It begins at the end of the world with your resurrection. The baddies have won the war, and in a last ditch effort to save Telaria you're reborn (though technology or the intervention of higher powers) and will be sent back through time to prevent the catastrophe from happened.
So far, so Terminator. This is the basic premise of Rift, the new MMO from Trion Worlds (a company I'll admit to being oblivious to until earlier this year). A couple of people I know got into the Beta and praised it highly - a notable event given recent disasters like FF XIV. I thought I'd take a spin and pre-ordered the game (which was a chore in its own right, but that's another story...).
The game itself releases 1 March (NA) and 4 March (Europe) but "headstart" for pre-orders began last Thursday so I was able to spend a chunk of Sunday mooching around Telaria.
It's surprisingly pretty, in an Aion kind of way, but unlike Aion (or other high character-detail games like Lotro) it seems to run very well with smooth animation and long view distances. I'm not running it on max detail levels yet (though I plan on giving it a whirl) but medium is still pretty and largely lag free (the only graphics lag I noticed was in a huge outdoor raid, and that was of the Wintergrasp door lag level of awkwardness - the game was still playable.
Like WoW (and Warhammer, which is possibly a closer parallel) the game has two factions - the Guardians (dwarves, high elves and Mathosian humans) and the Defiant (Kelari 'dark elves', Ethian humans and Bahmi 'ogres'.) The Guardians are a faith-based group (while the Defiant are technologists) and are the "good guys" but only in the sense that the Alliance are in WoW; it's all a matter of perspective and both groups are pitted against the big nasty in the form of Regulos and the Blood Storm (and the Rifts that strike the world). Each has a couple of unique abilities (some passive) such as sprinting, a spirit-fox form to reduce aggro radius, angelic leaps and so on. None seem game breaking, but they help differentiate the races.
Classes and abilities
There are four core classes called callings - warrior, cleric, mage and rogue - which provide a basic template for the character but within each calling there are 8 "souls" that are more specific classes (e.g. Paladin for Warriors, Pyromancer for Mages, Druid for Clerics, Bladedancer for Rogues). Of the 8 souls, each character can have three active - you pick one soul as your first action once you start playing and get a second while in the start area and a third in the first zone of the main world. The 8 are broken into broad categories - Offensive, Defensive, Support, Healing so you can mix and match - a mage, for example can have an Offensive soul, a Healing soul and a Support soul and thus be able to DPS, heal (to some extent) and provide debuffs. A mage can thus serve as a healer (e.g. with the Chloromancer soul) and a cleric as a tank (with the Shaman soul). Okay, there are some exceptions - mages can't tank (they don't have a Defensive soul) but there's a lot of possibilities here, particularly as characters can save "roles" (like a WoW spec) with particular combinations of souls and talent points, allowing them to have an offensive role, a defensive role, a healing role (etc).
Speaking of talent points, here things get interesting. In effect each soul is a talent tree and you spread the points you gain from levelling across them. You can focus on one soul, or you can be a jack of all trades. Like most trees, each soul tree has roots and branches. Branches are where you spend your points, selecting talents that will benefit your character (and like WoW you need to spend 5 points in a tier before you can buy points from the next tier). Roots are the total points spent in that tree and determine your abilities (rather than them being directly level-bases); you'll start with a couple of abilities for that character then gain more at 2, 4, 6, 8 (etc) points spent in the tree. Abilities aren't static - as you level you can buy higher ranks, improving their effectiveness.
You can have six characters per Shard (server) which, on PvE realms at least (I've not looked at a PvP one) can be spread across both factions. However, each faction only has one starting area and there's no racial limitation on classes so things might get a little samey after a while.
Combat in Rift seems to flow quite well and isn't radically different to other games. Your effectiveness and survivability is dependent on your souls (so a mage taking on multiple mobs can get messy) but with care and attention there are few problems soloing the quests in the starter area and the first zone of the real world. There are the usual caveats; over-camped quest mobs (where grouping is an advantage) and the hated kill-10-rats quests (which Rift doesn't manage to escape).
On the flip side, there are the eponymous Rifts themselves that emerge across the landscape, sometimes in isolated (and initially soloable) incidents and then morphing into large and unpleasant invasions. Here Rift takes a leaf out of Warhammer Online's book and has "public groups" that anyone can join so as to defeat the bigger, badder mobs. Each rift spawns several waves of increasingly nasty opponents, ending with a mini boss (who varies from the unpleasant to the downright ouch-worthy). Once the encounter is over, rewards are dished out automatically depending on your level of involvement (there's a contribution meter on the Rift indicator). It mostly works, though occasionally on the bigger bosses (which often have associated world quests) seem to have missed out on the kill credit (and thus quest completion) presumably because another raid (in the biggest encounters there are often multiple raids) was recognized as the killer despite others' contribution. That might be a hiccup or misunderstanding on my part so will have to see how it goes. Rewards may be crystals or items of various
My one worry here harkens back to Warhammer too; there many of the public quests, in their initial form at least, became unplayable once the first wave of characters passed through; there simply weren't enough bodies to make the encounters survivable. Will the same happen to Rifts (which are a central part of the game, including the mechanism for acquiring new souls)? I'm hoping that the Rifts will scale with the number of players but from what I've seen so far I presume there'll still be a minimum force level that may be a challenge to meet.
I can't comment on Instances in Rift as I've not been into one yet (and in the back of my mind I recall the poor implementation in Warhammer that effectively killed my participation in that game). I have, however, been into one of Rift's Warfronts (the equivalent of a WoW Battleground), having been sent there by a succession of quests. It seemed to play very much like a WOW battlefield with an item to be captured, the holding of which awards point and when the counter hits 500 that group wins. There may be more nuances than that, but as a level 12 in a 10-19 battleground I spend much of the game desperately trying to survive and pull my weight J
One thing to note is dying, which seems to hybridize the WoW, Aion and Lotro systems. Once per hour you can "Soul Walk" (self rez, though it takes a few seconds to kick in). At other times, you can corpse-run or rez at the 'spirit healer' (resurrection technician; delete as appropriate). After the first few levels, dying costs you 10% of you soul's vitality and if you hit 0% you suffer rez-sickeness for four minutes (50% stats); rezzing at the spirit healer-analogue hits you for a much higher part of your vitality. You can, however, visit a Healer who both restores your vitality and cures you rez sickness, the more restoration needed the higher the cost. It's not explained overly in game (so I guess I should have read the manual) but seems to work quite well as a balancing mechanism. I died quite a lot ...
The monetary system of Rift is Silver, Gold and Platinum (and by my teens I was just edging into the platinum so spending power is broadly analogous to copper, silver and gold in WoW). There's an AH system, mailboxes, character banks and the ability to buy more bank bag slots. Bags, so far, are titchy - 4 and 6 slotters mostly, though some are larger - so space is sometimes at a premium (characters can have 5 bags, banks 8 but you have to buy the bank bag slots and prices escalate). Items follow a colour-coding system almost identical to WoW.
Each character can have up to three tradeskills that may be crafting skills (Apothecary, armorsmith, artificer, outfitter, runecrafter, weaponsmith) or gatherers (butcher, forager, miner). A rough equivalency with WoW is:
Armorsmith Blacksmith (armorsmith)
Weaponsmith Blacksmith (weaponsmith)
The crafting system is closer to that of Lotro than WOW, requiring workbenches and with the ability to enhance the basic recipes with additional components. It's not as heavily tiered as Lotro though (which required you to make gain X number of points in a tier before progressing) rather it uses a wow-like points system. It feels quite sleek and polished, though it remains to be seem how effective it is (in my two crafting professions I've only gained 20-30 skill points while by gathering profession is in the 50s; the next skill tier kicks in at 75).
There seem to be an array of vendors though I've not availed myself of them but a mix of loot, quest rewards and selling trash ensures a decent supply of money. In this it feels more like WoW than LotrO (where maintaining cash-flow always seemed a chore) and I seem to have plenty of money for my needs. Of course, crafters tend to luck out here, needing to diss items for crafting mats such as salvaging armour and weapons, or runebreaking items (disenchanting) for materials.
Initially, travel will be by running or walking though mounts are available if you can afford them. You can also bind to specific cities using devices known as Porticulums. There's no griffin/horse network, so get used to using auto-run!
In summary, Rift is quite a polished game. It seems to be pitched squarely at WoW players and is sufficiently similar to be picked up without any difficulty. I've yet to run into any significant game issues and most features you're familiar with in modern MMOs are there (or are due to implemented in content patches). However, that similarity may be its downfall - it doesn't (yet at least) offer anything radically different to Blizzard's juggernaut and while its release timing (and darker tone) may lure people dissatisfied with Cataclysm away from WoW, can it hold their attention? Other games like Aion and War managed to lure some of Warcraft's demographic, but in a lot of cases didn't hold their attention for long and they came back to WoW. Can Rift break the cycle? I'm not convinced, though from what I've seen it's technically better game than NCSoft's offering (though at times it did remind me of Guild Wars to an extent). It's certainly more geared towards the western audience than the Korean grind-fests, but is there enough there to keep people? A lot will depend on the players and the type of community they build (which I'm not hopeful about - I've already seen plenty of the inane/offensive barrens-chat type chat-channel conversations, abuse of the need-greed mechanism and general selfishness for quest mobs).
For now, it's a fun game but the proof will be in the pudding; can it hold my attention beyond the starter levels or, like Aion (which was tedious), Conan (which was just plain bad) and Warhammer (which seemed too focussed on PvP to the exclusion of instances) will it quickly loose it's attraction? WOW I've been playing for six years (and to a lesser extent Lotro for four or so); most of those others only lasted a few weeks. Thankfully, none of those were as horrible as FFXIV which took longer to patch than I ever spent playing (actually, it took longer to figure out the subscription system than I spent playing), had the worst excuse for a manual I've ever seen (Rifts is much better, though not quite at the Lotro or original WOW levels), and which which required a kick-ass system to run on minimal settings (hence my killing it amost right away) despite having piss-poor content.