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Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning review

Excellent

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’.

Its Realm vs Realm aspect is a river that runs deep, not a superficial trickle of extra features. It isn’t MMO v2 by a long shot, but it is a response to rather than simply an imitation of WoW. As well as incorporating Mythic’s own
RvR concepts from Dark Age of Camelot into a current-gen game, it’s identified much of what has and hasn’t proved successful in the last three years of MMOs. As a result, compared to all the other post-WoW MMOs, WAR is both dramatically more ambitious and an odd admission of failure on the entire genre’s part. Where others have tried to set themselves up as huge worlds full of discovery and mystery, a place for adventurers, this is perhaps more cynical.

Most people don’t want that, as evidenced by the likes of Thottbot.com. It was never hard to work out where to go and what to do for an MMO quest, and even if it was, you could always ask other players – the risk of someone calling you a noob aside – but the last few years have proven that a lot of people don’t want journeys of discovery. They want constant achievement and progression, and they don’t want to get lost or confused in the process. If WAR were a buffet, it would have a neat little label in front of each plate stating exactly what’s in it, how many times you should chew it, and directions to the next plate.

It’s not that the game is easy or moronic, but rather that a philosophy of no time-wasting underpins it. Everything is clearly marked on the map, tracked on the HUD and written up at length in the Tome of Knowledge. Throughout the game, giant messages spam your screen, forever keeping you aware of exactly what’s going on. The more organic carnage of RvR scuffles aren’t quite as prescribed, but even so to achieve the larger goals you need to grab precise locations and monitor a tidy little list of exactly how many NPC guards are left to kill. Even the siege machinery is limited to a fixed number of ‘siege pads’ – this is no organic war, but more a sport with specific rules and specific goals. There are two good reasons for that: balance and focus. It might be artificial, but it keeps things fair and thrilling.

Whether your preference is for PvP or PvE, the frustrations of aimless wandering and vague directions are gone. It is, though, a reflection of arguably WAR’s greatest failing: it doesn’t create much of a world, a sense of place. It leans on the constant war for this, expecting the omnipresent factional barney to be atmosphere enough. In a way it is – it’s logical to argue that eternal conflict is the only preoccupation any player or character would need. It’s presented as fundamentally game-y though, and for all the tight integration of PvP with PvE, there’s no potential to convince yourself that this is all really happening. Stumble into an RvR area or Public Quest and the game as good as pops a neon sign announcing it out of the top of your monitor.

It might well be necessary, but it’s an overly-obvious, immersion-breaking way to go about it. WAR’s mechanisms have received far more attention than has its polish – it’s cursory in much of its presentation. There’s also no potential to explore or to be surprised. WAR is a sequence of combat-pockets, chained together and rarely far apart. You stumble from fight to fight to fight, with no stumbling off the beaten track. There is some genuinely incredible architecture to be seen, squeezing remarkable sights out of the toonish engine, but you’re invariably shepherded to it. There is only war, and that’s certainly a better thing than solemnly mining rocks or sewing cloth, but sometimes a boy just wants a jolly adventure.

WAR’s real adventures come from personal narratives, not from its pre-generated world or narratives. An intense duel with an enemy player or a push-’n’-pull siege that lasts long into the night – the stuff you’ll relate with friends after a long session. Don’t believe the Angry Internet Men who scream that WAR is a PvP game and thus shouldn’t be compared to WoW or LotRO or Conan. It’s at least as much a PvE game as it is a PvP one – the telltale green icon marking a new quest is omnipresent, while achievements and XP can be had on a near-infinite basis from quests handed out by Kill Collectors and The Tome of Knowledge’s Bestiary. So long as you’re happy to grind away at infinitely (and frankly too quickly) respawning NPC mobs for long enough, anyway.

It’s entirely possible to sidestep the Realm vs Realm altogether, and even to solo the game. You’d be missing out on its best features were you to do so, but one of the many lessons of WoW is that this is precisely what an awful lot of players want. They want Diablo. WAR tries to cater to these guys as much as to the most rabid PvPers. Trouble is, again, there’s this sense of tokenism to much of it. The PvE is in there and it’s hugely substantial, but it comes off more like Lineage. The quests are an awful lot quicker than that, but if you slow yourself down and actually observe what’s going on, you’ll see it’s very obviously zoned killing fields full of brain-dead NPCs who pop back into existence faster than you can kill them.

 

It’s a pure grind, the most cynical of all MMO conventions, but done at such high speeds that it’s very difficult to be annoyed by it. Aside from a bit too much cheerless back-’n’-forth running, quests are over almost before you know it. There’s also none of the “collect 20 ToothBeast teeth” rubbish, only to find that only one in every eight ToothBeasts have teeth. If you have to collect something from something, each instance of that something will have it. WAR doesn’t jerk its players around, and that’s very much something to be grateful for. With that, though, comes a bit of a shortage of imagination. It’s not without its playfulness – early tasks such as firing yourself out of a cannon or mounting an enemy chief’s head on a pole once you’ve vanquished him amuse the first time around, but generally quests are there to give you XP and nothing else.

 

Again though, Mythic have observed what hasn’t worked out so well in earlier MMOs and come up with a few solutions. By far the best example is the Public Quests (whose inclusion are also all the proof you need that PvE is an essential part of WAR). Most people aren’t playing MMOs to socialise. They’re playing MMOs to play the game. In a public quest, you can achieve something larger (i.e. kill something massive) than you ever could on your own, but with none of the hassle of talking to anyone else, and associated risk they’ll turn out to be a nutter who keeps talking about their foot fetish.

Players turn up individually but are all contributing to the same objective simply by being there. Everyone’s rewarded for their individual efforts, while those who do choose to group do better out of it because the XP and influence is shared. The initial stage of killing 50 to 100 Somethings builds to just a few harder Somethings and finally to a really massive Something that requires everyone to pile on. It’s a Raid with none of the organisation, essentially. You get the sense of accomplishment that only comes from group play, but you don’t have to talk to anyone.

To sound all supervillain for a moment, this is brilliant in its simplicity. It extends beyond the PQs too – you can form an open group that anyone can wordlessly join if they’re in the area. It’s not just about avoiding talking to strangers, but also about not having to muck around with invitations and OK/Cancel boxes when you’re in the middle of smacking a snotling around the chops. Especially during PvP, which open groups carry over into. A passer-by can come save your neck without worrying that he won’t get any XP or renown out of it, and without distracting you with on-screen prompts.

 

So what of the Realm vs Realm itself? It’s definitely the game’s heart even if it’s not as much its majority as you might think. It’s fairly evident that’s where the developers’ love lies, as it feels much grander than the shallow PvE. This is the aspect that we're most reticent to pass judgment on just yet, as it likely won’t be until a couple of months into the full release that the whole picture becomes clear. The high-level keep and city sieges could well be the most spectacular fights any fantasy MMO has ever offered, but it’ll take a large, experienced population to make them work. The earlier, lower-key PvP definitely makes it an exciting prospect, however. There’s a sense of intertwining to it, everything working towards a single purpose rather than being a collection of smaller, standalone tasks. Whatever your PvP activity, be it ganking RvR-flagged enemy players, seizing objectives in the open Battlefields or piling into all-out war in the closed Scenarios, it’s all adding to your Renown points and your side’s power.

Most of the game’s loot is purchased via Renown, which reduces the obsessive drop-hunting of other games but does homogenise everything somewhat, as so many folk of the same Career and level as you will be picking up exactly the same kit. It’s hard to feel like an individual in WAR – at first, at least. There is definite scope for difference in both your abilities and your appearance, but generally it’s quite a templated game. That’s not necessarily a failing – you are, after all, a foot soldier in a vast war, not the hero come to save the world. Another reflection of that is the class design. While they do all ultimately fall into the comfortable boxes of tank, DPS, ranged and healer, they really aren’t the same old stereotypes. In how they look and how they play, each and every one feels versatile, powerful and an agreeably long way outside of the ancient D&D blueprint.

 

Similarly, despite their geographic separation, the PvP and the PvE are very much thematically intertwined – you’re always fighting against the opposing faction, whether it’s an NPC, a player or a mixed army of both. Maybe it reduces the variety a little, but it definitely strengthens the sense of purpose, and when you do take those first steps into RvR they feel natural and in keeping with the monster-bashing. Aside from that calamitous beta launch and the occasional minor bug, what WAR also is, or at least seems likely to be from where we’re standing, is the most polished, complete MMO launch in history. With proper PvP and PvE there from the off, a vast choice of classes and a hatful of new ideas, it makes the likes of LotRO and Conan seem like footnotes, and even WoW’s initial launch seems pedestrian by comparison.

Its similarities to and improvements on WoW – most especially in PvP – make it the natural next home for anyone either dispossessed by Blizzard’s effort or who has held out from all MMOs in the hope of something a bit meatier. Playing Warhammer Online, it’s easy to forget that this game stems from a hobby so often accused of nerdiness. It shares design values, fiction and certain concepts with the Warhammer tabletop game, but really it’s only the name that binds them. Conan was supposed to be the so-macho MMO, but against this it seems a bit Sealed Knot. WAR is war. The associated intensity of this means it probably won’t pick up anything like the audience WoW has, but it will get a large one. And a very, very satisfied one at that.

Sep 18, 2008

More Info

Release date: Sep 18 2008 - PC (US)
Available Platforms: PC
Genre: Role Playing
Published by: EA Mythic
Developed by: Mythic Entertainment
Franchise: Warhammer
ESRB Rating:
Teen: Suggestive Themes, Use of Alcohol, Use of Tobacco, Violence, Mild Blood
PEGI Rating:
Rating Pending

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24 comments

  • onewheeled999 - June 6, 2010 2:03 a.m.

    Can anybody explain to me what's going on in the last picture on page 3?
  • kstichler - September 26, 2009 9:54 p.m.

    I spent 2 months in the world of Warhammer Online. GamesRadar rated it a 9. They said: You'll love PvE and PvP in harmony Not a WoW clone Quite user-friendly You'll hate Not an MMO revolution Still grindy Tons of hand-holding They were right when they said you'd hate the grind. It is way grindy. Grindy, grindy, grindy. I thought I was playing 'WarRunner Online'. I spent about 80% of my game time running up and down paths looking for the quest requirements. I made it to 9th lvl before I got so bored and frustrated that I was ready to give up on the game. I was having zero fun playing the game as a single-player. Mythic makes the claim that the Public Quests are one of the things they did right with Warhammer: Age of Reckoning. The PQ is a good innovation for MMOs but, it isn't worth anything if the areas are so lowly populated. I played about 7 weeks before I was able to get into a PQ with a party worthy of mentioning. That 1 good party had about 8 other players, and I had a real good time playing it. Every other time I was in a PQ for the first 7 weeks, there was maybe 1 other player besides me. Well, sometimes 2, my friend who got me to try WAR was there too a couple of times. His avatar was maxxed out at level 40, and he was slumming to help me out. I don't really count him because he shouldn't have been there. So the PQ areas were pretty dead, but what one thing related to parties and quests that WAR does right is the Open Grouping. You can jump in and out of parties very easily. None of the hours spent searching for a party that needs another tank. All of that waiting was what killed Guild Wars for me. And speaking of Guild Wars, I think the loot in WAR is about equal to the stuff you'll find in GW. Actually, WAR is a little better. The loot in GW was mediocre at best, and many items came with negative modifiers. I'm not sure why GW did that. I think it must have been to keep PvP level. But hindering the RPG part of the game was a bad idea. If the uniques are too unbalanced for PvP, then don't allow them in PvP. Don't give them negatives and spoil it for everybody. So why didn't I quit playing when I hated it at level 9? Well, my friend, who has been in the game since it started, told me to quit playing the RPG stuff and move over to the PvP part of the game. And that was were I spent the rest of my time. The scenarios I played were fun. The PvP combat on the party level is fun too. It is so much more fun than the RPG part of the game that if I was to run a new character I would skip the RPG part and go straight to PvP. Now, what is the verdict? As a PvP fighting game it's fun. You have a persistent character and you gain advancement based on your performance in the scenario. As an RPG it sucks. But if the PvP aspects of the game appeal to you, then play it and you'll like it. Just be aware that you can have the same online PvP fun in Battlefield Heroes, with no monthly subscription fee. Overall, I can't be as generous as GamesRadar, I can only give it a 6.5 at best.
  • krunkattack - September 29, 2008 10:39 p.m.

    I had a WoW subscription up until a month ago... played that for 2 years. Too busy right now, but in a few months I'm gonna decide between WoTLK and Warhammer. Warhammer looks really interesting, but so does WoTLK. Articles like this really make me want to see how the WoW VS War discussion goes in 2-3 months.
  • Feenyx - September 25, 2008 1:55 p.m.

    Couple things... 1) @ clifford and other flamers: seriously? The graphics do not 'suck'. If anything, they are more realistic than WoW because the colors are more muted, the trees and plants are made up of more than 10 polygons, and the spell effects are actually different and not just the same 5 things with different colors. 2) @ people that apparently didn't read carefully: they admit that this is a review of only about the first couple weeks of content. For those of you that plan on playing to higher than level 15 or so, you have to take what they're saying with a grain of salt. Open-world RvR, WAR's main focus, isn't really 'activated' in the lower levels. Keeps/castles, more practical use of siege weapons, big dungeons (instanced and otherwise), and capital city battles have yet to be seen. 3) @ mansemat and other Warhammer fans: Thanks for bringing that up. Ppl new to the IP often dont realize that certain things in the MMO are in there because they almost HAVE to be in there from a lore perspective. Weird dye names, certain armor style choices, siege weapons, etc. are all straight from the 25-year-old backstory. Tabletop fans (myself included) are generally pleased with Mythic's handling of the IP, and the 'bringing to life' all the previously static characters we have come to appreciate. And to all the rest of you that stumble upon my opinions... chill. Give the game a try. It's a whole 50 bucks (US, anyway) which includes the first month of play. So even if you stop after the first month, it wasn't any more expensive than a PS3 or XBox game, with lots of replayability and more content. You're also trying it out when other people are starting it too, so there will be lots of folks in the starter areas. If you think it's catchy, renew your subscription. If not, shelve it for now and by a pre-paid game card later.
  • Omahunek - September 25, 2008 6:18 a.m.

    Well, if you really look at the WAR Prelude (Especially if you read the graphic novel that comes with the Collector's Edition), you'll find that while Order is really an 'alliance' per se, Destruction is not. Chaos are raiding empire because they feel like it, Dark Elves are taking advantage of it and using the Greenskins to tie up the dwarves, and obviously, the Greenskins just kill whoever is closest. While Order wouldn't immediately kill each other if the forces of Destruction were destroyed, the opposite is probably true. However, A hurricane hit Houston (,Texas) about a week ago, so I got to play for about a day inbetween my lack of internet connection, and the Grace Period ending (The gamestop I preordered at still doesn't have Power, wtf.) From Beta Experience, and the one day I played For realz, It's awesome, and it's the best damn PvP I've ever seen.
  • discoSte - September 24, 2008 12:26 p.m.

    I came from AoC which I enjoyed a lot, not expecting much from War. The game blew me away and showed how a morg should and can work. Leveling and itemization just bacame a bi-product of having fun. With so much to so and so much variety I just saw the levels slip by. War is what AoC should have been! Even wow could learn a few things from this little jem!
  • Luke0808 - September 23, 2008 9:34 p.m.

    Anyone who won't play this game because it has poor graphics obviously haven't played enough games to realise that the graphics don't make the game. Yes the graphics on Age Of Conan are awesome....but the game SUCKS. The game is so unstable and full of bugs it's absurd that it got released when it did, it had great potential but ended up a big failure. Warhammer on the other hand, admitably not the best graphics in the world (although I mainly find its the characters that are poor, when you start playing you'll find some of the landscapes are actually quite cool). Anyway, in comparison to AoC, WAR is a MUCH better more complete game. I think the majority of people who have given it a fair chance are loving it. Without a doubt it's the best mmo out there at the moment. It's not going to be a WoW killer, WoW has over 10 million players and they aren't going to all of a sudden up and leave...alot of people will probably join WAR...But generally I think the games are too similar for WAR to reign over WoW. However, WoW won't be at the top forever...and I look forward to playing the game that doesn't 'kill' WoW...but takes its place as the number 1 MMO.
  • ALF - September 19, 2008 6:48 p.m.

    Yea, I agree with shockolate, Looks good but, I don't like MMOs. Guess I'll just stick with Rock Band 2!! (Best Game Eva)
  • azazelx - October 15, 2008 12:12 p.m.

    This game is the best mmo and probably will be for years to come. Ive played Final fantasy 11 for years and sadly almost every job at 75 which is max.. i easily left that game for this. Just wait til the Von Carlstein expansion
  • Esquire - September 27, 2008 5:33 p.m.

    Regarding the similarities with the original Warhammer games, there seems to be a misconception that WAR is solely based on the Warhammer tabletop games because this is what people associate with Games Workshop's high street stores. In fact, much of the game lore was delveloped from Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, the traditional Dungeons & Dragons style rpg which was contained in a great big book about 4cm thick. It was played in the minds of the gamers with only pre-printed character sheets and multi-sided dice as props. In Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, there were an array of skills and careers. For example, you could play the part of a grave robber with skills like climbing walls, jumping and hiding that provided a percentage advantage in carrying out these feats. Some of these careers were distinctly unheroic, like the political agitators and mule skinners, roles that are only for the NPCs in WAR, and yet it was possible to flesh out such characters and make fantastic adventure stories based on them. There was however a need for a person with the ability to implement the rules and know the game lore who wasn't usually an active player. Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay had a horror theme that seemed to owe something to the stories of H.P. Lovecraft and was distinctly European in flavour, presenting the game world as a sort of alternative seventeenth century Europe, quite different to Dungeons & Dragons. While WAR holds true to much of the game lore of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and Warhammer the tabletop game, for those who remember the original Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay game, the modern phenomenon of MMO games fails to capture the imagination in the same way and the fact that everyone is trying to exploit the game mechanics makes it seem an incredibly rushed experience where even on the pure roleplaying servers, there is little evidence of actual role playing going on where people only say things 'in character'.
  • Akiira - September 25, 2008 4:07 a.m.

    @mansemat good point and as a huge warhammer fan that was really important to me as well but after playing the game and reading the quest the only major thing that bothers me is the destruction working together the way they do. orks would never ally themselves on this scale to anyone and dark elves dont really ally so much as use other factions. but beside that it was all really cannon. i think the main reason for this is because games workshop worked so closely with mythic in the making of the game, a fact i am very happy about.
  • Mansemat - September 25, 2008 2:38 a.m.

    Great review but so far nobody has touched base on how accurate the game is in relation to actual Warhammer Fantasy.
  • Akiira - September 23, 2008 4 a.m.

    clifordxxx is clearly just a retard that managed to get ahold of a computer somewhere, and thus his comments shouldnt be taken to heart
  • johnnype - September 22, 2008 8:12 p.m.

    I don't know why so many people are looking for a WoW killer. Can't a game exist and be successful on it's own? It's not an either/or question. I like WoW but I also like LotRO and I like WAR. If I get tired of one I play the other. Right now I'm enjoying the hell out of WAR but I'm sure I'll play WoW and/or LotRO again sometime next year.
  • juXawin - September 22, 2008 6:53 p.m.

    better than wow and aoc imo. give it a try.
  • Juriasu - September 21, 2008 7:14 p.m.

    I don't think any game could bring down WoW, no matter how good that game would be.
  • cliffordxxx - September 21, 2008 3:01 p.m.

    Also the game feels very linear, for example: ITs like they start you off in a small circle, you complete the quests in that circle then move on to the next circle, and so on. Not like the Very open world MMO's I enjoyed like Everquest and WOW.
  • cliffordxxx - September 21, 2008 2:52 p.m.

    Bought Warhammer, it was an EPIC FAIL!!! graphics are so horrible i couldnt even play. Going back to Age of Conan. AOC has the best graphics out there. would recommend Warhammer for people with old crappy computers that can't play Conan or to children 5-15year range.
  • Akiira - September 21, 2008 3:50 a.m.

    best mmo out there right now, and will be for a while
  • EmoMuffin - September 20, 2008 4:24 a.m.

    For a game you gave a "9" rating, you sure didn't seem to like it. I think I'll stick with LOTRO.

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