Dwarves are rubbish. Gold, beards, beer, shortness, regional accents – we’ve seen it a thousand times. Why play a dwarf when you could play a goblin with a pet squig or a Chaos marauder who can turn his arm into a fleshy club? So we're surprised to find ourselves playing as a dwarf. And loving it. Especially the shield bash, which knocks our enemies onto their backs with a bone-crunching thud, allowing us to get in a few very cheap axe blows before they get up. Dirty. And we like it. You still won’t catch us being a bloody high elf, mind.
During this last decade of Peter Jackson and Blizzard defining the general public’s idea of fantasy, it’s been forgotten that Games Workshop quietly redefined namby-pamby Tolkien stereotypes decades ago. That’s why Warhammer Online’s dwarves feel like grim warriors, not comedic Scotsmen. That’s why its orcs are genuinely ugly, not humanised. WAR is the same Light vs Dark setup as seen in, let’s be frank, World of Warcraft, but that acronym is no accident. Neither is the omission of /dance. WAR is war. And it’s going to be huge.
There are two opposing factions: Order and Destruction, each consisting of three races. It’s High Elves, Dwarves and the Human Empire for the former, and Dark Elves, Greenskins and Chaos for the latter. Each race has three to four of its own ‘careers’ (classes), amounting to 20 in all. Though there are definite analogues, no two races have the same classes. Each of the two sides has one city to its name – purdy, Germanic Altdorf for Order, and the epic, otherwordly Inevitable City for Destruction. These aren’t social or shopping hubs so much as enormous trophies and goals, the ultimate battleground for the RvR meta-game. Once one side has a decisive upper hand on the server, they get to raid the enemy capital. The zones eventually reset so war can begin anew, but in the meantime there’s glorious pillage to be had.
Before we go any further, please indulge us in a brief look behind the curtain. Reviewing an MMO isn’t the same as reviewing any other game. It takes months to see everything. It’ll change massively not just over its lifetime, but in the first couple of months following release. Some aspects of it won’t be properly up and running until the player base is big enough and the kinks are ironed out. So, making a final, final judgement on every part of the game based on our time spent in the closed and open betas ahead of full release just isn’t honest. Server-side teething trouble hasn’t helped, and is why you might observe the characters in most of the screenshots are fairly low level – in fact we’ve played multiple characters at much higher levels in the largely embargoed closed beta. We’ve spent dozens of hours immersed in this game, but we're not going to pretend we’ve played every class up to level 40 and run every battleground and siege it has.
So: this review will tell you what you can expect to get by buying a boxed copy of WAR and spending the next few weeks with it. OK? No more tears? No more yelling? Let’s get on with it, then. Warhammer Online is comfortably the most important MMO since World of Warcraft. To a significant extent it adheres slavishly to the old ways, but at the same time it’s the first that’s interested in advancing the idea of what an MMO can be. Lord of the Rings Online, Age of Conan, Vanguard – each has its own achievements, but all they ultimately do is to add a few piercings and tattoos to the aging, out of shape EverQuest body that WoW so successfully dragged off to the gym. WAR might employ most of the same mechanisms – and the same aesthetic values – as World of Warcraft, but the difference is it often opts for ‘Instead Of’ rather than ‘As Well As’.