Back in April I had the chance to fly out to San Francisco for Trion's unveiling of what is now called Rift: Planes of Telara. There was a lengthy hands-off demo exploring the rift gameplay mechanics back then, but at E3 this year I finally had a chance to get behind the controls and see how the fantasy MMORPG actually plays. Producer Adam Gershowitz (who recently has been added to the dev team at Trion) and head honcho Russ Brown watched over my shoulder and helped me along as I played through some of the game's newbie experience and explored the newly unveiled class system (details of which can be found here). And for a game that's still in the Alpha stages, the level of polish and sophistication is pretty incredible. Rift is certainly looking like the AAA title Trion hopes it will be.
Defiant players will begin life in the Shadowlands. Not to be confused with the titular location of a certain Anarchy Online expansion, the Shadowlands is sort of a place between life and death in the Rift universe. Players are all former heroes of a past war that rocked the world, and begin as what the team refers to as "Ascended Souls", a Telaran slain during the great Shade War and resurrected to combat the forces of Regulos. As one of the Ascended, players have access and the ability to commune with the souls of Telara's many fallen heroes. Basically this serves as the lore reasoning behind death and the multi-classing system.
From the start players will pick one of the game's 16 base souls (classes) as their primary at character creation. As you level you'll get points to spend in the soul's Soul Tree (skills) to unlock new class abilities. Currently players will unlock a second soul slot at level fifteen and a third at level thirty, giving you the potential to mix and match up to three souls at a time to create your own custom class. As you spend points in one soul's tree, you gain both root abilities (displayed in a winding linear path at the bottom of the tree) and points to spend in the more specific talents for things like critical hit chance and other improvements.
Obviously you'll only ever be able to have so many points to spend across all three soul trees, being that the level cap is 50 at launch. So whether you go extremely deep into one tree or spread your points out across multiple souls is up to you. Though the team is still playing with the cost and the mechanic of re-specs in their game, they understand the inherit need for letting players retool their choices and there will be a re-spec system in place at launch that both allows re-customization and inhibits players from doing it every five minutes. With the ability to combine any three souls from the same calling at one time, there's an incredible depth to this system that has me anxious to find out what the remaining classes will be.
The gameplay itself is fairly straightforward if you've ever played any of the more traditional MMORPGs. During the demo I tried out a Nightblade which is part of the rogue category classes. Dual-wielding and somewhat squishy, he plays quite a bit like the WoW rogue with combo points, stealth, and a high emphasis on single-target damage. But there's a catch: he also deals in dark magic. After leveling and obtaining my first points to spend in the soul tree, I unlocked a ranged fireball sort of spell which applies a DOT to the target and adds a combo point at the same time. I then able to fire off about two or three shots before the mob would get up close to me at which point I was able to unleash a finisher with the accrued combo points. The Nightblade is definitely going to be a class I have some fun with when the game launches in early 2011. For me specifically it has a really nice blend of melee and magic all focused on dealing death to the enemy.
Before we finished the demo, Adam showed me an as of yet announced class that he prefers to play. I couldn't get him to tell me the name, but he paired the class up with a Nightblade and I marveled as he teleported in and out of combat hitting the enemies with multiple stabs and then porting away, firing off some fireballs, porting in and stabbing, porting away and shooting... all I could think of was "Holy crap that's going to be a nightmare in PvP". When I asked him about how the team was approaching balance with such a complex class system he assured me that they have tools in place to track the metrics and watch for signs of overt imbalance, but that they fully realize the ascended soul system is going to mean there's simply no way around imbalances from time and to time and that they'll just do their best to adjust the game based on feedback from the players. I don't envy their position on that front, but at least they're honest about the task ahead.
Adam also showed me around a bit of one of the game's capital cities. Like Ironforge or Freeport before it, it's here that players will likely do most of their economical maneuvering, training, and other less combative pastimes. On the subject of training, Adam told me that while players will gain all of their skills and abilities out in the world as they level up, returning to a trainer at the cities will allow them to purchase additional ranks of each spell or skill for a monetary cost. It's at the trainers where players will also be able to re-spec and try out new builds as well. In the cities players will also be able purchase their mounts, one of which I was privy to see at E3. While there will apparently be a large number of available mounts with no class or race restrictions (though possibly some factional restrictions) they weren't quite ready to show them all off. Rest assured it's not all about horses. The mount Adam whipped out was something of a blend between a rhino and lizard, massive in scale and covered in scales.
But just as he began to bound around on the beast with great zeal, the PR rep came and told us our time was up for the day. Reluctantly, I bid farewell to Adam and Russ and the awesomeness of the ascended soul system. For sure, Rift plays quite like your traditional MMORPGs in terms of combat and pacing. It has a large seamless world to roam about and plenty of additional fluff like achievements, customizable armor, a deep guild system that is not quite ready for revealing and everything else you've come to expect from a Triple-A release. But the real value of Rift will undoubtedly rest in its innovative class system and the dynamic content offered by the Rifts themselves. One thing's certain this early on though... Trion's not screwing around. The polish and attention to detail even at an early stage are apparent and one hopes they have the fortitude and time to follow through on the promise Rift has at its disposal.