Previewed: March 31, 2005
Release Date: April 28, 2005
Recommended System Specs:
If Guild Wars was just another fantasy title in a glutted massively multiplayer online game (MMOG) market, I would have to say it wouldn’t stand a hobbit’s chance against the two towers of EverQuest II and World of Warcraft. Yet game developer ArenaNet might just sneak a smash hit, Frodo style, past Sony and Blizzard when Guild Wars hits stores April 28.
Created by former Blizzard designers who cut their teeth on the Diablo, Starcraft and Warcraft series, Guild Wars promises online gamers a vastly different experience from what they’ve come to expect from the genre.
Let’s start with the game’s killer selling point of NO MONTHLY FEES. Guild Wars players will only have to buy the box set, never once worrying about shelling out $15 a month in subscription fees. The game also offers incredible graphics, player versus player (PVP) battles that offer all the freewheeling chaos of Halo 2 or Counter-Strike, and one worldwide server where everybody gets to play in the same realm. ArenaNet uses a streaming-content process that should mean the end of gigantic patch updates and server overloads.
The makers of Guild Wars claim their first priority is making a game that puts fun, not mindless grinding, first. Instead of time wasted running from a mission back to town, Guild Wars allows you to click on your map and be instantly teleported. Character progression appears to be pretty easy, with characters maxing out at level 20. This may sound boring to hardcore online veterans, yet the game’s dual-profession system allows players a wide range of possibilities and strategies.
When creating a character, you must select one of six professions as your primary - warrior, ranger, mesmer, monk, elementalist and necromancer. There is no rule saying you need to take up a second profession, but doing so gives you a lot of flexibility. You can play a necromancer who happens to be an accomplished swordsman; a monk who heals the righteous with prayers and burns the wicked with elemental flames; a ranger who uses mesmer illusions along with traps, arrows, and pets.
As you can guess from the name, Guild Wars is very much a PVP-centered game where opposing guilds can battle it out for global supremacy. But once again the developers have really tried to level the battlefield with the level caps, strict restrictions on equipment bonuses, and a unique take on character skills. The Guild Wars website describes the skill system as being similar to Magic: The Gathering, as players can combine different skills to make spectacular attacks or temporarily render their character invulnerable.
Every player is limited to only eight skills per battle, just as Magic players are limited in the number of cards they can draw during a match. A strategic-thinking casual player therefore has a chance against the power gamer who spent days camping the Jabberwocky to steal his Vorpal Sword of Ownage.
I should probably admit I went into the latest round of Guild Wars beta testing on March 21 with a healthy sense of skepticism. I had played in a Guild Wars weekend event last October and thought the game at that time felt unfinished. Most of the missions were bland compared to the WOW beta I was also participating in, the game lacked the zones or back-story of other fantasy titles, and there seemed to be few rewards for forming a guild and taking part in PVP.
I am happy to report that many of these rough edges have been smoothed over and Guild Wars will have some great content when it ships. When I first logged on the second time, I was given the choice between starting a character from scratch in role-play mode, or else jumping straight into PVP combat with a level-20 character. Even though the pre-made characters could only take part in PVP missions and guild battles, I just couldn’t resist the lure of ultimate power right from the get-go.
Screw exploring the storyline - I was too busy rubbing my hands with glee over choosing the powerful “paladin” template from a list of about 20 pre-fab heroes. As a warrior/monk mix, my “pali” brought high health, some nice sword moves and healing prayers to the table, although my healing ability was limited due to low energy.
Character creation was pretty standard as a picked out my character’s face, hairstyle, height and skin color. My character immediately received a full set of gothic mail that made him look like Lancelot’s stunt double in the movie Excalibur. With magic sword in hand, I entered the gladiator’s arena to join forces with four other random strangers against the opposing red team.
The 3-D arena reminded me of an Unreal or Halo map, as my team ran along bridges and terraces to hunt down the red cape-wearing chumps. Anyone who has played Diablo 2 will recognize the point-and-click combat of Guild Wars, whereby your character automatically swings a sword, fires a bow or blasts away with a wand, unless you activate a skill or spell. The battle was fast and furious as players unleashed spells, fired flame arrows or executed whirling combos with swords and axes. It was a welcome change from the 10-minute stand-offs I too often see in WOW as players size up the enemy, plan ambushes or wait for reinforcements after being ganked.
Still thinking like a Warcraft player, I figured all my paladin had to heal himself while the mages ran out of mana blasting him, then waltz right up and hack them to death. Painfully, I found out too late Guild Wars seems to be a nicely balanced game where very powerful templates also have very big weaknesses. Low energy proved to be my Achilles heel. I soon found myself between a rock and a hard place as I burnt through my last juice healing myself to survive a fire storm one of the red team mage’s called forth. Dressed in robes, our team’s monk wasn’t so fortunate.
There was little I could do to keep my teammates alive, much less resurrect the fallen ones. Hearing the screams of “c’mon pali rez me!” from my teammates while all I could do was scream back “out of mana” was sheer torture.
I continued to play several other arena matches, losing each one. I liked the fast-paced combat as much as I appreciated not having to spend minutes running back to my corpse just to find it camped by the bad guys. The resurrection penalty of -15 percent to your health and energy only lasted until the match was over, meaning there were no lasting penalties for being pasted down one side of the arena and up the other. Yet running around the arena quickly became boring. There were no buildings to hide in, no swinging blades or traps to look out for, no objective beyond killing the other team.
Many of the advanced PVP scenarios, where you have to defend a guild castle or recover artifacts and bring them back to your starting area, seemed to be designed with guild teams in mind. I barely had time enough before arena missions to give simple commands such as “I’ll tank, you heal” before the melee started, much less get to know other players or scout for a guild to join.
I realized it was time to check out the solo game and practice some of my skills before venturing back into PVP land. Sad-hearted to trade in my level 20 warrior for a level 1 monk, I cheered up a bit watching the opening cut scene. Beautiful scenes of a medieval paradise flashed before me as a narrator ominously mentioned how the few survivors of “The Searing” would look back fondly on the day before the kingdom of Ascalon died in a magical Armageddon.
Arriving in the capital, I noticed the fountains; streets and parks of Ascalon were beautifully rendered. Guild Wars is the first game since Disciples 2 that I feel offers draw-dropping fantasy art worthy of a Frank Frazetta painting. The level of detail was just amazing, from cascading waterfalls to snow-covered mountains to gently falling autumn leaves.
I quickly learned one of the nice features of Guild Wars is it offers several “districts” or channels that you can switch between if a city or town are becoming too crowded. If you start lagging in district 1, district 7 is sure to offer fewer players and better performance.
Like many other initiates, I reported for duty at the King’s academy only to be told I needed training before I could be accepted into the royal guards. Off I went to Ashford Abbey, where I met with the abbot about aiding a fellow monk on a mission into the catacombs. I dreaded being given a “kill 10 skeletons to placate the gargoyles mission,” but to my surprise I was asked to escort a NPC novice alive while we descended into the catacombs to retrieve a lost artifact. The poor guy I was escorting could do nothing while he carried the relic, so it was up to me to cast healing spells and keep the spectral dead off him with my smiting prayers. As if that wasn’t enough, we suffered damage over time by trudging through poisoned water to get to the artifact, forcing me to balance healing the NPC and myself.
The dungeon graphics impressed me even more than the outside, as I descended into an underworld where spectral ghosts flittered among the statues of long forgotten gods. I especially enjoyed the little details of my footprints being left behind in the dust near the entrance, or of water dripping from the ceiling the deeper I explored.
While in the catacombs, I met a shapely, leather-clad necromancer who coyly offered to teach me something a different subject than what I learned back in the monastery. I was offered a train necromancy as a second profession (what were you thinking?!?), but first I had to descend back into the crypts and kill a demonic beast that had devoured her previous student. The mission may have been in the same general area as my monk training, but the game play was totally different. This time around, I learned how to reanimate the bodies of the dead into bone horrors for my own fiendish purposes. I especially liked a twist where the path was lined with deadly flame geysers that could kill my character if I came anywhere near them. It took me a few deaths to realize I had to use my bone horrors to set off the traps.
Just in these first two missions, I realized Guild Wars had something going on besides just PVP. Each class has very unique beginning missions that allow you to quickly learn how to play your character. For example, the monk missions seemed to be escort jobs where you had to keep an NPC alive, while the necromancer missions were mostly about hunting and destroying creatures while learning the fine art of using death magic and creating undead minions. Within just a few hours of play, I was level five and ready to join the king’s army.
After some brief PVP practice in the academy arena (I probably should have finished this practice round before jumping into the gladiator’s arena), I was sent out on patrol with several other players. This was my first cooperative mission with other gamers, and I appreciated that Guild Wars offers exclusively “instanced” missions. In some MMOG games, beginning or popular quests become bottlenecks, as players have to wait around for the party in front of them to finish. The nice thing about instances is my party and I adventured in our own little world, not having to worry about somebody else stealing our kills or getting to the loot before we did.
When we completed the mission, a cut scene showed the evil Charr, archenemies of all good people of Ascalon, calling forth the powers of the abyss in a fiendish ritual. Massive fire bolts rained from the sky, killing scores and pounding the once beautiful capital into rubble. With civilization destroyed, my character would now be waging a war of survival in a hostile new world.
I played a few more missions among the ruins of Ascalon but wanted to give the whole gladiator thing one more try. The nice thing about the PVP system is any weapons or skills you unlock with your role-playing character can be used by your level 20 pre-made character. Thanks to my adventures as a monk, my paladin now had access to protection prayers. These low-energy spells offer bonuses to blocking attacks or rebound damage onto the attacker. I finally began to win battles, not by acting as a healer, but by becoming the ultimate tank few could damage. My personal favorite was the reversal of fortune spell – which actually healed me every time I got hit in melee battles.
All in all, I had a great weekend experience and am looking forward to the final version of Guild Wars. Before I rap up this preview, I would like to address some valid concerns I’ve heard from my buddies in World of Warcraft, or have read on gaming forums. Power gamers complain the level 20 cap will be too easy, dwarf/elf/orc/gnome fans are unhappy you can only play humans, crafters moan about the lack of true trade professions in the game. The world of Guild Wars seems much smaller than the expanses of Azeroth or Norrath, especially when you can click on your map to travel instead of riding across the land on horseback or a fantastical creature. Even in outdoor missions, the game throws up invisible barriers that keep you on a relatively linear path but also prevent you from exploring the rich landscape.
There is also the utter lack of trust in any game that doesn’t charge a monthly fee. Many gamers seem to believe Guild Wars will either fold after making its money in initial sales, eventually start charging once everybody’s hooked, or be closed down by the Feds because of links to the Russian mafia. According to the website, ArenaNet plans to offer future expansions in order to keep the franchise growing. These expansions will never be mandatory but will add new missions, races and classes; Guild Wars will be similar to Magic: The Gathering as new editions will not make the previous ones obsolete.
Hardcore online gamers may scoff that Guild Wars doesn’t pretend to offer an alternate life online as a dwarven tavern owner or an elven enchanter. Other MMOG players will certainly ask; how can I divide my time between playing two online games? But maybe that’s the genius of the Guild Wars no-fee model – you can play a few nights a week without that guilty feeling of wasting membership dollars. The game’s competitive guild system, easy character progression, and fast-paced PVP will likely bring in first-person-shooter fans or casual gamers that have been scared off by the cost and commitment required by other MMMOG titles. Strategy gamers will especially like the skill system that rewards creative mixing and matching.
I will not say Guild Wars will completely change the MMOG market, but it does offer revolutionary solutions to such problems as server overloads, unbalanced PVP, and monotonous experience grinding. I am looking forward to exploring Ascalon with a guild so I can report back on the best social aspects Guild Wars has to offer.
In the meantime, ArenaNet is offering one last preview weekend April 15-17 for anyone who pre-orders the game. Trust me, the previews are well worth the small price of admission.
See you in the arena.