Monday, January 30, 2012

Three reasons why giving Rift a second chance was a pleasant surprise

March 2011. Trion Worlds launches “Rift”. A lot of people think it is very good indeed. However, my reaction after playing open beta had a lot in common with my reaction to playing Allods Online’s beta, which I wrote about a couple of years back.

Look, it's all very slick and polished .. I'm sure a lot of people will enjoy it .. But I've probably played ten or more sword & sorcery MMOs, to various degrees, and I really need something different if it's to stand any chance of luring me away.

Rift certainly was slick and polished – much more slick and polished than Allods, which was impressive for a free-t0-play title, but Rift was impressive full stop. But it just felt painfully derivative. It felt like the work of a bunch of people who really wanted to work for Blizzard, and settled for their second choice, which was cloning WoW and adding a few features (rifts, invasions, much more flexible talent trees) that they thought would be really cool additions to WoW. It made my teeth hurt and I just couldn’t be at all nice about it.

However, March 2011 was also the time that I was finishing off my last spell of being subscribed to WoW, a five monther going from the launch of Cataclysm to the point where my guild had devoured all the content. We had levelled to 85, done heroics, geared up, beaten Blackwing Descent, Bastion of Twilight and Throne of the Four Winds in normal mode, then fallen apart messily as some people wanted to do hardmodes and others didn’t. Having done all that, and also levelled a worgen alt through the revamped old world (which was absolutely fantastic, I must say), it was time to unsubscribe.

And in that frame of mind, having just spent five months devouring what was imho Blizzard’s finest work to date on WoW, I really wasn’t inclined to be receptive of something which felt like a WoW clone.

But that was eleven months ago. Last weekend, Trion offered a free weekend in Rift, which I took advantage of out of curiosity, and you know what? The frame of mind I’m in right now is one in which Rift entertained me thoroughly, to the point that I whipped out my wallet at the end of the weekend and activated an account.

Here are three things which pleasantly surprised me, and have made me glad I decided to subscribe.

I love what the rifts do to the flow of the levelling game

I think we would all agree that WoW made a pretty fundamental change to MMORPG gameplay by making questing the way to level. Few games released since have strayed from this model, which many people enjoy, but which can get a little tedious. Go to quest hub, pick up a set of quests, go out, do them, come back, turn them in, get next set. Repeat a few times and then get a breadcrumb quest to the next quest hub. I certainly don’t want to go back to camping and grinding mobs, as I’ve said before, but you really need something to break up the grinding of quests.

Rift’s eponymous rifts, as well as invasions and footholds, seem to do this pretty well. While you’re out doing your quests, you will see rifts and invasions and footholds on the map. Sure, you could ignore them and carry on killing those ten rats, but I found the quantity of them was just about right that if you took a detour from your questing to clear any rifts you saw nearby, it gave the gameplay a nice balance. And then when a zone event occurs, which seems to be every few hours, you can totally forget about questing for a bit, fall in with a public group, and run around dealing with the event’s masses of rifts and invasions for a while. Again, it feels like the frequency of these events is nicely tuned, rare enough to feel special, but not so rare that you get the angries too hard if you miss the end boss or something.

It makes me feel that exploration is rewarded

One of the reasons some people dislike the questgrind model of gameplay is that it funnels you through the gameworld, discouraging you from ever stepping off the beaten track. When I’ve wandered off the track in Rift, I’ve made some satisfying discoveries. These include a few caches of items (ancient cairns, dead bodies, etc.) which even contained a couple of blue items. Also I have found many more artefacts (Rift’s equivalent of EQ2’s collectables) when exploring – I have no idea if this is deliberate or just that when they spawn in questing areas, they get found quickly, whilst when they spawn in the middle of nowhere, they don’t.

Add to this some achievements beyond the traditional “explore the whole zone” – like “climb to the highest point in Silverwood” – and it really helps make wandering around feel like fun, rather than a distraction from the serious business of questing and levelling.

Bard healing feels different to any healing class I’ve played in other games

In a fit of nostalgia, I tried to make my Rift character a copy of my very first WoW character I created on release day. Same race and class (human rogue), same name, same haircut, and I focused on the rogue’s Assassin soul, which feels a lot like WoW’s “stealth & stab” vision of a rogue.

However, this weekend, I decided to try out the Bard soul and do some healing in PvP.

First off, to be fair, a Bard is not defined as a healer. They are technically “support”, which means they heal, they buff, they debuff, they DPS. However, while they might not be suitable for main-healing an instance, they are certainly powerful healers in PvP – the three warfronts I ran, I topped the healing charts (by quite a bit) in all three, despite being level 31 in a level 30-39 bracket.

The Bard has no direct heals. None. All your heals affect your nearby groupmates, and your main heal is a channelled attack which generates combo points, does damage, and heals equal to that damage. Then you have a finisher that spends to combo points to do a burst heal. So the effect of this was that I spent the entire match focused on the objectives and the enemies, never even glanced at my groupmates’ health bars, and still as I said topped the healing charts.

Does that mean Rift is a good game?

Yes, it’s a good game. It is still very derivative, it’s certainly no second coming, and I’d still rather be playing something genuinely different to what has gone before (hello Guild Wars 2, please hurry up and release). But in the world of WoW-inspired themeparks, it’s as good as I’ve ever seen it get, and I do enjoy a good themepark, it’s true. It’ll satisfy me for a while.

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