Last year Guild Wars took the MMORPG genre and shook it by the lapels, by taking all of the things you knew about traditional MMORPGs and chucking them out of the window. No more spawn queues for quest monsters, no more grinding, just instanced, co-operative fun with friends, and most importantly, no monthly fee, offering a genuine alternative to the more orthodox charms of World of Warcraft.

NCsoft was able to revolutionise the way in which people play MMORPGs by rethinking the way in which it would integrate new content into the game world. Rather than charging an off-putting monthly fee the company planned to release new content in a form more familiar to those who play offline games: expansion packs. Guild Wars: Factions>em>>em>em> is the first of these game expansions. Rather interestingly, Guild Wars: Factions can be played as a standalone product, meaning that you don't need to have bought Guild Wars to play Factions. This is a novel approach that is no doubt intended to bring more players to the game, though it does have one disadvantage. If you do not own Guild Wars, but purchase Factions, you will not be able to access the original Prophesies campaign content, and vice versa. However, if you do own Guild Wars and purchase Factions as well, your characters will be able to travel between both campaign worlds.

The Factions campaign itself is set on an Asian-styled continent called Cantha, and (as the title implies) the story revolves around a conflict between two warring factions, the Luxon and the Kurzick. Player guilds can form alliances to side with one of these two factions, and then engage in alliance battles, the result of which will give the victorious alliance control over towns and unlock elite-level cooperative quests.

Assassin line-dancing is very popular in Cantha

As you will see from the screenshots, the Asian flavour of the graphics is little short of spectacular. Guild Wars was always an aesthetically striking title, and Factions is even more so. Similarly lavish attention has been paid to the animations for the two new character professions: Ritualist and Assassin. Ritualists are wizard-types that commune with the spirit world to unleash all manner of fiendish spectres upon their enemies - their bodies contorting and twisting sinuously, like a coiling serpent, as they conjure up phantom apparitions to do their bidding. Assassins are more conventional fantasy role-playing characters, and rely on swift, precise attacks to dispatch their foes. Both professions should prove very popular, especially with more social types who enjoy dancing in the communal areas. Female Ritualists in particular have some very sensuous moves. I was able to give both of the new professions a test drive during the recent beta event, and both certainly seem to bring something new to the game.

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to have a hands-on at any great length during weekend beta event, due to some spectacular lag issues (thanks to the world and his wife wanting to try out the game for themselves), but from what I played, everything I loved about the core dynamics of the original game still seem intact. With a plethora of new skills, areas to explore, items and character customisation options to go along with the two new professions, plus several new game types (including the aforementioned Alliance Battles and Elite co-op missions), there's no reason to conclude that Guild Wars: Factions will be anything but as successful and as popular as its predecessor.