Graphics are beguiling things, especially for MMO players. When you’ve been playing the likes of EVE Online or World Of Warcraft for long enough then you don’t even notice that the old game is looking distinctly mature – on an FPS it just looks haggard, but MMOs can go grey with dignity.
However the much-maligned graphic update which every studio seems to chuck out when the seven-year-itch sets in is often the gaming equivalent of watching your other half get a makeover from Gok Wan: the lookbook seems youthful yet sophisticated, but comes out looking like a dog’s breakfast. There’s really only one way that the monogamous MMO player sees new graphics, and that’s when they trade in the old model for a newer one.
Trion Worlds, developer of Rift, has been quite canny about this, because even in closed beta the first thing that hits eyes used to the elderly WoW or Guild Wars is the sheer amount of colour and texture. Things that gamers who have actually got out occasionally over the last five years take for granted look lush and fresh under the hardcore MMO gamer’s gaze, and it’s certainly enough of a come-hither to turn heads, especially when the recommended system specs call for an Nvidia GTS 250 or better – a card that’s a couple of years old. Rift is pretty undemanding overall in that respect – dual core processor, 4GB RAM, 15GB free space – making it very accessible for the majority of PC gamers.
The theme of easy accessibility is carried over into your jump into the game. Two sides, each comprised of three races, inhabit the world of Telara. This world is in the process of being torn apart by the rifts of the title. The catastrophic results of a battle that forms the backstory to the world, the rifts can cause all sorts of chaos, and this is something that’s intrinsic to Rift’s long term gameplay. Places change, demons invade, strange things happen. Elemental planes can tap into the world of Telara, shifting reality.
A location may not be the same the next time you visit it; everything you think you know could change. Chronicles of Spellborn attempted this dynamic world-type stuff a couple of years ago but was just a bit too Germanic hair metal to really carry it to a wider audience. Trion Worlds is really talking up this aspect of Rift, and with good reason – it’s an excellent strategy for keeping an MMO fresh for considerable periods of time.
There are two factions in the game, and your starting area is based on which of these you choose. The Guardians are your average fantasy goodie types; comprised of one of Telara’s two human races (the Mathosians) and the typically Tolkien-esque High Elves and Dwarves, starting off in a location that was clearly once a pastoral paradise but is now constantly under attack and piled high with corpses.
If you were expecting orcs and goblins for their opposing faction, however, think again. The Defiant are comprised of another human race (the Eth) in addition to the Bahmi (lilac-skinned humanoids of superheroic proportions, descended from a genie-like race) and the Kelari – related to High Elves but very definitely not the stereotypical Dark Elves you might expect. These guys aren’t that into The Lord of the Rings and their starting area is far more reminiscent of The Matrix – all glowing wires and mechanical weaponry. Still has plenty of corpses, though.
Racial choices don’t really affect the gameplay experience. There are four base classes to choose from, and they’re the common or garden Dungeons and Dragons ones that every gamer is familiar with: Warrior, Cleric, Mage and Rogue. What’s interesting about them is the way that they evolve. Your choices when levelling up create highly tailored subclasses, and this starts happening pretty much the minute you jump into the game.
So a Rogue can swiftly mutate into an Assassin, Ranger, or any one of a number of evocatively named roguelike categories. A Mage can become anything from a fireball-hurling Pyromancer at the frontline of combat to a support specialist like the Archon class. While this enables you to build a character that’s truly crafted for your playing style, it’s a lot to take in while it’s being hurled at you when you’ve barely had time to notice that you’re logged in.
You’re constantly offered choices, and the voluminous amount of backstory and information that goes with them. Play as a Defiant and you’ll also have to take in the fact that you’re actually a) from the future; b) probably dead by now; and c) that for you, the whole game technically takes place back in time. Right.
There are certainly a lot of elements, like this, that make Rift stand out. In some games, like the ill-fated Fury, unexpected races and classes can prove to be something of a turn-off for fantasy RPG and MMO gamers. Trion Worlds has blended these things with the initially approachable but rapidly deepening class system, giving Rift a better chance than most when it comes to getting and then keeping a player’s interest.
But there’s really only one thing that’ll do that, and that’s the actual gameplay itself. And if you’re a fantasy MMO player (which obviously you are or you wouldn’t have bothered reading this in the first place) then that won’t be much of a surprise to you at all. WASD movement and point-and-click interactions are the order of the day. Combat is managed in the exact same way as World of Warcraft or Guild Wars – point, click, choose skill; rinse and repeat. It’s no more (or less) thrilling than in any other MMO. At this stage we could wish for a slightly more fluid targeting system, especially in crowded areas, but then that’s what a beta is all about.
Overall Rift definitely has potential – it’s approachable, pretty, and has some intriguing storyline and environmental features – but whether it will win enough hearts and minds to prove a serious challenge to the big boys of the MMO world ultimately remains to be seen.