“We're not in Azeroth anymore,” proclaim the ads for Trion's new high-profile MMORPG, Rift. It's a pretty ballsy move, inviting a smackdown with Blizzard's best-selling, genre-defining game. But the marketing strategy makes sense. After all, every critic and, more importantly, every player is going to wonder how Rift stacks up against World of Warcraft and if the new game is worth ditching WoW or justifying another monthly subscription fee.
Although Rift's betas, early access period, and official launches have all gone exceptionally well, reviews of MMOs at launch always have to be read with more than a little bit of skepticism. After all, this is a genre in which the product on day one rarely resembles the game a year or two down the line. Sometimes games hit the ground running only to lose steam, interest, and subscribers in short order; some games survive a disastrous opening bell to steadily improve and slowly grow into their potential. Having played most of the beta events and the early release week, I think I have a pretty good idea of where Rift's strengths and weaknesses lay.
First, the game is graphically impressive, with a super-polished, realistic high-fantasy style very similar to that of LOTRO (though much prettier) and a wealth of environmental and textural detail that look great even on low-end systems. Better yet, they're truly stunning on souped-up machines. There's some serious tech mojo going on to make it all run at a decent clip and while it may seem superficial to start with how the game looks, aesthetics are pretty critical to a game with which you'll be spending months or even years. Character models are similarly well done, but with a somewhat disappointing selection of tools to tweak appearance during creation, there's no getting away from the “sea of clones” you'll be wading through for the first several levels and beyond. Weapon, spell effects, armor—it's clear that a lot of attention was paid to the look and artistic style of this game. It's a shame it just isn't a little more customizable.
Speaking of aesthetics, the audio landscape of Rift is a mixed bag. The music is very good, but NPCs are generally mute figures and mobs have a limited vocabulary of battle-induced screams or grunts. Compared to the visuals, the sound of Rift is undercooked.
Moving on, while we may not be 'in Azeroth,' we're certainly in a place where WoW and Rift share a lingua franca when it comes to UI, questing, and basic gameplay mechanics. Anyone who has played WoW, or just about any recent MMO, will feel immediately at home with Rift. From weapon and skill slots, to the chat window and grouping, even to the ghostly corpse run that accompanies death, you'll either appreciate and enjoy the cozy comfort of knowing exactly what to do and how to do it, or be mildly disappointed that Rift hews so stubbornly to convention. Not in Azeroth? Not so sure.
The big, meaty hooks with Rift are the titular inter-dimensional schisms that suddenly appear (or can be made to appear by players), releasing scores of nasty mobs and briefly changing the landscape. Rifts offer an instant, casual group opportunity and fighting through their various stages to close them rewards the player with experience, valuable loot, and gear. A variety of rifts can appear in town or out in the countryside (earth, fire, air, water, life, and death) with associated creatures, making up a part of Telara's unfolding story and lore.
Although there are only two main factions, 6 races, and four starting archetypes (warrior, rogue, mage, and cleric) the mechanic of acquiring “souls” (basically, skill trees) mean there are several dozen potential classes of an impressively large number of skill combinations, resulting in interesting hybrids. Unfortunately, there are only two starting zones (one for each faction), so running more than a few characters through the early levels and quests rather quickly becomes an exercise in tedium. There doesn't appear to be any race or class specific variations on the early game, either. This aspect of Rift seems uncharacteristically confining.
If we move through the checklist of now-expected features—leveling, auction house, crafting, guilds, raids, instances, battlegrounds, dungeons, PvP servers—we'll find them all here, possibly with a Rift-specific tweak or two, but basically stamped from the same template as WoW and a dozen other games. Clearly, Trion Games' philosophy was “borrow, steal, learn from the best, and dump the rest,” and if Rift's goal is to be newbie-friendly and/or lure away jaded MMO players with a same-but-different-enough experience, it absolutely succeeds. Yet, are there enough new ideas to hold those veteran gamers' attention past the first month's free trial? I'm not convinced.
In a market where a lot of shoddy MMOs are shoved out the door in a woefully incomplete state, Trion's Rift has to be applauded for providing a polished, technically competent, and playable game that doesn't have to be accompanied by a Letter of Apology from the developer. Rift looks fantastic, and is a lot of fun. By sticking very closely to established conventions, the game is immediately accessible; but it's the wrinkles unique to the game that add welcome new dimension. There is a lot to enjoy in Rift, and it is done amazingly well, but whether it justifies a monthly subscription fee is entirely dependent on the community that grows around the game, and most important, the quantity, quality, and creativity of content that is added in the coming weeks and months.
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