The world of Telara is under attack and only you and your hundreds of friends stand in the way of total destruction. Can Rift offer us something new in a genre many consider rather stale?
As usual, reviewing MMOs is a tricky business. So, in the interest of full disclosure - the review below is based around beta gameplay, and leveling a Guardian mage to level 25 during the live game.
As usual when a new game is about to launch, Trion's PR-machine has talked a lot about how revolutionary Rift is. How it's going to change the genre, how dynamic its content is, how different it is from other titles. All the typical hype stuff that we're used to by now. So let's get it out of the way that it really isn't that revolutionary. If you've played MMOs before, especially the big names like World of Warcraft or Lord of the Rings Online, you know what to expect by now.
That's not the same as saying Rift doesn't have a lot to offer, though, or that it's a carbon copy of other games (so put down those pitchforks!). Like most other MMOs, it does bring new stuff to the table. It's just that at the basis it's everything that we're used to seeing - 50 levels, loot, "kill ten rats"-quests, classes, raids, dungeons, experience points. The whole staple of the genre is here. If you want a game that is radically different from World of Warcraft, you might be disappointed. At that level, it's fairly traditional and Trion haven't taken many chances so that they would not alienate their core audience.
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That said, it's an impressive piece of work. While MMOs generally struggle during their first weeks or months (or in some cases, years) to stay stable, Rift has been nothing short of a miracle. There's been rolling restarts of the servers, but they have been few and far between, and during my many hours with the game I have yet to encounter any bugs (except a sound issue when I tab in and out of the game, where the music turns into a fantasy-version of Atari Teenage Riot for a few seconds). The servers and the client are incredibly stable, and the game can easily handle 60 players on the screen at the same time without coming to a screeching halt. The biggest problems that Trion have faced have been queues on the more populated servers, which I guess for them is a rather welcome problem to have.
What Rift manages to do compared to other games is to create at least the illusion of a dynamic world. MMOs are traditionally static affairs, with the same monsters roaming the same area for years, simply waiting for an adventurer to come by and slaughter them all - only to respawn a few minutes later, ready for next one to come along. Most monsters do the same here, there is a constant supply of goblins for us to cut into pieces after all. But Telara, the world of Rift, is under siege by the evil Regulos who enjoys sending his minions into the world through tears in the world - the rifts the game gets its name from.
More or less anywhere, at any time, a rift can open up - spawning monsters that the players need to band together to defeat. They can range from minor ones, which a small group can take out, to major ones that takes a concentrated effort to beat. At times the whole world goes crazy, rifts open up everywhere, gangs of invading monsters spawn and the whole zone in question is attacked by Regulos forces. It's a dangerous time to go for a calm stroll through the neighbourhood, let me tell you. You're not safe anywhere when this happens, and I've found myself slaughtered by raging werewolves in places where I was sure I would be able to leave my keyboard for a few seconds.
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Luckily, Rift uses an intuitive grouping mechanic, and as long as you encounter other players grouping up is a simple click of a button away. It's not unusual to see large groups of players moving from rift to rift, and when the big world events happen some form of crusade against the invaders is quickly formed. After all, some of the most powerful rewards in the game come from taking part in the fighting, and most players want a piece of that cake. It can be annoying if it happens at a time when you had no intention of doing anything else than some simple questing, and for some it might take some getting used to. The shift in philosophy is a quite easy one though - whenever you leave the safety of your racial capital, be aware that shit might happen at any time, in any place. It's a big dangerous world out there, and the faster you accept that fact, the faster you'll grow to love Rift.
Telara in itself is a wonder to behold. From the high fantasy feel of the Guardians' villages and towns, to the steam-punk machinery of their rival faction Defiants, there are few virtual worlds that I have been looking this much forward to exploring. The world might not be as big as in some other MMOs, and doesn't offer up that many different zones, but there's still a lot to see here. The graphics and the design are all top-notch, and while some might miss the more extraordinary armors or weapons from games like World of Warcraft, I love the more down to earth feel of Rift. It feels more real than Azeroth ever did, and the desperation of the people living here is much easier to relate to as a result.
Rift doesn't use classes in the same way as most other games, instead opting for four callings that in themselves are divided into eight "souls". The callings are pretty standard - warrior, rogue, mage and cleric - and the souls could be seen as the talent trees that many MMOs use these days. The fun is in combining them, since every character can have three souls equipped at the same time. While it's easy to end up with a combination that pretty much works like a standard MMO class, it opens up for a lot more customization. It might be hell for the developers to balance in PvP, some comments from them even suggest that they won't even bother in the first place, but for us as players it's fun to play around with. Expect a lot of guides to unusual combos in the future, as people level up and start to really dig into the system.
So far, so good. Trion have managed to pull off something other MMO-devs can only dream about - they've managed to release a solid product, a MMO that for the first time in ages feels like it's actually finished and ready for launch. They've managed to take traditional mechanics and make them feel fresh. It might be the cynic in me talking, that has seen so many promising MMOs fail to live up to their potential, but it would be a lie to say that Rift's future is clear cut.
First of all, the rifts are similar to the public quests used in Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning - even if the rifts move around and the public quests were static affairs that always stayed in the same place. Right now it's easy to find a group to take them down, but what happens when a majority of the playerbase has left the starting areas behind? It's inevitable as the game grows older, it happens to every MMO based around leveling. Will the rifts simply be abandoned, will new players be able to fight them off or live in constant - and annoyed - fear of them? For how long will they feel fresh? Will players simply tire of them, or will they happily keep fighting them several years from now?
There's also the question of end-game, when leveling ends. And that question will be front and center soon. While some players have already hit level cap, they are an extreme minority - at the same time, leveling in Rift is fast. Within a month or two, that minority might be the majority. Does Rift have enough content to keep everyone busy once they've hit level 50? It's impossible to answer right now, and only time will tell if Trion are as on top of that as they have been in crafting the rest of Telara.
Right now, right here, it doesn't matter. Rift is an incredible piece of gaming craftmanship and has singlehandedly put the notion that players need to settle for buggy launches to death. While I miss a game that doesn't bog itself down in two separate factions and that actually offers more than two starting areas (one for each faction), I'm not going to stare this gift horse in the mouth. If nothing else, Rift is putting pressure on studios like ArenaNet (Guild Wars 2) and Bioware (Star Wars: The Old Republic) to polish their upcoming MMOs to the same degree as Trion have done. And why not? Why should we, as paying costumers, really settle for less?
Tomorrow things might be different. All the cool systems that we're enjoying right now might turn out to be snore fests a few months from now. But I can't bring myself to care much. I'm simply having too much fun bringing death and destruction to the enemies of Telara.
9 / 10
Rifts and invasions make the world seem dynamic, great graphics, incredibly stable, tons of stuff to do and explore
Doesn't offer up that much that breaks the typical MMO mold