Last year, NCSoft and ArenaNet released Guild Wars : Prophecies (or just Guild Wars), which was a huge success and still has one of the highest ranks in MMORPG.com's standings of current MMOs. It's success is attributed to many factors. It has all of the classic RPG elements that makes single-player games successful - story, cut-scenes, character growth, and choice. It has some of the best graphics and sound of any game on the market - MMO or otherwise, and it has an end-game that is reached quickly, but does not get boring, which appeals to hardcore and casual gamers alike. Did I mention that there are no monthly fees? I thought you'd like that.
If you're not already familiar with Guild Wars, go read up on it. It's a fantastic game well worth its price, if only for the art, music, and single-player experience. Of course, you'll get so much more - cooperative and competitive missions, a story that is easy to get into, and maybe you'll even make some new online friends.
Guild Wars Factions, the first of presumably many sequels, takes that same recipe for success and expands on it by adding new classes and an entirely new storyline. This time, the story takes place on Cantha, a far away continent with an Asian theme, and instead of a completely linear story, you will have to choose a side in an endless war between the Kurzicks and the Luxons, battling it out for control of land, power, and fame.
Factions is playable as an add-on to Prophecies, providing you with two powerful new classes - the well-rounded Ritualist, which is a bit like a shaman in other games, having offensive and defensive capabilities that benefit the entire team, and the stealthy, quick-killing Assassin, which uses dual weapons, executing rapid combinations to quickly put down most opponents. You'll also get two more character slots, and your existing characters in Tyria can quest for the boat trip to Cantha.
Factions can also be played as a stand-alone game, giving you access to all of the original classes plus the two new classes. You won't have access to the land of Tyria - the continent of Prophecies - but if you insist on starting out here, you can always pick up Prophecies later... and you most likely will.
Getting to the good stuff
Perhaps the biggest problem in MMORPGs is that it takes hours and hours of play time to get to the fun parts. This is why power-leveling and game currency companies are thriving! Some of us try to balance our lives so that gaming is not the only things we do. We have families, school or jobs, kids, and significant others to interact with, so we don't all have time to reach the level cap.
Guild Wars solved this problem by making the level cap not only easy to attain, but it's not really the end of the game. You'll reach level 20 (which is the cap in both Prophecies and Factions, by the way) long before you get even half way through your journey through Cantha. Getting to the level cap isn't what it's all about, though. Getting a level doesn't et you any new skills. It only gives you points to train up your existing skills. To get to the better skills and the powerful elite skills wielded by boss mobs, you'll need to progress further along your quest through Cantha. The missions are quite challenging - sometimes almost too challenging - and you'll need to put together a well-rounded team of good players if you plan to make it through successfully and get to the next area to get the goods and unlock those areas, skills, and special items, and of course, complete the primary goal.
So far, the game sounds more like a single-player game, doesn't it? Well, it does play very much like a lot of single-player games, and that's what makes it so good. You can play solo quite easily. You can even hire henchmen when you absolutely need help. But the real joy of Guild Wars (Factions included), is in playing alongside and against other humans.
Having other players around is nice for doing the campaign and absolutely necessary for PvP battles. You can interact with everybody in an area only in the towns and gathering points. Everything else (arenas, wilderness adventure, missions) is instanced. The best part of other games is the instanced missions, and it's all Guild Wars has. There is plenty of activity in the towns, to make up for the fact that you won't get jumped by a level 60 Orc while trying to grind a level outside of town. (You will never grind a level either, for that matter).
In towns and gathering points, people are busy selling loot, socializing, showing off their dance moves, and talking smack. Of course, there is also the repeated cry to find a group. Groups are necessary in the game, and you'll usually find one. Especially if you're a monk (healer). If there is any drawback to the game, this is one of them. It can certainly be difficult to find a group sometime. It's not like some other games that are just dying out. There are plenty of people here. It's just that the cookie-cutter team usually doesn't include a Mesmer or Ranger, even though they are both extremely valuable in the hands of a skilled player.
The most active towns are the arena towns, where people group up and wait to enter a good PvP fight. The original arenas from Guild Wars Prophecies still exist (although they have been relocated so Factions and Prophecies players can access them by boat). There's a random arena (it's a lot of fun, but the teams are random, so there's no planning and sometimes quite imbalanced), team arena, Heroes' Ascent (formerly the Tombs), which is a tough 8v8 series of elimination battles until only one team is left standing in the Hall of Heroes.
In addition, Factions introduced Alliance battles. That war between Kurzicks and Luxons is not just a PvE storyline. It's a required part of PvP Alliance battles, as your guild can now form an alliance with 9 other (10 total) guilds of the same faction to fight in 12v12 PvP alliance battles for control of land - and towns - offering special content only accessible to your alliance. This merger of the PvE and PvP game is Factions' main strength.
Graphics and Sound
As with original Guild Wars, the graphics in Guild Wars Factions are some of the best in the industry. The water looks perfect; character animations are flawless and detailed; the environments are beautiful, detailed, and rich with life and color. The cut-scenes, aside from the fact that the mouths don't move, are beautiful and well-animated. The game is worth the purchase price for the art alone, in my opinion. It really is a feast for the eyes.
The musical score brings together the story and sets moods with an original soundtrack of lovely orchestral music. The sounds of combat, spell casting, and death are reasonably well acted and are placed in the game appropriately to be useful information in a fight (Am I getting hit? From which direction?)
Performance and Technology
ArenaNet's streaming technology is nothing short of amazing. You do not patch the client like you do in other games. The updated data is streamed to you while you play, so all you do is load the client and off you go. The performance of the game, even on a three-year-old laptop, was absolutely acceptable. I turned the graphics down to medium and the graphics were still awe-inspiring.
You can communicate with your friends, guild members, and alliance members, regardless of where they are in the game or in the real world. I have been in a couple guilds, and there is always quite a bit of chatter on the guild channel, so there is a community, if you want one. There are always people having conversations in the arena zones as well. There are the usual immature comments, but I think because Guild Wars is a game that appeals to people with busy lives, the community as a whole is a fairly good one, and you can choose your guild, and there are a variety of guilds consisting of people with different lifestyles and languages, so you can always surround yourself with people you like.
Guild Wars Factions costs around US$49. You get two extra character slots for your Guild Wars Prophecies account (six in total). You get a beautiful, glorified chat client. You get an almost endless variety of character types to create. You get a linear adventure that you can explore with existing friends, or pickup groups. You get fast-paced, exciting action against other human players that will keep you entertained for countless days. You will never pay a monthly fee for the right to play. There is no better value in the world of MMORPGs, and even in the world of other types of games, there is little comparison.
So what more is there to say? Guild Wars Factions follows in Guild Wars' footsteps by offering an outstanding multiplayer arena tactical combat game with a complete role-playing game as well. The graphics, animations, and sound are absolutely stunning, and the game doesn't even cost anything per month to use. If all you do is buy this game as a rich chat client with beautiful avatars that have amazing dance moves, you're getting your money's worth. Of course, you wouldn't do that, would you? You'll start playing Guild Wars and Guild Wars Factions for the RPG and you'll stay for the adrenaline rush and sheer pleasure of defeating your enemies time and time again.