Guild Wars Retail Hands-On

ArenaNet's unique action RPG is finally here, and we've got first-hand impressions of how it turned out.

Nearly two years ago to this day, we gave you a first look at Guild Wars, which promised to be an innovative action role-playing game that would combine the best aspects of role-playing, action, and competitive multiplayer gaming--without those pesky monthly fees commonly associated with online RPGs. Now Guild Wars is finally available, and we're here to give you our preliminary thoughts on what certainly seems to be a one-of-a-kind game. Though Guild Wars' influences from other action RPGs and massively multiplayer games are quite apparent, the way in which it combines tried-and-true gameplay with some of its own original twists--not to mention its lovely presentation--quickly impressed us.

Guild Wars doesn't play quite like any other action RPG or MMORPG out there.

Before we get into details about the gameplay, it's worth noting that Guild Wars runs great. In an era in which many PC games take maybe 30 minutes of installation time thanks to six or eight CD-ROMs' worth of data just to get up and running, getting into Guild Wars was refreshingly simple. The game ships on two CDs, and the account registration process is a simple matter of entering in some basic information: an e-mail address and a unique account key. The game auto-detects optimal settings based on your system requirements, and it launches quickly. Windows-style interface elements allow you to easily switch between playing Guild Wars in a full-screen or windowed view, and you can quit out of the application just as quickly as you can boot it up.

The thing is, you wouldn't expect all this from a game that looks as good as Guild Wars does. The game is filled with beautiful artwork and great-looking character designs, and the fully flexible camera allows you to completely customize how you view the experience. Using the mousewheel, you can zoom all the way into a first-person perspective, zoom back a bit into a third-person viewpoint reminiscent of an action game like Max Payne, or pull back even farther for a tactical, isometric perspective--or anywhere in between. Yet no matter where you look at it from, Guild Wars looks awfully pretty. A clean interface and unique artwork for the hundreds of different skills in the game help give a great first impression that easily drew us into the fantasy setting.

Pretty much all the female characters in Guild Wars have a sultry look about them. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

You can have up to four different characters on one account in Guild Wars. When you go to create a character, you are presented with a very interesting decision: whether to create a role-playing character or a player-versus-player-only character. The former is what you'd traditionally expect from an action RPG--you choose from one of six different character classes (such as warrior, necromancer, and monk), customize your character's appearance, choose a name, and start your life as this aspiring first-level adventurer. The PvP-only option is pretty unique: You get to cut to the chase by starting out with a buffed-up high-level character decked out in powerful gear. Since high-level characters have access to more moves and abilities than low-level characters, the PvP-only character-creation process is more involved, allowing you to pick from numerous templates like "divine healer" and "ice blighter," or customize your own unique combatant.

At a glance, Guild Wars plays similarly to other action RPGs, such as Diablo II. You can control your character by pointing and clicking, though first-person-shooter-style controls also work by default (we quickly grew to prefer these). The thing is, Guild Wars clearly aims at streamlining the action RPG experience. In many such games, as well as in massively multiplayer games, you just keep learning more and more skills as you grow in levels, to the point that it nearly becomes overwhelming to try to manage all your character's different powers. In Guild Wars, your character is limited to eight skills at a time, which are mapped to the number keys. These skills run the gamut from dealing extra damage, to healing friends and allies, to impairing your foes, and so on. Carefully choosing which skills to bring into battle, and then employing different tactics using those skills, is the name of the game.

It's easy enough to get into random PvP skirmishes, though you can form and join guilds and compete in ladder matches as well.

Guild Wars offers some unique character-customization options, in that it allows you to optionally choose both a primary and secondary profession, increasing the number of skills and skill combinations at your disposal. A total of 30 different character-class combinations are possible, but with all the hundreds of skills in the game, there seems to be even more variety than that. At any rate, it should be possible to create pretty much whichever kind of wizard or warrior you can imagine. For example, the "paladin" template is a primary warrior and secondary monk; the paladin benefits from the warrior's brute strength, but gains the monk's healing and enhancement spells. We've had a lot of fun just exploring all the different possibilities and quickly trying them out.

In games like this, it's always tempting to try to find the "best" combination. Considering all the different skills and profession combos that are here, we've naturally been wondering if some combinations will prove to be much better than others. However, since Guild Wars has been designed from the ground up to be a competitive game that could cater to the hardcore as well as to the typical action RPG player, we're hopeful that the game will prove to be well balanced. Still, our first experiences hopping into four-on-four player-versus-player matches quickly yielded that our paladin-style character fared a lot better than our sniper-style character, whose bow-and-arrow attacks did little to impair our enemies as they rapidly closed the distance with us and cut us down. Then again, despite being able to get into some skirmishes without delay, we were struck by how much we probably needed to learn about the game before drawing any conclusions about its tactical nuances and those sorts of things.

Meanwhile, our standard character started out her life predictably enough, by wandering around a town, undertaking simple quests to go places, fetch stuff, and kill things, and exploring the countryside. It's interesting that the "single-player" experience of Guild Wars is still conducted online, so you'll see other players milling about as you move from area to area. It's also possible to switch over to "international" areas that are already populated by many Korean players. Guild Wars isn't a "true" massively multiplayer game, in that you'll only encounter a limited number of players in any one environment, and all the game's environments are "instanced" to serve as many players as necessary. But, in practice, it definitely has the feel of an online RPG. That's especially true since many players can already be seen milling about, performing all sorts of different amusing "emote" commands and talking to each other about the game.

This is one nice-looking game, that's for sure.

We got our hands on the special Collector's Edition of Guild Wars, a handsome box set featuring a hardcover 100-plus-page art book, a soundtrack CD featuring Guild Wars' symphonic score by acclaimed composer Jeremy Soule, and a USB headset for communicating with your teammates. Collector's Edition characters also receive a free in-game item that should help them in the early stages, though developer ArenaNet has always stressed that Guild Wars' gameplay will ultimately come down to player skill, rather than the quality or rareness of player characters' equipment. A full-color 144-page manual is also included, and we were surprised to find that most of it consisted of fiction about the gameworld (substantive information about the gameplay is only toward the end of the manual). Luckily, it's quite easy to just start playing Guild Wars and get a feel for it.

We're excited to continue playing Guild Wars, which may very well prove to be the sort of refreshing change of pace that action RPG and MMORPG fans have been waiting for. With that said, we've just barely scratched the surface of this game and will need to play for many more hours before we deliver our full review. Stay tuned.

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