Rift's claims that "we're not in Azeroth anymore" sound a bit like what you'd hear from some naive American tourists in Calgary jabbering about how they're no longer in the United States. Sure, the lawyers wear funny ties and there's that whole free health care thing, but it's hard to argue that one country doesn't feel much the same as the other. And so it goes with Rift. Trion's pretty world is best understood as a satisfying brew containing the best parts of games like World of Warcraft and Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning, all bottled up in one convenient package that packs a welcome kick for MMO veterans and newcomers alike. Accept it on that level, and it's easy to identify Rift's world of Telara as one of the best MMO landscapes of the last six years, with some reservations.
Above: We're not in Duskwood anymore
As it happens, Rift has everything you'd expect from a contemporary MMO (down to guilds, trade skills, and reputation grinds), including two factions too stupid to realize that they could easily knock out the Big Evil Threat if they just stopped beating the crap out of each other. On one side we have the haughty Guardians, the teacher's pets of the gods; and on the other we have the Defiants, who tinker with steampunk machinery since the gods don't like them so much. In either case, you play as an Ascended (brought back either by science or the gods) whose sole purpose in life is to defeat the dragon god Regulos and the nasty rifts he opens throughout the world of Telara. Depending on which faction you choose, you'll start in an instanced starting zone either 20 years in the past or 20 years in the future. If the approach has a drawback, it's that the linear faction starting zones quickly grow boring as soon as you create your first alternate character. There's plenty of lore in all this, however, which is all the more remarkable because Rift features an entirely original story; one that doesn't have the advantage of long-running franchises propping it up like World of Warcraft or DC Universe Online.
And Rift doesn't waste any time before waving its few authentic innovations in your face. The first you'll discover is its rich class and talent system. Immediately after selecting one of four archetypical "callings" (warrior, mage, cleric and rogue) during character creation, you choose your first "soul" to kick off your adventures in Telara. Souls are essentially individual talent trees in other games, but the key difference here is that you can collect up to nine of them. You get your first three early on through story progression, and then you get most of the rest by stealing souls from evil versions of representative classes summoned through rifts. The process isn't hard; if anything, it's a little too easy. Thanks to the endlessly spawning rifts, our mage picked up all but one of his available souls in around two hours just by running back and forth between the quest NPCs and the ever-present rifts.
Above: Yeah, it looks a little familiar. But, dude, you can be a rogue tank!
The key advantage to this system is getting to customize up to four roles consisting of three souls each that greatly change your gameplay experience. Take clerics. If a cleric wants to knock around some vampires with melee weapons, he simply switches to a role with the Justicar, Shaman and Druid souls. If he wants to sit back and heal his buddies, he activates a role with Purifier, Warden and Sentinel souls. Think of it as a "quad spec" instead of a "dual spec" system. In theory, this means that there are hundreds of ways to make your character stand out without resorting to the "cookie cutter" builds that plague games like World of Warcraft. In reality, trusted cookie-cutter builds are already popping up on the forums and some callings find several of the souls all but ignored. For instance, leveling a mage seems pointless with anything other than a combination of Necromancer, Warlock or Dominator, and we've heard similar complaints from rogues.
Questing in general leaves you with the impression that Rift's development team was sucked through a time rift to 2004. Again and again, you arrive at a quest hub with about five guys with exclamation marks over their heads, you do their quests, and you come back and chitchat for more. This pattern never really changes, although the storyline oddly improves with level. Yet the quests themselves are usually the same boring crap, consisting of killing or collecting five of this or that and running to some guy a mile away once you're done. For a game so deft at filching from its competition, Rift seems to have ignored most of the recent important innovations in quest design. But questing has its high points, too. For one, Rift features a mass-looting mechanic that scoops up all your nearby plunder. For another, you generally don't have to worry about some jackass getting the credit for killing the mob you've been fighting to get to for the last 30 minutes. If you see some punk running toward that last zombie, you can usually click on a player name badge and join a public group with them at any time. Everybody wins, and we like to think that's one of the reasons why Rift doesn't need a "spit" emote.
Above: Have a plant fetish? Rift has a tentacle for that
Yet the grouping system comes into its own around the rifts themselves. This, in fact, is probably Rift's greatest feature. Rifts appear without warning from the various planes (earth, fire, air, water, life and death) and within seconds a small extra-dimensional army of demons or elementals spills out onto the spot where you were pilfering that last bleeding goblin for his candles. If you're just running up, you'll immediately see an option to "Join Public Group" once you get near the rift, and this whisks you into the fray without having to beg for an invitation. Together you fight off wave after wave of nasty demonspawn - sometimes with timers - before you finally get to a boss and close the rift. And, best of all, there's no fighting over loot: rifts award currency and swag based on how much you contributed to the battle, which goes a long way toward dissuading lazy players from idly watching everyone else do the dirty work.
This may remind some players of Warhammer group quests, but here the rifts can spawn virtually anywhere at any time. And spawn they do, almost nonstop. For added excitement, enemies from one type of rift will usually fight enemies from another rift if close enough, even with swarms of players beating on them both. If you're feeling ambitious, you can even open one yourself provided you find a "tear" in the landscape. Yet if you and your fellow Telarans fail to close the rifts in time, the monsters start terrorizing the whole countryside, down to the quest hubs that story progression so desperately depends on.
Above all, the constant rifts and invasions ensure that no two visits to a particular zone ever seem the same, and this may spell success for Rift once most of its initial players reach the level cap in the coming days. Yet while closing your first rift with a bunch of other players counts as one of the few truly awesome MMO experiences these days, the experience quickly gets repetitive and downright boring after only a few times. By Level 30, we found ourselves getting annoyed by all the rifts in one zone, particularly when no one rushed to close them and the rift stood right on top of our questing spot. And since quest progression is often brutally linear, this could stop you in your tracks until the rifts despawn or some buddies help you close it.
Above: Not your average five-man dungeon scenery
In our experience, the instanced dungeons are beautiful if a bit easy. As Guardians, we started off with the Realm of the Fae dungeon, which kicks off in a forest but surprisingly ends atop a snowy peak. In the next, the Darkening Deep, we raced through an underground goblin city and faced off against a werewolf and a gigantic spider. The problem? None of the instances seemed particularly challenging. Even with random players, we never once really talked about strategy with the groups we were in, and we usually adjusted to unexpected strategies on the fly. It doesn't look like it'll improve much at endgame aside from some spikes in challenge. Case in point: You get a chance to partake in two tiers of "expert" dungeons (read: heroic) at Level 50, but most of these are mere repeats of the same instances you played through at earlier levels.
PVP is fun, if a little predictable. As the game stands, you never know what kind of build enemy players will have thanks to the huge variability of the class/soul system, and this diversity alone makes PVP fairly balanced for now. Unfortunately, Rift completely missed the chance to make its PVP "warfronts" truly innovative by using something like its rift concept; instead it slavishly lifts ideas from World of Warcraft's battlegrounds. Again, it does this well, but here the borrowings sting most of all. The Level 50 warfront Port Scion seems like an early version of WoW's Alterac Valley; the Codex bears striking similarities to Arathi Basin, a king-of-the-hill type battleground; and the Black Garden is a capture-the-flag affair reminiscent of Warsong Gulch. To be fair, there are flashes of originality here. In Black Garden, for instance, the shard that passes for the "flag" eats health from the carrier (although others will recognize this as an import from Warhammer).
But at least the world looks cool. In fact, Rift's landscapes are often extraordinary. Among the early highlights we encountered on the guardian side were Gloamwood, a Transylvania-style zone complete with dreary villages and a gargantuan Stonehenge-style monument, and Scarlet Gorge, which looks like a mishmash of the Old West and the Lord of the Rings. Even the two faction cities are stunning (if a bit small and confusing), and the immense detail in almost every object radiates on even the lowest settings.
Above: No DD cups? Rift is more innovative than we thought
Yet Rift's presentation isn't perfect. Something about the combat seems a little flat and unsatisfying. Using the auction house is an ordeal, and even the primary game font seems hard to read at times. The audio in particular is weak: while there's nothing wrong with Inon Zur's commendable score (and we especially liked the transitions to "battle music" when we entered combat), sound in general seems strangely muted and sword fights yield almost none of the steel-clanging action that gets our blood going.
Listen, fanboys: Rift is not a WoW-killer. At best it offers some healthy competition that should slam some innovation into Blizzard's overly comfortable development team; at worst it seems a little too derivative even with the undeniable polish. But it's refreshingly stable. Not once did we see a server crash - even at peak hours when rifts and invasions were as thick as protesters in Madison - and server queues have all but disappeared in the days since release. As it stands, Rift is an excellent title for MMO fans seeking a change of scenery while sticking to familiar concepts, even if they only play up to the current level cap of 50. It's fresh, it's new, and it's unburdened by endless strategy guides and add-ons that might as well be called cheats. (In fact, Rift doesn't even allow third-party mods.) Most importantly, it's fun.
Above: Mods? Where we're going, we don't need mods
Above all, Rift needs to prove it can offer far more beyond 50. Trion's baby already shows some promise of being the most successful MMO release since World of Warcraft, but the endgame currently stands as a looming question mark that overshadows everything else. Worse, since so much of it currently seems based on the rifts themselves, we question how long the novelty will survive the brief bouts of irritation we experienced after chasing down the twelfth rift in one zone. For now, though, enjoy the ride. We suggest you use Rift to get your MMO fix while Cataclysm releases yet another patch of regurgitated content and Guild Wars 2 polishes its armor in the far horizon. It might not be the greatest MMO of all time, but it suffices brilliantly.
Mar 11, 2011