ArenaNet opens pre-orders this Friday for its first true expansion pack to the Guild Wars series, Eye of the North. At E3 last week we talked to ArenaNet Co-Founder Jeff Strain about the expansion, what it adds, it's focus on PvE dungeon crawls and how it acts as a bridge to Guild Wars 2.
NCSoft (publisher) / ArenaNet (developer)
Article by Dana Massey
Guild Wars has stubbornly refused to be classified. Is it an MMO? Some say yes, ArenaNet says it's a CRPG, and fans argue until everyone's fingers bleed. What about each release, are they full games or expansion packs? ArenaNet calls them standalone products and they do in fact work without previous versions, but they've also announced a sequel in Guild Wars 2. If each edition of Guild Wars is not an expansion and is not a sequel, what are they? Who knows! What we do know is that at E3 this year we saw "Eye of the North" and that is most definitely an expansion pack.
For the box dwellers out there, Guild Wars is a massively successful online RPG launched by developers ArenaNet and publisher NCSoft in April of 2005. It uses RPG mechanics and is set in a fantasy world - much like 99% of MMORPGs out there - but its heavy use of instancing and PvP arena-based combat bent make it non-traditional. It also has absolutely no monthly fee. Once someone buy's the box they're good to go.
A year later, the company put out Guild Wars Factions, which is a stand alone product set in the same universe. The two games work together like an expansion pack, but can also be played separately. Guild Wars Nightfall, the second "sequel-spansion", came in October of last year and worked just like Factions.
Fast forward to E3 and the team now hawks Guild Wars Eye of the North. This one requires that the player own either Guild Wars or either of its "sequel-spansions" to play. The team felt they'd added a lot of content and it was time to go back and really flesh out what they'd built, rather than piling more pieces on the Jenga tower. Beyond that, they also hope to use this expansion as a bridge between Guild Wars and the upcoming Guild Wars 2.
"[Eye of the North] is a fan service expansion," Jeff Strain, one of ArenaNet's Co-Founders told us during the demonstration. They went back to the start, their initial release, and started fixing things, expanding them and making them more complete. Their fans didn't want to start new classes, they wanted to improve those characters they had. The combination of this philosophy and the actual business model of the expansion make it clear that they're not kidding. This is not about new players, it's about the ones they have.
The expansion also lets them address a core weakness of the franchise: PvE dungeon crawls. In Eye of the North they've put a big emphasis on the PvE elements of the game, so much so that they've introduced 50 PvE only skills. These skills have no PvP value whatsoever and are not intended for use there. Instead, they're intended to be used on some of the 18 new dungeons the expansion introduces.
As they re-examined the current professions, ArenaNet found room for 150 new skills, which include the 50 PvE only skills. They also packed in 40 new armors and 10 new Heroes.
Heroes were introduced in Nightfall. They're essentially AI minions, not unlike what Perpetual Entertainment plans to use in Gods and Heroes. Players find these unique personalities around the world and can then hire them on to join them in PvE adventure. One of the main goals here is to allow rich group play without necessitating the time commitment of actually finding one.
The ten new Heroes include characters from two races that will become playable in Guild Wars 2. The Asura are a goblin-esque race (Strain kept calling them Goblins by accident) that had previously lived exclusively underground. They're magical, intelligent and cute in that Dobby from Harry Potter kind of way. Fans of the franchise get this chance to preview them and decide whether they want to look at the back of one's head in GW2.
The Char are a more familiar dog-like race to fans of the original Guild Wars. They were at one time the game's primary bad guy, but in Eye of the North, some of them are happy to serve at the player's side. These big, intimidating creatures will also be playable in Guild Wars 2.
Eye of the North also introduces the Norn, a large semi-giant race that ArenaNet also plans to make playable in Guild Wars 2. In Eye of the North though, players need to adventure into their lands quite frequently. Strain would not tell us one way or the other whether they'd be available as Heroes.
In the new areas of Guild Wars: Eye of the North, players learn the stories of the new or reworked races and can curry their favor through missions and even unique mini-games. For example, the Norn have an arena combat game. There, players engage in single combat with famous NPCs they've met previously in their Guild Wars career. If the player wins, they gain favor with the Norn.
The Assura mini-game is a little more complex. Strain described it as "like Chess". The player and his band of Heroes line up one at a time on a pedestal and lob things at an enemy, who does the same. As each character goes down, they're replaced by the next in line. The first one to kill all their opponent's enemies in this fashion wins and makes the Assura proud. How's this like chess? Well, unlike the combat of the Norn game, it's rather tactical. The choice of "pieces" is important and much of the combat asks the player to thwart their enemy's attacks rather than just do the best DPS.
Visually, this is an expansion, so it still looks like Guild Wars, but they have upped the ante.
"Eye of the North is going to easily be our best looking game yet," Strain noted. The areas did look bigger, prettier and more polished, as one would expect from the most recent release in a two-and-a-half year old game.
MMO sequels are always a dangerous thing - as SOE learned with EverQuest II - and ArenaNet decided to make this expansion a "bridge to Guild Wars 2". One key part of this - beyond the introduction of new playable races as Heroes - is what they've dubbed "The Hall of Monuments".
Players cannot move their characters forward from one product to the next, something that is sure to annoy people who have put years into the original game. As such, they've invented this new feature, which allows people to stockpile achievements that can then be redeemed when Guild Wars 2 launches. In EoN, the team was able to tweak what came, but in a sequel, they want to be able to completely reimagine things if necessary. Full character transfer would have limited their options in this regard. There are five shrines in each person's personal and they are as follows:
- Resilience: A collection of the high level armor sets players have earned. These can be redeemed for corresponding, if not identical sets in the sequel.
- Honor: Here the titles players earn are stored and can be redeemed.
- Fellowship: Each Hero a person has is represented in this shrine and then can be redeemed for similar, if not identical Heroes in Guild Wars 2.
- Devotion: What's a sequel without toys? The mini-toys players earn are all on display in this shrine.
- Weapons: The armory for each character shows off the badass weapons they've earned, which like the others, can be traded in for new gadgets in GW2.
The trade-ins will not be identical, but it does provide loyal players of the franchise with toys to call their own and a certain advantage out of the gate in Guild Wars 2. Beyond this bridge from one to the other though, Strain was not willing to discuss much about the sequel.
In some ways, Guild Wars Eye of the North feels like a last hurrah for the old game. With the next shiny thing on the horizon, the expansion explicitly aims to pull the old lady together and prepare her friends for the next great dance. It should be a lot of fun for those who enjoy the original game and its "sequel-spansions" and might even bring added value from people who wanted more out of the original areas and classes. It will not, however, reinvent the wheel. They're saving that for the thing they'll be talking about at next year's E3, if there is one.
Eye of the North pre-orders are available this Friday, on July 20th.
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