Guild Wars

Upon first 'waking up' in Ascalon of Guild Wars, I was flabbergasted! Now THIS was one gorgeous, beautiful virtual world! Truly, it took my breath away.

I immediately dove into the game, developing my character and following the various quests. The game has some nice differences from other roleplaying games, most good and a few, more a matter of individual taste. Your character can train, eventually, in two different classes; one of them intended to support the other. Your battle abilities are limited in number: Prior to a mission, you have to choose carefully which abilities you are planning on equiping; the others won't be available until you return.

If you play solo, or don't feel like gambling on a typical 'pickup group', you can select computerized 'henchmen' to join you as members of your adventure party. The battle controls are intuitive and easy to use, and your character, once battle begins, will fight automatically to some degree, freeing you up to use your 'special abilities'

So here I am, thoroughly enjoying myself, leveling my character, merrily traipsing and fighting my way through monsters in this incredibly gorgeous virtual world...

And then came the Searing. The enemy beasts known as the 'Charr' found magickal mojo and literally pull massive asteroids of fire from the sky...

This beautiful world is suddenly completely devastated, and very intensely Ugly with a capital 'U'. The city of Ascalon is nearly gone, just a few buildings and walls. The sky is red, everywhere, and filled with soot. Even the monsters are nastier, tougher, and a lot smarter in battle than they once were! Talk about a virtual 'Culture Shock'...

Having said that, eventually as your character continues to progress, you'll find yourself wandering into less red, less sooty areas. But the magic of the original Ascalon is gone and lost forever (Until you reach Canthra possibly), and I guess that was the idea. It filled you with a pretty awesome sense of loss and dread, and gave your character something to strive for.

Guild Wars, after three additional content enhancements, is massive. New game play mechanisms have been added as well, including the ability to employ trainable, somewhat permanent henchmen as part of your party. The graphics, even in the most dangerous of areas, is downright gorgeous. Battle is top-notch, and takes a lot of careful observation and skill to excel at.

The cities and towns are shared with other residents of the virtual world, but the missions are 'instanced', meaning that once you set foot outside of town, you and your party are alone in this virtual universe. This can be a good thing, a lot of times: No one will lie in wait til your battle is done, swoop down, slaughter you, and pick the corpses of your enemies clean of loot. But it also diminishes a lot of possible interaction and roleplaying possibilities, at the same time.

Community is stronger in Guild Wars than in most online games. Guilds predominate and are everywhere, and even in the 'player vs player' groups, roleplay and socialization is very active. My one overriding complaint with the game is with group play: Certain of the character classes available rely on skill sets that demand near constant, non-stop, pell mell combat. Roleplayers tend to be frustrated by this: You can't engage in one battle and pause to reflect on your victory because some necromancer yahoo in your group is in a hell-bent hurry to speed on to the next battle before his zombie minions rot away on him...