I’ve played this game some more during the weekend, I did a few missions and managed to gain three levels. Here I’ll recap my considerations. Click “read more” link if you feel masochist enough ->
As a general impression I think that Guild Wars will be an interesting game, with a lot of potential. For potential I mean both its possibilities as a game and its commercial success. Potential also means that there are the basis for it to become a good game but a lot depends on *if* and *how* they’ll use such potential. So it’s still a consideration about the future of the game rather then a review of its actual state.
From this general perspective I have to say that the game still lacks of personality. It is unique due to its particular features like the lack of a monthly fee, the instanced content and the focus on guild PvP within strict rules, but the game itself, its feeling, its setting, still looks like a random cut and paste. Yes, it looks nice, the graphics are luscious, but without offering a true personality. Often I had to push back the feeling of playing just another of those horrible Lineage clones. It’s generic, and it probably mirrors the approach of the software house developing it. In fact I can feel right into the game this approach of the devs. I’m sure that when they started this project the first step has been to plan its features and only during a secondary stage they also began to shape the world after those features they already nailed down. The consequence is that Guild Wars stands out (is recognizable) because of the features, but from an in-character point of view it feels bland, generic and even excessive in its graphic style. Being excessive isn’t a contradiction to being generic and bland, in fact it often happens when there’s a lack of ideas and of coherence. Being excessive is often a strategy used when there isn’t much of a personality and the aggressiveness becomes simply a way to defend a weakness. All this is also mirrored already in the title: Guild Wars. It sucks. It’s the most generic and uninspiring title they could find. As a direct comparison “Guild Wars” and “Arena.net” are obviously less powerful than “Diablo” and “Battle.net”. This is again the consequence of the focus. “Diablo” is a title about the lore, the setting, “Guild Wars” is a title about the feature focus of the game, not its setting. From my point of view this founds the game and it’s relevant because it directly affects every other elements of the game we can consider. The work is focused on the mechanics, the setting is untied, detached. It’s contingent, like a module that can be plugged in and out and I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point they’ll try to release a completely new setting (like sci-fi) based on the same engine.
So, basically, Guild Wars is a generic project aimed to a core of features and a precise “flow”. To this “mechanical core” they can plug&play a setting that at the moment feels bland and uninspiring. It won’t be a mmorpg where you will be asked to pass years of your life, offering you the illusion of an alternative world, instead it is built to be disposable. Being disposable is one of the main characteristics of the content they’ll offer. Now, there are deeper considerations to make. This isn’t *bad* on its own. We can aim to build an alternative world and aim to the immersion as the main purpose. Guild Wars directly *negates* this. It aims somewhere else till the point that we can hardly consider it a mmorpg. Perhaps it fits into the direct meaning of the acronym but it is surely different from the added value that the term has *now*. We could even say that Guild Wars is positioned at the opposite of the mmorpg “ideal”. But this isn’t again *wrong*. It’s a choice to shape the game to follow a different path. Like a different genre which offers different answers, even if perhaps about the same core questions (how to be fun? how to hook players?). In fact I’d say that those questions are the only point that mmorpgs and Guild Wars have in common. Their origin is the same, but the way those answers are answered brings to different games, different styles and even different *genres*, I think. This is why Guild Wars also need to be judged from a different point of view. It is NOT a mmorpg (“mmorpg” as our creative definition, not the direct, technical meaning). And it cannot be compared directly to one. We cannot slice it and compare feature after feature with, say, World of Warcraft. We cannot denaturalize both of them and pretend to draw a fair conclusion. But, still, there are players that are going to decide what to play. So will need anyway to draw a communal conclusion, because, even if I won’t do it, I know already that many others will have to. I think that this comparison can be made, even without denaturalize the games. The correct way to do this is to follow exactly what they have in common. As I said the contact between them exists, despite their differences. This contact is about the answers they’ll need to provide to the basic questions: Is the game fun? For how much time I’ll play it without feeling bored or upset?
After these considerations I’ll jump back to my general opinion. I believe that Guild Wars has potential, but a lot depends on how this potential will be used. So it can be a good game and it has the possibility to have a major role into this genre (on its own merits and not just because of the monthly fee). But it’s still about a “maybe”, an opening that I see into the market and that I hope will be used in the right way. In fact back in April I was already pointing out the two paths to follow to reach the success, two “styles” of games that I see holding potential to expand in the years. Guild Wars is very near to the first of those two paths.
Now, if you browse the various forums where the game is being discussed you’ll notice that it is equally loved and hated. Even if I believe that the majority of the players (me included) has a so-so feeling, not too much in awe but neither ditching it completely. I think that most of these impressions are strongly influenced by the expectations. This genre has become so focused and repetitive along the years that even the most casual players know exactly what they want delivered. And they ask for it, before even knowing what the game itself has to offer and what is its style. The pressure of EQ2 and WoW are pushing this bad approach further. And I’ve already covered this aspect but I cannot avoid to notice how much this influences the judgement of this game.
What are the merits of this game, what are its flaws, *now*? You can extrapolate many of my considerations from my early list of glitches/bugs. Guild Wars hasn’t much to offer from the gameplay point of view. Most of what you’ll see on screen is graphic fluff (and way too much fluff, imho. You’ll get *swarmed* by an insane amount of bushes. EVERYWHERE!), with zero or nearly zero gameplay relevance and interactivity. You can move only following a very precise path and you’ll find yourself more then often bouncing against invisible, unreasonable borders. The gameplay of the various missions is the repetition of a very simple mechanic. You are on a road and, as you walk, you’ll have to defeat groups of monsters, till you reach the end of the path and warp to a new location and adventure. The possibility of interaction within this frame is basically zero. Aside choosing your attacks and walking (you cannot jump, you cannot climb ladders and even if there are villages and castles with houses and watch towers, you cannot interact nor enter them) you can only stare the awesome panorama and pull triggers (like clicking an object-trigger or an NPC-trigger). Nothing else. So it’s rather obvious that all the focus is about the combat and the graphic awe.
What about the combat and graphic awe? The graphic is easier to deal and explain. The engine is smooth, good engine graphically. It performs very well on different kinds of hardware and they’ll also be able to optimize it better since they offer mostly instanced content. So it will probably stands out against WoW and EQ2. It is luscious but it is luscious on *your* computer, not in a promise-dream for the goons to fulfill (maybe) in the next years (EQ2 ?). But the graphic is another of those elements that cannot be considered alone. The graphic also involve the style you choose and the style is about the personality. I’ve already said that Guild Wars feels too much “excessive” and this to hide a real lack of depth to offer. The blandness of the gameplay reflects directly into the blandness of the setting. It’s a good looking cliche, it looks awesome at the first impact and the screenshots will always look particularly nice. But being excessive *always* and *everywhere* will soon reveal the lack of depth and its disposable nature. You won’t encounter real “characters” that will involve you in a story. Instead you’ll encounter good looking excuses to open the next road to follow and the new panorama to discover. The main point (another of those recurring) is that “what you see” isn’t “what you play” and this affects everything because you’ll soon notice that even if the monsters looks very good, they still offer repetitive gameplay. This is also the tie between the two questions, combat and graphic. You’ll notice soon that the gameplay is repetitive and simple. You can choose only a very limited number of special actions to perform and each encounter will be a repetition of the same strategy. Yes, there are monsters with different ways to attack or defend but how you’ll interact with them is unchanged. Soon you’ll begin to care less about how each monster looks and you’ll feel more like walking along the same road and shooting at a new bunch of enemies. A point where you’ll start to feel the monsters coming your way as an annoyance and not anymore “cool”. Yes, it becomes boring. The interaction is none, the exploration is none, the graphic so excessive to loose its “awe” effect quickly, the combat limited by an handful of choices. Each of these issues “calls” for the other, soon you’ll feel evident how little the game has to offer, how the graphic is a nice dress to fake a diversity. It will be more clear how 90% of what the client renders is there just as fluff with zero relevance.
Here the alarm started to weep. As I continued to play more I yawned more than once (there’s a major annoyment point that I didn’t explain that had a strong impact of this, I’ll point it out later). While at the beginning I tried to get myself involved in the story, at least to understand the excuse to open my way through the next wave of monsters, after a pair of missions I started to care less and less about the in-game reasons. I just felt like rushing toward the end, clicking on NPCs just to go forward and without reading they useless blather. Click, click, click.. come on keep going! It was rather obvious that the PvE doesn’t offer much. It is nice if you have to take it at small doses, so you can even get involved into the story and have an easy sort of fun for an hour or so, but if you are planning for hardcore sessions you are also aiming toward the most boring gameplay you ever encountered. It’s an arcade-ish type of mmorpg in a closed scenario where your duty is to reach a new checkpoint. Your remember “Out Run”?
That said, lets focus on the positive aspects. Despite the limits, the game performs well in various parts. I’ve repeated over and over how the movement is limited, how each mission evolves on a strict, repetitive “rail” but even within this model the game does good. In the second mission I noticed that the panorama was coherent. The huge bridge and the castle I was seeing in the distance weren’t “scenery”. During that mission I had to travel to the castle and then cross the bridge. The engine uses an awesome dynamic system of detail that is balanced very well. In this case the fancy background that seemed there just to please the eyes was, instead, part of my journey. I discovered that I still had to follow a precise path but the mission also allowed me to explore different locations, alternative ways to still reach the same checkpoints but at least showing that there’s still an even minimal possibility to involve the exploration (still “Out Run” style). With this I mean that even with a very specific style that limits every kind of divagation and interaction, the game can still offer something consistent, if done right. Parts of the flaws are also precise choices, like the main weakness of the PvE. You can choose and gain a bunch of skills but during a session/mission you’ll only be able to choose eight skills to use. This obviously limits directly your gameplay but is also a concept near my ideal of a “flat power treadmill”. It’s in fact a perfect way to structure the PvP. We all know that in a PvE-based environment the PvP sucks big time. This because, to be fun, an encounter needs to offer equal possibilities to both the parts involved. A treadmill breaks this principle because you can invest time to have a powerful character, who has more time to invest already wins. Even before the encounter starts. This is why PvE and PvP often clash together, what does good to a part damages the other, they are opposite directions with opposite needs. A “flat power treadmill” instead allows a system where the time you invest still matters and is valuable for the game (and so we don’t lose the sense of achievement that is extremely important for the genre), in fact you will gain access to a bunch of skills you can use and manage. From a different but similar perspective you gain access to more “roles” (like in Planetside). But the core concept is that while you gain possibilities, you still “grow” horizontally. This is what “flat power treadmill” means. You unblock roles and possibilities but you don’t have to manage all of them at once. At any given time your basic “power” is the same. This means that the PvE becomes a complement of the PvP. And this is exactly what happens in Guild Wars. The PvE combat can feel repetitive, simplified and dumb because its built and targeted for guild PvP. Many of the skills are created and balanced to have a relevant tactical depth. For example my mesmer had a spell that drains energy from the target. In PvE this skill isn’t really relevant since it doesn’t directly affect the health of the monster, but in PvP it becomes a strong strategic element. Even the number of special skills you can choose becomes a major strength. The tactical depth is incentivated when you are able to manage a tight number of variables affecting each other. We all know that tactically deep games have always simple rules (chess?) and this because it’s the actual interaction to offer the complexity and not an infinite number of rules and sub-rules (in this case the result is complicated, not complex). This is what Guild Wars tries to deliver, tactical depth packed into balanced and instanced PvP arenas. The end result is really close to “Magic the Gathering”, the well-known card game. With each expansion of the card game the players achieve new possibilities and new mechanics (and need to pay money for them), but at the same time they cannot use every card in the game at the same time. They need to build a deck. In Guild Wars this is mirrored by building a group and make it work together as an organized and specialized squad.
This was from a general point of view. There are more specific issues I had with the game but surely not to ignore if they aren’t going to be solved before release. I hinted one of the most relevant above when I explained how the game begins to feel repetitive and boring if played for a few hours straight. This happened to me also because of a big problem: if you go link dead, for lag or another random reason, like a crash, you are dropped from the instance. When you’ll reboot the game you’ll find yourself back in the generic gathering location. This means that whenever you have a problem and get disconnected in the middle of a mission, you have to RESTART from the beginning. Luckily the missions are fast and they don’t take a lot of time to finish but it can still happen to have a moment of lag and finish kicked out. If it happens you have to redo the same stuff again and again. This is damn frustrating and boring, you could even arrive at the last monster, lag for a moment and have to redo the whole thing. Insane and unacceptable. In the list of issues to be addressed as soon as possible this should have the highest priority. Another important issue is about the UI. It is really polished and easy to “master” but after five minutes you’ll already feel its strict limits. One glaring issue that became obvious is the absence of a logout button. Till someone discovered that there’s a key (F10) to do that. In fact the customization is minimal, even when it comes to remap the controls (for example no way to remap the use of the camera). Everything is hardcoded and cannot be adjusted. Even the graphic features are mostly hardcoded and the user can only choose the texture detail, shadows and reflections. In general the UI is polished and easy to use but also overly simplified and limited. The chat is basically unusable and despite there are chat tabs there is no way to actually filter what you want to read. Nor there’s the possibility to adjust its position, its size and the size/type of the fonts. All hardcoded again. The problems of the UI also affect directly the gameplay, in fact there’s no “system window” to understand and analyze a combat and this is a big problem. There’s no way to track the active effects on a monster and this means that also the game mechanics are hard to understand without a clear parser. It’s hard to understand if a spell is interrupted or not and even harder to understand if it landed properly or not (and I still have to understand what is an “HEX” or how the stats affect the spells). With this effort to keep the UI clean and simple, they inhibited many possibilities and since each of these issues are really easy to solve I believe that it’s more a complete overlook and design choice than an “it’s still beta” problem. Other minor glitches are about the dynamical level of detail, the lack of synch of the animations, the controls not working prefectly smoothly, the huge rubberbanding when moving around solid objects (monsters are solid objects. Yes, there’s collision, but with monsters only) and others problem I may have pointed in the list I linked above.
In conclusion Guild Wars is a “different” game. It has its own merits but it cannot be directly compared, feature against feature, with complex mmorpgs like World of Warcraft or EverQuest. It’s like trying to compare Magic the Gathering with Dungeons & Dragons. They are different products aiming at different mechanics. This game has a potential to expand in the same way the card game did. This is why I believe this example fits even more than at a first glance. “Magic the Gathering” had a strong influence and it was a major economical success but we all know that it didn’t offer “more” than Dungeons & Dragons. They follow two different ideals. Despite this, as it happens with a direct comparison between WoW and GW, they aim at a similar audience and their OOC-purpose is to make friends play together (simplifying a bit). This is why I wrote above that the starting questions are similar and I also hope to have given some answers to those questions. Guild Wars can become extremely boring and repetitive if taken from a mmorpg perspective. But the real reason (and aside the flaws I’ve pointed out) is that the PvE here doesn’t exist “alone”. There’s a major role of the PvP and the PvE should become a positive and fun diversion, like a Neverwinter Night module to download and play. Plug&play. But in a persistent (character-persistent) world. Just a day ago the PvP game has changed and it’s now possible to gain experience points by fighting directly opponents. This means that the game will offer different advancement paths. Possibilities to follow and balance after personal choices. The strong tactical approach to the combat system will strongly incentivate the players to build tight and organized guilds of experienced players. Where “experienced” isn’t equal to “catass”. The skill to deal with the strategical depth will be the difference and not the amount of time invested. This alone will offer the perfect environment for PvP bettlefields. On this front there’s a lot more they can build and expand. Interesting possibilities will be about building more complex PvP environments involving even more than two groups. Perhaps integrating various “stages” and goals to accomplish like the “assault” mode in UT2004. The game has a good basis. An important role will be how they manage the updates and the cash flow. Considering that we can already download a minimal client and get all the rest streamed directly to the hard disk, I hope that the model will be followed at release. Let me do the same. Transform the client -directly- into a shop. Let me buy directly from it the expansions that will be released and register them into my account, like it happens with Valve’s Steam. I really hope they’ll go the way of small, frequent publish at a reduced cost. The complete amount of money to have everything always active shouldn’t be more than what we pay monthly for mmorpg. Then, regularly, pack those mini-updates together and release them to the real shops as full expansions. Relying completely on the standard distribution will be a silly limit for this game at this point. The end result could be really awesome. A game for a quick fun that is able to join the pros of different styles of games.
It’s obvious that it will lose many core elements of a mmorpg but it will also be able to erase many problems. No downtimes to begin with, no timesinks. An already basically balanced environment for PvP. And the absence of a monthly fee that will make an account always open and valid. This isn’t a major “pro” because we won’t pay 15$ a month. This is a pro because you’ll be always able to log in and check the updates. You won’t have to pay again to peek inside, instead you will be able to buy the update *after* checking if you still like the game. For them the game becomes a system to deliver ongoing quality content. For the players it becomes a theme park always open but where you still have to pay to experience the new attractions. This is why they have an ideal model to gather the best from both parts, PvP and PvE. The PvP will provide system-based fun. The kind of fun that never feels old and boring because the tactical challenge of a PvP battlefield is unmatched. This system can live on its own with an endless longevity. The same longevity of a successful game like Conterstrike, with a lot more depth due to the strategy. The PvE will provide handcrafted and, hopefully, quality content to experience with a tight group of friends, following a less obsessive pace and relying the competitiveness to the PvP aspect only.
If done right it’s a winner. Both as a game with its own merits and as a commercial success. With this “world preview” they demonstrated that they have all the requirements to “deliver”. We’ll see how it goes.
Since I hate when I cannot hide the UI to go fullscreen, I’ve taken just one nice panorama-screenshot.