Version tested: PC
Guild Wars is the MMO that doesn't require a subscription. What it does require is that you buy its regular standalone offerings, like Nightfall, if you want to enjoy fresh GW adventures. That ongoing experience is one of numerous instanced missions that you can play through with a handful of friends, or on your own as part of an NPC party. Opening up new regions and introducing its own new features, Nightfall ushers in another swathe of cleverly-instanced quests for Guild Wars' online adventures. This time the story-driven action takes place on a new continent, which is tinged with African folklore and populated by a lavish cast of African and Arabian characters. The new lands are, once again, exquisitely beautiful, with large, open areas and inspired African architecture. This is a large and impressive single-player expansion for Guild Wars, and it really concentrates on delivering an interesting story just as much as the last pack, Factions, concentrated on making changes to PvP.
That story hinges on the idea of an insane chief-chappie who wants to raise an evil god from his slumber and thus bring permanent darkness to the land. (Evil Tanning Salons are pleased, but the legions of Guild Wars' adventurers are less positive.) The chief's doings are, of course, leaving clues in the form of errant baddies across the land, and your tribe of righteous warriors soon realises that something is afoot. So we set out to stop him, performing dozens of incidental quests along the way, all of which leads into some impressive key battles, and even some humorous asides.
However, it's the new NPC cleverness that will really inspire a dip into the wallet. One of Guild Wars' smartest features has always been the ability to add computer-controlled henchmen to a party when you were out adventuring, allowing you to fill out your party with whatever was needed - a healer, ranged support, and so on. This idea has been taken a giant leap further with the advent of 'heroes'. While you still maintain your central character, spending his attribute points, arranging his skills and dying his armour inappropriate colours, you also now have up to three other characters that you can tinker with. These heroes are a bit like pets in another famous MMO, and they can be ordered about and given particular stances in battle, making them aggressive, protective or passive. They can even be ordered about like the henchmen, allowing you to effectively control where they go and even what abilities they have. You can equip them directly or change their weapons and armour, and you can also spend their attribute points as they level up.
Crucially, however, these heroes are also interwoven into the overall story of Nightfall, appearing in cut-scenes and even having their own goals and ambitions - all of which make sense when you understand their individual personalities. This essentially makes Guild Wars closer to the party-based RPGs of old (Baldur's Gate, etc) instead of the solo-but-with-people RPG that it had initially delivered.
The idea of Heroes is a fundamental change to the way Guild Wars' PvE sequences work, and it'll be interesting to see if/how they are used in subsequent expansions.
There are new personal professions too, including the Dervish, who wield a scythe-like weapon, and the Paragon, who is pretty mean with a javelin. Neither of these stands out particularly against Guild Wars' array of previous character archetypes, but they're nevertheless useful and beautifully designed. The dervish fella, who specialises in close-range fighting and in area-of-effect close range abilities, is the more interesting of the two (since I like to get in close). His fighting method relies on buffing up with a sequence of 'enchantments' and then burning them off to produce other effects - a little like how the paladin works in World Of Warcraft.
As usual in Guild Wars the basic bent of your profession doesn't really matter, because you can throw everything into the mix depending on your 'build'. How you set up your deck of skills will determine how you fight, and a secondary class means that you're never helpless in the face of tricky challenges. As ever, Guild Wars flexibility means that there are no 'Oh I'm not class-type X' problems that you might find in other games. Everyone can heal, everyone can fight.
Anyway, as adventures go Nightfall feels much more open than previous Guild Wars modules. While many of the quests had been tied to tightly linear the maps, the missions of Nightfall are far more open-ended. There are even occasions where you just go off and hunt, with no real aim except to level up. This seems a bit grindy, but it works when you play through the backdrop of different quests that surround it. (Some of those quests actually made me smile: ArenaNet is being playful and using the tools its game gives it to make something that really stands up as a narrative RPG.) Nightfall feels a bit more like a world than previous incarnations, and it's better for it.
For all this praise I'm heaping on Nightfall, I do have some stock grumbles with the game - most of which stem from the basic mechanics of moving around and fighting. I hate how the characters are such floaty stick-people, and I never really feel connected to what is going on, either in the questing or in the fighting. Movement annoys me and even the trading seems clunky and artificial. It bugs me that I have to learn to make such complex builds to avoid being mocked in PvP, and the skills never seem unique enough or intuitive enough for me to learn by using them: I have to read all the little descriptions. Guild Wars combat always feels weightless and fiddly and has never really made me lust for more. For all the clever instancing and excellent script-writing, it simply lacks drama on the level of the physicality for the characters. It's soft focus fantasy that never really connects - that's my problem with Guild Wars.
Of course if you don't share my vague distaste for the ambience of Guild Wars then Nightfall will probably delight you. It's easily the best expansion so far and if there's more like this to come from ArenaNet then we can expect Guild Wars to get even more popular.
It's also worth mentioning, I think, that you can now buy 'PvP unlock packs' from the Guild Wars website, so that if the competitive team-based combat is your thing you don't have to play though the narrative game to unlock all the skills. Things like this make me glad that Guild Wars exists - it's a game that really caters for what players might want, and makes sure they can get it. Obvious really, but someone had to say it.
7 / 10