Guild Wars and all of it’s expansions can now be found for about £25. Dante and I have had a rocky relationship with MMO games, and while I’m still fairly convinced that the addictive properties of levelling and the social elements allow a lot of these games to get away with some pretty horrible quest design, I was tempted enough to pay up out of curiosity, as Guild Wars has always had a different take on the genre.
For a start, only hub locations such as towns and cities can be said to be Massively Online. As soon as you step beyond the town walls with your party you’re thrown into huge instanced areas where all of your questing takes place. If you decide that you really don’t want to interact with pesky real people you can hire henchmen to flesh out your party and go it alone in the wilderness. Some quests see you picking up extra warriors and followers to the point where, as well as our four-strong party, there were six swordsmen and a bloke with a giant pet scorpion following us around the world, helping us to beat the snot out of the indiginous wildlife. Most satisfying.
Another key difference: The level cap is set at 20. Compared to World of Warcraft’s 80-odd, this is a pretty major shift. Guild Wars encourages smaller arcs of play with lots of alt characters. Skills aren’t tied to your xp either, they can be bought or acquired at any time by completing the right quests. Levelling instead allows you to boost your proficiencies, making your existing skills more potent. It won’t take long for you to have more skills than you’re allowed to use at one time. The game almost bombards you with abilities, giving you a wide range of attacks, buffs, summons and curses to choose from. At any time you can retract attribute points you’ve spent from levelling up, and change your character’s proficiencies completely. The onus is on creating your own style of play and you’re never punished for tweaking.
Bearing all this in mind, levelling up isn’t the defining measure of your progress. It’s still useful, of course, but in a sense almost incidental. The focus is on picking the right quests, gaining new skills and pushing on with the story. And the story, as it happens, isn’t half bad.
It’s not as deep or rounded as your average single player experience but it made me pay attention, which is more than any other MMO has managed to do. After about 3 hours of play an invading army turns the world to dust. Familiar green meadows and forest lands disappear, replaced with red sands, fiery skies and huge crystalline structures beaming rays of cold light into the sky. The wolves and bears are replaced with twin-tailed scorpions, gargoyles and wondering squads of invading Charr warriors. Things have gone bad. Very bad. You’re assigned to the great North wall to help repel the advancing army.
It helps that combat is fast, exciting and, thanks to your numerous skills, a varied and interesting excercise in risk assessment. My Necromancer/Warrior is something of a glass cannon. Thankfully he specialises in thieving the life force of his enemies for his own benefit. It’s a risky business though. His regeneration skill deals significant damage before gradually giving back twice as much. A regen followed by a quick life steal nullifies the effects, and all the while he’s be building up adrenaline from the hits he’s taking, and that unlocks some of the nastier warrior skills. Best to finish off the foe I’ve weakened with my life steal and unleash my wounding ability on the chap with full life just behind him, that ought to allow the bleeding status I’m about to inflict to take full effect. Then, when everything’s dead, I’ll raise a few bone horrors from the corpses, natch.
Thankfully, as well as the general excitement of killing things, the main quest has already turned up some memorable moments as well. Example: You’re told to go behind enemy lines to gauge the size of the oncoming Charr invasion force. After a dangerous treck into the inhospitable Northern lands you turn a corner to see a plain stretching into the distance, littered with dozens of campfires and scores of enemy soldiers. You’re spotted and are forced to run, giggling, all the way back to the great wall, throwing nervous glances at the minimap and the sea of red dots hot on your tail. The great wall falls, and later you push the forces back almost singlehandedly, rescuing captured soldiers and unleashing fiery revenge in the form of a huge catapult.
The side quests are above average fair as well, though this is a bar set rather low by other MMO titles. It’s very rare that you’ll find a ‘Kill X number of X monster quest’. Instead you’ll be ferrying items across the world, completing escort missions and clearing hotspots of enemy forces. Along the way you’ll be navigating a fascinating world, which, like much of the game, is really rather pretty. The tech is undoubtedly getting on a bit, but the clean colours and strong design go a long way. When I see the sun glaring down through the windows of a shattered tower, or rivers of tar flowing through red valleys in the shadow of the great wall, I realise that at times Guild Wars is quite beautiful.
We’re still working our way through the original game, so I might add updated impressions as we progress through the expansions. For now it’s fair to say that Guild Wars is doing a good job of scratching our RPG itch. It’s faster and in some ways more streamlined that other MMO titles we’ve played, and future MMO games could do worse than steal a few ideas from Guild Wars.