MMORPGs, for various reasons, can prove themselves extremely difficult to review. Firstly, much of such games' enjoyability is dependant upon the community of players it attracts; secondly, garnering enough experience of such vast worlds to pass judgement upon them necessitates a great deal of time investment; and thirdly, each is usually so similar to its peers that it can be difficult to draw significant distinction. Guild Wars, however, has never for a moment been a chore. In fact, it's my favourite game in the MMORPG genre. Guild Wars casts off many of the traditional frustrations and faults of the traditional monotonous multiplayer monster-basher and presents us with an elegant, story-driven, very individual experience, despite it being shared with thousands of other players, and, possibly most incredibly of all, you only have to pay once for the experience. No monthly fees, no irksome drain on your pay check - just a single one-off thirty pound payment will have you happily paid up for as long as you care to spend time in the game.
A word of warning for fledgling MMORPG players attracted by Guild Wars' one-off payment system; these games eat away at your life (in the best possible way, of course). Suddenly every hour you would have spent watching TV or browsing the Internet becomes Guild Wars time. This addiction factor may be characteristic of the genre, irrespective of the game involved, but Guild Wars effectively capitalises upon it. A quick twenty-minute quest quickly becomes two or three, or leads the player into an hour-long mission. The delicious urge to explore will often have you peeking into the misty unknown regions of the map, searching for some secret nugget of promise hidden deep within a swamp or at the edge of a forest. Do not purchase this game unless you have an awful lot of free time on your hands.
Now that this caveat has been put in place, and I can go on to wax lyrical about all the reasons I love Guild Wars without having to deal with the guilt of leading unwitting MMORPG virgins into a life of voluntary slavery to a screen for a few months, I'll start with the obvious; the story. Though it's very difficult for anyone to make perfect sense of Guild Wars' lore, even those as well-acquainted with the game as I am after several weeks of intensive play, a basic outline of the story should help to set the game in context. The player begins in green and beautiful Ascalon, your fairly staple fantasy-city-on-the-brink-of-disaster fare. Having spent a few lovely hours gallivanting around the pretty countryside and slaying foul adversaries, a sudden attack from furry fiends named the Charr takes the city by surprise and leaves it little more than a pile of smoking ruins. It is here that the adventure really begins. Driven by your desire to avenge Ascalon and serve what remains of it, your chosen character starts off with the intention of marching out into the world to take on all comers and defeat the murderous Charr. This quest will take you all over the continent as the story develops and your priorities change according to a beautifully developed, elegant, and occasionally affecting plotline which, though nothing hugely extraordinary, is one of the more accomplished videogame fantasy stories out there. Things move at a slow pace, but this serves only to add to the realism of the story - it's a slow struggle, and it really feels as if your character has a personal and fundamentally important hand in proceedings.
Now that you should have a basic outline of the game in mind, I think the best way to explain exactly why Guild Wars is so brilliant is by comparing it to others in its genre and explaining exactly how it overcomes their difficulties. Guild Wars is something of a pioneer, incorporating many new and relatively un-tested features into its formula (including, of course, the convenience and comparative inexpensiveness of a one-off payment, the advantages of which cannot be stressed enough). And so, kind reader, I apologise in part for the very personal aspect which this review is about to take on; I hope that it will serve to illustrate the game's universal virtues.
Thing I Hate About MMORPGs, Number One: Not enough choice. Often, these seemingly open-ended games set you on a tramline of quests to complete and levels to achieve and people to find within the gameworld, leaving the gamer with relatively little independence. In Guild Wars, you never feel restricted. You can explore pretty much as far as you want without anything restricting you save your character's abilities - which I may add here, are more important than his level. There is a huge selection of non-essential 'quests' which earn you nice items and a decent amount of experience, but you don't have to do any or all of them - you can choose the ones you'd like. Similarly, there's sufficient choice in your character's appearance, weapons, armour and everything else to give you a real attachment to your little protagonist - you won't see everyone of the same level running around with the same sword, the same armour and the same hairstyle. What's more, with Guild Wars, you can play either PvP or PvE - meaning that the average gamer's lust for one-on-one deathmatches does not go unaddressed, and that exploring the world at your leasure in PvE earns valuable skills for your PvP character.