Everywhere you look these days there are games exploding into existence. From spin offs of movies and books to the umpteenth installment of a once-great series of games you can't walk into a store, open a magazine or turn on the TV without being assaulted by some new image of gaming.
For PC gamers no genre engenders this rabid craze more than MMOs. Everywhere you turn it seems that a new MMO has appeared, been announced, been pushed back, changed developers or simply been cancelled. So, you may ask, how do you tell the good from the bad and ugly?
Let's Go to War!
Recently the gaming world has seen the release of a new title to go to blows with the already congested MMO market. So, exactly how do you rise above the chaff to truly set yourself apart in the industry? The answer is simple. You go to war.
And that's what Guild Wars has done. It's declared war on the industry in a way that suggests some revitalization to some of the stagnation of MMOs. The game offers up some of the best of the old tried and true gameplay mechanics and integrates them well and smoothly with simple yet elegant solutions for better gameplay.
Led by a development team of industry veterans (many of whom hail from the hallowed halls of Blizzard) Guild Wars has had high expectations laid upon it by both its creators and many in the player community. Close scrutiny has been given the game throughout its long development and beta periods, with the Devs responding quickly and decisively to rectify game bugs and address player concerns.
So what has ArenaNet's dogged toil produced?
Let Me Tell You a Story...
Anyone who has played old computer RPGs, or the classic pen and paper RPGs from which they descend, knows that most MMORPGs are a far cry from a true story and character driven game, some more so than others. Whether the game is a permutation of a cult classic world such as Star Wars Galaxies or it integrates its own history and mythology such as the world of Norrath in Everquest most MMOs rarely bring a need to either roleplay or to follow any semblance of story.
Not so in Guild Wars. While the environment for roleplaying between characters is somewhat limited the storyline is the most in-depth and immersive I've encountered in an MMO. Guild Wars actually requires players to continue through the ongoing saga of the world of Tyria, the setting in which the game is based, to advance their characters.
Players start in the City of Ascalon on the its final day before it is overrun by an invading force of flame worshipping creatures known as The Charr. For the first several levels players quest through the environs surrounding Ascalon City until they succeed in completing a quest that transports them from the starting time period forward two years later in the storyline of Tyria.
The future is a bleak place. The once verdant lands have been reduced to little more than barren wastelands strewn with rock and dust. The Charr are everywhere, as well as many other scavengers and scoundrels that inhabit the wastelands preying upon any travelers who wander by. Players find themselves the heroes of this fantasy age apocalyptic world and must band together to survive and adventure to find a future for the lost kingdom of Ascalon.
Even the manual (something that is often overlooked in most MMOs) is highly detailed and well written. Entiled The Manuscripts, the Guild Wars manual brings more story to an MMO than any contenders to date. Not only does it give a background of the world, its gods and some of it's heroes (many of which players will recognize in the game world) but it's well written and concise. If you play Guild Wars, read the manual. It's worth it.
My You Are a Character
I'm usually not a big fan of a game with few classes and, admittedly, Guild Wars worried me with its limited amount of six. Once again, however, ArenaNet managed to do "more with less" and still deliver a quality set up in a smaller package.
Players may choose to start as any one of the classes. The available choices include Elementalist, Mesmer, Monk, Warrior, Ranger and Necromancer. Nothing overly innovative or groundbreaking in the selection but the list still manages to cover the core of fantasy adventure. Primary class selection is made at the time of character creation, but a secondary class can later be added. The player garners all the advantages of the second class save for a single primary attribute that only characters who start with a class receive. There are no penalties of any sort for taking a second class and while it's not required to do so most players do pick up a second class.
Character customization is very limited, and this is one of my few gripes with the game. Character creation leaves players with a handful of simple choices, including face, skin color, hair style and hair color. A sliding bar allows a player to change the scale of their character, which simply affects the character's height. There doesn't seem to be a great deal of variety in clothing looks either, especially at lower levels. And while the graphics of the game go far the limited appearances of characters often leave a feel of redundancy when mingling with large groups of characters.
Gameplay is where a character shines in any game though, and so the question becomes, "How well do the classes play out?" I've managed to play three of the six and they all seem to perform well in many different situations. The character mechanics, while simple at their core, lend themselves well to the old saying, "Easy to learn, difficult to master."
The skill system is simple enough to pick up. Each character has eight skill hotkeys with which to assign skills during missions. Skills can only be swapped out when in an outpost, so once a player is trekking through the poisoned swamps or snow blown mountains of Tyria they must succeed or fail based on what they set out with. Choosing which skills to ready for each quest or simple exploration of the world is possibly the most tactical part of Guild Wars.
Skills are acquired a number of different ways. Some are gained through speaking with key NPCs, while others are learned only through completing quests. In fact, some skills are only gained through doing side quests that aren't integral to the continuation of the main plot. Players who wish to learn all of their powers would do well to be diligent in running every little errand that the NPCs in Tyria have to offer. And, of course, there are some merchants who will sell the knowledge of skills and powers to those who have the coin to offer.
Each class also has a group of attributes that can be increased as the character gains levels. Attributes directly affect aspects of a character's power, increasing all skills that are tied to that attribute. Each class has access to between four and five unique attributes, one of which is a primary attribute of that class. Primary attributes are only learned for a character's primary class. So a character can have anywhere between four (if it is a single class character) to nine separate attributes. Some examples of attributes include Swordmanship and Tactics for warriors and Fire Magic and Energy Storage for elementalists.
Each time a character gains a level the character receives several points with which to increase their attributes. A player may increase any of their character's attributes in any fashion they see fit, however each additional rank in an attribute increases the cost of advancing that attribute further. Characters do, however, receive refund points with which to "buy back" points they have spent on attributes of their choice so that they may reapply them wherever they see fit. Though refunds are limited the amount a character starts with is generous and offers the ability for most characters to try a few different builds before exhausting their options.