Beauty, complexity and economy, all in a single package…
In a world fast growing choked with Massively Online Multiplayer Role Playing Games (MMOs for short), it?s starting to get tough to set yourself apart from the crowd. If your game is, like hordes of others, set in a fantasy world of swords, sorcery and monsters, this is particularly difficult with attention-grabbing titles such as Everquest 2 and World of Warcraft getting so much attention. And, if your game is really, in the final analysis, not really an MMO at all, but rather some sort of strange hybrid, then the challenge grows even more difficult.
And so the stage is set for Guild Wars, a new ?competitive online role-playing game? from developer ArenaNet and publisher NC Soft (you?ll note that I did not call Guild Wars a ?MMO?, for reasons which will shortly be explained). Ever since the title?s announcement back in August of 2004, it has been on almost everyone?s list of ?most anticipated? upcoming titles, and given the developer?s past track record (ArenaNet is made up of Blizzard alumni, including members of the Diablo, Warcraft and Starcraft dev teams, as well as the developers of Blizzard?s Battle.net) the game promised to be something different, despite it?s somewhat generic fantasy setting. I?m happy to report that that promise seems to have been made a reality.
Guild Wars is the story of the war-ravaged nation of Ascalon. At the game?s beginning, the player wanders this land, drinking in its scenic beauty and learning about the region?s gods, geography and history. Later in the game Ascalon is savaged by a brutal race called the Charr, and is reduced to a shattered specter of its former beauty. The player must, through dozens of quests, learn the secret of the Charr, help to defend Ascalon from their evil plans and grow their own personal power.
Topping the list of Guild Wars? many desirable features is the fact that, unlike a traditional MMO, Guild Wars charges no monthly fee to play. While the game employs the same ?play online? model that MMOs use, complete with the ability to talk to hundreds or thousands of other players, as well as to play with or even against those same people, the usual subscription fee is missing, something that legions of players curious about the grandeur of MMOs but who are wary of the ?pay to play? model will doubtless find exciting. Granted, the idea of PC games designed primarily to be played online is nothing new (first-person shooter fans have come to take a solid- and free- multiplayer experience for granted) but where Guild Wars innovates is in the promise of continual expansions to the game world, created and distributed directly by ArenaNet.
While at this year?s E3 Game Expo in Los Angeles, I asked several members of the development staff how they planned to keep this new content flowing, seeing as how the Guild Wars team will lack the continual stream of subscription revenue that games such as World of Warcraft enjoy. A stable of writers, modelers, programmers, artists and project managers doesn?t just grow on trees, after all- some people in the gaming industry, I?m told, actually like to be paid for their efforts. I was met with many polite but evasive responses that basically all boiled down to the same thing: additional content will come in two flavors- free and for-pay.
Free content will be made up of continuous improvements to the game environment, landscapes, item textures and models and even the addition of all-new playable quests and world areas, such as the upcoming Sorrow?s Furnace pack. The details of the for-pay content are still being worked out, but the developers assured me that there would never be a mandatory fee to keep playing the basic game. The recent announcement of NC Soft?s partnership with fledgling music content provider Direct Song might give a clue as to what we can expect, however. Through Direct Song users can, for a fee, download extra musical content designed to, according to their web site, “add new depth to Guild Wars and breathe more life into your gameplay.” Players will also be able to download a copy of the Guild Wars soundtrack CD from Direct Song, tracks previously only available to those customers that had purchased the Limited Edition version of the game.
But while the game is surprisingly diverse for a ?fee-less? online RPG, complete with an engaging storyline and complex series of quests, the main draw for many players will doubtless be Guild Wars? player-versus-player (PvP) arena combat. ArenaNet seems to have gone to great lengths to assure that all character types have a balanced and specific role in combat, and that no ?uber? builds dominate the PvP experience. Warriors, while mighty in close combat can be severely hampered by the Ranger?s various ranged damage and debuff powers. Mesmers bring a formidable arsenal of spells that alternately damage and weaken foes, but are very fragile once engaged. Monks can buff and heal the party, keeping them alive in the heat of combat, but are generally the first target of attack by enemy teams, etc.
The addition of a character secondary role adds even more diversity to the mix, as players create self-healing Warrior-Monks, ranged, pet-controlling Necromancer-Rangers and powerful spell-using Elementalist-Mesmers. Any primary class can be combined with any secondary, making for a wealth of options. More single-minded players can also opt for a higher degree of specialization if they desire, eschewing a secondary class in favor of using all of their acquired skill points on their primary class.
Characters can be made up for use in the game?s role-playing area, or if PvP is the goal there does exist a special ?PvP Only? area of the game where specialized multiplayer characters can be created. Guild Wars employs a well thought-out skill system that allows any skill ?unlocked? in the role-playing area to be available to newly-created PvP characters as well. This feature allows players to make characters on the role-playing servers that function well in PvE (player-versus-environment) but also grants them the option to make PvP characters that can survive the very different stresses of combat against other human players. This simultaneously rewards players that keep playing in the PvE area through additional unlocked skills while giving them maximum flexibility to test out builds in PvP.
Despite the game?s skillful PvP system, players that prefer a more single-player, story-oriented experience will not be left in the cold. While the game encourages players to form parties to explore and defeat enemies and Guilds for long-term benefits such as a cloak emblazoned with the guild?s symbol and a Guild Hall for meetings, partnering is not necessary to experience most of not all of the game?s content. Players can hire computer-controlled henchmen of various classes while in towns to create their own parties on the fly, who take a share of the XP and loot drops given by defeated foes. Player-controlled groups who find themselves lacking a specific archetype, such as a Monk, can round out existing parties with this system as well.
Towns are where Guild Wars social activity takes place. Any player who is in one of the game?s many towns can speak and interact with anyone else who is also in that same area. While in town, players can also craft armor from raw materials, sell or swap items with other players, converse, get new quests from NPCs or enter the PvP arenas. The towns can be a chaotic place where conversation can be difficult, mainly because of the fact that the game currently lacks any sort of auction house or sales space. Players wanting to buy or sell items such as dye, armor or weapons from other players do have a dedicated chat channel for such activities, but a specific place that players can go to transact business of this nature would go a long way towards eliminating some of the ever-flowing spam in the chat window.
Something that makes Guild Wars? PvE role-playing area really shine is the fact that when a player or party leave town the game switches to an instanced version of the map dedicated to just that payer or teamed group. Anyone that?s experienced the frustration of camping a spawn point alongside half a dozen other parties, waiting for some elusive monster to reappear so that a quest can be completed will immediately recognize the genius behind this choice. Kill-stealing, item grabbing and camping of any sort is totally eliminated by this system, as only NPCs and those players directly teamed up will be in that ?instance? of the world, and do not have to compete with outsiders for limited resources. It must be noted, however, that this has the side-effect of making the game world feel very lonely, as you cannot see chat messages from people in towns. This is a cheap price to pay to avoid the usual frustrations inherent to MMO spawn or item farming, however and this feeling of isolation actually fits in perfectly with the desolate landscape you will find yourself in as the story progresses.
Graphically, Guild Wars is nothing short of breathtaking, particularly the lushly-rendered game world?s landscapes. While playing, I was reminded quite strongly of the ?Gee whiz!? feeling invoked by Bethesda Softwork?s Morrowind, a comparison I do not make lightly. Best of all, this is a RPG that you can do co-operatively alongside others, something that I pined for in Morrowind but never got to experience. Quests are for the most part standard fare that any MMO or RPGer will be familiar with, with the usual blend of hunts and deliveries occasionally spiced with the odd scripted scene (accompany an NPC to an area and defend it against raiders, etc.) but always contain nuggets of history and background from the NPC granting it, all of which help build a believable world.
Colors are brilliant, with a pleasing light-bloom effect and available antialiasing, if your video card can support the load. Transitions between hills, jungles, deserts and mountains is accomplished through masterful use of color, 3D architecture and lovingly constructed props. Everything from cottages and castles to plants, rivers, fields of vibrant flowers, forests and crystal formations you will encounter are done with an attention to detail I?ve seldom seen before. This does carry a price however, and only upper-end systems can expect to utilize all of the game?s visual features, however I found that the game ran at acceptable speeds even on my laptop, a Mobility Radeon-enabled Dell, where it still looked pretty darn good.
The only area where the graphics could use some improvement, however, is in the player models themselves. At the moment, many of the various armor sets found in-game are similar in appearance if not identical to other sets usable by that class, which can make identifying enemy and allied targets in the swirling chaos of PvP difficult. Armor and clothing can be customized to different colors after the player finds or purchases bottles of dye, but such changes are often unremarkable at anything but point-blank range. Likewise, NPCs are often fairly generic-looking, with a single item, cloak or head-piece serving to make them unique. Players of other MMOs such as Everquest 2 will probably feel that the lack of playable races makes the character creation process feel a bit sparse in comparison to that title. Seeing as how the developers have already announced that graphic enhancements to the game?s items is in the work as part of the free content system, I?m sure that at least some of this will be addressed in the near future.
Given that the game looks so great and plays even better, my only real concerns for the title are its long-term playability, given its ?play online? underpinnings. While Guild Wars is currently a hot title, with chart-topping sales in both the US and the UK, and with servers in America, Europe and Asia, the game will eventually slip down the rankings as more and more people purchase the title. Since the game generates no ongoing revenue past the sale of the software from fees, and it completely dependent on connecting to NC Soft?s servers to play (neither offline nor play on a LAN or via a player-based client/server model is possible), the questions must be asked: when will these servers finally be taken down? When will the new content finally dry up, as the developer and publisher moves on to greener pastures?
The PC?s primary strength as a gaming platform is the fact that people can continue to play and in many cases modify and add to games months and even years after their initial release. Fans of games as old as Diablo and Starcraft play in the thousands of not the tens-of-thousands online with other players, since running a game is as simple as launching the application on a server PC and announcing the game online. With Guild Wars, however, if NC Soft ever decides to pull the plug on their servers then the party is over, and of course no modifications to the game?s source code or user-made maps or playable outdoor areas will be possible under the current connectivity scheme.
Such changes, however, will hopefully not come any time soon, and with luck Guild Wars players will still be adventuring in the wild places of Ascalon into 2008 and beyond. Until then, strap on your Bonelace armor and grip that long bow or sword because you?re in for a real treat.
Gameplay- 9 While Guild Wars is, at its heart, more of a very lovely Diablo than an Everquest, the game certainly doesn?t suffer from lack of things to do. Players that have been dreaming of a game that lets them do all of the things found in great fantasy role-playing games (explore creepy dungeons, form parties, cast spells, control beasts, gather treasure, craft armor, etc.) in an online environment that allows you to join up with thousands of other people at any time of the day or night should give this game a try. The Quest system is nothing we?ve not seen elsewhere, as are the fairly stock stable of baddies (the beast-like Charr notwithstanding- they’re incredible), but the entire package is presented masterfully. The ability to combine any primary class with any other secondary makes for many diverse characters for PvE or PvP play.
Graphics- 9 This is one of the best-looking RPG or MMO games I?ve yet seen, bar none. Landscape vistas are always compelling and often breathtaking. Antialising and light bloom give the world a saturated look that I?ve come to expect in cutting edge first-person shooters. Some textures, notably some used on armor, are a bit generic and if/when the developers make changes to these areas (as they have promised to do in upcoming free releases) then this score will likely jump at least another half point.
Sound- 7 Guild Wars soundtrack is first rate, and I have to admit I?m very curious about the music add-on pack that will soon be available from Direct Song. Sound FX, however, are a bit weak by comparison. The game would benefit from additional atmospheric sounds, because as it is sometimes locations (particularly indoor areas) feel a bit deserted and static. Outdoor areas are filled with bird song, the burble of streams, whistling wind and ominous thunder, heightening the player?s immersion.
Value- 8 The fact that Guild Wars has no monthly fee influences the game?s value score immensely. Seeing the concept art for the upcoming Sorrow?s Furnace free download has me really anxious to see what?s next. The addition of a dedicated PvP area where players can make multiplayer characters for arena combat with any skill previously unlocked in the game?s role-playing areas is a stroke of genius, one that will keep me coming back to the game for an extended period of time. I do wish, however, that user-made maps, dungeons and modifications were possible, but since all play occurs via an online connection to ArenaNet?s servers I can?t see how this would be accomplished. I have some concerns about what happens if/when ArenaNet ever takes those servers down as well- will people like me, who still enjoy playing older titles from time to time, be totally out of luck?
Curve- 9 The free online play in a massively multiplayer environment isn’t exactly a new idea, but I can?t think of a game that actually managed to make this work as well as Guild Wars has (with servers all over the world no less). The character creation flexibility is a real strong point in an overall solid title, one that I hope other developers take note of.