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.

Ascalon is only the beginning of your journey

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.

Things I Hate About MMORPGs, Number 2: Too much choice. First I must choose a character's race and class, then their profession, then their skill areas, then remember which options are relevant to me in the stats menu so I know which ones to spend level-up points on... where was I supposed to be going again? Damn this structure-less mess of a game! Which spells do what, now? What does it mean if this item is highlighted in green? Which of the eleven different weapons I have collected is properly suited to the exact enemies I am about to fight? What if my combination is misadvised and will ruin my game? Oh, to hell with this, I'm going back to bloody Sonic Mega Collection.

Not so with Guild Wars! No, your character has one of six primary professions, which determines their appearance, and can take up a secondary one at leisure, which can subsequently be totally ignored if you so wish, but allows for many diverse combinations. The stats, though still satisfactorily complex, are easy to understand, and only those relevant to your character are shown. Certain characters' abilities and skills are more complex than others, but impatient people like me can always just choose a warrior, start hitting things and to hell with any more complex avenues of opportunity. You can't make a choice which, two hours later, you realise has totally and irrevocably ruined your character. And you can have up to six of them without paying any extra, so should you wish to play through the game six times with the six different character classes, you can.

Things I Hate About MMORPGs, Number Three: One-upmanship. Mr Level 4854 over there has the ultra-rare Sword of Deathcalling and sits there looking smug all day, holding it out in front of him. You wonder if he ever gets around to doing any quests, he's so busy lording it over all the 'noobs'. Plus, that's a really nice sword, the bastard.

Firstly, in Guild Wars, there are 'only' twenty levels. Once your character gets that good, they 'ascend', and you are no longer measured by the little number next to your name. The surroundings are always perfectly suited to your character, so you won't get people of a much higher level than you consistently in your line of sight. Secondly, there are so many different possibilities with customisation and types of weapon that there's no 'ultimate' - you can pick, craft and treasure your own. Of course, there are favourites; swords are always in high demand, and the fiery dragon sword is coveted by all hot-blooded Warriors. But you can always go out adventuring and find one, for you can find anything through adventuring, or if you must rely on your fellow players, though it's never necessary, you can buy one. Players are different in Guild Wars, not better - there's so little of the traditional 'noob' culture evident here that one could almost forget it existed.

Things I Hate About MMORPGs, Number Four: There's no bloody privacy. You're constantly surrounded by other players, killing the same monsters in silence, brawling their way through to the same destination. It does somewhat ruin the euphoria of overcoming a particularly dragon-fiend if there's a queue of people behind you waiting to do the same, or if there are eleven people next to you is doing exactly what you're doing. Plus, adventuring in a party as is so often necessary occasionally gets wearing; sometimes, when that one idiot keeps running off into another group of enemies or the monk is too self-obsessed to heal anyone else, you just want to tell them all to go to hell and go out adventuring on your own.

And in Guild Wars, you can. Once you leave the 'hub' sections, the cities and temples and other locations where you and your fellow adventurers can gather for festivities, you're in your own, personal gamespace - only you and your party are there, so there are no other bloodthirsty players killing monsters a few feet away. And should you not wish to be in a party, you can go out on your own (though usually with little success), or even better, hire NPC henchmen to back you up and do your bidding, which also means you'll have best picks of the items. Sadly, later in the game, the NPC henchmen do tend to die quite horribly before you've ventured more than a few steps outside - but at least the option is there, and certainly in the game's earlier stages, it's a valid one.

Things I Hate About MMORPGs, Number Five: Ugly characters. This one might seem a bit facetious, but I'm seriously fed up of fighting alongside blue women and scary troll-beings. In Guild Wars, everybody is absolutely gorgeous, from the cute lanky long-haired Ranger with floppy hair to the butch Warrior with the buzzcut to the skinny necromancer with the Mohawk. There's a good reason why Guild Wars players tend to strip their characters and dance in their underwear upon completion of a quest, as illustrated by many of this review's screenshots (all of which, I may add, are in-game). All characters, male and female, are beautiful, and I don't care how superficial I sound by saying that this makes playing the game that bit more pleasant.

So there we have it, kind reader: Guild Wars is awesome. It's a beautiful playing experience, as well as a treat for the eyes (these screenshots from my under-specced PC don't do it justice), a technical marvel and a fantastic way to pass the time during the long summer months ahead. The fact that such a beauty of a game is practically free only adds to the reasons why everyone should play it. If you ever want live testimony or a (reasonably) friendly person to adventure with, my player name is Maes Troy - I wish you the greatest success.