“We’re Not In Azeroth Anymore.” This is the slogan at the forefront of Rift’s marketing push. It adorns the numerous magazine adverts and radio commercials, it is splashed across vast banners at the Penny Arcade Expo East, and we’re sure it received vigorous salutes when some enterprising young copywriter ran it up the flagpole for consideration. Unfortunately, I remain unconvinced.
World Of Warcraft has been the bane of every MMO developer’s existence for nearly a decade, and it has since been concluded that success in the genre requires either lowered ambitions or a significantly different experience. The fact that Trion Worlds is keen to draw such a direct comparison so soon after the release of its first game is nothing short of astonishing, and - clever Wizard Of Oz reference notwithstanding – a move that is as likely to harm the game as help it.
However, Rift has the quality to back-up the braggadocio. The game is set in the fantasy world of Telara, the central node for several different planes of existence, all of which are beginning to impinge on the Telaran landscape. These infractions are marked by “rifts” of different kinds that, if left unchecked, spawn increasingly large numbers of monsters. The rifts appear dynamically all over the map, and players can join these battles – called “warfronts” – in groups or on their own.
This is one of Rift’s two major selling points, and it is a brilliant addition to the traditional MMO formula. The rifts fall into one of six basic categories - earth, fire, water, air, life, and death – which dictate the type of enemies you will have to fight, but the really clever part is that fighting is the only option. Without resistance, the monsters that pour through attempt to take over NPC settlements and transform the map, imbuing Telara with a sense of spontaneous threat that Azeroth simply can’t match. It also helps to build relationships between players, as I often found myself pulled into a Rift battle by complete strangers.
This dynamism is reflected in Rift’s innovative levelling system. You begin traditionally enough by choosing a class - rogue, warrior, cleric, or mage – which can be augmented with up to three “souls”. Each class has eight available souls, and each soul has a unique tree of selectable and essential skills. The possible permutations are thrillingly diverse, and the system not only allows you to re-spec at any time, it is also malleable enough for players to make significant changes to the play experience without starting again from scratch.
Personally, I’ve never been a fan of non-combat specialities like Bards, but here they can be combined with so many other disciplines that you can have your cake and greedily eat the rest. Even seemingly contradictory compositions like tank-healers and warrior-clerics are possible under Rift’s generous system. As a result, constructing a well-balanced group can be almost as fun as actually playing the game, and PvP encounters are virtually impossible to predict.
Elsewhere, Rift is a lot more similar to the competition. For the most part questing is competent rather than spectacular, regularly falling back on the ‘kill ten of these, collect five of those’ formula so beloved by MMOs. A smattering of dungeons provides another option for those seeking one, and Trion Worlds insists that it is currently working to supplement the meagre number of raid encounters currently available.
Very few MMOs get so much right so soon, and considering how good Rift looks its technical stability should be regarded as a minor miracle. There are some minor flaws – in-game chat, in particular, could use a new font and more options – but Rift’s biggest drawback is barely a problem at all. Ultimately, the sheer volume of things to learn even beyond the major innovations can be daunting at first, but I urge you to stick with it – this is one game that truly rewards your attention and patience.
Trion Worlds has done as much as anyone could reasonably ask for, but that isn’t necessarily enough to make Rift a success. Telara isn’t Azeroth, that’s for sure, and while that’s an admirable achievement in its own right, it’s also the insurmountable obstacle that has felled so many hopefuls in the past. I wish Rift luck. It will need it.
Next page: Our expert verdict