10:45 PM - Come the night
It's no secret PC game development is plagued by huge problems with developers with poor project management skills being frequently pressured by publishers into shipping unpolished products. As a result, I rarely buy a game until two patches are released and even then, I read forums to get as much info as I can about potential problems before making my purchase. There are far too many games released for too many platforms for me to squander my money on a buggy game that will be poorly supported.
That said, I have full confidence in ArenaNet at this point and thus, I have no qualms about buying a Guild Wars game as soon as it's released. The gameplay has been tweaked and polished to perfection and I have faith any new bugs will quickly be fixed thanks to the company's streaming technology.
Before I get into my comments on Nightfall specifically, I have to mention three things: I'm exclusively a PvE gamer, I blitzed through the campaign's story missions and with the exception of one mission, I played with heroes and henchmen only. There's a lot I can't comment on because I was focussed on getting to the end of the story.
The game's requirements have increased but I'm happy to report I played through Nightfall with the same system I used for previous campaigns without technical problems.
I opted not to install the game from the 3 CD-ROMS in the box and chose instead to download content as and when needed. This may not have been a wise decision since downloading the numerous files necessary for each new area took much longer than I expected. ArenaNet's servers must have been hammered by gamers eager to try the new campaign during the first week because the download rates I experienced during the first few days were poor. I mention this because it could result in your party members waiting a long time while you download the thousand or so files for a mission.
The basic gameplay in Guild Wars is pretty simple but it quickly becomes complicated as you realise how complex combat can get. There's a lot to keep track of to the extent of almost overwhelming players with information.
You have to use skills, monitor your health and energy, watch what your target is doing, keep track of your party's general well-being and keep an eye on the radar to ensure the party doesn't aggro another mob. Nightfall complicates things further since players also have the ability to monitor and command up to three additional NPCs. Thankfully, you don't need to do that. (More on this later.)
The skill templates are really great. I enjoy playing with skills and builds so the ability to quickly change builds is very welcome. As the official site points out, no more waiting while another player reconfigures his character.
Right now, there's only one thing Guild Wars lacks: an auction house. I know I harp on this but I do feel an auction house would make it easier for players to make money and improve characters with suitable gear.
Guild Wars impressed me from day one with its beautiful look but I was concerned the desert areas in Nightfall would be too reminiscent of Prophecies' Crystal Desert. Fortunately, the new areas are sufficiently different to have their own appeal and the second half of the game offers some change after all that sand. There are some breathtaking sights with the city architecture standing out in particular.
I was especially delighted most of the game takes place in wide open areas as it makes exploring a lot more enjoyable than, for example, Cantha. I flat out hated the Kaineng City areas in Factions since players were hemmed in and forced to take mazy narrow routes. It was especially frustrating to look at the mini-map, take what would seem the most direct route to the destination only to find yourself in one of Kaineng City's many dead ends. I'm grateful Nightfall doesn't have that kind of irritating map design.
A time for heroes
If the factions game mechanic was meant to be the big feature of the second campaign, then heroes must surely be Nightfall's killer feature.
I prefer to play Guild Wars on my own and I've sometimes been frustrated by the limitations of henchmen so I'm delighted by the improvements heroes bring to the PvE game. These new NPCs are superior to henchmen in every meaningful way. They have personality, they're customisable and they're smarter.
There are over a dozen heroes in Nightfall and the previous campaigns have a hero each as well. There are two occassions in Nightfall when you're asked to choose between two different heroes but fear not, you'll have a chance to get the heroes you missed out on at the end of the game. You can (and I suspect you will) collect them all.
The new heroes are a lot more memorable than henchmen. Devona and Aidan have been in three Guild Wars campaigns now but I still don't have much sense of who they are. All I know of Devona is that she seems to have an Elektra complex while Aidan, well, he shoots arrows. The Nightfall heroes, on the other hand, each have distinctive personalities which will shine through during the game's cutscenes.
The biggest advantage heroes have over henchmen is customisation. You can tweak your each hero's attributes and skillbar to dramatically change how the hero performs in combat. There were a couple of occasions when I tweaked my heroes to beat a mission or foe I previously had trouble with. Without giving too much away, I was faced with impossible odds in the penultimate mission so I resigned, equipped my monk hero with Signet of Midnight, put Wild Blow on my warrior hero's skillbar and beat the mission.
You can even choose to micromanage your heroes by activating their skills for them. For instance, I had my protection monk hero cast Life Sheath and Protective Spirit on my vulnerable Mesmer before I pulled foes. For the most part, the AI for heroes is competent and you needn't babysit them although you should expect to see some odd hero moves (e.g. trying to blind a spellcaster). I'd recommend keeping hero builds as simple as possible.
Hero customisation extends to each hero's gear. Although the armour cannot be removed, the armour level does automatically upgrade as heroes level up. There's also an armour crafter specifically for heroes but I think he only provides ornate armour with the same basic stats. You can always add runes and insignias to the armour to further improve the heroes. Take note that weapons, staves and focus items don't automatically upgrade as heroes level up and you will have to find your heroes better equipment as the game progresses.
Henchmen may be completely overshadowed by heroes but they have been improved as well thanks to the go-to-flag command. You're finally able to command your henchmen to stay well behind while you pull. Take note the flag command doesn't work on allies who tag along with your party during missions and they will still insist on sticking close to you.
Heroes obey the general go-to-flag command as well but they also have individual flags that can be set separately. The upshot of this is that you can order your henchmen to stay in one spot while you go to another spot with your heroes. This ability to split the party should make missions like Thunderhead Keep and the Eternal Grove a lot easier to complete with heroes and henchmen.
There are a couple of problems with heroes you should be aware of.
Inventory space was already an issue for me before Nightfall and it's been exacerbated now because heroes don't get their own inventory space. Expect to run out of space as you start to hoard weapons, runes, inscriptions, insignias and dyes to customise your heroes. Some players are overcoming this problem by buying additional character slots for the inventory space and I hope ArenaNet will eventually make additional storage space available even if players are asked to pay for it.
I'm also disappointed heroes are character-specific rather than available to all characters on your account. It's a bit exasperating to have to level up the same heroes all over again with another character and improve them with weapons, runes and inscriptions once again. To be fair, account-wide heroes would create some game balance issues with high-level heroes powerlevelling low-level player characters.
The most disappointing thing about heroes is you can only have a maximum of three in your party. This limitation might be in place to encourage you to play with at least one other player but heroes are so super you'll wish you could have more of them in your party.
A hard night
Game-balancing Guild Wars campaigns has got to be tricky. On one hand, you've got veterans of Tyria and Cantha who've put in hundreds of hours of gaming time. On the other hand, you've got new players who've never played a Guild Wars game before. Each campaign has somehow got to be challenging enough for experienced players while being easy enough for new players. It's a delicate balancing act.
It's hard for me to gauge the difficulty for new players. I went into the game without reading anything about the missions and quests so I didn't know what to expect but I did have in my favour a fully tricked out Mesmer. For what it's worth, I found the first two-thirds of the game to be straightforward and my Mesmer, aided by henchmen, had little difficulty dispatching most mobs despite being saddled with low-level heroes.
The last third of the game was another matter. This stage of the game is challenging because some of the foes have nasty new tricks up their sleeves and some of the areas have unpleasant inherent effects. I'm a little concerned new players will find this part too difficult and might simply give up out of frustration. I suppose they could simply join experienced players. The game often reminds players "you never fight alone" and it might not simply be words of encouragement, it could be a command.
That said, experienced players shouldn't have much problems playing by themselves. I had to hook up with others for my first mission but that was only because I didn't have the hero required for it. I think Tyrian and Canthan characters get that particular hero only after that mission and I assume this was to force veterans to team up with new Nightfall characters.
On a mission
The quests and missions are all right. There hasn't been anything spectacular but a couple of quests and missions have stood out to me.
A Fool's Luck is Villainy of Galrath long and just seemed to go on forever. There's also one solo mission. Solo as in you alone. As in without any heroes and henchmen for accompaniment. But if I may indulge in some wordplay, you'll still have a party.
Jennur's Horde looks to be Thunderhead Keep ver. Nightfall in some respects. It requires patience and canny aggro management so I expect many PUGs to fail here. I had no idea what it was about before playing it so every attempt was a learning experience for me. It took me about a dozen tries before I beat it with my heroes and henchmen. I'm sure it would be much easier with another player or two -- the end of the mission requires three items that can only be carried by players -- but I was determined to push the heroes and henchmen to their limits.
The most disappointing mission for me was the last one. The setup was great but the mission itself had a really awkward and irritating design. For all their strengths, ArenaNet's designers don't seem capable of crafting a satisfying final duel with each campaign's Ultimate Bad Guy.
More on Nightfall later.