Probably a month ago now, a workmate offered me the chance to take part in the final "beta weekend" for the up and coming Guild Wars game. He knew I was into MMO type RPGs - I've had a character on Everquest for over 5 years, though for the last year or so I've hardly touched it - and thought maybe this would offer a change.
Well... what the heck, it can't hurt to spend a weekend in front of the computer, running around an until-recently-unfamiliar game reporting /bugs as per the purpose of any beta test. So I gave notice to parties that I would be unavailable, and come the time, logged on...
Back to Everquest for a moment. I can't knock the game as a game for anyone who can allocate blocks of many hours to sit there and play it. Especially when you're at a high level, it can be quite engrossing when you're on long enough to form a coherent group or raiding party, and go to town on some otherwise impossible areas, maybe get your hands on some uber gear and maybe earn a quarter of a level in the 5 hours you actually get your collective act together (if you don't die, either due to stupidity, malicious act, a PC crash, or a mere network outage).
But as I said, if you have the time to assemble the team, and everyone works well together, you can feel like you're getting somewhere. In quiet times, you can use your trade/crafting skills and make a difference for others, at the right price of course. There's a certain amount of realism to how this fantasy world hangs together, in economics, including the effects of not being able to find a meal.
But what if you can't find the hours to spend on something, or heaven forbid you're trying to escape from the deadly train pursuing you halfway across a continent so you can answer a knock at the door??? You can't camp while being attacked, and if you go linkdead, well you might find yourself asking the age old "Has anybody here seen my corpse?", or worse still, you could be standing in the midst of the horde of doom. Been there, done that...
So anyway, a couple of days before the beta, I downloaded the GuildWars client. 500kb, no problem. Start that up, it downloads some other stuff. Before a couple of minutes were up (512k ADSL), I was at the account login screen, which is a very nicely rendered campsite, complete with rippling flags, trees... and a rather disconcerting slow zoom in and out and in and out ... then a little lightning symbol appears in the top right of the screen, indicating it's downloading stuff. After the weekend started, I discovered that almost everything I needed had already been downloaded anyway. This is the first cool thing about the game. There are no mega patch updates with mega patch downtimes to accompany them! Updates to the physics and environment are trickled to your PC, with the game rules kept on the servers. This is reminiscent of the old text-based LPMud game, with on-the-fly object updates!
The first time I "zoned", my jaw nearly dropped when it had about 1100 files to download. But that took less than a minute (these things are tiny!), and subsequent entries into the zone only demanded anything that had changed since, or was now deemed necessary. So typically 5 seconds is good for zoning. The next zone load was about 800 files (and 30 seconds), and most of the rest were a couple of hundred, so there's obviously a lot of overlap. Again, a GOOD thing.
Zones are typically made up of "hard" and "soft" objects - the "soft" ones - small plants, small rocks, blades of grass, you pass right through, while "hard" items - buildings, furniture, trees, have a definite border around them which you are blocked quite harshly from passing through (you can barely get under the tree, where on EQ you could almost start walking up the base of the trunk if the slope is gentle enough). It can be annoying when your pet and an NPC that follows you around trap you in a spot that you simply cannot escape from, despite the obvious escape route, but this is a relatively minor issue IMNSHO. You soon learn to walk around obvious obstructions, and all in all for the smooth operation of the graphics engine, I don't really mind the collisions based on somewhat blocky outlines. Also, the individually rendered grass blades tend to be perpendicular to the ground, whatever the slope, but that is still a minor issue.
My ranger spent a while running around the "newbie" area in the initial chapter of the game, which is really a precursor to what the story is all about, doing little quests, and giving me a chance to get used to some of the really cool parts of the UI. The most impressive one I found was only a small detail - the local terrain map. Here's a few of the aspects that really got my attention:
It's just a little circle, and shows which way you're heading (up is straight ahead, North moves as you spin), you're a green dot in the middle, friendly critters in green dots, potentially hostile in red dots.
It usually has an arrow pointing in the direction of where you are supposed to go if you have an active quest, and if you are in the right area (and are likely to have seen some kind of road sign). The direction shown is as the crow flies, which gives no clues as to how to go around obstacles like mountains. This is a good thing...
You can draw things on the terrain map a-la those pesky cricket commentators - the drawing fades, but it's a great way to highlight a desired path to your fellow party members, or play a lightning game of Tic-Tac-Toe!
Clicking on the map sends off a sonar pulse at that spot as a way of highlighting the spot where something is, or that you need them to go to.
Onto the world map, which is generally fuzzy except where you have been it fills in the terrain in greater detail.
And also on the world map, every city and outpost you've already been to is immediately accessible by double-clicking on its icon. You've already proven that you can do the journey, so it takes you straight there! There's a nice little dotted trail of where you've been since you "left town" too.
Game play ... well the way the game feels is best described as Diabloesque on 3D steroids.
There's only one race (human), and not all that many classes (Ranger, Elementalist, Necro, Mentalist, Monk and Warrior - I think that's it?), but if you choose, you can take on a second profession, when you're ready and if you find the right NPC to give it to you (after getting you to do a small quest). You can only have 8 spells in your repertoire at any one time. It's like stacking a small deck of Magic cards - you plan your strategy and choose your spells from those offered to match. If you are then offered further spells, you must either turn them down, or select which spells you will forget then and there. Skills are also limited somewhat, according to your profession's limits. As you level up, you get skill points to spend and you can do that however you wish. But if you discover you've skilled up down the wrong path for your needs, well ... that's ok, the system is set up so you can change your mind without suffering for it, although you can't do that continually!
*** Correction - You can pick your 8 spells from those you have been offered, when you are at an outpost. You cannot change them when you go out into dangerous territory. So you can figuratively "re-stack your deck" from the available offerings between missions or quests - so if you go from a mission of assassination to one of protection, you can sacrifice an aggressive spell or two for the all important heal. Or if you're a part time monk who decides to be responsible for party wellbeing, you can bring your resurrect online. ***
It's fast paced - a long lasting spell would be 60 seconds of effect, but most would be instant, or last just 5 or 10 seconds... You can also maintain enchantments on allies and presumably enemies, but doing so reduces your ability to regenerate energy to cast, so you have to think about who you enchant, and whether it's worth doing so.
The best part about that balance is that you could then easily get into the game's title - guild wars. Battles between guilds, which don't depend so much on how twinked your character is as how well your skills and spells suit the way you play! PvP comes with rewards, and no real personal loss, though loss of face for your guild could be another matter...
... and then there's the really cool stuff. Hello bullet list!
I got to fire a trebuchet! Load, fire, watch the projectile cause a shockwave mowing down the enemy!
Other mechanisms - opening gates, drawbridges. Nice touch!
Projectile weapons (ok, just bows) - height gives range advantage, and lack of height takes it away! Great for shooting the guy way over and down that way.
My pet stalker (cat) could be encouraged to make the enemy bleed on its next attack. Warriors have similar abilities with the right sword!
Pets get XP too!
Death is an inconvenience, not the end of the world! If you go on a mission (a special multi-player quest thingo), the system gets interesting. Die, and you are resurrected at some point either by a player, or because the rest of your party died. You come back with a 15% skills penalty - killing things about your level claws the penalty back, and you can turn it into a bonus by killing named critters, which are usually well guarded or able to look after themselves. If you die 10 times during a mission, the penalties make completion of it virtually impossible, but once you finish (or abandon) the mission, they go away.
Instanced zones. No "camping", no "trains" from other groups, no kill stealing or other malicious actions interfering with your mission or quest. Walk out of town by yourself and you're alone with the NPCs, or walk out with a friend, and you can work together to achieve things.
The map system is cool. I thought this warranted saying again!
You can do crafting, starting out using crafting NPCs by supplying them materials and money (both of which you can find or earn).
The game is really well balanced. Depending on your methods, you could as much as have a stalemate toe to toe fight with something, or "outwit" it, or miss something and have it "outwit" you. I did defeat creatures 2 levels higher than myself, but it wasn't easy and was with the help of my pet. At the same time, it is not a smart thing to be surrounded by a horde of hostile level 2 critters!
If you can see a spot on the terrain, you can click on it, and if there is an obvious path then the engine will handle the rest - pathing is sensible! You also don't lose your pet in a maze when it follows you!
If you can't find a partner, you can always invite an NPC or three to tag along at one of the outposts. They may be slightly underpowered compared to your mighty self, but they do their jobs to suit their profession! eg. the monk NPC will try to keep you healthy, and rez ANY party member who dies...
NPC interaction is great. The "follow me!" bravado of the prince as he enters enemy territory demands that you keep up lest he die and you fail the mission. And you get to fire trebuchets!!
The only thing lacking in the cut-scenes at key points in missions and the story in general is the characters' lips moving. Otherwise, your party is rendered into the discussion as the scene pans around. I especially liked the way my pet stalked around while it was going on.
All professions can dance, or play air guitar, or drums, or their version of an air flute in their own style. - rangers breakdance! The emotes are actually very well done, if a bit limited. But you can also hold rock/paper/scissors contests for items or to see who goes first if you so choose. (type: /rock ...)
Quest flags are nicely maintained, and quests mesh together well - some are independent of all others, some are interlocked. Excellent stuff!
Trebuchets are cool!
Everybody is on one "server". It may be a big cluster, I dunno... but as far as you're concerned, you can talk to anyone in the game. To avoid overcrowding, an outpost will spawn new districts (instances) for people to enter, and the game will spread newcomers around them pretty evenly. But you can meet up with your friends by simply selecting the district you really want.
Having said that, fellow party members will always "zone" together, into the same instance of whichever zone they go to. It also means the first one there drags the others along - great if you get lost in lag! This is tempered by making you leave the group if you "cheat" to go to another zone via the cool map.
No subscription fees! I actually logged onto a website and purchased a key online - $US49.99 - added it to my account and it unlocked the game for me to continue playing after the beta. No more costs, unless I pay for more chapters, but it looks like I've got a while to go before that happens. The FAQ from the site is probably best for that.
I could go on, but I gotta go home! One last thing...
You want screenshots, or general game info? Have a look around on http://www.guildwars.com - niiiiiice. It may be a bit hammered, but I believe any bandwidth issues are being stomped on quickly.
Hmmm, might follow this up with more later. But from me, a big from a now ex-EQ player.