Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning (brought to us by Mythic, the developers of Dark Age of Camelot) is the latest addition to the already crowded MMO market. It is set in Games Workshop’s Warhammer Fantasy universe where the allies of Order (Empire, Dwarves, and High Elves) are engaged in constant battle with the agents of Destruction (Chaos, Greenskins, and Dark Elves). As the slogan says, ‘war is everywhere”, and Age of Reckoning’s setting is an appropriately ravaged landscape of burning villages, crumbling ruins, and besieged strongholds.
The player takes on the role of a soldier in the service of the armies of Order or Destruction and wages war across the three zones: High Elves vs. Dark Elves, Greenskins vs. Dwarves, and Chaos vs. Empire. Each zone is divided into four tiers, roughly translating to ten levels worth of content in each tier. The tiers are then divided into PvE (Player vs. Enemy) and RvR (Realm vs. Realm) areas. Early tiers are predominantly PvE with small RvR lakes within them, but as the player progress into tiers three and four, the PvE zones take a backseat to much larger RvR lakes. Both PvE and RvR areas are packed full of content, providing the player plenty of leveling options.
One of the first and best features introduced is the Tome of Knowledge, a repository of all game information. Every monster, location, event, and quest the player experiences is logged in this encyclopedic, easily-referenced record. As one progresses through the game, the Tome provides relevant snippets of lore and tracks all achievements revealing the path to unlock unique trophies, titles, and tactics. The Tome is an excellent tool to keep track of accomplishments and motivate the player.
Mythic’s questing system is also impressive. Though they did not break from the standard MMO quest conventions, they did streamline the system. The frustrating process of aimlessly roaming the landscape in search of quest goals has been eliminated. Upon accepting a quest, the target location is highlighted in red on both the map and mini-map. Placing the cursor over the highlighted area displays a tooltip that contains the quest name and objective. Clicking on the highlighted area opens the Tome of Knowledge to the appropriate section of the quest log. For those with limited gaming time, this system allows for maximum efficiency. For those who would rather find their own way, the map indicator can be disabled so the player can explore the world as they wish.
Warhammer lore is seamlessly infused into each quest. From the text to the set pieces, the essence of each zone shines through. While the Elves might have the player sneaking about using cunning and finesse, the Orcs will load him (or her) into a “lobber” (catapult) and hurl you over the enemy defenses for some “stunty smashin”. Even though the quests in each tier are fundamentally the same, the changes in theme help to keep the gameplay fresh. The Greenskin zone is particularly enjoyable, and its quest text laugh-out-loud funny.
For the most part, quests follow the standard ‘kill/gather 10 of X’ formula which has become a staple in the MMO genre. Occasionally the player encounters a chain quest that leads up to a battle with a unique monster, but disappointedly these quest chains rarely escalate in difficulty and become tedious. In general, questing never requires a group and this can lead to a sense of isolation. The lack of group focus in PvE means fewer bonds are formed and, in general, less social interaction takes place. This is a shame because Warhammer Online has a fantastic, user-friendly group system.
The most significant questing innovation Mythic has made is the implementation of Public Quests (PQs). These quests are repeatable world events that are broken up into stages, which upon successful completion lead to a mini boss fight. After completing the Public Quest all of the participants get a random roll on a treasure dropped by the boss, though the extent of the player’s participation determines the roll bonus. Players that don’t win anything have increased chances of winning should they stay and participate in the Public Quest again. Any player may take part in a Public Quest regardless of which stage they start in or whether or not they are in a group. This is great for those who prefer solo leveling. However, it hurts the communal nature of an MMO. There is little communication and with fights designed for public play, they are not overly complex and tend to turn into zergfests. Overall, this is a great system that enables players to experience content similar to endgame raid fights. Mythic did not intend Warhammer to be a PvE game; the central focus is on group-oriented RvR, encouraging teamwork over individual achievement. You are only as strong as the group you play with.
The RvR experience in Warhammer is broken into two formats: scenarios and Open Realm vs Realm (ORvR). Scenarios are small, objective-based maps where each team of 10-15 players has fifteen minutes to try to earn 500 points. Players gain points by defeating enemies and completing scenario goals, which are typically Capture the Flag and Domination style objectives. The scenario themes vary by tier and zone, providing more than fifteen different scenarios over the four tiers. Players have the luxury of teleporting to a scenario from anywhere in the world then returning to their original location afterward. This flexibility makes the flow of PvE to RvR scenarios seamless and allows players to vary their gaming experiences. At the same time, the ease of scenario play takes focus away from open world RvR.
RvR occurs within the “lakes” nested inside each tier. Within each are several battlefield objectives which can be captured by each realm and grant a buff to all players of the controlling realm while they are in that tier. Starting in tier two, players are introduced to controllable keeps. Once captured, the realms may battle for control, each side building various siege weapons to attack or defend the keep. A successful siege culminates with the defeat of the Keep Lord who, like PQ bosses, drops a chest full of goodies for all siege participants to roll on.
The three biggest issues with this current incarnation of RvR are lack of incentive, population imbalances, and lag. There is little reason for players to siege or defend a keep. Defenders gain little (a minor amount of experience and renown) for successfully breaking a siege and attackers don’t want to siege a defended keep because it is next to impossible to overcome the defenders due to bottlenecking, and the rewards are no better than those found in an empty keep.
Population imbalance is another thorn in the side of Warhammer’s RvR system. Scenarios pop less frequently for the side with more players, which is almost always Destruction. This can slow leveling to a crawl as the experience gained from winning a scenario can often double that gained from simple questing. Population imbalance always causes ORvR to collapse as there are rarely any players in the RvR lakes to fight and the few players that attempt it are zerged back to their spawn until they decide to just go quest.
Lastly, there’s the lag that occurs whenever there are groups doing battle with each other. The lag can occur with as few as ten people fighting, depending on the class. The more caster classes in the vicinity, the worse performance becomes due to excessive particle effects. During the defense of a battle keep in tier four, over a hundred players from both realms gathered in one location to experience the greatest slideshow of all time. The performance was so poor that the draw distance for players seemed to reduce to 0 meters as there were numerous times where large groups of players would suddenly appear out of thin air. It was a shame, as the essence of this battle was very exciting and had it not devolved to an unplayable level, it might have been an unforgettable MMO experience.
Ultimately, all of the PvE and RvR content builds to a head: the enemy city. Once a realm has control of the entire tier four zone they unlock the ability to siege the city, kill the king, and plunder the riches. The city siege is an instanced-timed battle that ends with the invaders being pushed out of the city and the tier four zone control returning to neutral. Once a city has been ransacked the players of that realm must rebuild its defense while attempting to push the enemy back to their own city. It sounds like an exciting battle, but if the performance drain that has occurred in keep sieges persists into the city battles, the fight may already be over.
Graphically, Warhammer Online has done nothing that we haven’t already seen. The lighting in some areas is so dim that you don’t get to fully enjoy all the hard work the artists put into making the world, notably in the Inevitable City. The gritty look feels appropriate, but a little variety would have been nice, perhaps a few more light sources. Similarly, the skill animations for each character are intricate and look good, but often get stuck mid-animation leaving your character contorted and unable to animate properly until you re-log.
The audio is well done, especially the voices for each of the races. I highly recommend clicking on every character and NPC you see to hear all the great dialogue. The lack of music, although more thematically correct, can make some areas feel lifeless.
Overall, Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning is a well balanced and fun MMO, that has had one of the smoothest launches to date. With only two months under its belt, Mythic has already announced plans to address most of the issues I’ve mentioned with their 1.1 patch that is slated to hit in December (which also includes the addition of two classes that had been cut previous to launch). If Mythic continues to be this responsive to the needs of their subscribers, this game has a lot of potential. The MMO market is not a friendly one, and whether a more casual friendly, RvR focused MMO will have the longevity of other successful MMOs is hard to judge.