Not many people can tell you what they did last week or let alone last year, but I can tell you with great assurance that I spent most of my nights in 2001 playing Phantasy Star Online on Sega's Dreamcast. At the time, and this isn't very long ago, I was still on dial-up, hoping that the keyboard I'd ordered online would show up already and was having the time of my life. I used to play with friends from work and it seemed that we would play forever. A few trouble spots eventually reared their heads though and with the rise of cable and DSL, the Dreamcast was soon no more. It took us a long time to find a suitable replacement for PSO. But a few years later, we played Battlefield 1942 once a week, every week. I know this may not seem like much, but I should point out that my co-workers (yes, I lead a double life) are techies, not gamers. They are between the ages of 26 and 50 and have families of their own and they don't usually play games unless it's "game night". We enjoyed BF1942 for a long time, buying the expansion packs and even giving Vietnam a try (but going back quickly to the original since no one likes snipers in grassy knolls). With time however, even BF1942 died out and I honestly thought we would never have "game night" again. But then something wonderful happened; Guild Wars entered our lives. As a gamer, it was easy for me to see the brilliance of Guild Wars, I picked it up immediately based simply on its common points with PSO which I'd missed so much, but I wondered how others would adapt to it. This is our story...

(NOTE: The names, places, events, lengths of time and a few other facts may have been changed to protect us from our significant others)

While Guild Wars may have been a game that came out of nowhere for many of us, it in no way makes it lacking in quality. In fact, I am hard-pressed to find any PC game that has shipped recently that feels more solid and complete out of the box. From its quick installation (2 disc install that does not require any play disc afterwards) to its fantastic Guild Wars Manuscript; a 144-page book that painstakingly details the world of Guild Wars, you will find yourself wowed from the start. The first time you launch the game, you will also be taken aback by how quickly the login screen pops up and afterwards, how quickly it loads all the gaming worlds. Creating a character is painless and once you actually launch the game, it is truly amazing to behold. All of Guild Wars' information is server side and the game automatically streams required updates and installs them transparently to the user in a matter of seconds. I have never seen a game load faster, on PC or console, than Guild Wars and it may not mean much to many, but waiting to play when you don't have hours in front of you is important to me. The internet code is fast, lag-free and optimized brilliantly.

Upon initially launching the game, Guild Wars offers you its first choices: do you wish to adventure into the world of Ascalon or do you wish to play Player Vs. Player matches, forgoing all the leveling up? Guild Wars gives you the options right from the start. And while many may very well chose the arenas, I focused on the more traditional RPG element of the game and set off to Ascalon. My next choice: create a character of course. You will initially have to choose a profession for your human character. This will determine the character's initial attributes and looks as well as skills and progression. The choice are, as with most RPGs: warrior, ranger, monk, elementalist, mesmer and necromancer. From this point, you are also free to customize the look of your character. We all picked female characters (there are no attribute differences) simply because, uh, well, we're men. I see enough burly guys on a day to day basis, plus female characters are smaller and therefore block less of the screen and optimize character to surrounding view ratio (just go with me on this). You may as well pick a character that you like to look at since you may be staring at it for a long time (you can create 3 additional characters per account if you want to try out other professions/looks).

After an in-game generated cut-scene (all the cinemas use the in-game engine and cleverly map your party into the action) you will first arrive in Ascalon. This Ascalon is bright and beautiful and will teach you the ropes of the game, allow you to take on a second profession, gather skills, level up, make new friends and really get a feel for the gameplay. The game is played from a 3rd person perspective with a camera that can be zoomed in/out and rotated around to your hearts content. After a few quests have been played (you could spend hours and hours in this Ascalon though if you wanted) you will eventually move on to the searing of Ascalon. In this cut-scene you will see everything you know burnt to a crisp at the hands of the Charrs. This will also give you your first taste of a cooperative mission (if you've played alone until now) and introduce you to a completely new world, far larger than you could have ever imagined.

At its core, Guild Wars is not a game about leveling up and grinding endlessly, in fact the cap is level 20. It is a game about discovery and exploration. The world of Ascalon is huge and as soon as you think you know everything about it, the game adds more and more things for you to do. At first you may simply take on quests from various NPC. Soon, you will find yourself obsessed with cooperative missions (you can play all quests/missions with friends or with "hired" henchmen). The cooperative missions are a great way to travel Ascalon quickly, but you will soon need better armor. And to get your armor, you will need to discover salvaging equipment. You'll also need to add runes to your equipment and get more skills and the list goes on. The bottom line is that there is something for everyone in Guild Wars and the simply fact that there are no fees to play online makes it more accessible to casual gamers who don't want to waste 20 dollars on monthly fees when they won't be playing a few hundred hours a month. Guild Wars moves at your pace and it plays the way you want to play it. Add to that the simple fact that the developers are constantly watching the game and making incredibly intelligent tweaks to it on a weekly basis and you have an amazing experience waiting for you. But enough of that, here are our individual experiences so far...

DEREK - Derek is almost 40, married, with 2 kids. He's the kind of guy that likes to upgrade his computer a lot and play all the high-end games as they come out. When he picks up a game that he likes, he will play it continuously until it is finished, always playing "just a little more" every day. Derek was the last of us to get the game simply because I think he knew it would become an obsession. He picked a Monk (against our initial promptings not to - how were we to know we were wrong) as his primary profession (he liked the look and he gave her a full head of hair, thankfully) and when given the choice, picked Ranger as his second. He didn't spend too much time in the pre-Searing world (because we had moved on already and once you sear, you can't go back to play with others who have not) and jumped into the game-proper almost immediately. Along the way, he picked up a pet (Rangers can get pets); a panther named Friendly Stalker. When playing alone, Derek has an amazing single player character; he has ranged attacks from his ranger's arrows, a pet panther (which also levels up) to hunt down foes and attack them and the Monk's natural ability to heal himself (and the hired hands he takes along). As a well rounded character, I can't really think of any better. When playing in our Guild (you can create a Guild at any time which gives you a message board, an easier way to communicate with your friends - although there is an MSN-type chatting system as well, and a nifty cape (which does cost you a lot of money) that you can customize and wear proudly), Derek takes the role of "healer" seriously. In fact, he is the only one in our group that has any healing skills equipped (you can only have 8 skills equipped at any time and they must be chosen in a town before setting off). He is also the reason we have survived many encounters with various higher leveled enemies, as the enemies are not limited to level 20 caps.

Derek loves this game. He talks about it every minute of every day and studies maps, guides and FAQs daily. He also stays up way too late on most nights (3:00 am!), even when he has to be at work early the next day. I think that he likes the idea of leveling up, but mostly, he likes opening up the map, visiting new towns (and seeing what he can purchase there) and helping us out during missions. I know that the chatting system sometimes frustrates him because even though you can customize the look and placement of all the interfaces on the screen, he very often misses our messages and comments and then gets upset when we YELL MESSAGES at him. Also, the inability to jump back from post to pre Searing was a detriment early on, but one that we all got over very soon. In the last 40 days, Derek has logged in over 100 hours. He is a casual gamer (usually) that is hopelessly addicted. My wife and I are threatening an intervention if this keeps up. He will have to create new characters with his kids' names soon if he wants to remember them at all.

DREW - Drew is the youngest member of our group. He lives alone and after his full day's work he should be doing school work but has hopelessly fallen behind due to this game! Drew is a warrior (with very high-end armor) who has chosen elementalist as his second profession. When leveling up, he usually places all his skill points in his warrior attributes and has let the elementalist pool run a little dry. He claims that his next character will be a warrior/monk just so he can be an unstoppable machine. In the meantime, he is usually the leader of our cooperative onslaughts (he does have the best armor so we gladly let him go) and he is the character responsible for causing the most damage to foes. Drew has also played for over 100 hours in the last 30 days and this surprises us since he usually doesn't play games at all unless others are over at his place. Drew is all about getting the best armor and weapons and has taken it upon himself to scour the entire map in search of it (the FAQs and guides are often wrong since the developers tweak the game often). He is also fond of salvaging items in the hopes of getting rare crafting materials he can use to purchase more armor, as armor usually only costs a tiny sum of money but has very high crafting material cost. It should also be noted that Drew doesn't like to play games with people he doesn't know. He had Xbox Live for a bit but doesn't anymore because there were only a few people on his friends' list. But apart from towns, which are hubs where you see everyone else who's online and form your party, the "questing" world is unique to you and is only inhabited by your party. You'll never have to wait for a boss to respawn or get queued to complete a quest here. Guild Wars handles this brilliantly.

You can also take on a many quests as you like in as many towns as you like and they will remain in your quest log until you finish them. When you click on each one, a green star pops up on the uncovered map where the quest's goal is. Getting there though can sometimes seem easier than it is. So how does Drew play Guild Wars when we're not around? Well, he mostly sticks to adding Guild Wars henchmen to his team. Depending what level you are at in the game, you can have 4, 6 or 8 people in your party, all of which can be henchmen. It should be noted that experienced points are not only divided up based on your level versus the enemy's level, but also divided up by how many people are in your party (henchmen included). As we all gathered, henchmen are adequate early on in the game, but later on (even though their skill levels vary based on what town you're in - they also level up while on quests with you) nothing beats human companionship while on a cooperative mission.

Here's a secret; sometimes we accept others into our parties. Yes, it's happened before and although at first I was worried since Drew doesn't put up with "stupidity" for the most part, the other Guild Wars players are older and more mature than in most games available nowadays. The atmosphere is really built around helping each other out and questing with others that you don't know can actually result in new friendships. Worst case, you can always put them on your ignore list.

Drew's biggest concern with the game was truly the level cap of 20. In the 100 hours it took him to get there, we all wondered what would really happen once we got there. Well, let me just say that level 20 isn't the end of anything. It's the beginning of really wonderful things and just because you hit 20 doesn't mean you've even scratched the game's surface. Hopefully Drew will play a little less from now on and we can get back to our "once a week" routine. If not, my wife and I are threatening and intervention if this keeps up.

STEPH - Hey, that's me! Well, I'm the true gamer of the bunch and oddly enough I have played the least of Guild Wars. Yes, I've had many other games to review, but for me the beauty of this game is that you can truly play it in starts and stops. You can turn it on for 20 minutes and warp to a town and just barter for armor if you wish or you can get comfy and play for 9 hour stretches (Derek's record) if you are so inclined. My first character was an Elementalist/Mesmer; I admit this was based on looks even though I initially wanted the redhead mesmer. I played until level 8 when I realized that mesmers were pretty good too and I created a new character: a mesmer/necromancer. I did enjoy my time with my elementalist, but the fast casting attribute that mesmers possess really made me want to try it. And so, I stuck it out with my redheaded mesmer (who's also the tallest member of our guild) and although I am not a real threat to anyone, I think that I make a real difference as a support character.

Having friends who were at much higher levels than me may have also been a problem, but questing off with them led me into territories I wouldn't have been able to access on my own. I therefore started getting loads of experience points from higher leveled monsters and was able to level up much faster than them. Yes, they will each tell you that they carried my ass, but I helped too. I swear. The point is simply that the hardcore gamer played this game for only 30-some odd hours before hitting the same levels as "casual" 100 hour players. But this just illustrates that you take from this game what you want. I didn't have as much time as them, but I did manage to level up a lot faster because of them.

I suppose what impressed me the most about Guild Wars initially was the quaint feeling the game had. It started out with a nice learning curve, green pastures, easy monsters, beautiful, majestic small towns with loads of people and things to do and always made me feel like I was home. It's an odd sensation, but the game felt familiar right from the start. At the same time, all the little discoveries felt rewarding. When I first added a member to my party, I felt proud. When I first leveled up, I felt proud. When I first received a signet of resurrection and could bring my friends back to life, I was a God! And just when I felt like I was the big fish in the small pond, I seared and realized that I truly wasn't in Kansas anymore.

Believe me when I say this; Guild Wars is huge. So huge that you will wonder how you will ever see all of it. And all the things you knew, well, they've multiplied by a thousand! The pouches you never thought you'd fill are now too small and you need to rent out storage space in town. The merchants who were selling a few useful items now have rune traders, armor/weapon shops, rare material traders, collectors, skill shops, etc. next to them. Your small list of quests has quadrupled. The size of the towns has doubled. The game has introduced co-op missions. You can dye your clothes. You can barter your items off to the highest bidder. You can do much it's almost dizzying at first. But even when you are the small fish in the huge pond and everything is new and scary and the monsters are really mean, it still feels very familiar and just like home. Maybe it's all the characters sitting around emoting; dancing and jumping and running around. Guild Wars just feels like a big family and putting on the game for even 20 minutes feels like a homecoming. Yes, there are other online RPGs out there (that you'll pay to play) but none of them have that deep sense of belonging like Guild Wars. Maybe it's the fact that we are all human characters or maybe that we all have names we can associate with and don't take ourselves so seriously, but Guild Wars does everything right, in every way.

I've said a lot about this game and I've yet to even scratch its surface; so let me get to the things that matter to many. The interface is very easy to learn and although you may not know how to do everything right from the start (I just learned to do "called attacks" last night) as long as you can use your mouse you can do no wrong. The game allows you many ways to accomplish the same task, from hotkeys to simple mouse-use. As with every other facet of this game, it was built for novice and experts alike. The beauty is that when playing, everyone seems just as competent as the next.

When you consider the sheer size of the game, it's amazing that the landscapes and town look so unique. Yes, two or three trees may seem similar, but the textures and artistry of Guild Wars will wow you time and time again. From a broken-down necromancer temple to the beautiful vistas in the distance that you can only hope to eventually reach, Guild Wars is a beautiful game. The fact that it can run beautifully on lower end systems will have you scratching your head from time to time as well. Guild Wars is a technical marvel. Be sure to check out the movie that comes on the first installation disc as well! While the game's cut-scenes use the in-game engine, this movie is entirely CG and well worth watching a few times over.

The sound of Guild Wars may be the most overlooked aspect of the game simply because it blends in so well. The sounds of armor and swords clanking about and the yelps and screams are spot on. The voice acting is excellent (the party leaders during coop missions even speak out their parts) and while Guild Wars may not have the greatest story ever told, the conviction of the actors is generally enough to pull you in and make you care about your role in matters. The score on the other hand must be singled out as a thing of beauty. I've heard Hollywood epics that didn't sound as good as Guild Wars, and the simple fact that the compositions sound fresh after quite literally hundreds of hours is a testament to their genius.

So where does Guild Wars falter? Well, if you're not a fan of the genre (even though this game may convert you) you may simply not appreciate it. This is, at its core, an RPG and one that is played online. You will have to invest large portions of your life to it (though never all at once) to appreciate it fully and you will have to interact with others at one point or another to advance in the game. At its core, Diablo is just a point and click game, but to millions it is the blood that flows through them. There really isn't more to fault Guild Wars with when you note that there are no associated costs to playing this game online. If you've waited for EverQuest and World of Warcraft to become free to try them, this is the best alternative. Not only is Guild Wars a more "casual" game, but also it greatly improves (and fixes) ideas set forth by many other MMORPGs in existence. Admit it, you've always wanted to try this type of game and Guild Wars is truly your best choice. I have no qualms recommending this game to friends, coworkers or anyone who's simply looking for a great game that will last them a long time. The support shown by the developers in impressive and the planned for add-ons can't come soon enough. Guild Wars has single-handedly rekindled my interest in not only "game night" but online gaming as a whole. I've never seen my coworkers so passionate about a game before and the simple fact that they are simply casual gamers means a lot. Guild Wars is nothing shy of a masterpiece. And if I keep playing it as I am, my wife has already threatened an intervention!