not a review

Not A Review: Rift

by Adam Biessener on Mar 03, 2011 at 11:00 AM

Trion’s flagship MMORPG is a couple of days past its official launch date. How do the touted class mechanics and dynamic content generation hold up so far? I’ve got more than a few thoughts to share.

For those not already familiar with the game, Rift is a relatively hardcore triple-A fantasy MMORPG. It's huge, expansive, and complex. You'll take a hero from level one to 50, outfitting her with progressively fancier equipment along the way and distributing the points that define her abilities across several skill trees. How you play is up to you -- fully fleshed out PvP, public dynamic content, and instanced dungeons are all there to be explored. The game isn't exactly newbie-unfriendly, but I suspect that Rift will be a lot to take in for anyone without a solid grounding in MMO conventions.

Rift is a modern marvel from an engineering perspective. The game has been more solid than some offline games, to say nothing of the many issues that can plague an MMO launch. The servers have been as stable as you’d expect of a game that had been out for three years, even in the head start (see my diary and videos from my first day with the game here). The one crash I have experienced to date was a clean exit to desktop that didn’t require a restart, and (crucially, for the moment) the server didn’t log me out, so I didn’t have to deal with the queue to get back in.

Those queues -- where you can log in, but your server is full and won’t allow any more players into the game itself -- were brutal for several servers (mine included) through the headstart last week. Since the proper launch on Tuesday and the bevy of new servers that Trion brought online for it, even high-population shards like mine are down to about a half-hour queue during primetime. That’s not ideal, but it’s reasonable for a hyped MMO to have a few servers with short queues during peak times.

Once you’re in, though, the game is brilliant, especially if you’re a player like me, who adored World of Warcraft in its day but have found it to be increasingly stale even with a fresh new expansion. Rift is targeted directly at us, and it makes no bones about it. Everything from default keybindings to the user interface will be familiar and comfortable to any EverQuest-genre vet. But where Rift shares the language that the majority of the MMORPG-playing public speaks, the sentences it constructs and the stories it tells with those familiar nouns and verbs are delightfully fresh.

Innumerable improvements in the margins (a mailbox two steps from the auctioneer? Class trainers in the main marketplace? Thank you!) consistently amaze the jaded MMO veteran in me, but Rift was always going to succeed or fail on two pillars: class mechanics and dynamic content. It’s too early to crown the game and parade it through the streets -- I’m only halfway to the level cap, for gosh sakes -- but so far Trion is knocking both of those ambitious pitches out of the park.

Rift allows players to equip any three of the nine souls -- which function as WoW-like talent trees -- available to their “calling” (warrior, cleric, mage, or rogue). In addition to the traditional roles these fantasy archetypes are associated with, you can create healing mages, tanking clerics, support rogues, and more. More importantly, the massive hybridization that this creates throws the doors wide open for player creativity.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that everyone in my (relatively large) guild has their own build that they think is the best one in the game. It’s getting to the point that talking about soul combinations and talent setups in guild chat is like showing off pictures of your kids around the water cooler. “Oh yeah? Well, mine has two instant-cast knockbacks and a DoT [damage over time] that drains its damage back as health.” The build I’ve personally settled on combines Inquisitor, Druid, and Warden into a nuke-throwing, health-draining, pet-summoning PvP death machine that plays something like an unholy cross between WoW’s Warlock, Druid, and Hunter classes. I love it like I’ve never loved an RPG character before,* but if you ask any Rift player past level 20 or so, you’ll get a similarly glowing testimonial about their build of choice. I know teleporting tanks, healing archers, stealthy bomb-throwers, and everything in between. The system is absolute genius.

I have some concern that it’ll fall into the same theory-crafted build-of-the-month pattern once most people are level-capped and settling in for serious endgame business, but the sheer variety in Rift may even defy whatever analogue to the Elitist Jerks community pops up. For now, class mechanics in Rift are amazing.

* With the possible exception of a halfling fighter/thief I made in Icewind Dale: Heart of Winter who had a 10% chance to take half damage from spells...and a 90% chance to take no damage. The half-hearted fusion of AD&D and Third Edition rules in that game was hilariously broken (and all the more awesome for it).

[Next up: Rift’s rifts]

I’ve seen a lot of Internet commenters dismissing Rift’s dynamic content system as being the same as Warhammer Online’s public quests. While rifts do resemble public quests in some mechanical ways, the comparison is massively unfair to Rift. Did you ever see thirty Warhammer public quests spawn at the same time and start sending invasions at quest hubs and major player towns?

To clarify some of the confusion terminology here, allow me to explain the several types of dynamic content in Rift:

  • Rifts are multi-stage encounters where the sky rips apart and elemental forces pour into the world. They are the most similar to Warhammer’s public quests, with new challenges spawning in sequence. Rifts come in several flavors: the traditional four elements as well as life and death, each of which has many variations. If left open, Rifts will occasionally spawn invasions.
  • Invasions typically consist of a leader and its entourage, of which none, some, or all will be elite monsters that require a group to defeat. They move across the land, fighting anything not aligned to their element -- I’ve had some success soloing invasions that stop to fight indigenous monsters. If an invasion reaches a town or encampment, it will assault the settlement’s Wardstone. Should no players come by to deal with the situation, it’ll temporarily take over the area and players will have to defeat it in order to access the quests, vendors, and other services there.
  • Events (sometimes called major invasions) are zone-wide catastrophes that everyone in the area has to band together to deal with. The ones I’ve seen have sent dozens of invasion forces at two or three points that players have to defend while accomplishing whatever the victory condition of the event is. Some simply require defeating a certain number of rifts and invasions. Others have more esoteric goals, like the Death event where players have to charge shield-powering capacitors with Shadestone gathered through defeating planar creatures throughout the zone. After fulfilling the victory condition, a huge boss spawns and heads toward the zone’s capital. The boss fight itself can take upwards of 10 minutes -- they’re just like any outdoor raid boss.

While most rifts and invasions can be tackled by a small group of players, events are scaled to demand the attention of most of the players in the zone. Failing an event not only brings shame to your faction, but also means you’ve lost the chance to pick up the excellent loot that defeating the bosses grants. Plus, you’re going to have to deal with the invasions (or wait for them to despawn) anyway to continue questing in the zone, since failing an event usually means that all of your major quest hubs have been overrun.

Events are great fun. What are you playing a fantasy MMO for if not to get together with a bunch of other people to save the world from the forces of darkness? Turning back waves of extraplanar invaders from your towns along with a ragtag group of whatever heroes happened to be in the vicinity gives me a profound, primal satisfaction.*

Trion has fantastic incentives to get players into rifts and events (the rewards are on par if not better than what you get from dungeons), so it’s rare to see players ignore them. The great times I’ve had interacting with random strangers on my server in the last week and a half in Rift eclipse the old spontaneous PvP wars in Azeroth, which have been my MMO high water mark since 2006.

* Yes, I am a huge nerd. Let’s move on.

[Next up: Oh yeah, the PvP: it’s awesome]

Remember when I was gushing about the soul system and how it lets you create the fantasy hero(ine) you’ve always wanted? Why would you not want to test that build against other players in Rift’s PvP? Personally, I was prepared to hate it for being what I assumed would be an unbalanced mess. What I found inside Warfronts (Rift’s name for Battlegrounds) was...glory.

A few things make Warfronts a cut above equivalent arenas in similar MMOs. In the leveling brackets, your base stats get boosted to the top of the range. I’ve crushed the level 20-29 bracket as a 24 thanks to this (and my own mad skills, of course). The map design is fantastic, particularly in Codex, the domination-style game. Black Garden, the hold-the-ball scenario, feels a lot like WoW’s Warsong Gulch without the camping and the stupid turtle strategies (the item you have to hold to get victory points damages the carrier increasingly over time).

Damage, healing, and health are well balanced so that it’s possible to kill players with focused fire even through strong heals, but you rarely feel like you got unfairly wrecked -- every time I’ve gotten blown up by the other team, it’s clear upon reflection that I really shouldn’t have tried to go one-on-three. And for once, crowd control is strong (the mage’s Dominator soul is crazy good) but not overpowering.

My experience in previous MMO PvP combat was either that a gear disparity makes everything suck unless you’re at the top of the pile (WoW) or that class balance was a total disaster (WAR) or that nobody cared about the PvP outside of a vile, insular community that interacting with made me homicidal (most everything else). Rift has so far avoided all of these traps. I’m frankly astounded -- I’m usually as “carebear” as they come, but I’m loving Warfronts.*

As much as I’m gushing about Rift’s PvP, I do have more questions about its long-term appeal than about the rest of the game. Moreso than on the PvE side of things, I worry that the community will crystallize around a few dominating builds and that the combat’s dynamic, engaging nature will die a slow death as a rigid metagame emerges. This is far from inevitable -- Trion can absolutely avoid it through careful balancing and a lot of hard work -- but there are a lot of landmines between “fun launch” and “strong endgame PvP experience.”

Speaking of balancing, a good start would be nerfing Bards and Saboteurs.

* I’m still enough of a carebear to play on a PvE server, it’s true. Direct your derision to the comment section.

[Next up: Caveats and questions]

In case you flipped to the last page without reading the intervening fifteen thousand words, I’m extremely positive about Rift overall. I’m having an absolute blast with the game, and I plan on subscribing for the foreseeable future. But I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t have a little doubting and hating to do.

What happens when nobody’s in the leveling zones any more? Events and rifts can scale, yes, but dynamic public content isn’t much fun without others to join in. Maybe it’s inevitable that the early game always becomes a lonely race to the level cap, but Rift will lose much of its appeal in that eventuality. The questing itself isn’t bad, but it’s no great shakes, and I’d much rather level yet another WoW alt than take a Rift character through a deserted zone as it stands.

Rifts don’t "really matter." Even if you completely ignore a major event and the zone is entirely swarmed under by invading forces, they’ll eventually despawn and things will be back to normal. Rift isn’t a truly dynamic game in the sense that, say, Eve Online’s player-driven galactic politics are. There are a lot of smoke and mirrors to convince you otherwise, but ultimately the entirety of Rift’s dynamic content is a thin layer over a static, immutable world.

Balance is a huge question mark. I know, I’ve sung its praises throughout this entire article. Endgame is a whole different beast, though, and the fantastic soul system is going to go for naught if there are six total viable raiding and/or PvP builds.

Mods are a necessity in a post-Warcraft world. Rift’s interface is quite good as it stands, and gives players a lot of freedom to move around elements and set it up like they want. That’s fine...for now. I’m already starting to miss my TitanPanel and my Recount and my Omen and my Bartender and everything else that makes my WoW interface my own. When it comes to specialized endgame tasks -- I’m thinking particularly about PvP targeting and raid healing here -- I have the feeling I’m going to be a lot less forgiving of the interface’s blind spots. Rift currently doesn’t support mods, and the developers have responded to player concerns over that fact by saying that they’re committed to the player experience,* so we’ll see how things play out.

Obligatory negativity aside, I’m obviously pleased and surprised by how much I’ve been enjoying Rift. I highly recommend the game to everyone, from the MMO-curious to Lady Sinestra killers. Rift pushes players together with one-click group joining and tons of public content, where WoW in particular pushes players apart with phasing and a solo focus. I didn’t realize how much I missed actually playing with other people in an MMO. Go figure.

I’ll be checking back in periodically with thoughts on how the game is progressing -- I have it on good authority that Phil and I will be talking to a very special Rift guest on our MMO podcast very soon, so keep an eye out for that -- but for now, all of my thumbs are up.

* Of course they are! This is one of those community management/public relations things that drives me crazy. Saying you’re "committed to delivering the best product possible to the customer" doesn’t mean anything. It is the entire point of your company’s existence, or if it’s not it’s what you want current and prospective customers to think. It’s like a priest coming out and saying that he "really believes in Jesus from the very bottom of his heart." It is assumed. There is no communication happening. It’s a null statement that exists only to try to reassure the recipient with no actual content.

And there’s your nerdrage for the day. Glad I could help.