Release Date: April 26, 2005
Buy 'GUILD WARS': PC
In the world of gaming, where memories are short, it's hard to connect ArenaNet's debut title, Guild Wars, to the pedigree of epic games that preceded it. For diehards like myself, I was keenly aware of the history when I caved in and ordered Guild Wars online. In fact, it came over me in a rush when my brother called to say that he picked it up and that is was beautiful. Like some sort of "this is your life" montage, I immediately connected StarCraft, the Diablo series, the Warcraft series, and Total Annihilation with recent heavyweights like World of Warcraft and Halo through the distinguished luminaries of game development that have become a part of ArenaNet's team since its founding five years ago by three seasoned Blizzard veterans. These games left great imprints in my gaming psyche and will serve as the high watermark for gaming for years to come, and now I have the distinct pleasure of sizing up Guild Wars in this pantheon of giants.
In Guild Wars, players enter into the very large and diverse world of Tyria as a defender of Ascalon, trying to ward off the brutal Charr incursion. While Ascalon is at war, the wall protecting the lush homelands stands and all is generally good in the world, but what good is that for action and adventure? Before long (and at your own pace), you will find yourself in a steadily worsening situation and vaulted into an epic odyssey across ravaged lands, inhospitable mountain peaks, violent and vibrant jungles, and just about every other possible perilous environment one could imagine, all the while gaining power and skill in order to deal with the ever-increasing difficulty of your adversaries.
Guild Wars is, in many ways, the spiritual (and very unofficial) descendent of the Diablo series. It is very easy to see the handiwork of former Blizzard gurus in this fast-paced, action-packed RPG. It is similarly easy to follow the jump from Blizzard's Battle.Net online gaming infrastructure to that of ArenaNet. Guild Wars places itself squarely between traditional MMORPG and the lobby-based matchmaking of Battle.Net. Try to picture replacing game lobbies with cities, towns, and outposts, and replacing the individual hosted games with unique instances (a la the dungeons of World of Warcraft or missions of City of Heroes and other genre titles).
In effect, every player in Guild Wars plays with the same batch of servers and can intermingle, interact with NPCs, trade and form parties while in the safe areas (cities, etc.). Then they can venture out into the wilds with a private instance created for each party. Of course, if every Guild Wars player were running around one city, it would either be overcrowded or vast to accommodate that many players. To remedy this, the safe areas are also instanced but allow for players to switch instances through a pull-down menu; this option is not available for jumping from one instance of an outdoor area or mission to another. This system also lends itself to easy travel, as players can freely jump from one visited safe area to another through the world map.
The hybridization of traditional RPG play with massively multiplayer scale continues with Guild Wars' use of a very linear story and mission arc. The missions carry you from very early in the game to the definitive end point, hurtling you through the world map with great leaps. Along the way, however, players can (and generally must) stop and smell the roses. Following the general path of the missions, in addition to some rather large detours, are numerous safe areas populated with quest givers that provide anything from simple experience or loot to the ever-desirable new skills. Some players eschew the missions and plot their own course across the world map, questing and exploring as they progress.
At this point, I really should stop and explain character advancement, since it really is so central to the game. Character development is truly and thoroughly unique in Guild Wars. In fact, giving a properly detailed account of character development would result in a compendium beyond the scope of this review, but I will highlight a few key aspects.
The first is that there are two kinds of characters: PvP (player versus player) characters, which start at the maximum level (20) with access to essential end-game attribute stats and items and whatever skills or runes (item buffs) have been "unlocked" for the account (or you can play with an assortment of pre-made builds with skills); and RPG characters, which start at level one and progress in level through combat and questing. RPG characters can gain skills for their use through quests, skill vendors, or stealing them from bosses (using a special skill learned about a third of the way through the game). Gaining skills or finding runes while playing as an RPG character unlocks them for the whole game account, making them available for any created PvP characters.
The second key aspect of character development is the attribute system and skill choices. Players are only able to take eight skills with them out of the safe areas and into battle, and the strength of these skills is determined by the number of points pumped into each attribute. Combine the 70+ skills and four or five attributes per class with the fact that characters are built from with two classes (primary and secondary), and you have a rather daunting array of possible attribute and skill selections. Recognizing the importance of builds and experimentation, the developers saw fit to include a mechanic that allows players to reconfigure their characters. As mentioned, players can change their selected skills in safe areas, and they can freely change their attributes so long as they have sufficient refund points which are gained steadily with experience points. This results in a very forgiving system that allows players mix up their play style.
Originally, when I first experienced the Guild Wars skill system during one of the beta weekends, I hated the fact that I could only bring to bear such a small portion of my arsenal of tricks. However, playing it since it launched, I've found that it's an interesting dynamic that forces creative thinking; rather than simply picking your eight most "uber" skills, you need to carefully choose complementary skills that make optimal use of your available attribute points. The whole thing invokes memories of playing tradable card games like Magic: The Gathering: you may have all of these wonderful cards, but you really need to pick just certain cards that work well together. The impact of this system is pretty well embodied by one of my friends unlocking several really interesting skills and announcing, "Now I just need 45 minutes to figure out what to use."
All right, I've explained the general nuts and bolts of the game… now let me share with you some of the true highlights. The missions I mentioned earlier? They're awesome and are leaps and bounds ahead of any quests in any online RPGs I've ever played. While Guild Wars still has the fairly conventional quests, the missions themselves go far beyond fetching a Horadric Malus or collecting 40 gnoll splinters or killing 20 green bad guys. Instead, you may find yourself high in the snowy mountains clearing the way for refugees from your homeland by destroying ballistas, stealing secret plans for a siege weapon and finding some mechanical contraption you need to work the three giant winches that open the mighty Frost Gate … all the while, of course, fighting nasty dwarves and beasties.
Making the missions even more impressive is the brilliantly rendered and detailed world that the developers have created. While crossing a bridge spanning a frozen canyon in this particular mission, you can peer down to see a vast settlement of dwarves at work with intricate networks of cables hoisting buckets conveying ore from the mountains into the foundries. Mind you, you'll never go down there, but all that detail is in the game anyway, giving a level of visual depth and detail that makes the world of Tyria one of the richest rendered in gaming.
Surprisingly, all of this can be enjoyed without ever picking up a box at the store or downloading some huge unwieldy client. To get started, I simply downloaded a small client that patched itself and downloaded the content necessary to make my first character. After character creation, I had another short download to get the first area of the game and again each time I moved into a new, unexplored area. These downloads are really quite small, and with a cable modem, the whole process of downloading and deploying never took more than a minute. Supporting this process is their content streaming that delivers more bits of the game while you're playing so that the time spent at an update screen is kept to a minimum. Overall, I've found the whole thing to work really well, and I never found myself wanting for a set of CDs.
The streaming system is only one way in which ArenaNet sets the bar for other games and developers. Patching is similarly sharp and prompt. I can't remember a patch taking more than a minute to download and install, even when a fair bit of changing was going on, like introducing new NPC henchwomen. This is clearly a benefit of their streaming functionality. Additionally, ArenaNet is quick to address balance and exploitation issues that will affect gameplay; account bans are swiftly brought down on exploiters and cheaters while loopholes are closed as quickly as possible. In this regard, they've clearly taken a page from Blizzard's playbook on dealing with cheating. I wish every online game did the same, especially first-person shooters.
On technical merits, I have to give Guild Wars high marks. I've never played a game with such a capable graphics engine. I have a fairly dated computer (2GHz processor with a GB of lackluster RAM) with an early DX9-compliant graphics card, and I'm able to play Guild Wars at a glorious 1600x1200 with 32-bit color. With most other games on shelves now, I'm forced to turn the graphics options down and play at 1024x768, but I'm able to peg the settings on Guild Wars as high as they go, albeit skipping anti-aliasing (which is kind of a moot point at that resolution). If only every game looked as pretty and ran as kindly, I would be a much happier gamer.
I've heaped praise after praise upon Guild Wars, so now it's time for the criticisms, as this game is not without its faults. The biggest concern is long-term attraction: unless you get involved in the end-game player-versus-player (PvP) and guild-versus-guild (GvG) competition, the only option is to run back through the exact same content with another character. Depending on your tolerance for repetition and your affection for the missions and quests, you'll eventually tire of running through the game again and again. ArenaNet will soon release new content as a free update and plans to continue doing so, but the pace of these updates is too slow to keep up with dedicated players tearing across Tyria. The PvP and GvG is terribly fun, if that's your bag, but if it isn't, Guild Wars may not be able to keep you interested indefinitely.
Guild Wars is also a game that heavily favors social gaming (after all, it's not Solo Wars). Although it is possible to play through most of the RPG portion of the game solo with the support of AI henchmen in your party, the AI is a poor substitute for real players. Some missions are simply impossible (or highly improbable) without a party of actual humans with brains. This raises another problem: humans with brains. My biggest complaint with online games is, well … other people. Without your own cadre of friends in the game, you're forced to look for groups amongst strangers, and as anyone who has played online games can attest, it's essentially impossible to find six people at random online without getting at least one person who is incompetent, stupid, immature, asinine, or some combination thereof. For someone like me, who has little patience for other people, this is a huge problem. I loved playing Guild Wars when I had my brother and friends in my party, but I would invariably find myself leaving to play something else if they weren't online.
The last big chink in Guild Wars' lustrous armor is the lack of depth. In order to go up against heavyweights in MMORPG genre, depth and non-linear gameplay are hugely important. However, Guild Wars isn't a true MMORPG and is much closer to Diablo than it is to World of Warcraft. Crafting in Guild Wars is more accurately described as shopping with looted materials for the currency. Rather than developing a crafting skill and gathering resources and creating items from known or learned recipes, you simply fork over materials to a vendor and get whatever armor they produce for your primary character class. Loot is another area where depth is short. Aside from finding runes to modify your vendor-bought armor or looted weapons, there is little to get you excited about or hunt for. While this leads to more easily balanced play for PvP/GvG, it takes remove a lot of the allure and excitement from the game.
These shortcomings undercut the ability of Guild Wars to keep a broad cross section of players hooked for the long term. Fortunately, since there is no subscription fee, this isn't such a horrible thing. For many, it's a fun time sink for a few weeks or a couple of months. In fact, it's an exceptional way to fill your evenings and weekends while running through the missions, enjoying the richly detailed world and devising brilliant new strategies for the skills you acquire. The players who find themselves a home amongst friends in an active guild and become involved in heated competition will likely find Guild Wars a vicious addiction for quite some time. This really is a case of a very good game whose long-term appeal depends more on the player than on any faults in the game The fact that this game can't offer that longer term addiction to a broader base of players is the primary reason why the review score isn't even higher. It's an exceptional game on so many levels, and it's on those merits that Guild Wars deserves all of the accolades it has received. Buyers should balance their long-term gaming interests with what Guild Wars has to offer, while also keeping in mind that Guild Wars does not charge a subscription and will continue to offer free updates. While you're trying to decide whether or not to throw down the $50, I'm going to keep thanking ArenaNet for making such an exceptional game and raising the bar on other developers, particularly in terms of the graphics engine, patching and content streaming.
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