Guild Wars Hands-On Impressions

We check out this innovative action online role-playing game.

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Guild Wars is one of most interesting and innovative games on the horizon. It is certainly a game that's not easy to describe; in summary, it's a fantasy-themed, action, online role-playing game. However, don't let the convoluted description throw you off, because the thing to keep in mind with Guild Wars is that it's being developed by three former members of Blizzard, the studio responsible for some of the biggest PC games ever, including Diablo, Starcraft, and Warcraft. We had a chance to see Guild Wars last year when we were invited to check the game out early in development. A full year has passed since then, and ArenaNet recently paid us a visit to show us the progress it has made.

There are six professions in the game, including the elementalist.
There are six professions in the game, including the elementalist.

Guild Wars is being designed as a competitive online role-playing game--one where you'll battle other players in addition to a wide variety of menacing monsters. Most importantly, it's also being designed so that the best players will not necessarily be the ones who spend the most time playing it. To achieve this, the game relies on a skill-based system that's reminiscent of the card game Magic: The Gathering. You can collect and earn a wide variety of powerful skills and abilities, but when it comes time to fight, you'll be allowed to select only eight of them to take into battle. Each skill has a cost and a benefit, so you must anticipate which formula will be most effective against the competition. But this way, even a relatively new player will have a chance against seasoned veterans, because it's less about what level your character is and more about the skills you select and how they match up with the opponent's skills.

There are more than 400 different skills in the game, and they cover a wide range of abilities to pad out the six professions in the game. When we saw the game last year, ArenaNet had only announced the warrior, ranger, and necromancer professions. The three new professions are the elementalist (a specialist in elemental magic), mesmer (a master of what is called denial magic), and monk (an expert in healing and resurrection). Each profession has its own set of skills. For example, the ranger is an archer, so a lot of ranger skills involve bow and arrows, like Pin Down, which temporarily pins a target to the ground. The mesmer specializes in countering enemy spells. One mesmer skill is backfire, which for 10 seconds causes the targets to receive 22+ points of damage if they try to cast a spell.

You'll run around the world in a third-person view, and you'll be able to rotate the camera all around your character. The game uses the familiar WASD interface, but the game is simple enough that you can play it entirely by using just the mouse. The left mouse button is used to interact with objects, talk with non-player characters, attack hostile creatures and players, and pick up loot afterward. In other words, it feels very much like a 3D version of Diablo, which isn't too surprising considering the pedigree of the people involved.

The lighting and spell effects are impressive.
The lighting and spell effects are impressive.

The character-creation system is as flexible as those found in other online role-playing games; you designate a gender, a profession, and a secondary profession (at higher levels, your character can effectively dual-class), with the first two determining your general appearance. You can then select a variety of attributes, including hairstyle and color, face, and skin color. A slider will let you adjust the height of your character. And once you're playing, you can pick up distinctive armor, equipment, and weapons that will affect your appearance. There are also dyes in the game, and you can actually mix and match your own color schemes to paint your clothes and armor. Thus, player guilds can color coordinate, and if they choose to they can even keep the formula for their color scheme a secret, as well as make gathering the required dyes an initiation quest.

ArenaNet built its own proprietary graphics engine for the game, written by cofounder and programmer Mike O'Brien, who previously worked on Warcraft III and World of Warcraft. The environments are lush and detailed, and there are excellent lighting effects, including a soft glow that permeates the entire game. We were shown some of the monsters, including shambling zombies and a menacing and huge bone dragon, all of which looked impressive. But the really impressive thing about the graphics engine--and the game itself--is that it's all streaming from the Internet.

Tournament Madness

One of the most surprising aspects of Guild Wars is that the entire game will download to your computer while you play it. To begin playing the game, all you need is a small executable program, about 90 kilobytes in size and miniscule enough to e-mail to your friends. When you run it, it connects to a file server that begins downloading everything you need to play. Guild Wars only downloads the content that you need, so the downloads are quick over a broadband connection, and the game uses predictive analysis to stream the content that you'll need while you're playing the game. This method will also ensure rapid patching of the game. (We were notified that new updates had become available even when we were in the middle of playing the game.) All we had to do was restart the game and we were up and running with the latest version.

Guild Wars features a lush world.
Guild Wars features a lush world.

Guild Wars will feature an interesting mix of persistent and what are called "instanced" worlds. There are certain parts of the gameworld that are persistent, such as towns and outposts, and these will act very much like traditional online role-playing games such as EverQuest. Towns are where players can congregate and hang out and experience much of the social aspects of the game. You can also interact with merchants and other NPCs, so you can buy and sell equipment, armor, and weapons.

When you venture away from persistent areas and begin missions, you'll enter instanced worlds: areas of the game that are created exclusively for you for that mission. The way it works is that you're told to head to a certain outpost to perform a mission. When you get to the outpost, you'll enter a lobby of sorts where other players are waiting to start the same mission. If you're on your own, you can form a temporary ad hoc team with other players and begin the mission together, thus increasing your odds of success. When you begin, the game will create an exclusive version or instance of that mission, so even though there may be other teams that started ahead of you, you'll never encounter them because they're playing in their own instances of the mission.

There are two kinds of missions in the game: player versus player (PvP), where teams and guilds can battle each other in an arena, and player versus monster, which is part of the campaign game. ArenaNet cofounder Jeff Strain promises a story that's similar to Starcraft, and considering the company's background, it is certainly capable of delivering. This story is definitely going to be important in terms of a business model. In another surprise, publisher NCsoft and ArenaNet will not require a monthly subscription to play the game, as many online role-playing games do. Strain told us that they're following Blizzard's popular Battle.net model, in which you pay once to purchase the game once and then all online gameplay is free. They do plan to issue a content pack every six months that you can buy. However, Strain made it clear that they will not punish you if you don't purchase it and your friends do; you'll still be able to play with them, though you won't be able to experience the new content. But they're certainly hoping players will choose to pay in order to continue the story.

Beware the mighty bone dragon.
Beware the mighty bone dragon.

The PvP missions will pit guild against guild in competitive games. While players and guilds can engage in PvP missions at any time in the arena, at the heart of the game is the tournament system, which will work much like the NCAA Basketball Tournament, but only bigger. The tournament can support hundreds and even thousands of guilds in the first round, and it's a single-elimination system, so each consecutive round halves the number of guilds remaining in contention. The eventual winner of the tournament will receive substantial rewards; for example, an idea is that at the upper levels of the tournament teams will have to ante up valuable equipment that will go into the winner's pot.

Guild Wars is certainly one of the most innovative and daring online games that we've seen, and the game should definitely generate some buzz. You can try out the alpha test for yourself soon, as ArenaNet is opening the game to everyone during the three days of the E3 trade show. Meanwhile, ArenaNet expects to go into beta by early summer, and the game will ship later this year.

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