Monday, May 08, 2006

Guild Wars Factions

I have been playing an excessive amount of Guild Wars: Factions lately. GW was a groundbreaking MMORPG developed by Arenanet for NCsoft, although some people have argued that the massive and multiplayer in that acronym do not truly reflect GW. This is due to the fact that GW does not really have a persistent world such as the one you would find in World of Warcraft. Instead, players connect with each other in various towns and cities, group together, and then head off into an instance to adventure, kill enemies, collect loot, and finish quests. Each city is a portal to the rest of the world, all of which is instanced, including both the PVE (player vs. environment, where the monsters roam) and PVP (player vs. player - where that 12 year old who just hacked your head off roams).

GW is noteworthy for a few things besides the large amount of instancing. For one thing, there is no monthly fee, which is almost unhead of in MMORPGS these days. Arenanet will attempt to release full price expansions every six months to generate revenue to support this. This lack of monthly fees is also one of the reasons why there is so much instancing in the game as it is simply cheaper to produce instanced content than it is to produce a persistent world. In addition, each expansion is fully playable by itself, meaning you could pick up the first expansion, Factions, without ever having purchased the original game. Of course you cannot access all of the content present in the original, but it does open up the option for demoing the game without having to purchase all previous expansions.

GW is also noteworthy for the exquisite graphics found in the game, which are very lifelike, unlike the cartoony graphics found in WoW.

I find the most interesting thing about GW to be none of the above elements. Instead, it is the absolute freedom to construct your character however you want that has both drawn me to, and kept me playing, GW. I'm a big fan of freedom in games as I attested to in an earlier post. Unlike WoW, where your character class completely defines how you play the game (I played an Orc Hunter to Lvl 45) GW allows the the player unprecedented freedom in how you play. One of the biggest differences between the two games is how skills are used. In WoW, there are a large set of skills to use, most of which are useless 95% of the time. In GW, there is also a large set of skills to choose from, but you can only bring 8 at any one time into an instance. This forces you to specialize, but it also allows a great deal of freedom in how you play your character. This may seem counterintuitive, but the underlying game mechanic is brilliant.

Each character class in GW has a set of main branching skillsets, usually around 4. The primary attribute is specific to the class, while the rest can be used by any secondary class. In GW you can have both a primary and secondary class, which means you have access to the primary skillset, and all other skills from your primary class, and the rest of the skills from your secondary class, which means you have 7-9 different skillsets. From these skillsets (around 150 in Prophecies, and up to 180 with the addition of Factions) you choose 8 specific skills. Each branching skillset has a linked attribute, which typically increases the power of skills in each skillset. Practically this means you can only pump up the attributes from 2-4 skillsets at any one time although you can freely alter the attribute levels for your character when you are in any portal (town, city, outpost) for free. In WoW, however, it costs increasing amounts of gold to respec, and you typically only have one primary, and one secondary skill tree. The amount of freedom is extremely limited in WoW as you cannot just play around with the skill tree, and there really are not that many different ways you can play your class. These dual barriers made WoW exceptionally dull to me.

Let's take a healer, for example. In WoW, the priest's only job is to heal and that's it. In GW, the monk can be a healer, a protector, or a smiter (damage dealer). There are many different ways of achieving each of these three types, and players constantly reshuffle their skills and attributes to find a way of playing that they are comfortable with. When you add in the secondary skillsets, then the amount of possible combinations becomes mind-blowing, and players delight in finding new and creative mixes to try out (check out the skill descriptions at gwonline). As a specific example, I could decide I want to be a smiter, using 5 skills from the smiting line, and then add some skills from the Mesmer class which allow me to regain energy, thereby allowing me to cast more spells more frequently and increasing the damage output of my character. If I find that I didn't like the way the character played I can rezone to the nearest portal (or any town on the map) and respec my character, say switching the Mesmer skills out for some protection ones from the monk, thereby allowing me to live longer. It's completely up to each player, although I think this causes those who want a step-by-step set of instructions on how to play a great deal of consternation (you know the type, those who post on the forums without reading a single FAQ or article asking for the "best" character, or the "best" skills to play). For those who don't want to think, go play WoW, for those that do, play GW.

On a sidenote, the Factions expansion pack has a distinctly Asian feel to it. That may have something to do with the large audience NCsoft has in the Korean market as reported at Next Generation. It will be intriguing to see where Anet goes with the next expansion packs, which are reportedly being worked on concurrently, with two development teams leapfrogging each other on expansions. Will we see a more typical fantasy setting or something more exotic?

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