Are you sure we’re not in Azeroth anymore?
Playing an MMORPG is like being in a long-term relationship. It starts with wonderment and a tableau of seemingly endless possibilities. You get swallowed up in it, sinking more and more time in while your friends complain that you never have time to hang out anymore – but screw ’em, they just don’t understand. Once the initial euphoria subsides, though, monotony inevitably sets in.
[image1]It starts to feel more and more like a grind. Maybe it was always a grind, but you just didn’t notice it at the start. You might begin to resent all time and energy that has been diverted away from other pursuits. Many people just need a break, quitting and coming back after a few months of separation. Some bite the bullet and end the relationship forever. And still others decide to put themselves out there and try a new game.
If WoW is the long-term relationship in this analogy, then Rift is the affair. Of the 12 million current WoW players, quite a few have perked up and given a shot to the newcomer. Trion Worlds has made no effort to dispel the cries of “WoW clone”; in fact, they’ve fully embraced it, perhaps more than is necessary. The “We’re not in Azeroth anymore” slogan strewn across the many ads pervading the internet is both clever and just a tad erroneous, because it sure feels like we are.
Rift’s world of Telara is like a Twilight Zone-esque doppelganger of WoW’s Azeroth, where things look and feel similar, but are just a little bit off. There are a few major differences, such as the landscape, the wildly customizable talent system, and the definite graphical upgrade (while not quite as dazzling as last year’s MMO that shall not be named, this is still a beautiful world to explore)… as well as the many rift invasions that spawn evil hentai tentacles from otherworldly portals (yes, this is a 'T' game guys, but we all know where you got your inspiration from).
But if you’ve played WoW for any decent length of time – and lord knows I fit that description – all of the similarities will keep filtering in as you play Rift. Many abilities and spells have the same effects but go by a different name; instead of Polymorph you have Transmogrify. Same goes for stats – Dexterity instead of Agility, Wisdom instead of Spirit. Then there are professions, where Butchering replaces Skinning, Runecrafting replaces Enchanting, etc. The more you look, the more you notice these slight alterations and simple renaming. Instead of battlegrounds, you have warfronts. Instead of copper, silver, and gold for money you’ve got silver, gold, and platinum. And it's important to note that these aren't just superficial similarities; the gameplay governing them is lifted directly from WoW's playbook.
[image2]Now, none of that is necessarily a knock against the game. WoW makes more money than the GDP of some small countries, so cloning it isn’t a terrible idea by any stretch. And Rift does have some cool, original things going for it. You just can’t go in expecting something revolutionary, because it sticks very close to its inspiration.
So what about those original ideas? You’ll probably notice the talents before anything else. There are only four classes in Rift – Warrior, Cleric, Mage, and Rogue – but the true diversity comes with the talents, or "souls". Imagine the standard three talent trees of WoW and other recent RPGs, each emphasizing a different role that you can spec into. When you obtain a soul, you’ll be able to use it as one of those three trees. There are a total of eight souls (plus a strictly PvP soul) per class, and you can mix-and-match any three that you choose.
This equates to hundreds of combinations from which you can choose to tailor your character. If you want to create a tanking Cleric that can cast damage shields on itself, use a Justicar and Purifier soul combo. For a heavy nuking Mage with a pet and strong crowd control abilities, you could combine the Pyromancer with Elementalist and Dominator. The possibilities are immense, although every soul of course has a few with which it synergizes best.
But while the unprecedented level of customization is Rift’s biggest strength, it could also be its biggest weakness. Granted, the game is still in its infancy, but the problem with having so many different specs is that it’s near impossible to balance them. Blizzard, with all the resources at its disposal, can barely manage to balance five specs at any given time; I can't imagine Trion can balance hundreds, and it doesn't.
I’ve already seen Warriors who can decimate Mages at range without coming within ten yards of them, shrugging off their fireballs like it’s nothing. The Mage healing soul, Chloromancer, can put a few points into Warlock to get a Life Tap-type spell that basically gives it infinite mana – as a healer. The Bard soul for Rogues, meant to be a support specialist, turns into one of the best group healers in PvP. These imbalances may be addressed, but with this much customization I would only expect more to crop up as time goes on.
[image3]Rift has another great addition to the formula, though, in the form of the titular rifts that constantly open up across Telara. The typical drill for a rift is that bad creatures spawn out of portals to the elemental planes, and (at the appropriate levels) only a group of players can take them down. Getting in close proximity triggers a prompt to join the public group that’s combating the rift. The actual battle happens in up to five stages of increasingly mean enemies, with bonus stages sometimes occurring if you kill them fast enough. Loot is showered upon all participating players when the rift closes – and while the loot is random, the odds of getting better goods increases the more you contribute to the fight.
A rift can either be an isolated event, or it can be part of large scale invasions that happen spontaneously zone-wide. The invasions are where the concept gets really impressive – anyone in the zone can participate in fighting back the invading forces that crop up all over the place. Most of the time you’ll advance the cause just by killing stuff, but there are some invasion events that require collecting and returning items and other objectives. These invasions usually end with an outdoor raid boss, and depending on the time of day you might see an army of anywhere from dozens to hundreds of players swarming it to take it down. Note: Without enough manpower it is possible to lose against the invasion, in which case your faction will inevitably have to fight back and recapture the towns lost to regain those precious quest givers.
At this point in time, Trion does not allow mods of any kind. This might be subject to change in the future, but for the time being, you’re stuck with Rift’s default interface. It’s not terrible, and it’s a bit fuller than Blizzard’s default, but it’s still no substitute for readily available third-party mods. Especially considering how customizable the talents are, it’s a shame the interface is so rigid.
[image4]Telara is a mixed bag for lore. Both the Guardians, devout and zealous followers of the gods, and the Defiants, cunning races that rely on technology and science, have amazing starting zones. Guardians start a couple decades in the past, when the threat of the all-consuming Regulos first emerges on Telara. Once you finish your objective there, "spoilery" events happen, and you will eventually wake up in present time. Defiants, on the other hand, start off in the future, at a point where Regulos has already destroyed almost the entire world. At the end of the zone, you’ll get sent back Terminator-style to find a way to prevent that timeline from ever happening.
After that, however, I found it tough to care too much about what was going on. The feeling of urgency you get from the starting zones dissolves in the quest-and-grind of leveling. There’s certainly a noticeable effort to create a rich universe in Rift, and I’d say it succeeds. But it’s nowhere close to the level of lore that the Warcraft universe has built up in 15+ years. WoW has Thrall, Medivh, Sargeras, Arthas, Illidan, Ner’zhul, and a hundred more compelling characters I could rattle off, but Rift? I tried to care about the characters, and all but a handful broke the barrier between "generic" and "interesting".
All qualms aside, though, this is a terrific achievement for an MMO. Rift is by far the most complete package for an MMO launch title I’ve seen. Guilds, achievements, PvP battlegrounds, raids, auction houses – all of these things have been left out by launch titles over the years, but Rift has everything from the get-go. Even WoW took over six months to add battlegrounds.
Rift’s potential is what’s most impressive about it. Here’s a game that’s already accomplished more than half of what all those “WoW-killers” ever did, and it’s still in its infancy. Does it have its issues? Of course. Would I rather play WoW? Right now, yes I would. But Blizzard’s had over seven years to develop its product, and Trion’s just getting started.