Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Guild Wars

Post-Launch Reviews #3
Guild Wars
Developer: ArenaNet
Publisher: NCSoft
Released: April 2005

Guild Wars is an MMORPG (or as some would say, co-op RPG) set in the world of Tyria. It's a diverse world with three major settings: a recognizable fantasy world called Tyria populated by several races facing the threats of the undead, the Unseen, and the Flameseeker Prophecies; a feudal Japanese-styled continent called Cantha under siege by the returned plague-bearing spirit of a long-dead traitor; and an African-inspired continent called Elona afflicted with a corrupt ruler trying to bring about Nightfall, the return of a long-forgotten mad god. Guild Wars uses a unique eight-skill system inspired by trading card games and focuses on a level playing field where the winner is determined by skill alone.

At Launch
Guild Wars has been described as a CORPG or co-op roleplaying game due to its focus on instanced play. Guild Wars was conceived when some senior developers of World of Warcraft left Blizzard to create their own multiplayer fantasy game that would solve perceived problems with the MMO giant, such as subscription fees, non-consensual PvP, quest queues, and loot assignment. The subscription-free model and art style were critically acclaimed and successful.

Guild Wars has received extensive support since launch. ArenaNet pays close attention to player feedback and makes adjustment and new content based on that feedback. As an example, a few months after the game released, players who had already finished the game complained about the lack of post-story content, so ArenaNet added Hard Mode, achievements, and the elite Sorrow's Furnace dungeon.
Subsequently Guild Wars has received two new standalone campaigns — Factions and Nightfall — and a true expansion, Eye of the North. In addition to a new story and content (professions, skills, items, etc), each campaign also made updates and improvements to the game formula which applied to all campaigns. Among other things, the expansions added PvP content, player-controlled Heroes, party formation functionality, post-story elite content, and more.
Guild Wars continues to be supported with regular weekend events, major celebrations and festivals such as Halloween, Wintersday, and Chinese New Year, and balance adjustments. Most notably, the live team is implementing very extensive post-story missions to help bridge the gap to the upcoming Guild Wars 2.
The Good
Graphics & Art Direction
Guild Wars is a beautiful game. Prophecies (as the original game has come to be known) and Factions are starting to show their age in terrain detail and texture, but Nightfall and Eye of the North's modest graphical upgrades are holding up well. But where the art design really shines is the characters. Clothing, armour, and weapons are colourful, highly detailed, and massively varied. Monsters are diverse and even show variation within species. And every once in a while you'll find a landscape where you just want to stop and look.

Optional Grind
One of the greatest decisions in Guild Wars' development was to make it easy and quick to achieve the level cap of 20 and to obtain the strongest weapons and armour. You don't so much “level up” as work off a handicap while you learn to play, and you'll likely have access to the statistical best weapons and armour before you even hit the cap. ArenaNet didn't want combat to be determined by level or gear, but by each player's individual skill and choices. They also didn't want to force players to grind for hours to be strong enough to proceed in the game. The game isn't completely grind-free, but what grind there is is entirely optional.
It's easy to find the strongest gear, but it's hard to find the coolest gear — all max-level gear may function the same, but the molten-lava Destroyer Gauntlets are way cooler than some wimpy cloth gloves, and the mirrored obsidian Fellblade is awesomer than a boring old longsword. These items are rare and hard to get, and it could take hours and hours of play to find or craft them — but that's up to you. They look better than their boring ordinary counterparts, but they're no better statistically.
The Skill Bar
Instead of gaining class abilities as you level up, Guild Wars gives you eight skill slots which you assign yourself from a pool of over a thousand, based on your primary and secondary profession. This is the core mechanic of Guild Wars: the skills you choose and how you use them determine your strength, not your level or gear. Any two Elementalists will likely have completely different skill sets and fill different roles on the battlefield. There are enough options that one sword Warrior might deal area-of-effect damage to enemies around him, and the other focuses on inflicting conditions and defending allies. Even two players with exactly the same skills might use them differently. It's a great feeling to build your skill bar, show it to your party, and have them say, “Wow, that's really good”.

I personally am not into PvP, but even I can realize that Guild Wars has some great systems. There are several casual formats: Random Arena where two randomly selected teams of four duke it out; Codex Arena, where there's a restricted list of available skills that changes daily; and Heroes' Ascent, an eight-man tournament format with a chest full of loot for the overall winners. There are more structured formats: guild battles where members of different guilds battle over the top spot in the monthly standings; and automated monthly tournaments with scheduled matches. There are a few Factions-only formats: Jade Quarry, where both teams race to collect 10 slabs of jade while preventing the other team from doing the same; and Fort Aspenwood, where one side tries to break into the other's fort and kill the Master Architect before a secret weapon can be finished. Finally there's alliance battles, where guilds from different alliances battle to control territory on the Factions map.
Because of the game design putting everyone on an equal footing in terms of numbers, PvP is very skill-based, and especially in the more serious formats, you win or lose based on the skill and preparation of your team. It's a great way to do things.

Updates & Patches
There's a Guild Wars update practically every week, with updates containing anything from bug fixes to balance updates to a major class overhaul to new content. The amount of attention the game gets is incredible, and if something is broken, it won't be for long.
Playing Nightfall or Eye of the North gives you access to heroes. They're non-player characters under your control with fully customizable skills and gear. They also figure into the plot, so they are characters in their own right, of many different races and origins. There are multiple available heroes of each profession, so if you can't find a human party or feel like playing on your own, you can play with a full party of heroes. Hero AI is mostly very good. They can be a bit slow to move out of enemy attacks and don't have a human player's intuition or priorities, but in some respects they can actually be better than human players. Hero AI can observe all enemies and allies simultaneously, so they are very quick and precise with interrupts or support. For example, a human Mesmer has to watch a specific enemy to interrupt its spellcasting, but a hero Mesmer can be fighting someone else entirely, turn to interrupt a fireball, and go back to what it was doing.
Hall of Monuments
The Hall is a sort of personal collection room. Your achievements, pets and miniatures, heroes, and elite weapons and armour can be displayed here. The leader of a party can take the group into his own instance of the Hall to show off his collections and achievements.
But more importantly, displaying items in your Hall of Monuments earns you points to unlock exclusive rewards in the upcoming Guild Wars 2: weapons, armour, pets, miniatures, and titles. Many of these rewards are strongly tied to the first Guild Wars: you can earn some of the most iconic gear from the first game to use in the second, like the sinister Fellblade, the rare black widow spider, or the lost mouthpiece of the legendary magical horn Stormcaller. These items show other players that you've been around for a while.

The Wiki
Guild Wars has an official wiki maintained by the players, and a couple of unofficial ones to boot. The official wiki is an excellent resource for information, tactics, and walkthroughs, including bugs or mechanics undocumented in the game itself; while something like the PvX wiki is a great source of class and team builds for general or specific use. Basically, if it's in the game, you can find it on the wiki — along with drop rates, trivia, a list of uses, etc.

Guild Wars hosts major holiday events for Halloween, Christmas (in-game it's Tyrian new year, known as Wintersday), Chinese New Year (via Canthan new year), Dragon Festival (another Canthan holiday), and Guild Wars' birthday. These major events feature special loot drops and collectors, games, quests, and redecorated cities. There are also smaller events for St Patrick's Day, Easter, American Thanksgiving, and International Talk Like A Pirate Day, featuring only special loot drops.
April Fools' in Guild Wars is a thing all its own. ArenaNet releases fake patch notes listing all the 'balance changes', making references to pop culture and mocking some of the more outlandish community complaints and observations. 2011 was something special: the Guild Wars 2 team revealed a new profession - the Commando, a modern soldier with grenades, guns, and helicopters at his disposal. As a "sneak preview", Guild Wars added a quest where you could play as a Commando, going back in time to stop the assassination of Gwen's mother Sarah by a robot from the future called the Annihilator. Yes, that's basically the plot of Terminator, and it's made better by the fact that Gwen is a major character in Eye of the North, and her mother's name is actually Sarah and has been since 2005.
The Neutral
Guilds and Community
I hesitate to put this here, but I'll explain why I did. For the most part, the Guild Wars community is great, especially if you find yourself a good guild. Many of the larger guilds run weekly or daily events, ranging from runs through elite PvE content to high-end PvP, and are a great resource for help and advice. Most guilds are also part of an alliance of up to ten guilds, giving you even greater access to assistance and services. Often you can even just visit one of the major centres of commerce — Lion's Arch, Kaineng Center, or Kamadan — and ask around if you need something.
The reason this point is neutral is because it can be hard to get into the game if you don't have friends to play with. You can play by yourself, but that isn't as much fun. Some guilds will only accept experienced players due to their focus on high-end content. Some guilds are small or new and won't be of too much use simply because of their size.
The Bad
There aren't as many active players as there used to be, and most of the ones who are still around are focused on high-end content and collecting stuff for their Hall of Monuments. If you don't find a guild or make friends quickly, it's very possible that you'll have to play through at least an entire campaign by yourself until you're experienced enough to start gunning for hard mode and elite stuff. On the plus side, if you start with Nightfall you'll immediately have access to heroes, which should make that a lot more bearable.

The Verdict
Recommendation: play it
Guild Wars is fantastic in pretty much every way. The lack of subscription fees and the purely optional grind mean you can play as much or as little as you want without feeling guilty or obligated; but the depth is certainly there if you want to invest more time. There are some neat deviations from your typical fantasy settings in terms of races and plot — the Charr in particular, beginning as simple bad guys, are very well developed by the end of Eye of the North.
Special note: if you're at all interested in Guild Wars 2, I would recommend GW even more strongly. You don't need to have played GW1 to know what's going on in GW2, but it will give you an extra depth of knowledge and you'll be able to recognize the subtle references and changes in the world. New players will say “Oh, Lion's Arch is really cool!” but veterans will say “Wow, look how much it's changed!”. I also can't stress the Hall of Monuments enough — the rewards are very very cool and it doesn't require an absurd amount of time to get most of the stuff.
Guild Wars is definitely one of the best MMO's out there, and Guild Wars 2 looks to be even better.

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