The RIFT Test Drive: First (and second) impressions

With the rather abrupt lifting of RIFT’s NDA, the floodgates are open for any and all alpha and beta testers to flow through the countryside, knock over cattle, sweep away homes and drown thousands of dissenting opinions.

Here is mine.  You should probably take strong headache medicine in advance.

The Inevitable Comparisons

Instead of slowly leading up to the conclusion, let’s tackle the two big questions that everyone has: Is the game good, and is it like specific other MMOs?

The answers are “Yes, although not perfect” and “Most definitely”.

Everyone seems to draw their own conclusion what game RIFT is most like, although three have been repeated most often: World of Warcraft, Warhammer Online and (oddly enough) Aion. RIFT is best seen as a melting pot of some of the better MMO designs and features in a highly-polished package (and, yes, from what I’ve seen, it’s an incredibly polished game already).  It certainly has the feel of many MMOs that’ve come before it, particularly WAR with its war-torn fantasy landscape, the PQ-like Rifts and even several of the classes.  There’s a bit of EQII’s collection system, World of Warcraft’s brand of achievement system, and so on.  Considering that Trion Worlds is made up of a ton of devs from many of these famous MMOs, it’s not surprising that they’ve held on to features that they’ve liked and have proven to be winners.

If you’re looking for an MMO to be really, really different and groundbreaking, it’s probably best to head on elsewhere — but that isn’t to say that RIFT is worthless.  There’s a LOT to be said for a fully-functional game that isn’t buggy to hell and back and has a ton of content from level 1 to the cap.  Whether this’ll be enough to establish the game as a contender or merely another indistinguishable WoW clone remains to be seen, but I haven’t seen a game look this good in beta in a long time.

Right Off The Bat…

RIFT just looks and feels slick.  I know it’s an underappreciated feature, but I really do love a good UI that is responsive, functional and easy on the eyes — all of which RIFT has in spades.  It’s a game that any MMO vet will feel incredibly comfortable jumping into without having to learn too much from the onset (although this ultra-familiarity may put some off, too).  Everything from the combat to the sales windows to the ranks of skills is an old hat.

In struggling to come up with an appropriate metaphor, I’d have to go with the thought of RIFT being the latest high-end luxury car model.  No, there’s nothing super-new here, just a slick presentation that handles well and gets you where you need to be.  It may be too much of the same thing for some, but WoW felt pretty familiar to many people on launch too and yet won a lot of players over due to Blizzard polishing it up to a glossy shine.  You never know.

Even so, I never felt deeply thrilled in that “Oooh it’s a cool new MMO that I really really want to keep playing!” way.  More of a “Ah, this is fun, but I’m totally cool closing the game out and doing something else for a few hours instead.  Either or, it’s all good.” way.  Part of this feeling comes from the fact that RIFT glues your hand to theirs (whoever “They” might be) and walks you through the first dozen levels or so without any feeling of immanent danger or challenge.  If I’m already feeling a bit bored with the quest hub-hopping thing by level 5, it’s not a good sign.  The Defiant starter zone took much longer to complete than the Guardian one, although both were well-done in presentation.

Fortunately, the world opened up a bit by the teens, and I soon stopped following the quest breadcrumbs to just explore and kill at whim.  Combat, while nothing groundbreaking, looks terrific, with excellent animations and effects and spell pizzazz going off everywhere.  I’d even go so far as to say that RIFT’s combat makes WoW’s visuals look practically prehistoric.

The first beta experience was plagued with severe issues of too many people trying to tag too few quest items/mobs, although Trion tweaked that to make it better for the second beta.  In my opinion, Trion did a good job of dealing with some of the more contentious issues from the first beta and fixing them for the second.  One example is that there was a lack of skill queuing, which meant that if you hit a skill during the global cooldown (which happened a lot) then the game would just give you an irritated “Just wait your TURN, sonny!” error message until the GCD completed.  Fortunately, Trion added a “soft queue” for the second beta, meaning that you could hit another skill within a half second of the GCD finishing up and it would hold your next action in the queue.  That made combat a heckuva lot better.

Souls and Rifts

So let’s get to the two features that RIFT’s been touting as its selling points: the soul system and the rifts themselves.

In talking with fellow RIFT players, I’d have to say that the soul system was brought up the most often when we’d share what we liked about the game.  It is, to be completely honest, awesome.  Not just awesome, but very much freeing as well.  If you don’t like feeling pigeonholed into your class limitations in MMOs, then you’re going to really appreciate the freedom that the soul system presents.

At the start, you pick one of three souls (classes) for your archetype (warrior, rogue, cleric or mage).  By level 5, you get your second soul out of the seven remaining.  Then around level 20, you get a third soul, and so on.  You can equip up to three souls at once to make a blended multi-class character, and further customize your build by investing soul points (you get one per level) into the different soul attunement trees.  Think WoW talent trees, but with added features.  (Note that they’re going to be changing how quickly you get your souls and soul points in future betas.)

What’s even better is that you can purchase “roles” which are saved builds, allowing you to easily swap builds (out of combat) on the fly.  For beta one, I had a warrior whose first build used the Reaver soul (lots of DOTs), and whose second pumped it into my pet with the Beastmaster soul.  If I wanted a better pet and the ability to run fast out of combat, I’d use the second role, or if I wanted to just hunker down and mow through bad guys, I’d go with my first build. Eight souls may not sound like a lot, but trust me, it ends up creating a massive amount of build potentialities.

A small but personally exciting feature?  Any archetype has access to a pet-bearing soul.  So anyone can have a combat pet!

It looks like the soul system is still in the middle of a lot of fine-tuning as the game heads into beta 3:

“In time for Beta 3, expect to see all of the souls available to choose from the outset, more souls available earlier in the experience, and more total points to spend. The system is there, and it’s fun, and there’s no reason to hide it from people.”

Rifts were an initial disappointment.  For all of the talk and hype about this centerpiece of the game, the rifts in beta one were pretty-looking Warhammer PQs.  Go in, kill a few mobs, zerg the boss, that’s it.  What we didn’t know was that the team was ramping up what rifts could do between beta one and two, and by the second they unleashed a full-scale zone invasion, with dozens of rifts, streaming armies and footholds across the landscape.

Once this happens, the game gets a heck of a lot more interesting, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who was totally okay dropping whatever quest I was working on to fight back against a dynamic invasion.  RIFT does a decent job getting you the info — where the fights are, where they’re going, etc.  It’s certainly something I wanted to see more of, because it does draw people together instinctively and naturally, and it’s far more exciting than mere questing.

Assorted other thoughts

  • I like the idea of collections, especially with rewards attached
  • There are a lot of fun little surprises, such as an item that turned me into a jumpy, zippy squirrel for up to an hour (although if I did anything “non-squirrel like”, as the tooltip told me, I’d revert back to my old self)
  • Underwater sounds, effects and visuals are FANTASTIC
  • Some of the mob aggro radius is weird — I could run right next to a red enemy without getting aggro, while others would gun for me across the zone.  Also, it’s kind of hard to run away from your enemies when low on health — I ended up getting killed a lot this way.
  • I wish I could’ve run more dungeons.  I’m planning on this for beta 3.
  • Silverwood as a lowbie zone was a lot more interesting than the Defiant lowbie zone.
  • I wasn’t that thrilled with the fact that most of my gear upgrades came from quests, which meant that a lot of us were wearing the same outfits
  • Lots of neat death animations for mobs

It’s hard to give a sweeping, permanent judgment of RIFT based on two short betas, and I’m reluctant to do so — especially considering just how much they tweaked things between beta one and two.  I’ve seen a lot of quicksnap proclamations on the forums that show just how impatient we are to fully try things out.

For my money and short time in the game, RIFT is the real deal.  It’s polished, it works just fine, it seems a bit too familiar in spots, and it may have difficulty competing with other established games in the already-crowded fantasy genre.  Still, the soul system is inspired and rifts/invasions are quite cool, so I don’t doubt that this will get quite a few followers at launch.

Nostalgia Lane: GoldenEye 007

I’m hard-pressed to think of many movie-based video games that actually became more famous than the film they were based off of.  TRON, perhaps.  And whatever everyone in the comments section says.  But there was something truly special about GoldenEye 007 that took a decent Bond outing and elevated it to a video game classic.

You won’t see me writing about the Nintendo 64 much in these Nostalgia Lanes.  I simply wasn’t crazy about the system, with a controller that should’ve just been a cat with three buttons glued onto it for all the ease of use it presented, not to mention the truly expensive cartridge costs.  By the early 2000s, I was firmly in the PlayStation camp (the PS2 would become the last console I’d play avidly), and many of Nintendo’s titles seemed kiddy and boring in comparison.  Sure, I tried Zelda and Mario (and have never understood the appeal over their SNES outings), liked the horror of Eternal Darkness, and fell in love with Perfect Dark.  But no title became a “must have” in the multiplayer courts as much as GoldenEye.

GoldenEye was a first-person shooter with excellent (for the time) production values.  With a swift framerate at your back, you’d zip through several levels from the movie as well as plenty that were just plain made up to pad this puppy out.  Lots of guns, lots of enemies, and — best of all — lots of cool little gadgets that you could use to give yourself an advantage.  While the character models were as chunky as all get out, they served their purpose.  I especially appreciated the minimalistic UI that kept things like health and shields hidden unless you started taking damage.  Compared to other FPS titles like Doom, this was Apple-brand sleekness.

But where GoldenEye excelled at, and why it became most famous, was in its multiplayer matches.  While this was before consoles would hook up with anonymous players across the world who would yell obscenities in your ear, GoldenEye instead required four players to be in the same room and use 1/4th of the screen for their view.  So, the bigger the TV, the better.  Sure, it wasn’t an ideal setup, but 4-player GoldenEye was simply intense, with fast-paced matches of various types playing out amidst the screams of players fragged in the back of the head.  Everyone had their favorite character they just had to play (Oddjob for me) and a favorite map, and we kept at it for hours and hours.

Today, it’s all about Black Ops and Modern Warfare 2, although I’m long past my FPS days (and playing a FPS without a mouse and keyboard?  Blasphemy!  My fingers cannot handle it!).  Yet GoldenEye will remain one of the most beloved titles from the past generation, so much so that it even prompted the creation of a sequel not too long ago.  So, in a weird way, Pierce Brosnan’s Bond had a longer life in video games than he ever did on screen.

STO: Warp Core Breach

Star Trek Online.  We meet again, for the first time, for the last time, for glory, and for Del Taco.

I’ve long since stopped fighting — or questioning — the pull of a different MMO when my brain demands it.  It’s something that precedes my era in MMORPGs, as I’ve always been prone to getting an idea (I want to play game X!) and then seeing that idea turn into an unstoppable obsession by Day Two.  Fortunately with online space, it’s much easier to indulge without dropping $50 on a brand new game all the time — $15 for a month’s play almost seems paltry.

I don’t know why I felt called back to STO, other than I really enjoy the look of the game and the feel of owning a virtual starship.  STO feels markedly different than the fantasy MMOs that are a staple of my play diet, so it’s good for variety.

Of course, another one of my bad habits kicked in upon resubscription — I felt the urge to roll up a new character instead of continuing with my higher-level toon from a few months back.  This is unfortunate, for while it’s nice to get reacquainted with the game at a measured pace and I had the ability to go back to an Engineer character, STO’s early game is still packed full of drudgery.  It wouldn’t be too bad if you advanced to Lt. Cmdr a lot faster, but as it is, you spend so much time with your crappy light cruiser and paltry few options that every encounter plays out almost identically.

On the plus side, STO’s made some good improvements over the past few months, which I attribute to Dan Stahl’s better handling of the title.  Gone is the crappy blue grid overlay in sector space — now it genuinely feels like you’re out in the black as stars warp by you.  I also applaud the ability to replay episodes and (soon) try out player-generated ones.  I’m not really interested in diplomacy, crafting, exploration or delivering 10 biosporgals to Fumus 9 — I just want to go on a series of adventures.  This helps.

The Adventures of Sype: Ales Well That Ends Well

“Him?”  The bartender wrinkled his nose in disgust.  “Oh, you don’t want to be talkin’ to his kind.”

Sype took a long swig of beer and looked over his shoulder once again at the surly Dwarf in the corner.  “No?  Why ever not, my faithful alcohol-provider?”

“That’s one of them Ale Association folks.  They come bargin’ in here, trying to take over Inn League territory through all sorts of underhand tactics.  Not a drop of honor in any of them — and that one’s the worst.”

“No honor?  Underhanded?  Ale in the name?”  Sype stood up abruptly.  “Excuse me, I have a best friend to meet.”

* * * * *

Ten minutes later, Sype couldn’t believe his luck.  For once — for bloody once — in his miserable travels across Middle-earth, he found a soulmate who eschewed goody two-shoes deeds for self-serving mischief.  That, at least, was a cause he could get behind.

And what’s this?  Their first mission wasn’t to rescue a Hobbit from a vicious toad or lug a crate of hair gel to the Elves, but to go to Bree and drink himself blind?  Sype already had welts all over his arm from pinching himself.

The next few hours passed by in a drunken blur, and just when his liver was about to keel over and call it quits, meaty Dwarf hands pounded his back and welcomed him as a true member of the Association.

“Of course,” the merry Dwarf said, “some might see you as a bit… sinister from now on.”

Sype belched and pulled out a wanted poster that he tore off a Trestlebridge wall during his exodus from the North Downs.  He thrust it under the Dwarf’s nose.  “Suspicious I can handle.  It’s almost cute.  So what now?  Kitty killing?  Grave robbing?  Turning an entire town into newts?  I can do that, you know.  I’m… misher MAGIC!”

Arms wheeling, Sype fell on his butt.  “Kablooey!” he muttered, looking at the palms of his hand.

The Ale Associate looked down at him, concerned.  “Nothing that evil, man!  But if yer askin’, we wouldn’t mind you stealing–”

“I’ll DO IT!”

“–some recipes from naive Hobbits.”

Sype paused.  “I’ll STILL DO IT!”  Another pause.  “After a word from my AA sponsor.”

He curled up under the table and started snoozing.

* * * * *

“The unbelievable gall of some folk!” a Hobbit lady groused.

Sype smirked.  “My gall is quite believable, trust me.  And thanks for this precious-yet-not-patented beer recipe you left laying out in the public domain.”

He jumped back on his ragged goat and trotted off, hearing the sounds of an indignant Hobbit sputtering behind him.  “One down, three to go,” he said to himself.  “But if my luck has anything to do with it, the difficult challenges are ahead.”

The second recipe was on a bookshelf in an empty room.  Yoink!

The third near the outstretched hand of an unconscious partier.  Yoink!

The fourth was guarded so fiercely by the local constable that the man practically praise Sype for taking it.  Yoink… okay, the challenge was gone.  “Seriously?” Sype said to the Hobbit.  “You’re not going to fight me for this?”

“Fight?” the Hobbit looked bewildered.  “Good heavens, no!  I have a whole stack of these recipes, adventurers have been coming by all day just to gander at my famous concoction!”

Sype looked at the crumpled paper in his hand.  “That does take some of the fun out of it, it does.”

A long goat ride through the Shire later — dodging rainbows and Hobbits sprinting with pies — and Sype returned to Thorin’s Hall.  “Oy, chief!” he barked, tossing the useless recipes on the table.  “I’m through with this piddly crap.  Give me something good.”

“Something good, eh?” the nasty Dwarf cackled.  “Hm, how about poisoning drinks?”

“Yes, that is acceptable.”

“Introducing a smelly biological agent at the Party Tree?”

“Sounding better, go on…”

“Puncturing kegs so to make men and women weep in deep sorrow as their booze, the only release they have in this miserable life, soaks into the ground?”

“And we’re off!” Sype stuck a finger in the air, turning around to…

to…

“MISTER!”  The shrill voice was accompanied by two rough hands, shaking his shoulders.  “MISTER, WAKE UP! ”

Sype cracked open an eyelid and immediately regretted it.  “Turn off the son, junior.  Wait!”  His eyes flew open.  “It was a dream?  A DREAM?”

The Lore-master began to weep.  “It was only a dream…!”