With sales that, according to developer ArenaNet, are on the cusp of 4 million copies in a little over two years, it's safe to say that Guild Wars series has successfully carved out its own unique niche. The games, which combine elements of online role-playing with a no-subscription-fee revenue model, let you explore a rich fantasy realm or battle against others in competitive play. There have been three Guild Wars games to date, each one a stand-alone game that a beginner could pick up and play without any prior knowledge of the others. However, there are now arguably millions of existing Guild Wars players looking for something more. That's where Guild Wars: Eye of the North comes in. As the first true expansion pack for the series, Eye of the North will require you to own an existing Guild Wars game and have an existing character. The benefit is that you'll get to take your favorite characters and go on some epic adventuring.
Though it is an expansion, Eye of the North should pack a full game's worth of content. Part of that is due to the size of the expansion, as the new lands that are introduced are as large as the continent of Cantha from Guild Wars: Factions. But it goes a bit deeper than that. Since the expansion is designed for existing Guild Wars players who have maximum level-20 characters, the designers don't have to worry about building content for beginning players. So ArenaNet can focus on stuffing Eye of the North with nothing but high-level content that will keep even the best Guild Wars players busy.
Even though Eye of the North marks a return to the lands of the original Guild Wars, you can still import characters from Guild Wars: Factions and Guild Wars: Nightfall, even though those games were set on different continents. How that works is different in each case. For instance, in Guild Wars: Factions, you must speak to a certain character in one of the cities in the game. That opens up a new quest to discover what's causing the earthquakes that are rocking the city. You and your group must find a nearby chasm, which leads to vast underground chambers. There, you'll battle assassins and necromancers before encountering some dwarves who are preparing for an attack by their ancient enemy, the destroyers. These destroyers serve as the main bad guy in the expansion, and they're a bit insectlike. They're also about 20 feet tall and powerful, so when the destroyers attack shortly after you meet the dwarves you must run for your life. This starts a three-minute timer, which is how much time your group has to escape through an Asura gate (more on the Asura a bit later), which will teleport you to the Far Shiverpeaks, the starting point for Eye of the North.
The story in Eye of the North is that the destroyers have awoken from their slumber deep below the surface, and they've driven out the Asura, one of the new races in the game. You'll have to stop the destroyers, which means you'll delve into more than a dozen large dungeons. You'll also get to explore a massive land mass and encounter the Charr, which was the main enemy in the original Guild Wars, as well as the Norn, which are a race of half-giant shape-shifters. At the beginning of the expansion, you'll meet a number of principal characters from those races, such as Jora, a nine-foot tall Norn warrior who looks like a valkyrie from legend. (Fans of Pinky and the Brain will delight in the fact that Brain voice actor Maurice LaMarche is the voice of one of the main Asura characters.)
Eye of the North should offer a bit more freedom when exploring the world and pursuing quests. There are three main regions in the expansion, and you can pursue most quests at any time. For instance, you may go help the Asura and then decide you want to go explore the Norn regions and follow that story. The game is flexible enough to let you choose which missions you take and in which order. The 18 dungeons in the game won't consist of straight, linear paths, but will instead be large enough to reward exploration off the beaten path. The rewards will be significant, such as the 50 new player-versus-environment skills that you can learn in the expansion. These PVE skills are much more powerful than traditional Guild Wars skills, since the developer didn't have to worry about balancing them for player-versus-player combat. For example, breath of the great dwarf will relieve all of your party members of burning attacks and heal each of them for 60 health. Many of these PVE skills are tied closely to their quests, so the skill is often reflective of the hurdle you have to overcome.
Battles in Eye of the North are a bit tougher than in previous Guild Wars games, thanks mainly to the fact that they're designed for level-20 characters, but also to the improved artificial intelligence. Groups of monsters will now take up formations, with the melee warriors in front protecting the spellcasters, and ranged units in the rear. This will force you to try to flank more, to get around the front line. There's also all sorts of environmental hazards to worry about, such as dodging the giant iceballs rolling around on a snowy level. The battles themselves look spectacular thanks to the abundance of particle effects going off, and if you have a full party that consists of warriors, monks, priests, and more, there are a lot of different spells, abilities, and skills that can unfold at once. The rest of the expansion clearly shows off just how much the artwork and technology have advanced in two years; there are incredible vistas to be found, such as scenic waterfalls, towering crystalline formations, and a forest fire that's eerily atmospheric.
If you survive Eye of the North you'll be in a good position to transition to Guild Wars 2. The hall of monuments in the expansion will let you carry over many of your accomplishments, even though you'll have to create a whole new character in the sequel. That's because that character will basically inherit the special weapons and equipment from their "ancestor." Eye of the North may very well be the final chapter in the original series, though ArenaNet says it will still support Guild Wars as long as fans are still playing it. At the very least, Eye of the North will have to tide fans over until Guild Wars 2 ships. The expansion is due out at the end of the month.