Guild Wars Preview Weekend

So after hearing some of the chatter from guildmates and here at Grimwell Online regarding Guild Wars, I decided to hop into the free demo weekend that was held October 29-31.

Downloading the client was simple and quick, and on the default settings, the game looked good. The streaming content (one of the features) didn’t seem to take especially long to download to my system at all, even during US prime time hours. As Tobold has already mentioned in his excellent write-up, each area of the game is instanced into districts. You can tell at a glance which district you are in by looking at the location box in the upper left corner of the screen. The information is there if you choose to use it, without being intrusive or hidden away in some obscure submenu. 

Character creation is simple and quick. There is one twist on the usual MMORPG character creation formula – you are automatically a “hybrid” character, having to choose a primary and secondary class. There’s no way to pick the same class twice either; once you pick your primary, that class is removed from the secondary list. This opens up some interesting combinations, such as a necromancer/monk or a warrior/elementalist.

Each class is also identifiable by the clothes they wear. For example, my necromancer/elementalist wore black and red leather, while my ranger/monk wore leathers in earth tones. And except for the female elementalist, all the women were completely dressed. No mini-skirts, gravity defying half tops and panty shots that I got from my last game, Lineage II.

Other than picking face and hair color/style, there is nothing else to do to make a character. No stats to adjust, no clothes to pick out, no weapons (you are armed at the beginning of the tutorial), nothing. Other than selecting a name (which has to be at least 2 separate words), this is the quickest I’ve ever created a character. As fun as I found playing with the different facial options in EQ2, other than at the character selection screen, it didn’t make any difference because I couldn’t see it. Choosing a “face” as opposed to picking out “facial features” just makes sense in so many ways, as long as there are plenty of options.

The user interface took a bit of getting used to, but it is actually pretty intuitive for someone that has not read up on the game mechanics. Little blue button on left side of screen – click! Out slides the character windows, 4 screens tabbed into one window. Each screen is also available via a hotkey, which are pretty easy to read. However, the specific character information is a bit unclear in some ways.

Your character is called a Hero. Not bad, per se, just different. Also, there is no paper doll as many gamers are used to. To find out what items you have equipped, you look in the items screen and anything your character is wearing has a checkmark in the upper left corner of the box and the item background is a different color. There didn’t seem to be anything to tell you how many items you can wear, or if jewelry is available for bonuses (I didn”t see any jewelry drop while I was playing, so perhaps not).

The skill/spell bar is along the bottom edge of the screen, and it’s fixed there as far as I could tell. You only have eight slots to use – period. No switching to another quickbar to use other skills, no rearranging things as you go along. The only time you can change what is in your quickslots is when in one of the main towns (Lion’s Gate for example). It’s limiting in a way, but since the majority of the missions are either repeatable or have specific goals, you really don’t need to play around with things that often.

Not only can you acquire new spells/skills through training, you can raise your skill level in an area (say, death magic for a necro) by using ability points at any time. The necro spells that I saw available for training weren’t the usual “Spell A level 1”, “Spell A level 2”, etc. that is usually found in games. Each spell is based on a school. So for example, raising your ability in death magic raises your skill with a spell, and opposed to just buying another level of the spell. It reminds me of the skill system from AC1, where your ability in a certain area is solely based on how many skill points you have spent. I felt that the ability point system gave me a bit more control over my character development, even if only superficially in the long run.

Back to the interface, one thing that I did not like was the inability to move any of the windows; they are all locked to their locations. The group window seems out of place to me. I kept trying to see if I could move it someplace out of my way, but I never succeeded. This is a pretty minor quibble, however.

For the demo weekend, there was a quick tutorial to get a weapon and some directions from the friendly local guard (the one with an exclamation mark over his head, showing he was a quest giver), and off you were sent. Players were immediately introduced to mobs of their level (for the demo, characters started at level 15, for retail the word is levels 1-50). Combat was simple, but not totally brainless. There is an auto-attack of course, which can be interrupted by skills attacks. Monsters attack the local villagers (whom you can help save) and each other, and you can sometimes come along and finish off the victor after he’s finished off the loser.

Another aid to combat and exploration is the radar. This is similar to the AC1 radar, meaning that it shows monsters, group members and NPCs. An overlay of the map on the radar gives an idea of the lay of the land. The radar also turns so that whatever direction you are facing is at the top. There is a bright circle of white centered on your radar dot, demarcating the aggro area for your character. There is a slightly larger circle that seems to be your visible area, and that larger area helps you discover the world map.

The world map can be zoomed and panned, but until you have actually crossed the land in question, all you see is a fog with vague details. When you are ported to a new city or mission area, that spot becomes a pin on your map. Once these pins appear on your map, you can then look at them and port directly to the city instead of crossing the whole distance by foot (if you even can do that at all). Looking at the map while on a mission shows a red dotted line along your path showing exactly where you’ve been, even if you have been walking in circles. It’s nice that you can’t see everything at a glance; you need to explore the area before the map details are visible. Although I’m sure that eventually there will be a complete map posted for everyone to see.

This isn’t a solo-friendly game. Several of the missions are cooperative ones, meaning you need a group. People waiting in a city zone to begin a mission are easily visible, and at a glance, it’s easy to tell what sort of character they are (besides what they are wearing, which may be much less easily determined in retail). Over each player’s head, instead of seeing their name, you see abbreviations for their class and level. Clicking on the person gives you their name (and guild if they belong to one). So you see people standing around that are W/M17, N/E16 or R/M20. This gives the basics of the character without allowing you full knowledge. (In contrast, in EQ2 inspecting a person allows you to see their level and every bit of equipment they are currently wearing!).

So being required to have a group to complete a mission isn’t very friendly to those who don’t want to be part of random pickup groups. Never fear! There are (single class) henchmen standing around, just waiting to be recruited. Now you can have a group, and still play by yourself! It’s a rather novel idea, and I did a few missions both ways – in a henchman group and in a pickup group. Both seemed the same to me (except that the healers only had me to target first if needed in a henchman group), because except for a few cases, people in groups didn’t talk. Since the missions are so straightforward, there really isn’t any need to discuss anything. Head into the zone, kill the mobs, speak to the NPC at the end and you’re done. Simple, really.

And despite all that, I enjoyed myself. There was no stressing about leveling. All I had to do was jump in and play the game. Maybe it won’t be that easy come retail, since all I got was a small taste of the game over three days, but I’m hoping that doesn’t change. I didn’t feel like there was a rush to level, or that I would be falling behind if I didn’t try to grind something.

A few things I didn’t get to try were the PvP arena, the guild arena and any sort of crafting at all. Crafting I don’t miss. No matter how many times I attempt to check out crafting and see how things work, I just can’t stomach the whole process and give up. I’m great at managing supply chains and items for crafters, but doing the actual crafting work myself, forget it.

I wish I had hung out at the PvP arenas a bit longer than I did, however, because I would have liked to have tried it out. PvP is consensual, but even so, you are still pitting your skills against someone else’s. I can enjoy that. Yes, full out PvP would be great, but I can get that from other MMOGs such as AC1 or WoW once it comes out. For something quick and fun to play for short bursts, I can see myself enjoying GW a lot.

I hope that the devs continue to have these demo weekends for people to jump in and get a taste of the game. For a game that is still in closed beta (I believe), the game ran very smoothly, the streaming wasn’t a disruption at all (only a few cases of rubberbanding) and it acted more like a game ready for release than one that still reportedly has almost 4 months to go. Right now, I’m planning on picking Guild Wars up at release, because everyone needs a game they can just jump into and play for fun. 

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