Reviewed: June 27, 2006
Released: April 26, 2006
I’m an absolute sucker for Asian martial arts movies. It doesn’t matter if it’s a historical Kurosawa film or a slapstick Jackie Chan caper – if there’s plenty of swordplay or flying Kung Fu action, then I’m in.
This may explain why I so love Guild War: Factions – the new expansion to last year’s best selling MMOG title, Guild Wars. Instead of falling back on tired Middle Earth clichés like orcs and elves, the developers at ArenaNet chose instead to draw upon the settings and myths of ancient China, Korea, and Japan. Players get to explore the mythical land of Cantha, a world of mist-shrouded temples and palaces inhabited by strange creatures such as oni, kappa, naga, and kirin (think evil unicorns). If you’ve ever wanted to play a samurai defending villagers from an army of bandits, or a ninja assassin carrying out dark missions on behalf of the emperor, then Factions will help you fulfill that Toshiro Mifune or Jet Li fantasy.
Cool setting aside, I also love Factions because Guild Wars is one of the best MMORPG franchises on the market when it comes to playability, stability, and price. Both Guild Wars games have done an exceptional job of balancing fast-paced PVP with challenging cooperative missions. When compared to a certain wildly popular MMOG that sometimes crashes for days at a time, ArenaNet’s servers run smooth as silk. But one of the big selling points for the Guild Wars series is no monthly fees. ArenaNet has chosen to make its money exclusively on expansions (like Factions) instead of charging $12 or $15 a month.
I can say upfront that the expansion is a must buy for current Guild Wars fans, as it adds hundreds of hours of new content, new spells and skills, and the two new classes of assassin and ritualist. But new players can just as easily come aboard since Factions is considered a stand-alone expansion. Owning both games will give you access to more character slots and more content, but newbies need not worry about being under classed or overwhelmed if they don’t have last year’s title.
My complaints about Factions are minor, mainly having to do with a few imbalances and the fact that the roller coaster of a storyline is too fast-paced at times. I must also warn the MMOG “hardcore” crowd that Guild Wars is different from other grind-centric games they have grown accustomed to. The level cap is 20; there are plenty of great items and weapons but few uber ones; and you can only take eight skills into a mission at a time. If your idea of fun is countless long nights spent raiding for the broadsword of L33TNESS, then Guild Wars is probably not for you.
On the other hand, you’re looking for a MMOG where the priority is on entertainment instead of mindless grinding, read on.
The basic gameplay in the expansion has changed little from the original Guild Wars. You still have six basic professions – warrior (tank), elementalist (mage), monk (healer), necromancer (pet class), ranger, and mesmer (counter class). Factions adds assassin and the ritualist to the mix. The assassin uses combo dagger attacks that build in intensity and damage, making this a very powerful class for PVP. The trade-off is the assassin has tissue paper armor, requiring players to use teleportation skills and “ninja” moves like dropping caltrops to stay alive.
As of this review, assassins are always welcome in PVP battles but are often seen as too unreliable in PVE. The opposite is true of the ritualist – the ultimate hybrid class of necromancer, healer, and mage. Ritualists call upon nature and ancestral spirits to heal and buff their party, or cause massive lightning damage. Ritualists are not push-overs in PVP, but they really shine in PVE because of their flexible powers.
Fortunately, you are not trapped into one play style by the primary profession you chose. All players also get a secondary profession, which gives them more flexibility. For example, my monk is also an assassin secondary. While he lacks the combat fury of a real assassin, he does have access to some nice getaway skills in case he gets cornered by something nasty.
The leveling grind in Factions is probably the easiest of any MMOG on the market. Not only is the level cap 20, but quests provide your character with plenty of experience so you can avoid mindless mob hunting. New levels bring increased health and mana, along with skill specialization points that make various skills more powerful. The questing process itself is instanced, meaning players form groups in towns and cities but generate their own private mission zone. This system eliminates some of the ugly realities of other MMOGs, such as camping, ninja-looting, or kill-stealing. Completing certain quests will give you skill points, which in turn can be used at trainers to learn new skills. The most powerful “elite” skills can only be captured by killing boss monsters.
As I mentioned previously, you can only use 8 skills at a time. Party members must go into missions with a clear idea of what role they will play and how their skills can work together to create powerful combo attacks. The good news is you can easily change out skills and reset your specializations any time you return to town. You never have to worry about being stuck with a “gimped” character build, and half the fun comes from trying out how new skills work together. Veteran players will be happy to know that Factions adds some very useful skills to round out the core classes. For example, elementalists have received some nice area damage spells, necromancers can now summon a massive golem, and rangers now have a wide variety of beast mastery skills that make their pets truly lethal.
The minor quests in Factions are pretty standard – go kill this naga warlord or save that village from bandits. But what sets the Guild Wars series apart are the 14 storyline missions. Not only do the story missions provide unique challenges, they also give players the chance to participate in an epic quest to save Cantha from the fiendish Shiro Tagachi. Centuries ago, Shiro, the trusted champion of the emperor, murdered his liege lord and tried to grab the throne for himself. A brave group of heroes sacrificed themselves to stop him the first time, but villains like Shiro have a way of coming back for revenge. Players must travel across Cantha in a race against time as Shiro spreads a magical plague destroying everything in its path.
The storyline quests are an absolute blast to play. In the story, your character is asked to recover two powerful artifacts from the Kurzick and Luxon factions. The Kurzicks are a race of sorcerers who build great gothic structures in the middle of an old growth forest. Recovering their artifact involves escaping from a collapsing temple while battling magical guardians. The Luxons are a seafaring race of traders and pirates. Their artifact is a powerful spear – but in order to retrieve it players must battle a giant kraken called Zu Hanuku.
PVP enthusiasts can also join the war between the Kurzicks and the Luxons. Factions still offers the random arenas and Hall of Heroes tournament from the original Guild Wars, but now players can also fight for either the Kurzicks or Luxons in 12 versus 12 alliance battles.
The new PVP battle maps are an absolute blast – teams fight for control of different flag points that grant bonuses or allow team members to resurrect faster. Teams tend to be balanced, meaning any character class is welcome (as opposed to the arena areas where certain core builds like warrior and monk dominate).
I found the new alliance battles to be very similar to World of Warcraft’s Alterac Valley, only faster paced. Whenever you capture a flag point, your faction generates NPCs to defend it. Likewise, you must defeat both players and enemy NPCs to take rival flag points. Some battles even allow you to spawn dragon allies when your side holds the center. My only complaint about the alliance battles is teams of 12 are divided into squads of 4, making it tough to coordinate attacks.
The Kurzick-Luxon war is dynamic and alliance battle maps change according to how well one side or the other is doing. If one side is losing, the new map will give subtle advantages such as flag points closer to the defender’s base. This prevents one faction from completely dominating the other.
Participating in the war earns you faction points, which can be traded for special gear. Player guilds can also join together to form an alliance, which can spend faction points to control certain outposts and cities. Whoever owns the largest Kurzick and Luxon cities have sole access to elite missions – the most difficult and most rewarding quests in the game. It’s an interesting game feature, although in reality only the largest player organizations are able to raise the millions of factions points required to own a town.
My only gameplay complaints are some of the missions seemed buggy or poorly designed. For example, in one mission two separate player teams must work together to defeat Shiro’s champion. The only problem is if there are not enough players for two teams, the computer substitutes NPCs, which can make the mission near impossible to finish.
The original Guild Wars was a beautiful game, but Factions has gotten a brand new DirectX 9 facelift. On a top machine, Factions graphics almost rival Elder Scrolls: Oblivion when it comes to the level of detail and lighting effects. Yet the graphics are completely scalable, meaning players with the minimum requirements will not suffer major performance issues.
The graphics really capture the exotic feel of Cantha. From the “noob” zone of the Shing Jea monastery to the sprawling temples and palaces of the capital city, you really feel like you’re in a fantasy Kung Fu feature a la House of Flying Daggers. Long ago Shiro turned the forest of the Kurzicks to stone and the Luxon seas to jade – which is why the two factions have the coolest quest zones.
The Kurzick lands are appropriately dark and brooding, with giant petrified trees soaring above your character. The shimmering jade sea really shows off the game’s shading effects, while adding such welcome details as sea monsters and broken ships trapped by Shiro’s magic.
Finally, the animation for both characters and monsters is top notch. Every character class has a new set of Asian facial features, bringing much needed variety to a game where too many players were starting to look alike. The new armor and weapon sets are also well designed and show off more detail than gear from the original game. I also applaud ArenaNet for showing a great deal of originality in the appearance of new monsters, from the grotesque Afflicted to the cobra-like naga.
One of the game’s highlights is the music of Jeremy Soule, who synthesized traditional sounds of Japanese, Korean, and Chinese instruments into a rousing musical score unlike anything I’ve ever heard in a computer game. Factions features some of Soule’s most creative work yet, with very different sounds from what he has done for the Neverwinter Nights and Elder Scrolls series.
Soule’s cinema-quality music should have earned a 10 in the sound category, but the voice acting just doesn’t reach the same top standard. The voice-overs are far from terrible, just don’t expect Patrick Stewart’s performance from Oblivion. I would rate the acting as being on par with an average anime show.
This was a tough category to judge. Factions doesn’t require a monthly fee to play, which almost deserves a perfect 10 when it comes to gaming bang for your buck.
The developers have also added more options for those who want to play solo. Many of the quests in the original Guild Wars were pretty tough to play alone, even when you took along NPC henchmen to help out. The functionality of henchmen has greatly improved, allowing you to survive alone even in advanced areas. I should also add that there is a greater variety of things to do for all levels, from quests to PVP battles to “bonus” missions that allow you to earn extra gold and experience depending on how well you do in a given time. Top scores are displayed on a daily basis, adding a certain arcade charm to the game.
But I do have some complaints about Factions; first and foremost, it’s too short. The story line is pretty compact compared to the many side quests and plot twists of the original Guild Wars. This would not be an issue if Factions was priced at $30, but at $50 I want more quests and content. The quests in the expansion also provide loads of experience, meaning you’ll reach level 20 in little over a week. This is actually a welcome change for veteran players who want to try one of the new classes without spending months leveling, but I recognize many achievement-oriented players will be put off by the speed in which your character improves. Factions seems to cater to veteran players, which isn’t a bad thing considering all the content that level 20s can do. It’s very easy for veterans to bring their old characters into the new campaign, but there are no easy shortcuts for bringing Canthan characters into the original campaign.
Despite a few bad apples, most current players are decent and friendly. ArenaNet is now far more aggressive in suspending accounts for infractions, which has cut down on some of the earlier riff-raff. If anything, the biggest issue is the ease in which players can and do drop out of missions if things are not getting their way. I would also recommend ArenaNet not allow communication between Kurzicks and Luxons during alliance battles, which is when the worst trash talking and player bashing still occurs.
A growing community problem is how ArenaNet has fostered a certain elite attitude, albeit indirectly. The alliance system only really benefits the most powerful guilds, who can then lock out average players from the best end content. There is also a fame rank that depends on how many PVP battles you have won. It’s almost impossible to join a group competing in the Hall of Heroes if you don’t have high enough rank. Yet I will say that the item system is well-balanced and even casual players can attain some of the top items. L33T dudes therefore are not leagues above new players, at least not when it comes to equipment. While I don’t want to see Guild Wars become a game of haves and have-nots like too many other MMOGs, on the whole both hardcore and casual gamers will be able to co-exist in relative harmony.
I’ve watched the Guild Wars series progress from world beta events to the release of the first expansion, and I can say that ArenaNet does a great job of listening to what their fans want. The gameplay is now as polished as a new katana and Factions adds plenty of new features to keep players engaged until a third expansion arrives sometime in the next few months.
ArenaNet has stated they will make money on expansions instead of charging monthly fees. If Factions is any indication, their business model will continue to revolutionize the MMOG world. If you’re a casual gamer who doesn’t want to be locked into a traditional MMOG, a PVP lover who wants a game that combines shooter action with RPG elements, or simply a crazed Kung-fu/anime fan looking for a samurai fix, there’s a place for you at the emperor’s palace.