Monday, September 26, 2011

Rift: WoW's next generation

I've been playing Rift of late. In case you're not aware of it, Rift is a massively multiplayer roleplaying game like World of Warcraft, EverQuest, Lord of the Rings Online, and so forth. Unlike many other games, however, it's a fairly shameless reproduction of World of Warcraft, in about the same ways that World of Warcraft was a fairly shameless reproduction of EverQuest. Yes, there are massive changes (fewer, I think you could argue, between WoW and Rift than between EQ and WoW), but the core of the games are very, very similar. I believe that Rift uses the Lord of the Rings Online engine, which I think a few other games use as well. Definitely the graphics feel much more like LotRO than WoW.

So, let me review the game in parts.


Graphics

Graphics were crisp and extremely well conceived and the UI was at least intuitive to me. I like the way they automatically slot new abilities in your bars, keeping rarely used abilities and cooldowns on the right and slotting new bread-and-butter abilities on the left. It's not long before you outgrow that first action bar, but it's certainly a great way to start off new players. Also in terms of the UI, nearly everything can be moved around, and the layout editor is something WoW should have had baseline, not relied on addons like Dominos to add after-market.

One thing I realized early on in the game was that I'd forgotten how beautiful EverQuest was. Sure, it was low-polygon-count with extremely low-res textures, but within those constraints of the engine, EverQuest was gorgeous in terms of its zone design and overall themes. I would just stand and stare at the sky sometimes, and each zone really had a sense of theme and continuity. WoW has achieved some of this at times, but only rarely. For the most part, WoW feels like its look was designed by the quest team. There are lots of little sub-zones, each with their own look appropriate to the quests that go on there, but this leaves you without a sense of continuity in most zones, which ends up feeling like a patchwork quilt of mostly uninteresting bits. In Rift, each zone is lovingly painted from its own palette, and sub-zones rarely stray far. Instead the quests are crafted to fit into the zone, not the other way around.

There's a real sense of three-dimensional space in the game too, which is interesting because there's no flight (yet). My favorite zones so far are the warfront (battleground) Whitefall Steppes and the questing zone Moonshade Highlands which has one of the most stunning raid entrances I've ever seen: a sort of Egyptian / Japanese looking structure with cherry blossom filled gardens in front.

Class Mechanics

There are only four classes (rogue, cleric, mage and warrior), which I took to be a non-starter at first, but then I realized that there are nine talent trees for each class, of which you must select 3, so there's a huge number of variations on every theme. At a minimum, the game has roughly 12 core class/spec themes crafted from those permutations, which is on par with the number of actually different specs in WoW as opposed to the three flavors of rogue and the multiple dual-wield dps class/spec combos. For example, the classic WoW-like hunter is a rogue with the Marksman, Ranger and Sabotage talent trees. But, and here's the genius, if you prefer stealth to traps, throw out Sabotage and take Assassin. Want some healing and support utility instead of a pet, throw out Ranger and pick up Bard.

The talent trees are very pre-Cataclysm WoW in the sense that they're 51-point trees that feel very much like the old WoW. Some talents are passive buffs like 1% damage per rank; some are new, class-defining spells like the ultimate Necromancer talent: Lich Form; and still others are specific buffs to existing capabilities such as the rogue talent that gives you a buff after you come out of stealth by using the "Assassinate" ability.

However, there's a clever trick, here. There are no baseline spells like WoW. Instead, you get 3 sources of spells and abilities. Each talent tree you select gives you 2-4 spells or passive abilities just by slotting the talent tree into place. Obviously, you can also buy new talents that give you specific spells as well. Finally, each point you put into a talent tree moves you further along a progression of spells gained for that talent tree, ultimately giving you new spells and abilities all the way up to 51 points, so you can literally fill every slot in one tree and get beneficial spell upgrades as you go, or you can buy talents in other trees to build synergy (e.g. the classic MMO trope of the life-draining dps pet/caster class is a hybrid of Necromancer and Warlock).

PvP

My impression of PvP was that it was the same as WoW. The first battleground feels more melee like, and that's a good thing in my opinion, but it's the same battleground queuing system, and the rewards might as well be called honor. In fact, if you're coming from WoW, the most frustrating thing in Rift is the fact that so many things that are exactly the same have different names. Favor instead of honor; valor instead of resilience, and so on. When I joined a guild, I found it hard to remember all of these new terms, and kept just using the WoW terms.

Healers are incredibly powerful in PvP, at least while leveling, and unlike WoW, the game doesn't seem to spend too much effort trying to ensure that each side has a balanced number of healers, so you can literally end up in an un-winnable match because the other side can heal through your damage. Having classes that debuff healing and focus firing can help, but realistically this is a place where the game could use some tuning.

My favorite warfront by far is The Black Garden. This is a big melee in the form of a king-of-the-hill battle. There's one flag (a "fang") that anyone can pick up. Holding the flag gives your team points, more points per amount of time the closer you are to the center of the zone. It's a real mess and it brings AoE damage and careful use of line of sight into the foreground.

I'm not aware of any arena-like feature, but it's early in Rift's cycle. Even WoW didn't have arenas until halfway into the first expansion.

World PvP is mostly centered around PvP rifts, so let's cover what a rift is:

Rifts

There are lots of scripted world events that are very cool, but they make leveling in zones you're just barely ready for prohibitive, since an invasion of mid-level-for-the-zone, but not necessarily for the area you're in, mobs may come tromping through at any time. I highly recommend finishing out a zone before moving on for this reason. That being said, rifts are the defining feature of Rift, and they're clearly a win for those who like the leveling experience, but wish it we more social.

The primary mechanic that makes rifts worth while is automatic, public grouping. So, let's say you're a level 12 character running around in the Guardian starting zone of Silverwood. You happen on a rift (you can't really miss them, there's a big swirling vortex in the sky and tentacles are protruding from it above the event area). They appear randomly on the map and some are always active. Your level 12 rift's event starts the moment you walk into range. You get a new quest telling you what to do, which is usually to kill all of the creatures that were spawned as part of the current wave. Once you complete the quest, you go on to the next wave, and get a new quest. At the end of 1-3 phases, you get a boss that you kill to complete the event and close the rift.

So far, this could be added to any MMO trivially, but here's the brilliant bit: when someone else wanders in to the area, they get the same quest and the option to join you in a public group. They don't have to join your group in order to complete the quest, and you'll both get credit, but they can if they want, and for support classes this can make leveling much more enjoyable.

Periodically many rifts and invading forces will be spawned in a zone, leading to very large groups of players responding to fight back the incoming hordes. Players participate in these events because the quest rewards include tokens that can be used to buy high-end gear. So, you often find yourself at mid-levels in a massive public raid, fighting bosses that it takes at least 20 people to take down. This is something I've never seen in any other MMO and it's truly a unique approach to the level grind.

At the high-end there are PvP rifts which offer the opportunity for real world PvP with sufficient rewards to entice players to actually participate. I'm curious about these, but I'll want to get my main to max level before going there.

Trade Skills

Crafting is pretty fun, and there are tons of quests associated with it. WoW was the gold standard for crafting, making the most tedious and awful part of EverQuest into something useful and much easier. Rift has managed to set the bar a little higher, but not much. The UI has some very useful features from the best WoW crafting addons like the ability to click on a button next to a required ingredient for a recipe to jump to the sub-recipe for that ingredient and then a button that recipe to jump back. So if you want to make burlap shoes you need bolts of burlap cloth. You can click on the button next to bolts of burlap cloth to jump to that recipe, make the required number and then click a button to go back to burlap shoes and make the finished product. For recipes with multiple crafted sub-ingredients, this is a godsend.

Leveling
The basic MMO level grind isn't much changed over WoW. You pick up quests, usually from quest mobs in a hub area and then set out to kill 6 boars and collect 12 squirrel noses. Lather, rinse, repeat. However, the rifts with their public groups leads to something interesting. People are much more willing to group up for questing! This almost never happens in WoW, where the level grind is usually a strictly solo affair, but Rift gets you used to grouping, and people tend to be much more willing to accept or offer a group invite in this game.

Leveling a healer via questing isn't really viable, but that's OK because a) you get dual spec very early on and b) PvP provides a reasonable, though lesser amount of experience so you can mix and match the two if you don't want to level grind as a healer.

Coming Soon

There are no addons yet; they're pushing this out soon, and the system in beta uses the same open source scripting engine (Lua) as WoW does). Two glaring things this leads to: no auctioneer and no outfitter. Try juggling gear sets for 5 specs without outfitter. Ugh. I may have missed something, there. It seems like a glaring omission, and often when that's happened, I've found later that I just didn't see the UI element for it.
I'm not yet max-level (43 at last count out of 50), so when I get there, I'll be doing raids and world PvP. I'll try to report back on that once I have more info.

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