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William Murphy Posted:
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Editor's Note: It has come to our attention that through a communication snaffu, Bill has been playing the Alpha build of the game, and not the Beta. We apologise for the inconvenience.

MMORPGs are tricky things to get right. They are immense worlds built to laborious detail containing several different game systems that must work harmoniously. It’s not an easy task for any developer, much less a newly formed one like Trion Worlds, to come out guns blazing and get it right on its first try. World of Warcraft came along and set an obvious bar for most games when it comes to quality, immersion, and ease of play. Rift has a definitely luxury going for it in that it’s coming out half a decade after WoW shocked the genre, and it shows. While the game follows the tried and true mechanics that the MMO genre has become used to (hotbars, healer/tank/DPS, quest hubs, two warring factions), it manages to do each very well and form a cohesive experience where many games have failed in recent years. In short, it does indeed have the “it factor” an MMO need in order to keep people playing and paying, and it might even pull some folks who are tired of Azeroth away from WoW. Emphasis on might and some. Because ultimately one of its greatest flaws will be seen as the fact that it’s very much akin to World of Wacraft (and most other traditional MMOs). But let’s focus for now on how Rift succeeds.

I spent my time with Rift playing a Defiant of the Rogue archetype. My first soul choice was that of the Nightblade. I’d spent some time with that soul at E3 and it really is a nice take on the rogue using a combo point system that is similar to what we see in World of Warcraft. No matter which type of rogue you choose to play as (Assassin, Saboteur, Ranger, etc.) you’ll be using this combo point mechanic which allows you to unleash extremely powerful attacks depending on how many combo points you’ve stacked on an enemy (maximum of five). Anyone who is familiar with MMOs will quickly find themselves at home in Rift.

The problem with many MMOs rests in its UI, but that’s not the case with Rift. The controls are both responsive and straightforward. When you press a hotkey to active a skill, it does what it’s supposed to do and you get an immediate sense of “combat satisfaction” from engaging in combat. This is something that’s no small task when you’re dealing with a highlight and hotkey combat system. One small complaint I do have with combat is that due to cool-downs on the Rogue archetype’s skills combined with the need to watch how many combo points you have to spend winds up in me feeling like I have to watch the UI and not the action on the screen. It takes me out of the experience, but I fear it’s something that can’t be changed this late in the development process. Some folks might not mind it so much as they like the micro-management. But I doubt I’d play a Rogue come launch, is all I’m saying. I can only hope the other classes allow the player to focus on the action more than their hotbars and other UI elements.

That said I do find myself compelled to keep playing the game. Rift, like all MMOs is made with the goal of retaining players for long periods of time. Rift has that addictive quality, at least at the onset. The game flows well, from location to location and you’re never left feeling like you don’t have some direction in which to adventure. Some players will decry the game due to the fact that they’re being handheld through the leveling process by the structure of quests. It’s not necessarily an issue for me, however, as I feel the game gives enough incentive with its collections to explore on my own and not feel restricted by questing non-stop. The world itself is absolutely huge too, and with two factions and two dozen classes or so to try out there seems to be a lot of replay value which is absolutely necessary with any MMORPG.

As noted above, there are an incredible amount of quests in the game. Some are extremely well designed and satisfying to play, while others are of the common “kill this many things” variety. That’s a hard thing to knock an MMO for, considering it seems to be the status quo, but nearly 20 years into the genre I guess I’m still hoping that developers would disguise the “Kill Ten Rats” system a little better. Luckily there seem to be plenty of more interesting quests with the lore tied directly to them, so that as long as a player reads the quest-text they’ll find themselves rather engaged with what they’re doing.

The namesake of the game, the Rifts themselves, are an interesting take on the Public Quest idea first introduced by EA Mythic with Warhammer Online. Essentially the story-driven reason behind these rifts is that six planes of other realities are seeping into Telara (earth, water, fire, ice, life, and death). Regardless of which side you choose to play on, each of you wishes to make sure that none of the other planes take over Telara. So rifts, from a gameplay perspective are about the invasion of Telara by not so nice forces. The idea is to get players together in attacking them and perhaps even having factions fighting over who gets to take them out since they offer rewards of their own for completion. They even seem to scale based on how many players are there taking part in the rift. It’s all very dynamic and adds to the game world in that it makes Telara seem more alive.

There are some issues I have with rifts, however. They’re essentially supposed to be the main draw of the game, but as I spent more time playing I found myself avoiding them and going around them on my adventures. They’re fun enough, and I’m glad that a solo player can often complete them as that’s my usual play-style, but the rewards seem completely not worth the hassle right now. You get what basically amounts to another form of currency when you complete a rift, which you can spend on some pretty wicked items. The only problem is that each item seems to cost an arm and a leg and to get enough of the rift “tokens” you’d have to complete tons of them. In the end it just seems like something to grind at the end-game, and not something I’d be interested in doing during the leveling process. And that’s sad because I have a suspicion that I won’t be the only person skipping over them within days of starting my first character.

The system that seems to be the real winner in Rift has nothing to do with the game’s title itself. What’s really going to get MMORPG fans salivating is the soul system. Essentially it goes like this: you pick your class archetype (rogue, warrior, cleric, mage) when you create your character. Then by the end of the tutorial you pick your first soul (think of it as a specialization in one of the archetypes). As stated before, I chose the rogue archetype and the first soul I went with was the Nightblade. Then later on you’re given your second soul choice, which can be combined with as much or as little of your first soul. Then again, once you finish the zone of Freemarch (for Defiants) you’ll be awarded a third soul. At any time you can combine up to three souls and spend skill points in each of their trees to make your ideal class combination. It’s really an amazingly deep and yet simple idea and one that I can’t believe hasn’t been thought of before.

What takes it one step beyond is that you can purchase “roles”, which allow you to switch between different specs at any time between combat. I spent a lot of my time playing a Nightblade/Saboteur, but with the click of a mouse I could switch over to a Ranger/Nightblade or a Ranger/Saboteur. It’s an ingenious system that allows for an unparalleled amount of versatility for each main archetype. It has to be an absolute balance-nightmare from a design perspective, but the payoff of giving players so many choices on how to play the game is likely more than worth the brain-wracking.

Crafting in an MMORPG is often seen as an essential part of the game by some. I’m not one of those who does see it as necessary, usually because the mechanics behind it involve a lot of repetitive menu clicking to make a bunch of throw away items that I’ll never use to arbitrarily raise my skill level until I can make the next thing that’s just going to go to waste. As you can probably tell, I was saddened by the fact that Rift’s crafting is just a rehash of the crafting before it. Get ingredients, make things, raise skill level, repeat. That’s not to say that others won’t like it, especially if the items later on in the crafting process are comparable to the items one can obtain through dungeons/raids/rifts/PvP. That’s the key. For crafting to matter, the crafted goods have to be as good or better than what players can obtain from other parts of the game.

It’s starting to sound like I didn’t enjoy my time with Rift, and that couldn’t be further from the truth. The game is absolutely filled to the brim with content and things to see and do, and in that regard Trion is likely on the right path towards a successful and traditional MMORPG. I just can’t escape the feeling that I’ve played most of it before. Luckily the soul attunement system, combined with the potential of the rifts have me thinking this is a game to watch when it launches next year and I’ll likely be picking it up on day one. Why? Despite the faults I’ve listed? Because it’s rare that a truly playable, complex, and fun MMO comes out, and Rift is definitely that much.


William Murphy

Bill is the former Managing Editor of MMORPG.com, RTSGuru.com, and lover of all things gaming. He's been playing and writing about MMOs and geekery since 2002, and you can harass him and his views on Twitter @thebillmurphy.