There's gold in them thar Guilds!
I am "fairly" new to this whole MMORPG playing thing, even though I am a professional published RPG writer with a stack of indy credits to my name. Even though I have been running a text-based online RPG world for the last 8 years, the whole MMORPG phenomena passed me by, because I never really gelled with the other games out there. I tried and watched WoW and EQ2, Asheron's Call, Anarchy Online to name but a few but they didn't grab me for some reason.
I note here: I am not however new to the whole RPG thing, I have been involved with RPGs and games since I built my first ZX-80 and programmed a tiny text RPG for it. I have played hundreds of PC and console based RPGs and run virtually every RPG under the sun tabletop. I put this in to clarify for some people that I am not a newbie to the genre or field.
I have to admit that I am often put off by monthly fees and charges in that respect, since I have spent a lot of my time offering an RPG rich in story, theme and character for nothing. I understand the overheads these games have to deal with so I can't blame them for charging a fee, but when a new MMORPG hits the scene with no monthly fees and offers a chance to experience a colourful and detailed fantasy world, complete with a compelling backstory - even I have to sit up and listen.
And find out later on that it's not a MMORPG but a CORPG (Competitive Online Roleplaying Game)
My esteemed colleague Gabriel Strange ran a short preview of his experiences with Guild Wars over the beta and press events, he was impressed - but me, being somewhat of an RPG veteran with a long history of involvement with the hobby/business, it takes something truly worthwhile to actually impress me in this respect.
I didn't play Guild Wars a whole lot compared to Gabby (I only managed a few hours every event) during the beta and press weekends, but when I did I actually found myself really enjoying it. So you're about to learn why a non-MMORPG gamer has become a strict convert to the rich world of Guild Wars and the Kingdom of Ascalon.
There are some people that love story and there are folks that hate it, I fall firmly smack-bang in the camp of the story lovers, I'm a writer - what did you expect? Seriously though I have all respect for the developers of any game large or small, after seeing what goes into a game, good or bad they're a monumental task and a MMORPG must be truly Herculean to create.
So is there a story about Guild Wars or is it just another run-of-the-mill orcs, elves, goblins and wizards epic? Well, there is a story and it's been written by a professional, you can tell when you look at the Lore Book that comes with the game, packed with background and history which is enough to keep any RPG fanatic locked to the pages for days on end. But I am not going to tell you anything about the story, except that it's good and well worth delving into.
Oh and there are no elves, orcs, or other fantasy races that permeate what's become of modern fantasy, which is a bonus as far as I am concerned. Don't get me wrong I grew up with tales of orcs and wizards, but there comes a time when you yearn to hear something new.
There are the Charr, the Skale and many other weird and wonderful creatures on the face of Ascalon. They are all waiting to challenge even the most adept of players.
So this is the nuts and bolts of the game, the eternal struggle to rise from a lowly sword-swinging hero-wannabe to someone that can wade through hordes of Charr with a single swipe of their blade. It's not going to happen quickly though, Guild Wars is a challenge and it's been carefully crafted to offer a slow but enjoyable rise in levels.
Let's begin at the beginning, before you can step into the world of Ascalon you have to create a character, this is done very quickly and you can choose between two types of character style: Roleplaying or PVP (Player Vs Player). The former is allowed to adventure and quest, become involved in PVP events and is the best choice for the first time player.
The latter PVP character is at maximum level and uses equipment and so on that the RP characters find/uncover. So Guild Wars offers immediate satisfaction for those players that like to quest and those players that seem to get their kicks in beating on other players, those players we shall now term: Death-matchers.
I fall in the camp of the roleplayers and I must admit to a sort of evil delight in hearing people whine, there's no straight PVP versus anyone out there. My heart bleeds for them, it really does, and perhaps they can go and whine somewhere else though because the developers are not going to change that aspect of the game, so I am told.
Back to character creation, minor rant over. Character creation is quick and easy in Guild Wars, you don't have to spend a huge amount of time assigning points and worrying what attributes you have, you pick a model, customise features like hair, face, skin and so on, pick a name and you're away into the idyllic city of Ascalon.
WASD or Cursor keys move, the camera is controlled by the mouse and people that play a lot of 3rd person action/adventure games will feel right at home here. You can hold in the rmb to look around, a mouse wheel will control zoom levels and if you want you can left click on the ground or a character to move/interact with them - every control option has been implemented to player taste.
The PVP character starts at max level and is extremely powerful, you can choose from a template or create a totally custom character by picking two professions and assigning skills, there's a lot more choice here but I'll leave it to the PVP players to figure this one out as it doesn't really interest me, in the purpose of this review I'll be focussing on the RPG aspect of Guild Wars, want a deathmatch there's PVP in Guild Wars, Quake or whatever other game is flavour of the month.
Once you are in the city there are numerous things you can do, there are NPCs (Non Player Characters) to interact with and many of them offer quests/sub-quests and these are an easy way to get up in levels and earn money/items.
Pick an NPC and a quest and your quest log will update, this is a staple of all good RPG games and Guild Wars has been designed like a solo RPG in this respect. They have even added the arrow-compass pointing to your goal that appears in games like Sacred and it's extremely useful.
Guild Wars is extremely easy to get into and with a streamlined, helpful GUI replete with a well-designed and functional mini-map it's not an onerous task to play. There's a lot of thought gone into the game and I can see its appeal to new players right away.
Guild Wars eliminates long queues and spawn-camping by creating the map for you or your party the moment you venture forth from Ascalon or any other PVE (Players Vs Environment) area. Once you are in the wilds the game makes a map just for your adventuring pleasure, it's your own copy of the gameworld and you'll only see NPCs and any other person that you invite along.
Combat in Guild Wars is as simple as picking a target, with a weapon equipped and beating it to a bloody pulp (there is very little blood, 12+ rated in Europe) to gain loot and experience, the other staples of a rise to power.
Guild Wars features skills that can aid you in battle and depending on your profession(s) you can employ up to 8 of these skills (chosen before you head out into the wilds) which range from: sever artery (warrior skill that causes bleeding in enemies) to bane signet (monk ability that knocks down an attacking foe and causes hefty damage).
Trivia fact: Guild Wars has 150 skills per profession.
To use a skill it's a matter of clicking on it, or pressing the correct numbered key that corresponds to the skill in question. The manual for the game is probably one of the best manuals I have seen and leaves nothing to chance, telling you everything you need to know, along with a quick-start quick-reference guide it really is a complete package.
You have several professions to choose from in Guild Wars and you can have up to two of these professions, it's a good idea to multi-class and a warrior/monk combination is an excellent way to survive your first foray into the world.
The six professions in Ascalon are:
Warrior: strong in battle, a master of the sword.
Monk: flying feet and fists of fury combined with a healing spirit.
Ranger: sharp eyed and quick with a bow.
Mesmer: masters of illusion, weavers of the impossible.
Elementalist: wielders of the powers of earth, air, fire and water.
Necromancer: masters of the dead, they have fearsome magics that draw away life.
I was able to get to 7th level in a few days using this combination and it's highly recommended.
When you gain a level you are given a number of attribute points to spend on upping the list of attributes, like strength or swordsmanship, these are paid for with a 1-1 for your first raise and then they rise as you increase the attribute even further. So you can be paying 2 or 3 points to up an attribute by one point.
So the gameplay in Guild Wars is simple. The quests are varied and they have a good degree of reward for completion, some give you prized items and a good chunk of experience - some require you to protect an ally or escort an NPC.
Combat is a mouse click or spacebar away, there's nothing that requires immense brainpower to do and you can concentrate on questing/battling to your hearts content while you explore the world and learn more of the main story - of which there is quite a lot, but as I said before, I am not going to reveal any of it.
The first hour or so of play you are actually immersed in a cleverly constructed tutorial, this sets you up to learn about all aspects of the game and allows you to undertake many side-quests and adventures that will unlock new skills and give you a second profession, you will need to make friends to complete a couple of these quests as most quests later on in the game can only be completed by a party of 2-8 adventurers.
There are numerous commands that have been implemented that function with more than one player, the ability to call targets and draw using the mouse on the mini-map to indicate where you are going to proceed next or even a massive group of foes ripe for the hacking.
Even fun emotes (another staple of MMORPGS) are implemented in Guild Wars, since I have been playing it I have seen at least three dance parties, and been involved in at least two games of rock, paper, scissors. I feel this will help to bring in younger players and give the bored something to do with their time.
If you die in mission you're either resurrected at a shrine or can be brought back to life by a good-natured comrade. This incurs a small penalty to your max health and energy, each time - do not fear however, once you leave and return to the mission, that's all reset. So you're not permanently hampered.
To finalise this part of the gameplay section we'll talk a little about how the game assigns drops to monsters, when you slay a creature the loot isn't automatically yours, depending who is in the party the game tries to assign the drop to the fairest member so no one is left out - it seems to work on the basis of a lion's share of the kill at times, but since it also has a trade system where you can swap items - it's not too hard to get that +5 vs Charr bow the monk just picked up, if you ask nicely enough.
Gold is split between party members and everyone gets an equal share.
With a game like Guild Wars there have to be Guilds, these cost a fee to set up and allow large groups of people to form comradely clans with a chosen logo, there are limited customising options available for the guild's cape (which costs 2000 gold to get) but it does make you feel a little more special than the lone wolves out there.
As of this writing we have our own Guild in the game: Obiviata Wolf (Owlf) so if you see us, stop by and say HI!
The Guilds can also purchase (eventually) a Guild Hall which is their own gathering place and adds a little more personalisation to the game, where members can meet and interact with their friends and in some cases, depending on the relationship, family members (yes some folks mom's and dad's play games like this).
Each Guild has a ranking and depending on the various competitive events you participate in, will see the rise to fame or fall from grace of your Guild. This is why the game's called: Guild Wars, because the Guilds will be battling each other for the favour of the gods.
There are numerous Guild PVP style tournaments that range from CTF gameplay to King of the Hill style and will decide who rules the roost in the world of Ascalon and things become more fragmented as the story progresses.
One last thing to mention about play in general is that regardless of where you are in the world, it's possible to play with a friend. If you're in the right district, you can access the districts from the top left of the screen while in Ascalon or any other non-quest map area. I was able to play from England with a friend from the US by selecting the international district and finding her on the server, easy as that.
You even have a highly functional friends list and the chat
To Stream or not to Stream?
You won't find a long wait for a Guild Wars patch or fix, if there's an exploit it can be plugged in the time it takes me to write the words:
There is a new version of Guild Wars available please log out and restart your client - log back in again.
I also note that this has happened just once so far and it's still preferable to waiting weeks or months for a patch/update.
Guild Wars is built on 'Streaming' technology and it works behind the scenes to send constant updates to your copy of the game, if the developers find a bug or fix something you won't really know about it until you find a loading screen, wondering why there are a couple of new files to download (on today's connections, even the slowest, this can take only seconds).
This means that the developers can add new content while you're playing and you won't have to worry about waiting a month or so for. With plans to release yearly expansions to the world itself, Guild Wars has an evolving and ever-changing world.
The connection speed to Guild Wars and its stability is excellent, so far I haven't run into any problems on my connection (1.5) and it's been lagging only very slightly.
The areas in Guild Wars are split up into:
Non Combat Zones: The City of Ascalon or Ashford Abbey, these are places to find key NPCs and interact with your fellow players to form teams/parties and go questing.
PVE: These are your personal copy of the Guild Wars quest areas, where you and your friends can fight monsters, find other quests and gain more skills/experience in the world.
Travel between these areas allows the game to load in any new files and a quick loading screen pops up, these loading screens are not something I originally expected and they took me a while to get used to. But they are quick on my connection and they allow you to take a breather and collect your thoughts, but only for a while.
You will also go through one of these if your party member enters a new area, this keeps everyone nicely together.
They don't detract from the game and did not spoil the gameplay experience for me.
Final gameplay thoughts
Guild Wars is packed to the brim with things to do and places to explore, with a massive new-player area to experience which leads on to an even bigger surprise, but we won't say anything about that at all for the moment, you should be able to find out for yourself. There's plenty to keep the errant adventurer occupied and the skill/experience system takes the grinding out of the game and puts the fun back in.
When you have a roleplaying game and one that offers a rich, diverse fantasy world, you require something to bring that world to life. You can either have a good quality combat system and game mechanics but lack somewhat with cartoonish graphics and lack-lustre design or you can have the best graphics and lousy gameplay.
Well Guild Wars doesn't just play well, it looks absolutely stunning and the only way I can describe it is to steal from Gabby. It's like walking into a vibrant living painting, a masterpiece of colours, light and contrast that transforms the models and design into something one can only say is: otherworldly.
The artistic flair in Guild Wars is very rarely represented in anything but the works of the fantasy masters like, Larry Elmore, Frank Frazetta and Clyde Caldwell, smooth transitional lighting and bloom effects combine to draw the eye into a living world that looks as though it could come bursting out of your monitor at any second.
Every ounce of the PCs power and graphics card is pushed into creating one of the most unique looking games to date, yet Guild Wars will still run on a pretty low spec PC. However you really want the best out of the game make sure you have a decent graphics card with which to enjoy the world of Ascalon, because half the fun for me in the game was exploring and looking at the different vistas.
Every model in Guild Wars has been designed to perfection; they really have outdone themselves with the creation of some of the most memorable character designs and monsters in a game world. I tell you now if I had a game world I wanted to be brought to life as a MMORPG these people would be the ones I'd ask to do it (I have several but that's a subject for another time).
Every character is individual and each class has a distinct look, and you can really tell that a great deal of time and effort has gone into forming the models, the clothes and the various salient features - so much more realistic than many other games out there. This design paradigm extends not only to the characters/monsters and NPCs but also to the buildings/landscapes and weapons/items, everything in the game looks as though it belongs in an epic fantasy.
To compliment the models Guild Wars doesn't flinch away from packing in some impressive animations, combat moves and general idle stances. The emotes for dancing are based upon each profession for example, the warrior's 'grease' style movements are timed to perfection, you could spend all day dancing with your fellow players if you didn't have to worry about the Charr. Did I mention them again?
There are no mistimed animations and everything kicks off exactly as it should, with the scythe and whirl of blades striking into your foes, while the spellcasters in your group send waves of death hurling towards the enemy. Monster attacks and special abilities all have their own animations and the very world comes alive around you will swaying foliage and falling leaves, which look particularly restful especially when you come to a beautifully animated waterfall crashing into a lake.
I cannot begin to explain in the short time I have to do this review, exactly what it is about Guild Wars that fascinates me. It could be that every rolling hill, field and dale is truly well crafted and the whole place feels real, when you first step into Ascalon and see the mighty towers and walls - it feels as if you have been transported to another place and plane of existence altogether.
The rolling skies and landscapes are all individual and it's a true explorer's delight, as I have said previously. I could spend hours and hours just wandering the map looking at the various locations and immersing myself in the world that's been created - such a magnificent vision brought to life with a master-craftsman's eye for detail.
As everyone knows there is something depressing about a world devoid of sounds, Guild Wars is crammed with ambient and spot effects from rushing waterfalls to the clash of steel, to the zing of spells and the screams of injured or dying companions. The roar of certain monsters shakes your confidence as you wonder if it really was that wise to take on a group of 5-6 Charr at 7th level as their spells sear your flesh and grind your bone to dust.
Guild Wars comes to life aurally in a way that brings you into the battles or the dark unexplored regions of the Catacombs, as you slosh through the grimy water wishing you could see better in the dark. Danger seems to lurk around every corner and death could be a heart-beat away.
The voice acting in Guild Wars only appears in the cut-scenes and it doesn't detract at all from the game, you can read the NPC text and move on without having to wait for reams of spoken dialogue, worrying you've missed an audio cue because your SO has asked you to let the dog out, what the dog was doing locked in the cupboard in the first place, we shall never know.
Ace composer Jeremy Soule provides his musical magic to Guild Wars and has crafted some atmospheric, beautiful pieces of orchestral-style accompaniment to go along with exploration, or some dramatic paced battle pieces. There's nothing that I can fault with the Guild Wars music and it's worth getting the Collector's Edition just for the extra joy of playing it on a CD player.
The Final swing of the sword
Well. I have trudged my way through Ascalon with a good companion at my side, made my way to 7th level and watched a world I never thought I would see let alone play, unfold before my eyes in a visually appealing, fun and dramatic manner. Guild Wars redefines the grind of the other MMORPGS out there and adds it's own unique style and symmetry to create a truly enthralling experience.
The story is the deepest one I have encountered in a RPG to date and is told with a professional level of skill, it's obvious that they have a good writing team and an excellent eye for what makes a fantasy world come to life. It's not elves and dwaves, or wizards offering golden rings to small folk - it's the chance to stand shoulder to shoulder with a friend in the swampy water and know you just killed that lvl 9 creature, together and not by chance.
It's being able to communicate with people that know and understand the needs of a good roleplayer not just hack and slash - all of this, for free? With yearly content (expansion) packs, it's still a better buy than the competition, yes I know I will get hammered for saying this but I'd rather be a Guild Wars fanboy (recently converted) than play the rest of the generic worlds out there.
One last word as well, Guild Wars retail comes with such a good level of packaging that it's worth getting the boxed version to read the Lore Book and Book II: The Challenge. The art in both books is truly stunning and the Collector's Edition comes with even more goodness.
At the prices, with no fee, this has to be the best online multiplayer game to date or I'll trade in my katana for a banana. A new genre of CORPG has been defined just for it, so as to keep the line firmly drawn between this game and the MMORPGS like WoW and EQ2.
Note: Some folk also may not agree with the perfect score, 10 out of 10 I hear you say? Why? Read the bottom of the page and you'll see. Games Xtreme reviewers have their own personal opinion and I believe the score's justified, that's enough for me. With excellent customer support and a robust, stable service Guild Wars is a real contender and will keep me up many late nights sadly when I should be working.
See you in the game!