By their nature, MMORPG's attract a loyal fan base. The investment of time - and for some this means years of playing - results in a territorial mindset where any new game in the genre will be seen as the usurper, a clone, or a shadow of their own game that they hold up as the pinnacle of the genre. This is especially true when it comes to World of WarCraft and its fan base.
However the incumbent king is now looking jaded. Sure, the release of Cataclysm injected some more time into the old boy, however at its core it really just offered more of the same. Exciting at first, but slowly the realisation is that it’s the same grind but with slightly different trousers [One of my characters in WoW is actually called Trousers and he is indeed slightly different - Ed]. The heart of the problem is that the early grind is something to be endured, with the goal being to get to the top levels and then grind out the instances. Do it once, you have really seen it all (for some - this reviewer included, it has been 6 long grinds). Nothing really changes; the formula remains the same.
Now, there have been many pretenders to the WoW throne; a few have been pale imitations, some have tried to inject more into the genre by hanging their hat on popular franchises, such as Conan, Lord of the Rings and the like, but fundamentally none have moved the genre forward. A lot, in fact, have been no more than cynical attempts to jump onto the money train while the going is good.
You can therefore forgive reviewers who look at RIFT and quickly draw similar conclusions. A quick pass over the game reveals that it has the standard elements. There are the four class types (Warrior, Cleric, Ranger and Mage), six Races, two competing factions, quests, instances and a player versus player system. Conclusion then: imitation, review complete. However, after investing considerable playing time in RIFT, we here at NZGamer.com believe we are witnessing something special in the genre. RIFT without a doubt takes MMORPG to a new level. It could well be a king in the making.
The game is based in the lands of Telara; a land of lost wars and a rising evil. Two factions stand ready to challenge the dragons: the Guardians are risen souls of mighty heroes reborn in an hour of need; and the Defiants are the souls of those who use infernal machines to control the elements. Not merely a background story though, the idea of risen souls is a foundation of one the innovative new game mechanics. As a player you can have one avatar, but over time this avatar can have many souls. Additional ones can be gained through questing, or purchased. Practically this means you level one character but it can be switched to many roles. One grind, multiple characters.
The four character classes don't sound much of a variation at first; however each has many skill trees. No, not the usual vanilla flavoured three but under each class there are up to eight different skill trees to choose from. You can have up to three for each soul. Now, there are skill trees and then there are skill “trees”. In RIFT each tree is tall and wide, offering different branches and levels to learn as you acquire more skill points by levelling. Underpinning the trees are roots. Root abilities become available as you advance further up the tree. Trainers will then give you the opportunity to improve these abilities. The multiple combinations of trees are such that there is something for every play style and little chance of vanilla character sets.
So we have a new character progression system and a hugely varied skill system. So it's still the same quest and level system that you have to at least grind out once? The answer to this is both yes and no. Yes, you have the standard starting areas where you undertake basic quests, and as you get better you are lead to other quest nodes that get tougher and introduce more game elements as you move on. The quests are good, varied and woven throughout is the back-story that helps to give you a sense that you are involved in something far bigger. The problem with this game mechanic, however, has always been that it is like a board game: you advance along a predictable course, a course which is basically the same for everyone else. It never really changes, it’s static. Enter then the Rifts.
Rifts are tears in the fabric of the planes. Unpredictable, they form in the sky, then touch the earth and spawn their minions to wreck havoc upon the lands. They corrupt whatever they touch, changing the land. This is a fundamental shift in the genre. The game environment is ever-changing. There is a level of unpredictability that makes it different every time you play it. How does it work? Well there is nothing like an example:
We were adventuring in Freemarch, the first large zone of the Defiant faction, finishing off a few quests in a sprawling castle, when suddenly, “Quest Accepted” displayed across the screen. A rift invasion had begun, and all players in the zone were automatically involved in the quest. Thinking this is a single Rift, or two that often pop up, we went to the minimap to see where they were located. Whoa! 30 death rifts had opened up across the zone; already an equal number of invasion groups had also spawned. Their target: the main city and one of the main quest nodes. Immediately the game chat exploded. Everyone in, everyone defend the Wardstones at these vital points.
No easy task for our character - we were alone and, with invading forces moving across the zone killing everything, including players, Non-Player Characters (NPCs) and beasts (yes, different rift forces can often be found fighting each other), it would be a long march to the action. Plotting a path to the main city we encountered more players who auto-joined us (I suspect for most of us, it was just good to have someone alongside as we snuck around the bands of invaders). Our party, still weak compared to the invaders, soon scooped up others and were then automatically grouped up into a "raid". By the time we hit the main city we numbered 20 players, at which point we merged into a raid of some 100-150 players. It was just awesome to be part of a massive war, with invaders piling out of the dark (death rifts have the nasty effect of blocking out daylight) and our troops holding them off before they could attack the stone. Mini-bosses being tanked away from the battalion of healers and mages, bodies being looted for the stones to feed our own warpstone - it was just huge. Wham! All of a sudden, the initial invasions quests popped up as complete, and enter the main boss. No chicken outfit this, over a hundred players mounted up and rushed to where he had spawned. Spells flew, bodies flew (stunning to arrive at the boss to have bodies fly through the air towards you) and after a long gruelling fight we finally saw the boss vanquished. Now we only had to clear up the rifts left behind…
The above is at the extreme end of a rift event; however they happen on a similar vein across all the zones. Whether it’s Fire, Water, Nature or Death, they are all bent on taking over the lands. It's fantastic fun but if you just dig a bit below the surface, you get to understand how brilliant the concept is.
The changing dynamic means that you can log out one night and find when you log in the next that the nice quest node village you left behind has been taken over by the elements of water. If you want to quest, you need to clean house first. The key here is that the rifts are set at a level for the zone you are in, and better still, to the amount of players in the raid. You can solo the smaller rifts (with some even opening specific quests), while others need a bigger party. That’s where the auto-group system comes into its own: First there at the rift, you are a party of one. Second person there has the option to join the public group. Very soon you have a raid. No fuss, no trying to form a raid in the local chat system. Ok, I get that, but what about loot? Well yes, there are some drops from killing raiders, occasionally some good ones, and there is the standard need and greed system to cover this off. However if you are in the raid everyone is a winner. Depending on your contribution to the event you get a bag of tokens and items that are set to the level of the event. The tokens can be exchanged for blue (good) and purple (very good) quality items. At level 15, one of our souls had two blues and a purple through this system alone. The underlying concept here is that to quest, you will need to fight rifts, and fighting rifts give you stuff to enhance your questing.
What about the idea of 100+ players in a fight? Does it not degenerate into a stuttering mess of slow motion frame rates and disconnects? Nope! It took a while for us to notice this, but what we think they do is slow the rate for everyone equally but not so you notice, and they also tone down spell effects and the like. By sacrificing these, the fights are fluid with not a hint of a stutter.
There are many other innovative aspects of the game. A wonderfully rich crafting system for instance. Based on core gathering professions of butcher, foraging and mining that in turn support runecrafting, apothercary etc. the actual crafting can only be done in certain places, and these also provide quests which reward in the form of crafting tokens. These can be redeemed for recipes in any profession.
Death takes on a new guise as well. Die in combat, and you can either spirit walk or respawn. The former gives you 20 seconds or so to walk from you corpse to a safe area, and you will respawn. The latter has you respawn in a nearby quest node. Both result in a percentage of spirit loss that eventually will result in a loss of core skills. By paying gold, you can get a healer to restore your soul.
Instances have a good system where, after wipe, when the first person makes it to the entrance you can then all spawn at the entrance. It works the same way when you first start the run: first person enters the instance all are then called to the entrance. Simple but well thought out.
The game UI is pretty standard for the genre, but underlying is a comprehensive edit system. You can move and resize just about every aspect of the UI.
They have reworked and rethought a lot of the aspects of the genre. Do they all work? Are they all improvements? We believe the answer is yes on both counts. Where there is any issue the admins are very active and respond immediately. As an example, at launch an exploit was discovered in runecrafting. It was announced across the zones, blocked right away and patched in a total of 24 hours. Despite this incident, the game overall is well polished and tested.
Graphics-wise it is a game of contrasts. The scenery is good, with well delivered water effects and logically laid out terrain (fences, farmhouses etc). In some areas it’s a bit sparse but generally it delivers what it needs to do. There are times however when it just stuns you: standing on a hill, looking across a zone, seeing a myriad of rifts breaking through the sky. Tentacles waving, corrupting the earth where they touch, the rift core looking like a tornado, and the sky dark, filled with menace. Just fantastic.
The audio has its up and downs, though. Good music in places, and some well worked ambient sounds. The monster and player sounds seem a bit insipid at times, lacking the depth and richness you'd have expected given the other aspects of the game.
We liked RIFT; we liked it a lot. It has taken all the boring bits of the genre, reworked them and delivered a well polished game that continues to surprise and delight. A clone, it is definitely not. Something special, a step forward for the genre? A big yes. Will it attract the close minded fan boys of other games in the genre? We hope so. Now, let us get back to fighting giants with our Defiant Kelari, a Sentinel/Warder/Justicar Cleric variant............oh crap the quest node is being hit.........everyone in!