In the interest of full disclosure, let me say right up front that I've always been a huge fan of the Guild Wars games. It's a good game with a good business model: developer ArenaNet's and publisher NC Soft's vision for the franchise has always been to provide a multiplayer gaming experience similar to "traditional" MMOs such as World of Warcraft or City of Heroes without the monthly membership fees such titles usually demand.
The game's original title, Prophesies was given high marks by this reviewer, as was the sequel, Factions. But with the third installment in the franchise, Nightfall, have the developers "gone to the well" perhaps a bit too often? Does the game's lack of traditional subscription fees justify Nightfall's $50 price tag? Does Nightfall live up to the franchise's already-high quality standard? Let's find out.
Fans of the series already know the game's theme: allow the player to explore a lavishly-detailed fantasy world as one of a number of character classes, all while telling a heroic tale equal to, if not better than, what Hollywood can usually offer. A world-class multiplayer Player-versus-Player (PvP) system complete with world championships and international ladder tracking is the other side of the Guild Wars coin.
In Nightfall, the "new world" we are given to explore is the land of Elona. Where the previous expansion, Factions, was heavily influenced by Asian themes, Nightfall takes its inspiration from the Arabic lands of central Asia and North Africa. Many aspects of the game's visual and musical theme are influenced by this aesthetic, from the hand-drumming and errie strings of the musical score to the sprawling veldt-like lands on the game's mainland. The add-on's two new character classes, the scythe-wielding Dervish and the spear-throwing Paragon are themed to fit into the Elonian mold, providing players with new options for both single- and multi-player action.
Added in Nightfall are powerful Heroes, AI-controlled "super henchmen" that the player can recruit into their party. Heroes can be customized with special weapons, skills and even multi-class options to make them serve the role that the player best sees fit. Wish that your healing Monk also had access to Fire Elemental crowd-control spells? Easy enough. What about giving your Ranger Hero access to Necromancer powers? You got it. Almost any combination of skills and classes are possible with Heroes.
Interestingly enough, the addition of such powerful AI-controlled characters seems to be having quite an effect on the game community. In the previous add-on, Factions, ArenaNet's primary concern seemed to be in giving Guilds more and better reasons to hook up with other players in what amounted to a huge, ever-shifting war. In Nightfall, however, the focus seems to be exactly the reverse – since Heroes are so powerful compared to the usual henchmen, players can work through the entire main quest solo.
The game's pacing has been dramatically altered in Nightfall as well. In the original Prophesies, building a character to Level 20 took me about three weeks of playing 2-3 hours a night a few nights a week. In Factions, the developers made character advancement quite a bit more rapid, shortening the time to Level 20 to just a few days of dedicated grinding. But in Nightfall, ArenaNet has returned to the "longer is better" model, substantially increasing the time to level 20.
For players without a substantial amount of free time, this may come as a disappointment – I know that I was personally frustrated on several occasions when confronted with Nightfall's seemingly endless climb to Level 20. This seems a strange choice, seeing as how the game's use of Heroes seems to be specifically targeted to make the game easier for the solo, casual gamer. Worse, the advancement curve is so long (compared to that of Factions, anyway) that the thought of starting multiple characters and running through the same raft of missions and quests again became so painful that I abandoned the thought of leveling multiple characters to 20. This is a real shame, as it discourages all but the most dedicated players from really exploring the different options offered by each class.
Graphically, Guild Wars has always looked fantastic, but at this point, Nightfall's engine is starting to look a bit dated I'm afraid to say. Quirks like having character's weapons disappear in the middle of an in-game cinematic does not help suspend my disbelief, ArenaNet! Also, many of the environment details have a "recycled" feel to them, as if they took bits and pieces from existing Guild Wars set-pieces rather than design new ones. In short, much of Nightfall lacks the "Gee Whiz" element I often felt seeing some of Factions' more impressive Asian-themed elements, even as it continues to amaze me with its use of elegant particle effects for spells and other visuals.
In conclusion, I don't doubt for a moment that players that already have experienced Guild Wars and liked it will find quite a bit to like about Nightfall. The game is still 100% free to play after the initial purchase, which should come as great news to everyone that's wary of MMOs and their subscription fees. Even so, there are hours and hours of quests and exploration inside, and that's always a good thing in our book.
I have to admit that I'm still really quite frustrated that Nightfall still feels like a MMO in almost all of the ways that I dislike, however. One of the reasons I love playing PC games over console titles is that on the PC if a game is good, then an army of talented mappers, artists, modelers and animators will usually contribute free MODs to the game within weeks or even days. Seeing as how Guild Wars has always worked so hard to completely separate its "Role Playing" and "Multiplayer" sections (you have to make separate characters for each area with no cross-over allowed), I'm still baffled as to why ArenaNet hasn't yet explored the idea of allowing the fan community to add their own custom-made armor, weapons, beasties, quests and maps. Who cares if such add-ons would be "unbalancing" to the multiplayer PvP crowd? Such a change would be not only courageous but would also assure the loyalty of thousands of players, and would add a much-needed breath of fresh air.
Maybe one day…
Gameplay – 8 Players that felt that Factions character advancement happened too fast will be happy to learn that Nightfall returns to the slower, more deliberate advancement pacing offered by the original Prophesies. Casual gamers with less time to invest may be frustrated, however. The addition of Heroes means that most players can solo the entire game and never have to endure the agony of a bad Pick-Up Group ever again -whether this is a positive or a negative is up to the player. The main storyline quests are a bit long as well, but the eventual payoff is well worth the time investment.
Graphics – 8 Guild Wars' graphic engine has always looked stunning, but after three years it is starting to look a bit long in the tooth. The plus side of an older engine, however, is that two or three year old mid-powered systems can still run the game at high frame rates with graphics goodies like antilaiasing enabled.
Sound – 8 Nightfall's use of dynamic and exciting music – another hallmark of the franchise – is well implemented and serves to heighten the tension of battles and ambushes. As always, the soundtrack is every bit as good as most Hollywood films.
Value – 6 The game's lack of monthly subscription fees is indeed exciting (as always), but $50 for what amounts to an add-on pack is just too much. Couple this with the game's total and complete inability to be modded or expanded on by the fan community (since the game runs on NC Soft's servers and not on a local PC) means that if the developers can't dream it up, then you won't be seeing it in-game, and that's too bad. The game's relatively small selection of armor and weaopns is also starting to really frustrate me – Guild Wars needs, more than anything else, a way for individual players to look like, well, individuals, not "just another" Necromancer or Dervish or Monk.
Curve – 6 Nightfall is as slick, polished and professional a game as you're likely to ever see, and it should be: the developers have had years now to get things right, funded by an army of dedicated customers. Where it falls down is in originality: for all its polish, in the end it's really just more of the same as I've played countless hours before. That's not necessarily bad – I love returning to Guild Wars again and again whenever I need a nice monster bashing session to recharge my batteries. But, just as when the game first launched, the inability for the game to take advantage of the PCs fundamental strength as a game platform, namely the legions of talented and devoted MODders and mappers that would love to add to the game, leaves me wanting more at the end of the day.