Guild Wars is a game that falls into a niche of its own. It's not a massively multiplayer online game, nor does it charge a subscription fee, though you will play it online with other players and you'll explore and fight in a fantasy world that continues to grow with the release of stand-alone chapters. The next of these chapters, Guild Wars Nightfall, is almost upon us. Nightfall follows developer ArenaNet's philosophy of adding new gameplay features with each major release of Guild Wars, and we had a chance to get our hands on the almost-finished version of Nightfall to engage in some epic new hero battles.
The big new feature in Nightfall is the addition of heroes, unique characters that play significant roles in the campaign's storyline. And yes, we did say "storyline." That's because ArenaNet is looking to deliver a more comprehensive narrative than in earlier Guild Wars games. The story has you starting Nightfall as a new member of Order of the Sunspears, the military order that protects the subcontinent of Elona, an arid and dry land that's the setting of the new campaign. After the Sunspears are defeated in battle at the beginning of the game, you have to help rebuild the order, and this will allow you to gain ranks and titles as you move up the promotion ladder. Your ultimate goal will be to find out what evil is threatening Elona and take it down, and that promises to be quite an adventure.
There are approximately 20 missions in the game, and each has opening and end cinematics complete with voice-overs to advance the story. The opening mission, for instance, explains the tactical situation after the defeat of the Sunspears. Trapped behind enemy lines, you must help the survivors escape by eliminating enemy patrols and sentry posts. From there, the story will deepen, as you discover things about the world and the forces at work in it. Meanwhile, there are 12 heroes in the game, and they're tightly woven into the story. Some missions require the presence of certain heroes, and other heroes will be available at the completion of other missions. In fact, you may have to choose between two different heroes to accompany you, which means the one that you don't choose won't be available until you beat the story and unlock everything in the game. Heroes are far more powerful and customizable than the henchmen you might have traveled with in Guild Wars or Guild Wars Factions. You can customize a hero, all the way down to the skills the hero uses, or the hero's inventory.
The advantages of heroes are numerous. If you're playing as a role-playing character and just want to battle creatures and chase quests, you can use heroes to flesh out your party, so you don't have to find other players to adventure with you. You can have up to three heroes with you at any one time, but you can also fill out the rest of an eight-man party with henchmen. This will let you explore much of the game by yourself, though the optimal party will have two players. With two players with three heroes each, you have a full eight-member party that consists of powerful characters. And if you want to battle against other players directly, the new hero mode lets you go head-to-head against another player, where you get to pit your characters and heroes against one another. The battles in hero mode aren't simple team deathmatches; rather, there are objectives in the game that force you to think. For instance, you might have to seize certain spots on the map, and you can deploy your heroes around or keep them concentrated together.
Giving orders to your heroes is easy. A set of buttons tucked under the minimap lets you give orders to the group as a whole, or to each individual hero. Simply select a button and then click anywhere on the map to place a flag down. The hero or heroes will move to that flag. To rally everyone together, simply get rid of the flag and they'll all come back to you. Other controls on the interface let you adjust each hero's skills. Each hero has a small set of starting skills that are unlocked when you get that hero. Heroes will also have access to whatever skills you've unlocked on your account. The customization options are such that you can specialize each hero to fill any kind of need. "So if you want to make a protection monk, or a healing monk, or a smiting monk...you can do that," said lead designer James Phinney, giving an example of how you can take a regular monk and give it a valuable specialty. You'll also be able to teach heroes new unique skills, thanks to hero trainers. As you rise in rank, you get hero skill points that you can use to unlock hero-specific skills. Simply find one of the new hero trailers. These differ from regular trainers in that they specialize only in hero skills, and they don't charge gold for them, just hero skill points.
(On a cool note, while you don't need to own Guild Wars or Guild Wars Factions to play Nightfall, there is a neat reward if you do. There's a unique hero based on each of those two campaigns, and you can travel back to Tyria and Cantha and unlock them. Not only that, but you can also adventure around the original campaign settings with your heroes.)
Aside from heroes, the other major new feature in Nightfall are the two new classes: the paragon and the dervish. The paragon has been described as sort of a battle commander, and we certainly found that to be the case. This class doesn't dish out quite the same amount of damage as the other classes, but the key is to not get into the fight directly, but to support your teammates in battle using the paragon's skills. A paragon can boost the fighting abilities of a party so that it inflicts more damage quickly. The dervish, on the other hand, is perfect for getting in the midst of a fight, as the class' trademark scythe can inflict damage on up to three opponents with each swing. Many of the dervishes' abilities are geared toward being able to inflict large amounts of damage on multiple enemies simultaneously. And the dervish can also shape shift into the shape of one of the gods in Guild Wars. This is an incredibly powerful ability, but it leaves the dervish vulnerable afterwards, and it can't be used all that often.
The mix of heroes and missions seems interesting, and Nightfall is able to go into territory that the previous two Guild Wars could not. For example, one mission requires you to navigate through a region so toxic that your character will die if he or she is caught in the middle of it. The solution is to accomplish a series of quests that eventually lead you to defeating the queen of a race of wurms, gigantic sand worms that can move through the toxic region. If you gain the queen's respect by proving you can stand up to her in a fight, you'll be able to enlist her offspring. Basically, a wurm will come out of the sand and "swallow" your character. Don't worry, your character is actually being carried in the wurm's maw. But you'll now control the wurm directly and have access to many wurm-specific skills, such as being able to rear the wurm's body out of the ground and body slam an opponent for massive amounts of damage. It's a very cool sight to see, and a very different experience from anything you might have seen in earlier Guild Wars games. Nightfall seems to have something new for every type of Guild Wars player, from the role-playing fans to the player-versus-player fans, and it'll launch October 27.