When Guild Wars arrived last year, it shook up a lot of conventions about the online role-playing game genre. This debut title from ArenaNet proved to be an incredibly fun and engaging online experience, but part of what made Guild Wars stand out was that unlike virtually every other online role-playing game on the market, ArenaNet and publisher NCsoft didn't charge a monthly subscription fee to play the game. Once you purchased Guild Wars, you could play it as much as you wanted, as long as you wanted, without paying any additional fees. Instead, ArenaNet intends to publish completely optional, stand-alone follow-ups to Guild Wars on a regular basis, and these will let fans have the opportunity to explore whole new lands, play with new classes and skills, and experience new types of gameplay. The first of these stand-alone sequels is Guild Wars Factions, and we got the details straight from the folks at ArenaNet as to how Factions will introduce entirely new ways to play the game.
To reiterate, you do not have to purchase Factions to keep playing Guild Wars Prophecies (the internal name at ArenaNet for the original Guild Wars). Also, you won't need to even own Guild Wars to play Factions. If you're new to Guild Wars, you could purchase either and discover a full-fledged game in each. Factions is a completely separate chapter that unlocks a gigantic new continent that's inspired by Asian themes, and you'll get to play with two new character classes--the ritualist and the assassin--in addition to the six existing Guild Wars classes. You can create an entirely new character in Factions or import your existing Guild Wars character if you own the original game. What's neat is that if you own both Guild Wars and Guild Wars Factions, you'll be able to transport your character from one game to the other. In other words, you could create an Asian-themed warrior or mesmer in Factions and travel back to the original continent of Guild Wars and look like a stranger in a strange land, or you can take your existing Guild Wars character and travel to Cantha and look like a tourist, there. (If you own both games, you'll be given a total of six character slots instead of the regular four, which means that you'll be able to keep up to six different characters per account.)
The number of skills in Factions has been increased. Guild Wars is sort of a cross between an online role-playing game and a collectible card game, such as Magic: The Gathering. That's because each character class has up to 75 different skills, but you only have access to eight of those skills at a time, which means that you have to decide how to build your "deck" of skills to counter the enemy's strategy. Since skills are all balanced so that there is no one uberskill that dominates everything, Guild Wars is a constant battle of rebuilding your "deck" to come up with an effective strategy. You'll have a bit more flexibility doing this in Factions, mainly because the number of skills per class has been increased from 75 to 100 for the six original professions, and many existing skills have been revamped and enhanced, so less-useful skills may now turn out to be incredibly useful. (The two new professions have 75 skills each.)
Cantha will also provide plenty of new visual thrills to enjoy. The graphics engine from Guild Wars has been enhanced to provide full DirectX9 support if you have a DX9 card, but the big news is that the level designers and artists have been able to realize some pretty amazing vistas. Your first steps in the continent will be on the streets and rooftops of the main city in Cantha, and here you'll enjoy all sorts of beautiful architecture. Things get especially interesting once you venture out of the city and see the sights of the countryside, such as the Jade Sea, which is a sea "frozen" by magic. There are gullies and pits carved into the sea, as jade is used as a building material, and you can see aquatic life and sinister creatures frozen in the jade, like insects in amber. Don't worry if you don't have the latest video card, though, as Factions pretty much has the same system requirements as the first game, so if you could play Guild Wars, you'll be able to play Factions fine.
While all the new content, monsters, environments, and skills are certainly a big part of Factions, what has ArenaNet excited are the new gameplay experiences. One of the things that the design team has been wanting to do is "unify" the two different types of Guild Wars players so that they work together. There are the player-versus-player (PVP) fans that like to group together in a guild and battle other guilds in arena battles, but then there are the traditional role players who like to group together in a guild and pursue quests and missions in the world. The solution to combining these two groups is to introduce a dynamic, persistent war in which guilds can participate to seize territory and capture cities, and then reap the rewards.
Basically, Cantha is divided into three kingdoms, two of which are at war. Guild alliances, which are alliances of up to 10 guilds each, will be able to fight battles for either the Kurzick or Luxon empires. There are faction battles, which are large-scale PVP battles that determine the strategic situation on the map. Once a day, the Guild Wars servers will calculate the results of all the faction battles for that day and then redraw the "front lines" on the map to show which side is winning or losing. You'll want to be a part of these wars, because if your guild alliance can gain control of a city, you'll have access to special events, such as parades, and to certain parts of the city that no one other than your alliance can enter, which will unlock the new elite missions that offer substantial rewards. The elite missions are geared toward the role players out there, because these are cooperative missions where you'll have to pursue a quest, not battle other players. Put this system together, and you have a way for PVP fans and role players to work together for the betterment of their respective guilds.
ArenaNet admits that it has fallen a bit behind in delivering the next chapter in Guild Wars, but Factions promises to make up for it. The company has learned many lessons from the launch of Guild Wars and applied these to Factions. There's a lot of new stuff to see and do in Factions, and as we played around in some PVP battles, we were amazed at some of the new features in the game. The rituatalist is a spirit summoner that can conjure up huge dragons and other creatures to fight for him or her, and the assassin has the ability to "teleport" on top of a target and deliver a rapid number of killing blows in a matter of seconds. Factions looks great, and considering how good the original Guild Wars is, there's going to be a lot in here for online role-playing fans to digest. The game is almost done, and we can expect Factions to launch online on April 27, though the retail version will be released a day later.