RIFT, the first MMORPG from new contender Trion Worlds, launched with the audacious slogan, “You're not in Azeroth anymore.” After a couple of months to work out the launch jitters and allow the world time to grow and change, how does RIFT's world of Telara hold up in its contest with the MMORPG world's two hundred pound gorilla (or perhaps more fittingly, orc)? I've been playing around in RIFT when my schedule permits for the past couple of months, and I have my share of joys and concerns about the budding game. Here is my impression of my experience leveling up to the mid-thirties in the game. Please note that I will only be covering the player-versus-environment aspect of the game in my impression and later review, as I am not qualified to properly review player-versus-player gameplay.
RIFT is set in a rather unique world called Telara, which is at the nexus of countless planes of existence. For reasons that haven't been fully explained, extra-planar beings appear to find Telara rather delicious. They're always trying to get in and wreck things on the planet, which is why Telara's gods, known as The Vigil, created a nifty shield to protect the place long ago. Of course, some of the natives managed to mess things up, and now a bunch of really nasty dragons from various planes are poking holes in Telara's shields, opening rifts through which their cronies can pour into Telara and sample the local cuisine of elves, humans, dwarves, and such.
"The spice in RIFT's leveling stew is the rift and invasion system."
It's into this crazy situation that the player characters are dropped, after a brief introduction to their respective faction. The player base in RIFT is split into two factions, the religious Guardians who still trust in the Vigil, and the scientifically-minded Defiant who believe in self-determination. Faction choice affects the races available to the player, the zones and quests available for exploration, and the general flavor of how problems are approached and solved. Unfortunately, it doesn't affect how characters are played at all. Both factions have the exact same classes, attacks, and spells. It would have been nice to see at least visual differences between the attacks and spells used by the Guardians and Defiants, especially with the Defiants supposedly being active users of technomancy, which the Guardians consider an abomination.
There are four starter classes in RIFT: warriors, rogues, mages, and clerics. Players choose their main class during character creation, then choose three sub-classes (out of nine per class) known as “souls” while advancing through the tutorial area. While the souls retain the basic mechanics of their respective classes, they can vary widely in their purpose. For instance, rogues have access to several offensive souls, a defensive (read: tank) soul, and a support soul. As they level up, players may assign points into the talent trees of their souls in any way they desire, specializing heavily in one soul or creating a hybrid build. The soul system provides a lot of interesting choices and is one of the things that distinguishes RIFT from similar MMORPGs, but it can be challenging to find a set of souls that work well together. Fortunately, it's easy and relatively inexpensive to choose new souls and re-assign points.
The basic leveling experience in RIFT will be familiar to anybody who has played an MMORPG, particularly one of the major fantasy entries in the genre. Players move from town to town, receiving quests that generally involve finding objects and/or killing enemies. Quests reward experience and equipment upgrades as would be expected, and characters move on to new zones once they've reached a high enough level. There is a five-person dungeon to conquer in every zone, which gives players access to some nice loot if they can find a group. At launch, gathering a group was a matter of spamming social channels in hopes of getting enough players, but now a group finding system has been added to the game, which will hopefully help leveling players get better access to the dungeons. How much a player enjoys leveling via quests entirely depends on their enjoyment of this basic formula. There are some interesting and fun quests involved, but a lot of fairly generic ones as well. Most, at least, are directly related to the player's mission as a defender of Telara, so the player generally spends time fighting extra-planar foes and their allies rather than killing twenty rats.
RIFT's combat system is quite similar to other comparable MMORPGs, with characters fighting monsters in real-time, hitting various hotkeyed attacks in order to succeed. The local monsters aren't quite the pushovers one often finds in World of Warcraft, however. Most character classes need to be careful not to pull too many monsters at once, and everyone will need to use special attacks to successfully vanquish foes of their level. The added challenge is welcome, although the monsters tend to chase too far and too fast when a player is attempting to run away. Overall, combat is enjoyable though not particularly innovative, but the nice thing is that the soul system allows the player a fair amount of choice in how combat works for their particular character.
The spice in RIFT's leveling stew is the rift and invasion system. In every one of the game's areas save for the capitol cities, rifts from the planes will open at random intervals, giving players the opportunity to fight planar creatures for experience and loot. Random rifts may get in the way of quest objectives and can spawn small invasion forces if left open for too long. Although sometimes annoying, tackling these rifts and invasions are generally a welcome change from questing while leveling up. In addition to the random rifts, planar invasion events can spawn if enough players are in a single zone. Every player in the zone will instantly receive a quest that tells them how to fight off the invasion, as rifts open everywhere and invaders pour towards the player cities. Players can instantly join with each other while fighting rifts or invasions by hitting the “Join Public Group” button, and any player who assists in fighting off an invasion will receive rewards and planar currency that can be used to purchase special equipment.
This rift system is dynamic, spawning events according to the population of an individual zone. Currently Trion is still working on balancing the dynamic nature of rift and invasion spawns, which is a tricky proposition. While the starter zones and level 50 zones tend to be well-populated, the middle zones have a lower population now that the game's initial leveling rush is over. Players dislike rarely seeing big invasions from levels 20-40, but if the invasion rate is turned up, there may not be enough players in the zone to successfully fight it off. In highly populated zones and servers, large events can't be allowed to spawn too often, as the player base then experiences fatigue and gets annoyed with the feeling of being under constant siege. This kind of balance is going to be a major challenge for the game as it matures, and it should be interesting to see how Trion handles things.
One area at which RIFT excels is in providing content for explorer-type players. There are small, shining nodes hidden carefully throughout the world, which when clicked on yield artifacts. Collecting sets of artifacts gives players access to achievements and unique cosmetic rewards, and the more out of the way or difficult to reach an artifact spawn is, the more likely it is to yield a rare or valuable artifact. Along with this, there are puzzles to solve and achievements/titles to be earned by venturing off the beaten path. It's great fun for players who enjoy exploration, and hopefully the game's designers will keep explorers in mind as the game grows and matures.
RIFT has a crafting system, which is a fairly standard gather-and-manufacture style system. Players can choose up to three gathering or crafting professions, though most crafting professions require items from two different gathering professions. When leveling, the system suffers from a common phenomenon in which players can easily outlevel their crafting skill, which must be advanced by manufacturing a large number of goods. They'll find themselves crafting gear that is weaker than the gear they've earned from questing or running dungeons unless they've spent an unusual amount of time gathering resources. We'll see how crafting holds up in the endgame, but for leveling it's really not necessary unless a player really enjoys manufacturing-style crafting.
The RIFT developers are trying to distinguish themselves in providing ongoing special world events for players of all levels to experience. The first such event involved a major villain from the world's lore, who is in charge of numerous legions from the Plane of Death. For weeks, players experienced special daily quests and unique rifts that dropped event-specific currency. There were numerous rewards that could be purchased with the currency, and players generally seemed to enjoy the run-up to the main event.
"The RIFT team has built up a good amount of player goodwill and seems dedicated to providing fresh content to today's voracious MMORPG audience."
Unfortunately, the developers made the mistake of scheduling the final phases of the event on a single day over the course of only a few. The predictable happened: the servers, which are normally impressively stable for a young MMORPG, couldn't handle the load of players trying to experience the end of the event. Major delays and server crashes resulted, there were giant queues to get onto most servers, and the crowds that had made it onto the servers gobbled up the final event at breakneck speeds. As many players were unable to experience the climax of the event due to these problems, Trion mailed every character an apology package filled with loot and titles from the event. While this first event was a bit of a disaster, Trion claims to have learned from their experience, and a second world event has just been launched. We don't yet know how the second event will culminate, but the developers say they've learned from their mistakes, so hopefully the end of this event will be more stable and accessible.
Having commented on the various systems found in RIFT, it would be remiss not to mention the game's aesthetic appeal. RIFT is a very nice-looking game with semi-realistic graphics. The game's graphics take advantage of the tools available to modern graphics cards such as advanced light and shadow rendering, but there's also a low-res mode for players without powerful rigs. The rifts look fabulous and there is a nice diversity of enemies found throughout the world. Character models look nice, and complaints about a lack of choice in armor models are being addressed with the addition of an outfit system that allows players to display one outfit while wearing another for statistical purposes. RIFT's world is lovely and interesting to explore, with a wide variety of natural settings and some breathtaking vistas to experience. The auditory experience is acceptable, though nothing much to comment on. Sound effects and atmospheric sound work fine, though the music is forgettable and tends to come and go, making the game feel a bit silent sometimes.
So far, the leveling experience is RIFT is enjoyable, and the game's few original systems show promise. Perhaps one of the best parts of the game so far is that the development and community management teams are friendly, communicative, and move swiftly to fix problems and add new content to the game. With that kind of attitude and flexible game infrastructure, the RIFT team has built up a good amount of player goodwill and seems dedicated to providing fresh content to today's voracious MMORPG audience.
There are a lot of challenges ahead for RIFT, however. The game's basic systems are just a bit too familiar for veteran MMORPG players, particularly in terms of how the classes, customizable as they are, play during combat. There are still a lot of balance challenges for the developers to meet, especially in providing a full game experience to players who have joined the game after the original leveling rush. World events have proven to be a challenge, and Trion knows that the player base is watching the new world event carefully after the first one bombed. Finally, there's the challenge of keeping players at the level cap happy and busy. I'll be going into that in more detail in my final review, once I've had a chance to experience the endgame for some time. In the meantime, I'd recommend that MMORPG fans check RIFT out. It's the best new MMORPG to hit the market in some time, and it launched with an impressive level of stability and amount of content. RIFT has certainly won the sprint with a solid launch game and sizable early player base, but can it beat the MMORPG marathon? Tune in during the summer to see what we think.