Thursday, December 25, 2008

guild wars

Video Game Review by 1UP.com (What's this?)
Learn more about this game at 1UP.com
Guild Wars

By 1UP Staff -- 10/5/2005
It took a while, but the MMO tide is turning in favor of the gamer, thanks to the arrival of Guild Wars, a game that breaks the massively-multiplayer mold. Developed by ArenaNet (former Blizzard employees whose collective resume extends to games like Diablo II and servers like Battle.net), Guild Wars simplifies the way we quest, while finessing and improving the genre's game mechanics so that they're digestible to the masses, and satisfying to MMO vets as well.

Guild Wars, to be accurate, is not massively multiplayer, since the actual exploratory areas are instanced. But it is multiplayer, with parties initially limited to groups of two, then expanding to four (post-Searing). The group size later increases to 6 in Kryta and 8 for the desert and fire island regions, while guild vs. guild combat is designed for 8 player groups, as is the tournament PvP. But Guild Wars is much more than simple grouping and grinding. It's really a revolution in online gaming. Let us count the ways.

No fee. This "feature" alone was enough to send shockwaves through the industry upon its announcement. Over the last five or six years, subscribers of MMOs have been programmed to think that they need to pay upwards of ten dollars a month to perpetuate the injection of content into their game of choice. This despite games like Diablo II played eternally after purchase without the need for a monthly charge. Of course, games like Diablo II don't have massive monthly, or bimonthly events/updates/patches to download, but even so, there's an even greater benefit to this financial paradigm: no one is compelled to quit. In most MMOs, the fact that you're paying monthly applies a certain stress to appear every night, to get the most out of the game as possible. Few gamers (especially ones on a budget) are comfortable with the notion of letting an MMO subscription sit idly by as the dollars slip away. Every night you hear people threatening to quit, either because 1) they're burnt out from making the most of their dollars, or 2) feeling like they're not getting their moneys worth. Granted, $10 a month isn't a lot, compared to how much you pay for an hour and a half at a movie theater watching Tom Cruise emote, but ArenaNet's stance of "why keep paying for a game you've already bought" is a stance worth cheering about.

It runs great on nearly any system. It helps encourage a rabid fan base to play your game when your game is playable by any and all. Of course, someone who has yet to upgrade his 233mhz Pentium II is going to find himself hard-pressed to even get the login screen to load up here, but anyone with the minimum specs listed on the box (Windows XP/2000/ME/98, Intel Pentium III 800 Mhz, 256 MB RAM, CD-ROM Drive, 2 GB Available HDD Space, ATI Radeon 8500 or GeForce 3 or 4 MX Series Video Card with 32MB of VRAM, 16-bit Sound Card) will be up and running in no time. And if you've got the recommended PC set-up, you'll be playing one of the most beautiful video games in existence.

It's freaking beautiful out there. Guild Wars, to be precise, is gorgeous. From the sharp, detailed character models to the realistic, immaculately detailed environments, this is one of the most involving, engaging worlds ever conceived in polygons. It's a hell of a lot sharper than Square's three year-old FFXI (designed for PS2), way sexier than EverQuest (1 or 2), and a lot less cartoony than Blizzard's World of WarCraft. Every character class is detailed to a stunning degree, and if you've got the texture-quality set on high, every last crevice from the stitching on your character's armor to the emblem on his guild cape (provided you have one) shines through with stunning clarity.

The character designs are mostly excellent too, with the female classes getting the better end of the stick, with their catwalk-ready physiques, Maxim-worthy hairstyles and painted-on outfits. A couple job classes, like Warriors and Rangers, look neanderthal-ian and tree-huggish, respectively, but fare better once armor has been changed. Other job classes, like mesmers, necromancers and elementalists look wicked from the get-go, and get even better-looking with each armor upgrade. Details, like the cape animations and individual spell effects look awesome in action. And the bloom-lighting, which is in danger of being the most overworked new special effect of the generation (see: Jade Empire) looks fantastic here. It's practically impossible to take a bad Guild Wars screenshot.

Gameplay evolved. The gameplay in Guild Wars takes the best ideas from games like Diablo II (or WarCraft 3, or any Blizzard game with hotkeys) and marries this clean, user-friendly interface to simple ASWD, point, click and attack functionality. Each character class (with primary and secondary job skills) can learn hundreds of abilities and skills, both offensive and defensive in nature. The limitation is you can only bring 8 of these into battle, requiring players to first customize their skillbar in town before setting out into the wild. Customizing your skillbar is a simple drag and drop process, and if this portion (or any portion) of the HUD is too big or small or inconveniently placed for your tastes, the options menu lets you customize the size and placement of each individual interface module. Learning what spells work best for your particular job arrangement (Elementalist/Warrior anyone?) takes a little practice, but once you're comfortable with a particular set (or sets), the impending battles to come are a blast.

Whether you're partied with friends, strangers, or hired NPC henchmen, finding things to kill (if you're simply grinding) is a simple matter of pressing CTRL to highlight enemies within reach, or checking for red dots on the map. When you're in range of one, a quick click on its name will cause your character to attack it, and any accompanying NPC allies to do the same. While the game more closely resembles World of WarCraft's relative free-for-all, as opposed to FFXI's more coordinated skillchains and magic bursts, it still takes a balanced party to survive in GW. Having a healer on hand as well as a Warrior to absorb punishment allows character classes like elementalists and rangers to nuke from afar. And necromancers can bring a host of undead allies to the scene while mesmers can enfeeble mobs in a staggering variety of ways.

Grouping up for guild battles takes the game into the realm of player-versus-player, and is, for many gamers, the big draw of Guild Wars. Fighting against other guilds, keeping the favor of the gods in your territory of choice (America, Korea, Europe, etc.) has its rewards, primarily in ranking, and stature in the game world. But even if lining up your guild's best players against another guild's isn't your cup of tea, Guild Wars' quests are more than enough to keep you busy playing for a long time.

It's a big world out there. While the early levels (about up to level 8, out of 20) in the pre-Searing world are quickly "beaten," they do a good job of getting gamers up to speed with the Guild Wars brand of navigation and travel. It also gives a hint at the size and scale of the game world. Once players have graduated from the Academy, and triggered the post-Searing experience (the world goes from Happy Fuzzy to post-Apocalyptic), the geography of the game world expands dramatically, by at least 400 percent if not more. While this collective landmass might not be as large as the competition's -- yet -- it'll keep even the most adventurous traveler hiking for months to come.

The difference between Guild Wars and it's closest competition, World of WarCraft, is how the quests acquired in GW don't feel like fetch-quests. WoW, to be frank, is populated by the laziest collection of NPCs you've ever met. "Hi, I need X amount of these and Y amount of those. Could you be a dear and get it for me?" Sure, Guild Wars has some of that, but it doesn't feel nearly as contrived. Maybe it's because GW spruces things up with contextual missions that seem to have an impact on 1) your progress, and 2) the story. Wary of the dreaded escort mission? Fear not! Ascalon's Prince Rurik takes up arms along side you, while bringing a small collection of soldiers to accompany you in your quest objectives. That's not to say that other MMOs don't achieve similar things, but GW's objectives feel fresh.

The secret's in the sauce. While the game is beautiful, runs smooth as silk, and is a joy to play singly or with friends, it's Guild Wars' mighty list of minor details that make it so good. These details were obviously designed to keep the game as enjoyable and stress-free as possible, and elevates the game in ways other MMOs haven't touched. Little things, like the user customizable HUD is a good start, but then so are things like Rangers not having to buy arrows for their bows. That's a good thing since money is scarce. Other things, like being able to warp from city to city saves players a lot of time they might spend running in other games. Since there's no monthly fee, why waste players time? This is a really good thing. So is the map in the upper right-hand corner which you can actually draw on to help other party members get a bead on your location, or find a hard-to-locate NPC. But other technical features, like the game loading little patches and updates to your computer, invisibly and efficiently while you're playing, save players from having to download time-killing 5 gig updates like they do elsewhere. It's easy to get into the game too, type your password, pick your character, and boom you're in, not struggling to get past an overwrought user interface via pages and pages and pages of confirmations as in FFXI's case. The makers of Guild Wars want you to play their game, and it's evident in the speed in which you can.

Smarter than the next guy. One thing that must be mentioned is how intelligent the hired henchmen are in Guild Wars. If you lack the friends or patience to play with other players, a full party is little more than a few clicks away, allowing you to flesh out your party (post-Searing) with a ranger, mage, healer and/or warrior. Each of these NPCs plays about as effectively as a real life player would, and impressively so. During one fiercely contested battle outside of post-Searing Ascalon, our own character died in the chaos. Eventually so too did the healer. The mage and warrior were the only ones left amidst a pack of scorpion-like monsters, with little ability to heal at their disposal. Amazingly, they fought back, concentrating on one scorpion until it was dead, evening the odds slightly to two to three. Somehow they chipped away at the others, swiftly, smartly, until the tables were turned, flipping near defeat into hard won victory. The mage then used his resurrection signet to raise the healer (smart move) who then raised our own dead character. Seeing your NPC allies play intelligently keeps "soloing" nearly as engaging as playing with a live crew. And did we mention how lightning-quick the load times are? Well they are.

Another significant element of Guild Wars that keeps it a treat to play is that everyone's world is instanced, meaning that once you step outside the boundaries of the main towns (the only places where Guild Wars is truly massively multiplayer), only you and your party inhabit the game area with the exception of the monsters and NPCs. While this may sound like a very simple thing, and it is (and it's something Diablo II and Phantasy Star Online did before it) it keeps things fair and square for everyone. Even the items that monsters drop are pre-assigned to players in your group, who can then trade things after battle. This keeps the greed factor low, and also prevents a monopoly on monster camping, since players have no need to compete with other gamers for the elite goods. With other MMOs cultivating the detestable currency-farming trend, it's wonderful to play a game where there can be NONE of that. There's no chance of artificial in-game economy inflation, and you won't have to deal with the greed that drives many players to unsavory deeds, like MPKing other groups or parties. Score one for the little guy.

The good, the bad, and the not so great. If Guild Wars stumbles in any area, it's perhaps that the drops (usually weapons and accessories) are sort of lackluster. There's little in the way of uber-cool items to be found early in the game, with most items little more than salvage fodder (items can be broken down into their bare elements to craft more powerful weapons and gear). The same goes for the equipment, although variety is found in the use of dyes to color individual pieces of gear. Updates and patches and, we expect, expansions, will address these minor concerns, so all is not lost. The game puts a priority on savvy use of skills, and not how awesome one's equipment is, and that raises the priority on ability over gear, which is a considerate design choice.

Another minor nibble at Guild Wars is that the collision-detection occasionally and frequently sucks: with players getting stuck on shrubbery, in-between rocks, and more often than not forcing you to warp to a homepoint, which is a pain if it's taken you a while to clear a path towards a quest objective.

Perhaps the biggest concern is just how long the legs on this thoroughbred are, which shouldn't be a surprise considering the level cap is currently 20, and it doesn't take anyone more than a few days to get to level 10. World of WarCraft is suffering from servers full of maxed-out characters (as well as still-incredible latency issues) mere months after its release, and Guild Wars will likely face a similar fate. Of course, there's always the guild versus guild dynamic to keep players busy until an update or expansion arrives, but given the size of the post-Searing world, it'll be a while before gamers exhaust their quest-related options.

The Perfect Balance. Few games of this nature began their life so smoothly, as even the massive influx of players on launch date and beyond did little to disrupt the enjoyment of the game. Think back a few months to WoW's release and you may better appreciate just how glitch-free Guild War's beginnings were. You can attribute this to the clever way in which ArenaNet's technology allocates players to the least crowded servers when they warp back to a town. It makes it a little bit of a pain to have to reform a party in a specific district, but it's an easy pill to swallow given how painless it is to switch "servers." In total, Guild Wars is a sexy, streamlined new entry into an increasingly crowded genre. It sends a message to the industry, loud and clear, that you can bring large amounts of people together to enjoy a smart and simple game (with a subtle depth) that rewards you with every step. Other games may have done some things bigger and better, but with those plusses come a whole batch of cons. Guild Wars strikes what might be the perfect balance between the massive and the multi. If ArenaNet/NCSoft wanted to cultivate a dedicated and loyal fanbase, they certainly put all the right pieces in place. A technological showcase, a fun and attractive game, and a generous olive branch to the consumer, Guild Wars is more good things than any one MMO has a right to be. Rich with potential and ripe with features bursting from the vine, Guild Wars redefines, going forward, what to expect from an online adventure. Anything less would be not enough.