Signets are special skills that provide both a passive effect and an active effect.  The player can activate the skill for a special effect like any other skill, but receives a passive effect that lasts as long as the skill remains un-used (and not on cooldown).  This gives signets a dual effect that must be considered.  All professions other than the engineer has access to signets, as the engineer does not use magic.

For example, the ranger’s Signet of the Hunt increases her passive run speed, but can be activated to increase her pet’s next attack.  The passive run speed boost will be unavailable until the signet’s cooldown is finished.

That’s about it for the layout of the skill bar.  As you can see there is a lot of complexity to the bar, despite not having a lot of slots available.  Next up (very soon) will be the second part, which covers how you gain these skills and how you use them.


One response to “Norrath to Tyria: Skills – Kitchen Sink or Deck of Cards? (Part 1)

  1. Coming from the original Everquest where you only had 8 spells up at a time, I love the idea of limited skill bar. I want to be paying attention to the action in the world, not staring at my 7,000 skills so I can hit something as soon as it comes off cooldown.

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