Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Rift Beta: First Impressions

I spent some time playing the Rift Beta last week. Specifically, I had the opportunity to participate in Rift Beta 5 from Tuesday through Friday. I chose to play a Defiant Warrior. In those four days I managed to reach level 19, completed a buttload of quests, helped close many rifts and joined in on some PvP action.

Below are my first impressions.

Probably the first thing I noticed when first starting the game was how polished it was, beginning with the game launcher and patcher. I had no problems getting the patches (about one every day during this beta) and the patcher even told me that I needed to update my video drivers, which turned out to be true. Only a couple of times did I have trouble connecting to the servers, but overall, the login experience was exemplary.

Second thing you'll notice is how similar Rift is to a World of Warcraft. Sure there are some bloggers and plenty of players in-game who get upset whenever the comparison is mentioned, but it's impossible to deny. It's not just similar, it's exactly the same in many regards. Many of the talent trees look to be ripped directly from WoW. The crafting is the same. The type of gear and loot is the same. Combat is the same... Now I'm not saying that using someone else's ideas is a bad thing, but I am saying that those who get upset at the comparisons are delusional. That being said, WoW hasn't ever been particularly innovative itself.

The biggest talking point of the game is, of course, the Rifts themselves, so let's talk a little bit about the Rift System. Basically, a Rift opens up in the zone and goes through various stages spawning different mobs until the Boss mod spawns and is killed. Anyone who comes along can help defeat the mobs at the various stages and get loot for success. If you played Warhammer Online, Rifts are basically transient Public Quests. Sometimes they are there, sometimes they are not. But the basic functionality is almost exactly the same.

Rifts can grow stronger if left alone for long enough and there is supposedly some way to enter the Rift itself to drive back the invaders, but I never saw any of that. Perhaps it's for the higher levels. Rifts were interesting and confusing at first, but quickly became kind of pedestrian after I helped close a dozen of them and realized that they were really just another grind for special 'Planar' currency. I'm hoping that they are at least tied to some sort of system that gauges the local player population, because otherwise, they will suffer the same fate and annoyance as the Warhammer PQs when the majority of the active playerbase out-levels the starting areas.

Another one of Rift's big talking points has been character customization via 'souls'. While I do like the system, it's not as groundbreaking as some folks seem to think. It's really just a more complex talent tree system. I guess the main difference between this and other games with talent trees is the number involved and the fact that you can switch out your trees. There are still limitations. It's not an open system. Being a Warrior, I can only choose talent trees that are part of the Warrior archetype. Sure I can be a Death Knight and a Paladin at the same time, but the functionality really doesn't change. And some of the abilities between the various souls are so similar to other abilities that one of them ends up being useless.

This system does make it easier on those players who like to try out every class as they only need four characters per faction to experience all the options. And it also allows for lots of character variations, though I imagine that balance issues will be common and frequent, particularly when PvP is involved.

Speaking of the interface, I want to give kudos to the Rift team for giving the players plenty of UI customization options straight out of the box. Every single part can be moved, hidden and re-sized. It's very nice to have this functionality available from the start without having to use an addon.
Defiant Warrior with purple and yellow dye
They also provide a variety of dyes you can buy. And every armor slot takes both a primary and secondary color. They look pretty good as well! At least I thought I looked spiffy.

Crafting is pretty much the same as Wow. Gather resources from static spots that respawn regularly. Grind out a bunch of items noone will ever use to increase your skill a few points. At least you can salvage the items you just made and hope to recover a couple of spare resources. To the game's credit, I was able to fashion a useful two-handed axe for myself at level 16. Unfortunately, that axe was replaced about half an hour later with the reward from a PvP quest. Looking at various quest rewards, faction merchants and such, it seems that the best gear comes from helping close the Rifts and PvP (I didn't get a chance to go into a dungeon so I can't speak for that). I don't see the Crafting side of Rift as being particularly engaging or interesting.

At level 19 I already have five different types of currency in my pack. And I'm not talking gold, silver, etc. This is actually five separate systems of currency! I have regular currency, I have Rift currency, I have crafting currency, I have PvP currency and I have faction currency! I'm sure there are many more types ahead. In fact I know there are because I saw vendors who wanted money of a type I hadn't seen before. I find this an overly complex and un-needed system, especially when the vendors that take these various currencies are scattered all over the land. It's basically just creating new carrots to grind for, but I guess that's what Themepark MMOs are really all about.

Combat is pretty standard MMO fare. Select target and mash buttons to hit them with various effects. I actually found myself a bit overwhelmed initially by all the action options I was given due to having various abilities from three Souls. By level 5 or 6 I had to expose two extra action bars on-screen just to keep all of my abilities visible!

The only PvP I saw during my few days in beta was in the Warfronts (aka Battlegrounds). Pretty standard. Ten players per side. Grab and hold the special crystal in the middle while killing the other team. Get some honor points at the end. Rinse and repeat ad infinitum until you can purchase the gear you want from the PvP vendors. I hear there are options for Open World PvP (I was on a server that was labeled as PvP), but I saw none of that during my excursions.

Overall, I found my time in the Rift Beta to be fun, but lacking in anything new, though Rift does take the bar for Themepark MMOs a notch higher. It adds Public Quests (Rifts), dyes and guild leveling from Warhammer, and the graphics and class selection of Vanguard. Does it have the upper level content to keep the gear junkies occupied? Hard to say as I only reached level 20. But there certainly seemed to be a lot of excitement about the game from other players in the starting zones.

I was a bit disappointed that Rift failed to improve in some seemingly obvious areas ('Gray' trash item drops? Quest items that take up inventory slots? Really? I thought we were beyond these annoyances...), and I could already feel the grind, even in the first 20 levels. But, I do think that Rift will be a fresh arena for a number of players who have grown tired of Azeroth and it's adjoining planes. Lack of innovation hasn't ever really held back many games, and I firmly believe that Rift's polish and stability will help to give it a solid launch.

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