The original Guild Wars looks surprisingly good for a game that came out in 2005, so it's not a shock that Guild Wars 2 continues to set standards for graphical excellence in MMORPGs. This time around, ArenaNet has presented a whole package with a unified painterly style that reaches even the game's user interface and official forums. In game, the graphics are definitely high-definition, yet artistic enough to stand the test of time.
One of the highlights of the game's graphical excellence is the gigantic cities, particularly Divinity's Reach, the Pale Tree, and Lion's Arch. It's hard not to be amazed when first presented with the impressive scale and the detail that went into creating these cities. Players are reminded of the team's attention to beauty and detail every time Lion's Arch is decorated for the holidays. Wintersday doesn't just involve tossing some snow and tinsel around; it turns the city into a veritable winter wonderland, complete with a gigantic snow globe that one magically enters in order to play winter-themed mini-games. Yes, when you're in the snow globe, you can look up and see the blurry images of Lion's Arch through the glass dome above your head. Amazing.
Exploring the wilderness areas of this vast fantasy world is always a treat. ArenaNet's artists do their research, and it shows in the presentation of the ecosystems in the game. Wandering around the base of a gigantic volcano reveals an area that looks exactly like volcanically-active parts of Hawaii. The zone named Timberline Falls perfectly recreates the awe-inspiring feeling of emerging from the heights of snow-topped mountains and looking down into the verdant valley below. Then there are the completely fantastic ecosystems, like the impossibly lush foliage surrounding sylvari (plant people) outposts or the frighteningly dragon-scarred Brand, full of shimmering crystal bushes and jagged purplish rock formations.
We'd be remiss if we didn't give some major kudos to ArenaNet's animation team as well. Just watching a raven or owl flap around excatly like their real-life counterparts shows how much loving care was put into the creation of Guild Wars 2's Tyria. Every corner of the world has been given attention from an animator, from the long grasses blowing in the wind at the top of a huge jumping puzzle to the metal statues slowly revolving around the Lion's Arch fountain. Characters and monsters are delightfully animated as well. We dare you to play an asura wielding a giant hammer without falling in love with the diminutive race.
Guild Wars 2 is an explorer's dream that encourages the notoriously hurried MMORPG fanbase to stop and smell the roses. From the massive scope of its cities and natural habitats to the care put into the smallest details around the world, it truly deserves our award for Best Graphics in 2012.
Although frequently used in Japan, cel shading hasn't been picked up by very many Western developers. That's too bad, as Gearbox has demonstrated just how well the technique can be used in its Borderlands series. The colorful, cartoonish look of the graphics in Borderlands gives the series the feeling of a violent pulp comic and sets it apart from other games. In Borderlands 2, the graphics are sharper than those in the first game, and the diversity of environments gives the art team the opportunity to really show off its style. We suspect the game's graphics will stand the test of time better than other current games that go for a more realistic look.
One of the joys of playing through Gust's Arland series of Atelier games is seeing how various aspects of the games improve throughout the trilogy. The graphics in Atelier Meruru: The Apprentice of Arland are the pinnacle of the lush, fairy-tale design used in all three games. The intricate character designs mesh perfectly with the backgrounds, which are both gorgeous and diverse. Improvements to the combat system allow for impressive attack animations that range from highly whimsical to dangerously impressive. As the game focuses on Princess Meruru's attempts to develop her kingdom, various areas of the game change drastically as she tames and improves them. These changes can be quite impressive graphically, adding to the game's sense of wonder. We can't wait to see how the Atelier games continue to impress with their graphics in this spring's Atelier Ayesha: Alchemist of the Sunset Lands.
by Becky Cunningham