RIFT beta: A more in-depth review

2011-02-07 00:46

Since a lot of people I know play MMOs or other games, I figure there may be some general interest. RIFT is in beta right now. Well, that’s a marketing gimmick. It’s really essentially in a sort of showing-off/demo mode which is more like an initial release than like a traditional “beta”, but the point is it’s not officially for sale yet, but people can play it.

I spent a fair bit of time this weekend playing RIFT, and I think at this point I’m ready to give some basic comments.

If I were to pick a single word to describe this game, it would be “polished”. RIFT is, before even being released, in many ways more polished and cleanly implemented than other MMOs I’ve played, and that’s including World of Warcraft. (WoW, whatever its flaws may be, is one of the more smoothly polished and mature MMOs out there, and Blizzard have always been very good about polish.)

RIFT’s design and development team has a lot of people with prior MMO experience. This shows. When people come to RIFT, whether it’s from WoW or EverQuest or Dark Age of Camelot, they seem to consistently think it’s just like coming back to that game, only a bit more developed. People who mostly come from WoW tend to think it’s a “WoW clone”, and certainly I could point you at plenty of powers or abilities that precisely emulate the effects of something thematically similar from WoW.

I don’t think it’s fair to dismiss RIFT as a “WoW clone”, though. Speaking as someone who played WoW a great deal for about five years, and really enjoyed it, I have to say: RIFT is what I always wished Blizzard would do with WoW. It has more depth, it has better and cleaner designs. Most importantly, it has much, much, better quality-of-life. What I mean by that is, while the game content is challenging, the parts that aren’t specifically designed to be challenging are delightfully friendly and easy to use. In WoW, I spent a great deal of time running across large cities to get from the place where I could buy materials to the place where I could use them to craft something. In RIFT, there are bankers and auctioneers in the main room that has all the crafting things. Much, much, nicer.

In fact, interestingly, if I were to go through a list of all the things I’ve ever wished they’d add to WoW, nearly all of them are in RIFT, whether that’s user interface functionality or game mechanics. RIFT lets you change the color of your armor (one of the most common requests for WoW). For people who don’t like Player-vs-Player combat, RIFT allows you to turn off the feature which automatically “flags” you for PvP when you interact with other already-flagged targets; instead of being flagged, you get an error message saying you can’t do that. Since abuse of the autoflag mechanism in WoW was a major source of griefing and harassment, this is a big win.

Of particular note, though, is the class system. This is, quite simply, the best class system I’ve ever seen in a computer RPG. For each of the four “callings”, there are eight “souls”; a soul roughly corresponds to what City of Heroes calls a “power set” or World of Warcraft calls a “talent tree”. Each character has a fixed calling, and then picks any three souls. Later, you can change not just how you allocate resources between those, but which three souls. Add in greater variety of how characters play (a character might have tanking, DPS, and healing souls available), and you can have a character who converts from a melee DPS to a ranged healer. That much, WoW sort of has; what makes this interesting, though, is that since you can mix and match, it goes further. You can build much more interesting combinations; you can create a character who uses two or three different kinds of healing, or one kind of healing and two kinds of ranged DPS.

For CoH players: Imagine that you could take any three sets. So, you could have a character who had dark armor/illusion control/dark miasma, or you could go for dark armor/electric armor/katana. Complete with interesting overlaps.

For WoW players: Imagine that you divided the 30 or so talent trees up into 4 groups of 8 talent trees (with some shuffling to give you two more trees). Now pick any three. Beast mastery/marksmanship/subtlety? Yup. Fury/Arms/Retribution? Yup. Protection (pally)/resto (druid)/enhancement? Yup.

It gets better. Rather than giving everyone all the same core abilities, with only a few distinctive talented abilities, RIFT uses a “branches and roots” system for soul trees. The “branches” are the traditional talent specialization people are familiar with from some other games. The “roots” are a series of powers, and you get powers from them based entirely on how many points you’ve put into the tree. Four points into Assassin? You get stealth.

What this means is that two characters with the same three souls, but with substantially different point allocations, have radically different power selections available to them. And yet, the “must-have” abilities for any tree are all down in the “roots”; every point you spend in the branches represents a real choice between alternatives, for the most part; if something is so essential to the play of your spec that you’d need to have it, it goes in the roots, so you get it if you focus on that tree.

Finally, one last brilliant thing. For clerics, in particular, there is a problem with itemization, familiar to any WoW player who ever played a druid or shaman. If you have a class that could be either melee or a spellcaster, you have sets of gear focused on melee powers, and sets focused on magic. Not so in RIFT. Instead, the melee souls have, a couple of points into their “roots”, an aura you can keep up all the time which, get this, converts spell bonuses into melee bonuses. Poof. Done. You get the same kind of gear any other cleric would get, complete with spellpower and wisdom and other caster-oriented stuff, and it makes you awesome in melee. Problem solved.

Okay, enough yammering about the lovely class system. On to world design. The intro stories for the two factions have interesting implications that involve at least one time travel plot. As a result, we have a lovely result: There is a sound in-game reason for which you cannot go to the starting zone for the other side and harass the lowbies. You can’t get there from here. Very pretty.

The lore is, well, it’s not bad. I like it better than WoW’s, just because it’s less full of people carrying the idiot ball. It’s not a pre-existing setting, and in some ways that’s a plus; they don’t have to try to work around tons of stuff that got made up for previous games. The setting is interesting, both factions are interesting, and neither stands out as obviously more good or evil than the other.

The world itself is full of fascinating stuff, and lots of it. Also, sense of humor, much appreciated. There is a potion vendor, named Sparky. Next to him is “Sparky’s Keeper”, who explains that Sparky is not very reliable, so she has to be there to maintain him, which means he’s not really a labor-saving device at all, because she could just sell the potions. Which she does anyway when sparky breaks down. … A few hours later, I came by, and there was a “Defunct Sparky”, and the person who had been labeled “Sparky’s Keeper” before was now labeled “Potion Vendor”. Cute.

Quest design is much better than traditional WoW and other games. In particular, if one area is intended to chain to another, instead of doing your last quest, coming back, handing it in, and being told to go to the next area, you’re likely to simply get a quest where you go do something interesting and the hand-in is in the next area. A bit less pointless running.

Crafting. Yes, it has crafting. You get to pick three professions; most crafting professions use materials from two gathering professions, but not always. You can always be self-sufficient and have a crafting profession, though. Crafting is full of nice touches that would have hugely enriched the WoW crafting experience. For instance, many craftable items are “augmentable”, meaning that they can take an extra optional component which modifies the created item, making it more powerful in one of several possible ways. That makes crafted items more interesting and less replaceable. Also of interest: Crafted gear is worth crafting and using from pretty much the beginning of the game. In WoW, there were a handful of items which were worth crafting and the rest were useless. That sucked.

A particularly neat feature is that many crafting professions let you “salvage” items of the general sort they can make. Weaponsmiths can “salvage” weapons, armorsmiths can “salvage” the kinds of armor they could make. This gives you more crafting materials, and you can use this to train crafting up noticably faster if you’re focused on training rather than on making things to sell. Realistic, and mechanically interesting.

Crafting in RIFT feels less like an afterthought than it does in WoW.

On to the user interface. The user interface very much reflects lessons learned from previous MMOs. The mini map lets you track multiple things at once, eliminating the hassle of swapping from one kind of tracking to another. It will show all sorts of useful things (merchants, mailboxes, etcetera). Also information about what your quests are and where they are. Interface components can be moved around, resized, and adjusted in a number of ways. This is really nice; it’s not that it’s an unheard of thing, but in WoW, most of this required third-party addons.

That’s the one thing I really hope they change; right now, RIFT doesn’t allow third party UI mods. I hope they change that, because UI addons have allowed the crowdsourcing of a lot of very good UI development work. That said, RIFT’s interface already benefits from a large amount of that; they’ve taken many of the best ideas that other people came up with for MMO user interfaces, and implemented them.

Gameplay: It’s a lot like WoW, only with more interesting mechanics, and a lot harder. I did some endgame raiding in WoW. Miscellaneous ongoing random events in the world in RIFT were in some cases harder. Substantially harder. In WoW, most classes can reasonably assume that they can solo “elite” mobs of about their level, especially by the time they get up in levels a bit. In RIFT, a level 30 character really could get killed by a particularly tough level 15 elite. RIFT gets huge bonus points for implementing scaling mechanics so that a lot of content can get tougher with the number of players (unlike CoH’s scaling by introducing more enemies, RIFT makes the individual enemies tougher).

RIFT has an interesting system I’ve never seen elsewhere, called “public groups”. If you walk near group-oriented content in the world, and there’s other people, you all get “join public group” buttons. You join, and bang, you’re in a group, who can now cooperate to work on that content. Scores are kept for how much people contribute to group success, and you get a loot button that gives you a fair share of loot when you’re done. This allows a lot more epic world events, without people having to walk around trying to negotiate group membership or fight over the loot.

Graphics: On high settings, this game is utterly gorgeous. On lower settings, it seems to run pretty decently. It’s a lot prettier than WoW or CoH, to be sure. On the other hand, it may run slower. Still, they give a lot of room for setting graphics to lower levels while still having everything work. I do quite like the art direction; it’s not as stylized as WoW, but it’s not as utterly generic as some games have gotten.

Finally, last but not least: What’s the developer like? Well, so far, they’re awesome. They have a sense of humor. Halfway through the change logs for the current beta was text to the effect of “I’m trapped under a giant stack of patch notes, please help!” The invitations to the current beta informed us that “those riftspawn said some pretty rude things about all your moms.” During the last beta, one of the GMs sent out a server message saying “Your $15 subscription fee can feed a starving developer for an entire month. Please, subscribe generously.” This weekend, we were informed that in addition to the previously announced prizes (such as a nice video card) being given out, there was also to be a date with production manager Scott Hislastname and his very sexy English accent, “right after we ask his wife”. Later, they announced that because none of us had been able to crash their servers, the prize of the date with Scott was being given to his wife.

They’re also pretty responsive. One of the traditional clashes in MMOs is conflicts between PvE players, who mostly want to be allowed to go about their questing and fighting, and PvP players, who want to fight other players, and who will usually try to provoke such fights if none are on offer, often by killing all the guards, quest givers, and merchants in a given area repeatedly until players get involved. Thing is, if you just make the guards a lot tougher, one of the core game features goes away — that invasions of monsters can temporarily eliminate a settlement. Much debating ensued in the forums.

So this week’s beta saw a new change; guards are now much more powerful only against player characters. Monster invasions can still wipe them out, but players will find it much harder. There’s some hitches with this (on servers more oriented towards PvP play, this sort of undermines intended mechanics), but it’s a very good solution for the majority of players. Between this and the option of disabling auto-flagging, the RIFT developers have given PvE players more consideration in the last month than Blizzard gave us in the last six or seven years. That’s a pretty big deal, to me.

If you have played and liked basically any fantasy MMO ever, you should probably give RIFT a close look. They’re doing preorders and such now, complete with bonus loot for people who buy the “collector’s edition”. Just one caveat, the forums and game are a little on the obnoxious side during beta. In the future, an active account will be required to post on the forums (or play in the game), and things will clean up. That said, by “a little on the obnoxious side” I really do just mean “a little”. It’s orders of magnitude friendlier and more mature than the WoW forums and game have been at any point in the last five years.

Peter Seebach

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Comment

  1. Interesting. I may have to give this a look.

    — Shadur · 2011-02-08 03:22 · #

  2. i played in the rift open beta. dont waste your time. They boast over and over about how it is next generation and that it takes all the good of the mmo’s and leaves out the bad. Let me list a few of my complaints:
    Map is absolutely awful. The main map does not show where trainers, ah, vaults, or anything that is handy in a good mmo. All it does is show the towns. if it was next generation it would have a map as good as lotro’s if not better. 2ndly the skills are far to simple. it feels like a grind and none of the skills are complicated or fun. I had 7 skills as a champion, paragon, warrior and only 1 had a bleed. everything else was 5 yearold smashing. graphics are decent and animations are polished but that’s pretty much the only thing i agree with. I think if this game took some of the things that made lotro a pve master then it would really have some backbone. but right now feels like a grind. oh and transportation is awful. no stables…atleast not level 1-13

    Luke · 2011-02-16 10:56 · #

  3. I have no idea what Luke is talking about. The map is highly customizable and shows all sorts of things, such as quests, trainers, ongoing world events, and so on… Some only on the minimap, to be fair.

    I don’t get the thing about the skills. I levelled up a bunch of characters and they all had plenty of interesting options.

    Last I checked, they had stables available in the starting area and mounts available at level 1, although that may go back to higher levels for release, no clue.

    Anyway, I usually do fine with the minimap showing things like trainers and such, and I go to towns to look for them. There’d be way too many icons in one place if it tried to show the dozens of things in a large city all in one little spot.

    So, your mileage may vary.

    seebs · 2011-02-18 18:10 · #

  4. Firstly, good writeup Pete….

    Luke, are you sure you were not playing Aion? Seriously, almost everything negative comment you had was either wrong or trivial. Stables, your wrong, yes they have them. Simple? Trying playing a Mage or Cleric in the offensive trees. Tons of skills there that have to be used effectively in the right order depending entirely on the situation.

    The map is just fine. I would rather go look for certain vendor’s and npc’s as a point of exploration unless your are into Drive-Thru MMO’s like WoW or LOTRO. And no, I am not hashing those games. I liked WoW, and been a fan of Turbine for a LONG time. Play what you like but be objective otherwise your criticisms of the game sound like fanboy dribble that their favorite game might have finally some competition.

    — Kman · 2011-02-21 06:41 · #

 
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