Tuesday, August 28, 2012

A fond farewell to Guild Wars

Sometimes when a game shows up, it burns bright, fizzles and fades. One play through is all you're prepared to give it. It may be that the game is so bad it doesn't deserve it, like the Homefront campaign. It may be that the game is so good that you don't want to play it a second time because it may sully the memory of the first. A case could be made to just not bother. I'm talking about games like KOTOR1&2, Crysis2, Bioshock, CoD4 and pretty much every Zelda Game.
There are are games that stick around in the public mind for a little longer, these are games "with legs". Hugely succesful, they become part of gaming history. Or have many expansions, a dedicated fanbase that makes mods, total conversions and questionable fan art. Good examples would be the Civilization series, Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, Assassins Creed, Mass Effect. All these are nominees for becoming even greater, if the studio that made them is able to keep the quality up.
And then there are games "with wings". I'm talking about juggernauts such as Mario, Call Of Duty MP, the Sims, Starcraft, Counter Strike, Team Fortress 2 and World Of Warcraft. I have high hopes of the the Mass Effect Franchise becoming this big too. But there is another particularly close to my heart: Guild Wars.

Perhaps a juggernaut with a smaller footprint compared to the others in my little line-up here, but ArenaNet isn't known for touting statistics as much as the others. And as such they seem very casual about their place in the PC games market, leaning against the wall of the MMO niche, looking the other way while Blizzard shouts its coiffured head off selling plushes. No, Anet goes about its business talking mostly to their community rather than the press.
At the time of writing this, GW2 is in it's headstart period and people are playing the game. But GW2 got announced for what seems like a decade ago. The only thing us fans would hear about it afterwards was when the game's release got postponed. And we were fine with that for one good reason: the first Guild Wars was, still is, pretty damn amazing.

GW2 got announced for what seems like a decade ago. The only thing us fans would hear about it afterwards was when the game's release got postponed. And we were fine with that for one good reason: the first Guild Wars was, still is, pretty damn amazing.

My own active Guild Wars career started when it was launched and lasted right up until after a few weeks when the Eye Of The North expansion was released. This long period included the Factions and Nightfall chapters. I got quite successful as a PVP player, got some name recognition, and as a guild we earned quite a bit of notoriety on the world ranking.
It ended when real life started its inescapable conquest on my spare time. Now it all seems like a lifetime ago. Games are still in the forefront of my mind. But my perspective on Guild Wars has barely shifted. It holds up, It's still a great game.

When I first saw the game I was expecting it to sound like a Korean brand of J-pop. But when I finally dove in, it sounded like Vivaldi. I run the risk at this point to sound like a bad observer, I mean to say that the quick, fluid gameplay and "limited skill bar" mentality, at first sight, belied the depth and elegance of the systems in place. This really was a game and a really well-made one too, more defined by its limitations than its liberties. No screen filled with skill bars, no open world, only 20 levels of progression. Paradoxically, this "less is more" approach gave this game a clear lead over other MMOs. In Guild Wars, you really needed to think hard about your skill lineup, adapting your character to certain challenges. It made all the difference. And that's what the community did. Builds were invented, weaknesses and strengths exploited. This led to a very dynamic metagame, where builds would be balanced and countered by other builds. Not one build was ever able to ruin a class, or by extension: the game.
In contrast, the more classical MMOs would allow the player to use just about every skill on a class, transforming the HUD into what looks like the worst windows desktop. When the 50 onscreen skills were either on cooldown or useless in the situation, the only thing to really do was to use the first one to become available regardless of the tactical situation. Discouraging strategic play where you would ideally use every skill only when the time is right.
Guild Wars' closed world was made out of player owned instances, in which you could take other people, that changed according to your actions or active quests. The opposite from the classical MMO, where everyone shares the same unchanging game world - which makes them feel more like a theme park rather than a large living world.
Another aspect that sets Guild Wars apart from its kin is the ability to build a party. Nightfall introduced customizable Heroes to the game. Now you could add up to 7 more "builds" to your group, directed by you, but controlled by the AI. It felt so very close to that other classic Sacrifice. Of course you had to give them weapons and upgrade their armor. But this was another opportunity to show some prestige. Some of you may remember that I really love playing party based RPGs, because it allows for some strategy to get into the game plan. In this case it reinforced thinking about builds, but taken to a higher level. A party also avoids the situation where one "skeleton key" character needs to be able to solve every situation. This last issue could crop up in Guild Wars 2, but for now, I'm optimistic.
I have to keep this post short but let me dig up another pet peeve of MMOs, Guild Wars didn't split PVE and PVP. Top tier armor was equal across the board. When you had a PVE character (able to also play the story) you had to buy, collect or craft your armors, weapons and mods as per usual, with the added bonus that you could look really cool. But when you made a PVP character (standard at lvl 20 restricted to pvp zones) you could just unlock everything (skills, weapons, armor, runes, heroes, ...) as you played.
SWtoR, in contrast, infuriated me by putting both PVP and PVE on a separate gear track. Doubling the notorious grind that makes the genre so dull to play.
Not so with Guild Wars which had almost no grind to speak of. Sure, you could grind resources, but to get good drops you had to go in alone, and really outsmart the gameplay systems. One such clever player-made innovation was the 55 monk - nearly unkillable without enchantment removal or life steal skills. But rather then nerfing the skills and class, Anet updated the farming spots with smarter AI and a few tweaks. They even embraced the ingenuity of players by making one of the NPC henchmen a 55 monk in a tournament. Which really underlines the generous mindset of the developer. In my mind this is what happens when a company doesn't need to suck a monthly fee out of people. I approve.

Arenanet embraced the ingenuity of players by making one of the NPC henchmen a 55 monk in a tournament. Which really underlines the generous mindset of the developer. In my mind this is what happens when a company doesn't need to suck a monthly fee out of people.

The quality of the game went way up with every expansion, "expand-alones" in practice, because they were even more well-made. Not only did the art-style become more pronounced and interesting, the addition of better PVP modes, balancing, and endgame areas made the whole package much more appealing to keep playing.
Guild Wars factions had unique interpretations of Japan and China, added a forest turned to stone and a sea turned to Jade inhabited by two warring factions (and a focus on pvp combat). Guild Wars Nightfall took us from fantasy Egypt, fantasy Africa and a version of 1001 nights straight into the nightmare of a mad god, which held it's own twisted interpretation of said lands - the realm of Torment.
The Eye Of The North took us back to the original continent and started setting up the scene for a sequel. Here's where I picked up the thread, where my recent trip into nostalgia began but more of this later. Anet added even more post-game quest lines on top of the original game with Beyond.

Not too long ago, GW2 finally got its release date. And with it came the promise of a slew of rewards for longtime Guild Wars Fans, through the Hall Of Monuments. An in-game time capsule that connects your GW1 characters with their descendants in the new game. The tasks placed before the rewards are, to say the least, challenging. And rightly so, there shouldn't be an easy way to sum up, what should be, years of gaming.
Nevertheless, after a 5 year hiatus, I rose to the challenge to fill up my Hall Of Monuments. Luckily, I was on the cusp of getting this title, or that item, or about to craft this armor. So I got the job done in a couple of weeks of casual play. This would have been quicker if it weren't for the fact that titles were only introduced quite a while after I originally started playing. The rules were a bit stricter back then too.
Though now I'm all set to play the sequel. The little samples I took away from the beta tests were enough to get me hyped to the point I can safely say this has become my most anticipated game in years. So why am I not playing during the headstart periods? Because I pre-ordered the Collectors Edition from a local store that had no idea a headstart existed. So I'll be waiting like the rest of us sad saps who still place trust in retailers, and will be among the noobs all over again on release day.
I wondered about that and I should be relatively well off given the fact that I have played the original for a staggering 2413 hours, with 962 on my main character. Don't think too much on that number, it will make your head spin. It did with me. After I typed the /age command as part of a gag with a friend, I had to take a small break. My character just stood there, reflecting on its life. Next to it, its merry band of heroes started a small party, dancing and playing the guitar, as they do.

It was thinking. We had some fun times, didn't we?

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