Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Book Review - Guild Wars: Ghosts of Ascalon

Guild Wars was my first big online gaming experience and certainly the game that made me a fan of the MMO genre at large. For the better part of three years, I logged hundreds of hours in Tyria. I’ve played nearly every class, completed all three major campaigns, tried my hand at way too many flavor-of-the-month PvP builds, and finished first in more rollerbeetle races than I care to admit. I fell for Guild Wars hard, and a dozen MMOs later, it’s the one that never leaves my hard drive.

What made this game so memorable for me was its stunning landscapes and beautiful music. It was a world unlike any other I had experienced, with hidden places and details galore if one would take the time to look. The characters, too, were memorable. I was always sucked into the story; the feeling like my character’s journey was also mine never left me. It was a rich world, a fantasy book come to life.

So I was quite excited to hear that Matt Forbeck and Jeff Grubb (two writers that have worked on the Guild Wars universe) were putting out a novel based on Guild Wars 2, set over two hundred years after the original game. That book, Ghosts of Ascalon, was just released on July 27th. I went straight after work to purchase it and dove right in, unable to contain my desire to learn what had happened to the world I’d loved for so long.

Unlike the original Guild Wars, in which it was only possible to play as a human, its sequel will allow us to play as one of five distinct races. Ghosts of Ascalon does a great job of introducing these new races to the reader as the protagonist, a human adventurer named Dougal Keane, finds himself roped into what can best be described as a fellowship to destroy the one ring... er, I mean, retrieve a centuries-old relic from the ruins of a city infested with hostile ghosts.

Our motley “krewe” - that’s an asuran term for a team - of course contains members of all five races. Besides Dougal, an even-tempered kind of guy with a penchant for history, there is another human, Riona, whose hot, racist temper is a clear manifestation of the indignities that a people without their homeland has suffered in recent years. The two are an odd couple at best, having borne their shared suffering as children of the constantly besieged settlement of Ebonhawke in starkly different ways.

The race doing the sieging is the charr, a bestial feline race full of strong military traditions. The charr have almost completely pushed the humans out of the old lands that once belonged to the kingdom of Ascalon - though the warrior female Ember Doomforge who is accompanying the group is quick to point out that the charr had owned it before the humans, so they view it not as invasion, but as reclamation of their historical territory.

Despite the years of warfare - and drastically different opinions over its interpretation - there are those on both sides looking to put aside the conflict for the common good, as even the charr are not without enemies. Since the days of the original Guild Wars, ancient dragons have awoken from thousands of years of slumber and are destroying the world as all the races know it. It is for this reason that a few humans and charr have come together, seeking a way to convince both sides to finally cease-fire.

Also joining in this monumental task are representatives of the other three races. A sylvari named Killeen, full of the curiosity and ignorance that is so characteristic of members of the young botanical race, brings her unsettling talents in necromancy to the krewe. Gullik Oddsson, an adventurer of the hearty, giantlike norn people, lends his axe and epic tales to the journey. Rounding out this group is Kranxx, one of the diminutive, brilliant asura, whose knack for all things technical and alchemical aids them all in battle.

As this group assembles towards their impossible journey, Ghosts of Ascalon spends considerable time describing the setting and scenery. Along this tour of current and former human territories, we visit places both new and old: the bureaucratic seat of the human Queen Jennah’s power, Divinity’s Reach; Lion’s Arch, a ramshackle rebuilding of the original city, now a haven for pirates and vagabonds; Ebonhawke, the eternally vigilant final stand of humanity, deep inside charr territory; and at long last Ascalon City, haunted by the madness of the past.

Those deeply versed in original Guild Wars lore will no doubt be mildly irritated from time to time, as the book’s plot grinds to a halt fairly often through the first half so as to explain one historical event or another to new or unfamiliar fans of the franchise. Fortunately, such moments of awkward name-and-date-dropping taper off as the adventurers move into the final half. The journey into Ascalon itself is surprisingly well-written for a game novel and does not want for believable action or drama.

What’s best about Ghosts of Ascalon, though, is that it is the first truly palpable reach into this changed world. I went into it knowing a decent amount about each race and being halfway certain what I would want to play when the game finally reaches the shelves sometime in the next year or two. The writers did such a good job making all the races so approachable, each having tangible flaws and strengths that take them from mere stereotypes into a truly interesting and diverse cast, that now I have the enviable dilemma of not knowing what I’ll pick. I can’t wait to explore Tyria again with a new set of eyes.

I highly recommend Ghosts of Ascalon to franchise fans, but I’d also recommend that fans of the fantasy genre who might be looking for a new MMO in a year or so give this book a shot. It’s not a long investment in time at less than 400 pages, nor a big investment of money, as it’s a fairly inexpensive paperback. I think you’ll find that this is one universe worth spending a little bit of time in.

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