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Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Ascalon Burning

Most of my gaming life recently has been spent in or around Ascalon, the fair city of Guild Wars brutally assaulted by the evil Charr. In fact, after an all night on Saturday, I had a level 10 Monk/Warrior on my hands. Now, I've played two other MMO's extensively - PlanetSide and City of Heroes. The combined experience left me with the impression that as a genre, MMOs are fundamentally flawed largely in part by a monthly fee which makes very little sense.

Guild Wars has no monthly fee. So there goes that argument. So how about the rest of the game?

First, the good. Because there is a lot of good. One thing MMO's seem to be getting better at is creating deeper, richer worlds. One amazing thing ArenaNet has done is make the tutorial section of the world a real, hardcore, prologue. Prior the Charr attack known as the Searing, Ascalon was a lush and beautiful land. Post-Searing, it's more of a strip mine with an attitude problem. By starting out Pre-Searing, players are allowed to really take in the damage and magnitude of the attack. I can't imagine how much time and effort went into creating a large play area which is only present in a small portion of the game, but it's time well spent. ArenaNet has managed to create a fictional world with a backbone.

The gameplay of Guild Wars reminds me of a combination of Morrowind and Phantasy Star Online, which also happen to be two of my favorite RPG's. The real massively multiplayer portion of Guild Wars takes place in towns, which essentially serve as lobbies where players can trade, meet up, discuss missions, etc. Once away from the towns, teams are granted their own personal version of the game world without interference from other players or teams. PSO worked in a very similar manner, and in my opinion makes for much smoother gameplay than City of Heroes' similar but far more limited door mission concept where players only spend a small portion of their time in dungeons seperate from the world. For one thing, it allows for better soloing and makes it more acceptable to simply wander the world if one so chooses (although missions yield better rewards). But wandering around the very pretty landscape is often entertaining on it's own.

While still largely centered around the standard MMO design of clicking icons to activate skills/powers which require time and energy to recoup - the skill system is well designed and flexible. I currently have two load outs - one accustomed to cooperative team play and another for soloing or competitive play. You do get a real sense of tactics during some battles, where others just feel like you're waiting for the someone to die. However, some of the more intense battles make the action feel worth it, and cooperative play brings this out very well.

The bad? Well, the interface could use some work. You can't, for instance, swap out skills except in town which can make for some very embarrasing team moments when you confess you left your resurrection spell in your other pair of pants. Also, some visual and auditory cue for GUI events wouldn't hurt. I had a brief conversation with a new team wondering why we weren't starting, and he was wondering why I wasn't accepting until I noticed the small trade prompt in the corner window. During team battles, it can occasionally be difficult to select the target you really want, since there is so much happening in a small section of the screen. This has led to me occasionally pick up a treasure instead of casting a spell or accidentally neglect combat for a few seconds. For the most part, however, these issues are pretty minor and only serve as minor annoyances.

For as good as the mission designs are in Guild Wars, there are also some basic flaws. For one thing, the game world doesn't feel nearly random enough. Leave town and walk past a couple monsters, kill them, return to town and leave again ... and they'll be back almost exactly where you met them the first time. This gives a very artificial and after a while, stale, feel to the landscape.

While party NPC's are pretty top notch, non-party NPC's can be annoyingly stupid. Last night I was on a mission to save a squad of supply bearing warriors. However, when attacked these warriors would use that old strategy of simply standing there, thumb in ass, waiting to die. I ended up losing the mission as they simply perished, one by one, never lifting a finger ... or sword ... to attack the offending Charr ripping them a new one. Problems like this aren't catastrophic, but they can make completing missions more trial and error if there are foibles to figure out.

I've only had one application crash, although that was during a major cooperative mission, and the occasional attack of the lag monster. Largely, though, Guild Wars seems very smooth and stable.

For the most part, I love this game. It doesn't guilt me into playing because I'm paying for it every day. I can pick up and play for a half hour or an hour if I like, or I could waste a whole night or afternoon with it. The world feels deep, rich and interesting to explore. There's some glitches I'd love to see ArenaNet address, but this is definately an MMO even for people who might not normally approach the genre.

* Buy Guild Wars from


Josh said...

In reading more about the game's design, I get the concept behind limiting skills during missions and not allowing players to swap out.

However, it would be nice if the interface supported multiple loadouts a little better, so that it's easier to make minor adjustments in what the player will use.

Tony said...

Hey, that's cool you've joined the ranks in Ascalon. We'll have to meet up and take down some baddies!

Josh said...

Definately! The Monk/Warrior is named Whisper Serene, feel free to look her up. I may try a Monk/Elementalist in the near future as well.

Brinstar said...

Yaargh! I'm adding you to my Friends List! :-D

Josh said...

Sounds great. I did take a quick look for your Pre-Sear, Brin, but pulling an all-nighter on Saturday ... well, it wasn't very long that I spent there.

It's one of the things I'm really liking about the design. After just a weekend, I feel like I can be useful in most parties, as opposed to a dead weight like in most MMOs. I remember that with City of Heroes, if I didn't play nearly every other night, I wouldn't keep up with the rest of the group and pretty soon it would be hard to play with them.