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Entering the Rift
New MMOs are among the most widely anticipated and widely disparaged game launches. Each new game opens a new world, ripe for players looking for a new experience. Yet the complexity of an MMO makes it an expensive and risky endeavors, and many high-profile titles, such as Age of Conan and Warhammer Online, have debuted to great fanfare only to crash and burn.
It doesn’t help that there is an 800-pound gorilla, otherwise known as World of Warcraft, in the room. The creation of one of game’s most illustrious developers, WoW has so far maintained a huge subscriber base despite the coming (and going) of many other MMOs.
Into this environment we have Rift. You may have seen their advertising – they’re the guys declaring “You’re not in Azeroth anymore!” Taking digs at the genre’s biggest success is fighting words, particularly from a relatively unknown company like Trion.
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Setting and Backstory
From your first step into the world of Telara it becomes evident that you truly aren’t in Azeroth anymore. Rift is a much darker game than World of Warcraft, visually and thematically. The lush forests, decaying woodlands and nature-forged gorges that you’ll explore in Rift have a grittier and more claustrophobic feel than the wide-open, endlessly hopeful atmosphere found in Azeroth and many other MMOs.
The starting zones for both factions throw armageddon at you with abandon. The Guardians, a faction loyal to the gods of Telara, start the game during a war. Characters who choose the Defiant side literally begin their career at the end of the time; Regulos, the main antagonist of the game, has already won, and you must fight your way to a time machine that sends you back in hope that you can stop the apocalypse before it starts.
Rift is still your standard high-fantasy world, and it borrows plenty of ideas from others. Even the factions, although spiced up with some unique flavor, are essentially a cliché we’ve all seen before; the Guardians are self-proclaimed “good guys” with sometimes questionable motives and the Defiant are the underdog everyone loves to cheer on. Ultimately, it’s the execution rather than the originality that gives Rift a strong backstory.
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The Game World
The conventional wisdom is that larger MMO worlds are better. Rift, however, bucks this trend by offering what is quite likely the smallest playable game world of any MMO to be release in the last decade. The single continent made available at release is tiny, consisting of about ten zones. According to player research, the playable areas in Rift are a quarter the size of those found in other popular games.
But while this restricts the exploration potential of the game, the small size of Rift has advantages. There is only one primary leveling path for each side, which means that all players follow the same path. This makes it much more likely that you’ll run into other player during your travels; indeed, it’s rare that a minute goes by without running across some other players.
In other games, this might be annoying, but in Rift the high population density is essential because of the feature the game is named after; rifts. Rifts are tears to the elemental planes that occur across the landscape at random. When they spawn, they bring with them unique monsters that spawn in phases. Most rifts are hard for any single player to complete, so players must group up to beat them – a simple task thanks to the public group system. And you’ll want to beat them, because Rifts give unique currency awards that can be turned in for rare and epic gear. You’ll also want to close them because Rifts that are left open spawn invaders – groups of mobs that head to and assault the nearest quest hub.
That’s not all. Occasionally, zone-wide events called Invasions occur. These cause a large number of rifts to spawn simultaneously and begin spewing monsters towards quest hubs. Players must band together to beat the invaders back. And it doesn’t end there – once the initial objectives of an invasion are accomplished a raid boss will spawn and must be defeated.
The result of this system is an unprecedented level of player interaction in an MMO. Unlike most games in this genre, which reserve serious group lay for instanced late-game dungeons and raids, Rift throws players into open-world raid combat as early as level 7. And again, you’ll want to participate, because defeating invasions provides valuable currency – defeating invasions is absolutely crucial if you want to obtain planar epic items.
Rift’s game world is unlike any other. It isn’t just an amusement park; it wants to kill you, and if you don’t come to it, it will come to you.
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The other major feature of Rift is the class system. Most modern MMOs use the same system that World of Warcraft pioneered and fleshed out – talent trees associated with individual classes. Rift also has talent trees, but instead of forcing players to take certain talent trees based on their class, it allows variation. Each talent tree is labeled a “soul” and the game’s four base archetypes (Warrior, Cleric, Mage and Rogue) each have access to eight souls.
You can have three souls active simultaneously, and that’s where things start to deviate from the norm. There is only one restriction on how you spend talent points – you can’t spend more points above your level in a soul. A level thirty character, therefor, can’t spend more than thirty points in any soul. Otherwise, you are completely free to do what you’d like.
If you’re the type of player that likes to min-max, or you just like to experiment with builds, you’re going to fall quickly in love with Rift. The openness makes it possible to try out many builds. Would you like to be a tough sword-and-board warrior with a pet and some spellcasting abilities? Then take the Paladin soul for the toughness, the Beastmaster soul for the pet, and the Riftblade soul for ranged attacks.
As if that weren’t enough, Rift lets you obtain up to four “roles.” Each role is its own combination of souls, and you can switch roles whenever you are out of combat. You also can obtain all eight souls available to your archetype at level 13, so you don’t have to wait long to start experimenting.
The only issue with Rift’s class system is its complexity. Wrapping your head around the combinations possible isn’t easy. The WoW model of characters that fit a very specific role is no longer valid, because you can switch between role so easily; one character could be a great tank, outstanding healer or deadly DPSer depending on the role that he or she has active. This isn’t very well explained in-game, however, and you may be left scratching your head for a few levels until you come to grips with the many options laid open to you.
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Although the tagline “You’re not in Azeroth anymore” fells appropriate for Rift from the perspective of the game’s backstory, it’s ironic once you start playing the game. That’s because Rift has taken plenty of lessons from the dominate force in the genre. In fact, it even has most of the same default key bindings. Yes, this is yet another hot-key based MMO; if you’re sick to death of action bars, Rift isn’t for you.
This makes it a bit easy to write the game off as a mere clone if you only spend a few hours with it. The newbie zone is predictably easy-going; although it may still be enough to overwhelm you at times, it’s still easy. It’s only once you get out of the newbie zone that Rift’s gameplay starts to curve away from other games in the genre.
Much Rift’s unique gameplay comes courtesy of the Rifts themselves, which I explained early. Although Warhammer Online introduced the idea of public quests, it didn’t execute them very well. They were too few, often out of the way, and rarely gave great rewards. Rift, by contrast, offers players amazing rewards for participating in Rifts and Invasions, both in terms of loot and experience. Leveling via rifting may even be quicker than trying to stick to quests.
Rift is also the most unapologetically difficult mainstream MMO, which some players are likely to find refreshing. It’s hard to fight more than two or three even level monsters at a time, and even the first dungeon in the game is no pushover. Then there are the Invasion raid bosses, which live up to their name; if you don’t have a group of at least twenty-five level appropriate players you can forget about beating them.
While the challenge can be daunting at times, it keeps the game fresh. Sometimes, when you see an invasion pack heading down the road, you have to run for your life. But that makes victory all the sweeter when you bump into a few other players also interested in liberating the same quest hub, you combine forces, and you beat those stupid skeletons to dust.
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Audio and Graphics
The visuals in Rift are a mixed bag. The more realistic feel of the game’s art sometimes works to create jaw-dropping zones. Scarlet Gorge, for example, is a visual masterpiece; the contrast of the nearly cloudless blue sky with the burning red canyon walls is gorgeous. However, Rift’s artists are sometimes all too willing to place you into zones that feel nasty by design. Scarwood, a level 30-35 zone, is a dreary local that I couldn’t wait to get out of.
Player character graphics are similarly mixed. Those who despise World of Warcraft’s “clownsuits” - sets of armor with ridiculously mis-matched colors –will be happy to know that Rift is no plagued with any similar problem. Most of the game’s armor looks realistic and meshes well with other pieces. However, this also means that the armor you receive is often visually dull. You’ll spend most of the game looking like a battle-worn soldier who has been on the front line without supplies for months.
Fortunately, the drab visuals don’t carry over to the user interface, which is excellent in nearly every way. The default map is visually exciting and useful, and most of the menus are both intuitive and nice to look at.
If you’re looking for audio stimulation, you won’t find a lot in Rift to be excited about. The sounds in the game are perfectly utilitarian but rarely much more. The music is extremely well executed, and better than that of many other MMOs, as it maintains a theme without becoming overly dramatic. However, it’s still essentially generic fantasy music and doesn’t offer any surprises.
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As I said in my recent World of Warcraft: Cataclysm review, the new expansion for WoW hooked me. But having leveled a character all the way to maximum for the first time, I eventually stalled. Raiding in World of Warcraft, and virtually every other MMO in existence, takes a tremendous amount of effort and preparation.
In Rift I took down my first Invasion raid boss with a group of at least fifty random people at level 11. It was an absolute blast. And if you don’t mind dealing with the ganking that occurs on the PvP servers, there is even more in store for you; in later zones the Guardians and Defiant share the space and the invasions, which means that running open-world PvP battles occur for the right to take down the Invasion raid boss and earn the rewards that go with it. Rift puts the multi-player back into MMO.
Will Rift ultimately be a huge hit? I haven’t a clue. But what I can tell you is that Rift is the best MMO I have ever played. Some players, having noticed the similarities to World of Warcraft, have questioned why they would play Rift instead. I think the question should be turned on its head; why play World of Warcraft instead of Rift? Why wait until level 85 to raid? Why spend days leveling with nary a player in site? Why run and fly about a world that is large but empty? Why put up with inflexible talent trees when you can instead mix-and-match however your please?
I’ve canceled my World of Warcraft subscription, and I don’t see myself going back.
All Images are Courtesy of Trion and Trion's Fan Website Package