The last time I tangled with Guild Wars I was reprimanded (rightly so) for calling Nightfall an expansion pack. As it happens all three of previous Guild Wars games are essentially stand-alone games, each one allowing players to access a quite different area of the Guild Wars universe. Eye Of The North meanwhile really is an expansion pack. It caters only for people who have bought either Prophecies, Factions or Nightfall, and is accessible only when you have a level twenty character.
Hitting any of the main hub cities with your level 20 opens up the expansion pack storyline. An earthquake has caused a fissure nearby, and descending into it leads you to a world of subterranean folk (dwarves dug their way under the fence from Middle Earth) which is being plagued by the aptly named "Destroyers". You help out the dwarves in their struggle against The Destroyers who are out to, er, destroy them. After a bit of forced fleeing, you head through a portal and into the North, where all kinds of adventures await.
Well, one specific kind of adventure: killing stuff with your mates, or with a party made up of heroes and henchmen. This is still one of the finest aspects of Guild Wars: the ability to head off on your own, or with just a couple of other people, with a party bolstered by NPCs. It means you can leap in and out of the storyline without having to sit around eating biscuits and typing "LFG". Also the pitched battles that large mobs, fought with a party of up to eight people, end up delivering, can be ludicrously chaotic and pretty spectacular. The north has ravaging bands of Charr (the bull/bear beasts that destroyed Ascalon back in the first Guild Wars) wandering around and the fights with them are particularly satisfying. The new lands in which you hunt and kill are also exceptionally beautiful, although quite a lot of the fighting takes place below ground - dungeons be plentiful in these mountainous areas.
Anyway, it turns out that the little girl with the flute from the open scenes of Guild Wars now lives up north and is fighting the Charr with the remnants of the blokes from Ascalon. Gwen, because that is her name, is just one of a bunch of new heroes you can get to join your band as you head out to complete any one of three main quest arcs. All of three are designed to ultimately lead you to destroy the Destroyers ("We're called Destroyers, and we get destroyed? How is that fair?") by picking up friends and chums from the forces scattered across the north. These people don't do anything without a bit of a favour being done for them, and there a loads of ways that you can pump up that faction standing with the different folks of the North. Each mission arc is quite different, and represents approximately five bajillion hours of gameplay. Yes.
More importantly, Gwen doesn't dress appropriately for the cold, and neither do the other people you'll meet, such as the twelve-foot Norn women. Norn, yes. They are are like normal people, but larger. Sort of stretched Vikings. Their legacy makes up the core quest arc (which means you get to have some beautiful giant women follow you around at one point - apparently this pleases some gentlemen) and also offer some subquests such as hunting, and fighting the Norns in an arena. But there's another reason for the Norn. The Eye Of North expansion is being used to introduce some of the races that will appear as playable folk in Guild Wars 2. This includes giant those northland men and women, as well as dwarves (you might have seen them before: the short people who live under the ground) and the Asuras. The Asuras are a mystery to me - they look a bit like mangled, flattened versions of Disney's Stitch character, and are presumably designed as the 'cute' race for Guild Wars 2. The main one wears a headband. I am not a fan.
In fact, in all honesty, I struggle to remain a fan of Guild Wars at all. I love the skill structure, and the sheer range of abilities open to you, and the character party construction, and the fact that you can play the campaigns solo, and the beautiful, world, with its beautiful people. But I still can't stand the complete lack of feedback and solidity in combat. I find myself continually irritated by the worthless way in which the game handles death. Dying does not make you want to avoid dying. Death in Guild Wars actively encourages you to give up and go and do something else - it's not right.
But I digress. If you've ascended to level twenty then you're clearly okay with all that stuff, and you'll be much more interested in what you can get out of the Eye Of The North. Well, for starters there's a big "Hall Of Monuments" thing which contains both a scrying pool via which you can watch past cinematics, and monuments to your achievements, in the form of tapestries on its walls. Then there are a bunch of new skills (around a hundred, and fifty I believe) along with new weapons, armour sets, and so on. For continued adventures and further rounding out of your character, Eye Of The North is ideal - but really we're just passing the time.
Ultimate conclusion! Offering new items, skills and other general stuff for level 20 Guild Wars players certainly justifies the lessened price tag, but I'm not sure that the overall quality of the adventures here can really be said to make this one of the more interesting outings into the Guild Wars universe. They're just not interesting enough. For example, one of the early core quests sees you hunting a bear-monster that teleports away and regenerates for what is presumably 'dramatic effect'. In fact it means that it makes no difference what you do, you can stand back and let him get hit by your henchmen and wait for the next waypoint to pop up. No matter how good you are, you won't kill him - it's in the script. And it's very dull.
Finally, the Dwarves, Norn and Asuras all seem a bit... rubbish, frankly, and I hope this doesn't mean that Guild Wars 2 is going to be heading off in ever more trad fantasy directions, because they had a good thing going.