Of The Large crop of MMO titles slated for 2005 release by the newly minted publishing powerhouse NCsoft, Guild Wars teases us most with its proximity to launch. Beta test weekends have just begun, and those road tests have been invaluable, says game director Jeff Strain. "Guild Wars is entering the final push of development. We continue to focus on adding content to the game in the form of missions, towns, explorable areas, items, armour, character faces and hair, and all of the gizmos, props, critters and people that make a world feel alive.
"We're also streamlining the user interface," he continues. "We're substantially enhancing the cooperative play experience and working to make missions more challenging, while also working on the early game experience to make it very easy for players to become familiar with the Guild Wars world and play mechanics. Finally, the balance team will be spending the next few months working to ensure that more than 450 unique skills are balanced and fun - and of course to ensure that no particular profession combination is superior to the others."
Jeff uses a slight control tweak to demonstrate the ability to patch the game on-the-fly. "An example is how we handle the y-axis for mouse movement. Some people arc used to flight simulation-style control in which pushing up on the mouse causes the camera to tilt down, and others prefer FPS-style control in which pushing up on the mouse tilts the camera up. Based on some forum posts within the first few hours of our World Preview Event, we added a feature to invert the mouse, and we streamed those files to players that very evening." That ability to stream content quickly to players has been one of the game's best selling-points, and the beta weekends have proved that the system works perfectly.
Better Than A Slap In The Face
Fortunately, even with eye-catching features like the fee-free server model, Jeff and his team still have a few extra special bits to reveal. "In subsequent events, we'll be showing a not-yet-seen feature we call 'Worlds at War'. This is the glue between the cooperative and competitive elements of the game. In Guild Wars you can play with anyone in the world by visiting the international districts or global tournament, but you also create a 'home world' when you create your account that determines who you normally see in public areas. When a team from your world battles its way to the top of the international tournament and holds the 'Hall of Heroes', all players in your world will have access to bonus content such as quests, items, skills and pets. But these are only available while a team from your world holds the top level."
The one game feature that's seen little development so far is the first planned expansion chapter. "The epic story that begins with the base game release next year will be continued through these chapters, and each one will also contain new professions, skills, items, monsters, quests and regions of the world to explore. Preliminary design work is under way, but we won't move fully into production until Guild Wars is in your hands."
There Is just so much that is wonderful about Guild Wars that it's hard to know quite where to start. For the past half year, everyone and his dog has been harping on about how World Of Warcraft is the best thing since sliced bread and is surely the most accessible-to-all MMO ever made. Not any more, Pedro! Guild Wars steals the user-friendly gameplay crown so easily from Blizzard's behemoth, that it might as well sport a rakish moustache and call itself Raffles The Gentleman Thief. While it's stuffing that particular trophy into the bag marked SWAG', it might trouble itself to 'alf inch the awards for visual beauty, balanced game mechanics, absorbing content and player appeal, as it deserves to display all of those from its trophy cabinet.
Little And Large
Ploughing its own furrow with all the cold-eyed determination of a Colombian farmer insisting that the money's to be made in harvesting beetroot rather than cocaine like everyone else. Guild Wars cocks a snook at the MMO genre and its standardised gaming templates, setting out from the offset to do things its own way and to hell with the consequences.
Take the character creation. How many other games give you the option of starting a character at the maximum level from the get-go? Sure, there are restrictions involved. You'll be restricted to the PvP arena and have a limited selection of the overall skills available, but it means you don't have to spend weeks slogging through the level grind in order to experience the latter side of the game.
One For All
Not that there's much grinding to be found at the lower levels. Guild Wars is one of the most well-balanced and perfectly paced RPGs we've played for ages, casting its lines like a master angler, reeling you in at exactly the rate needed to keep you hooked. In one of the many, many wonderful ideas, every character you create is inextricably linked to the others on your account (all members of the same Guild, all sharing the same Friends list, all having access to the same storage vault). So much so that the more you explore and unlock with your roleplaying character (as the game describes those who start at the ground floor), the more benefits you can earn for your level 20 PvP-only character and vice versa. This has the effect of making the game world -and its inherent wonders, treasures and quests - seem to revolve around you. Again, this is unlike the feeling other games give you of being a minor cog in the overall wheel of virtual life, no more important than anyone else. Guild Wars feels exciting to play as a result. You want to keep coming back to it to find out more, safe in the knowledge that you're not going to be bothered by griefers, boss campers, player killers, antisocial nobheads and the it you crowd that mar so much of the online gaming experience. Hell, you can even recruit NPC henchmen to support you on your travels if you really feel like going it alone.
The key aspect of the game is the skill system. Every character has eventual access to over 150 unique skills, although only eight can be loaded into your skill bar at any one time, forcing you to think very carefully about what sort of combinations to put together. Again, thumbing its nose at other MMO conventions, these skills are all generally of an equal power, if more detailed, spectacular and harder to find at the higher levels. Much like Pokemon et al, the more common skills can be gained from various trainers in the public towns while the rarer abilities have to be earned through completing missions or, better yet, capturing them from particularly skilled bad guys as you fight them. It's a system that rewards persistent play, , continually providing the urge to get out and explore (a task made blessedly more practical thanks to the instant township teleporting system - no lengthy trips across miles of barren terrain just to meet up with friends). It doesn't make the mistake of penalising the more casual adventurer either, with the basic skills still being perfectly valuable in tournament play, especially with a well-balanced team.
Teamwork is vital in the group side of the game. Two types of missions are available for teams and guilds to work at-co-operative and competitive. The former tell the ongoing story of Tyria through a mixture of cutscenes and quests. While these are mostly lengthy dungeon crawls (although don't let the dungeon' part of that fool you, the locales are varied and interesting and full of surprises), there are twists such as suddenly swamping you with powerful enemies and forcing you to flee for your life, all of which keeps the interest high.
The other side of the game are the competitive PvP missions, essentially a series of Unreal Tournament 2004-style team combat games. Find one of the arenas, form a group from the assembled players (or even in some cases just hitting 'enter mission' and letting the game form random teams), and play through a series of Team Deathmatches, Capture The Flag games or King Of The Hill events. Guilds that discover the larger arenas can even challenge each other to try and rise on the ArenaNet Guild Ladder, earning bonuses and plaudits from their members.
Again, the key is to master your skillsets, picking the right combinations to overcome the enemy and complement your team-mates. It's almost the perfect system, combining instant action gratification with long-term rewards for the dedicated player.
That's Guild Wars all over. Perfectly balanced in a manner that could make Blizzard's much fabled ba'ancipg team look like amateurs. Every aspect of the game has been thought through to the nth degree, and serves to complement the experience as a whole. Nothing feels like a wasted effort or a tacked-on extra to appease the masses. Sure, there are a few minor issues -party disbandment after teleporting, one or two lag issues - but nothing that can't be sorted out by a quick patch or two (and probably already has been by the time you read this). What's for certain is that Guild Wars is very much a world and law unto itself; the aforementioned idiosyncrasies force you to rethink everything you've become used to. It might not have the complete world' feeling that you get from EverQuest II or World Of Warcraft, but it barely matters.
Guild Wars is all about the gaming experience and that experience is one of absolute pleasure from moment to moment. And it won't break the bank on a monthly basis either! You really can't ask for more than that.
If You Can't Mod Your Kit, How Are You Gonna Attract Da Kidz?
It's not that there's no crafting whatsoever in Guild Wars, just that it's almost completely out of the players' hands. As with the rest of the game's idiosyncratic approach to online gameplay mechanics, the noble art of Building Stuff works completely different here to elsewhere.
Basically, players don't build anything. Instead, they gather materials by recycling unwanted loot and taking it all to NPC crafters. Different crafters have different lists of goods to choose from, with the more powerful goods available from the more hard-to-find vendors.
The most you can actually do yourself is apply coloured dye to your hard-won weapons and armour, either buying basic colours from merchants, or searching for more rarefied hues in more advanced areas of the world (and by twonking fabled beasties on the head). Thus, despite the limited number of character appearance options, there is at least scope for personalisation further down the line.
It's Like International It's A Knockout Without The Humorous National Costumes
Or, if you prefer, it's the Ryder Cup of fantasy online role-playing (with added Koreans). Are you tired of all this one world, global village, we're all brothers underneath, political correctness? Course you are, and nothing says togetherness like a good spot of international warfare. Luckily, Guild Wars caters for your nationalistic/patriotic pride with its international tournaments. Guilds, teams and bands of passing wanderers who fancy a ruck (I said ruck) with Johnny Foreign types can do their bit for either the European, American or Korean standings with a bit of three-way team PvP action in the Hall Of Heroes.
Victorious teams not only get to lord it up over their fallen foes, they get to earn the cheers of their countrymen with a global broadcast of who bested who, along with giving all players of their nation a morale boost in fights of their own. All that's missing are Belgians in inflatable pastry chef costumes chucking buckets of foamy water about the shop or Seve Ballesteros whooping with delight on the eighteenth hole. Maybe in the first expansion pack?
Download Guild Wars
Systems: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game features:Single game mode