The beta may be closed now, but we were lucky enough to get our mitts on Warhammer Online at EA's booth at E for All recently. We were only able to access lowbie characters and starting area content, so unfortunately weren't able to experience some of the juicier RvR content that awaits characters later in the game -- but a few hours' worth of exploring several zones and spending some time with a handful of Warhammer's 24 careers left us pretty excited to see what else is in store when this launches.
Initial impression: the game looks gorgeous. The environments are lush, detailed, compelling, immersive. The art style is unique -- not as "cartoonish" as WoW but not photo-realistic either... unique. The combat animations are dynamic and diverse for characters and NPCs alike. The several zones we saw were populated with a diverse assortment of nasties to beat on, interesting landmarks and scenery, and a general feeling that there's a lot of action going on around you -- there's a huge war on, and Warhammer manages to convey a sense of generalized anxiety and excitement that makes it difficult to forget that you're in this world with one primary duty: to smash faces.
The game controls are entirely conventional -- and that's a good thing. Anybody who has played other MMOs will be able to sit down and grok how to get things done immediately. Many of the default key mappings are identical to WoW, you'll find the minimap and ability bars in the places you'd expect, the options menus are clear and easy to use, and clicking on things produces behaviors you'd expect. Combat, too, works similarly to the slate of modern-era fantasy MMOs -- you key certain actions to your hotbar and press those keys to activate them in battle. With learning curve kept to a minimum, it's entirely easy to pick up the game and dive right in.
Some of the careers we had a chance to try were lots of fun to melt faces with, and with 24 classes (or careers, in the Warhammer nomenclature) you'll have no shortage of melee, ranged and spell attacks to choose from. It was difficult to get a high level sense of any particular career's overall skillset from tooling around with low level characters, but even some of the introductory ability sets provided some unique mixtures of spellcasting, melee, AoE, healing, buffs and ranged attacks. The Witch Hunter career, for example, is a unique blend of melee and ranged-oriented abilities (melee hunter FTW, lawl!), dual-wielding a sword in one hand and a gun in the other. The Chosen are primarily a melee class with heavy armor and in-your-face damage attacks, but with some spell-casting abilities as well. Shaman and Zealots are both blends of damage and healing, the former being more caster oriented, the latter more melee. The Magus is a more typical magic-wielding spellcaster, but with a supercool movement animation: the character essentially floats a short distance above the ground on a small circular platform instead of walking. After careful deliberation, our staff voted the Magus career "most likely to impersonate Jesus." All 9 of the classes we tried were given a flee ability from level 1, which will be handy for getting away from mobs when you've bitten off more than you can chew -- a nice touch for a more stress-free levelling experience.
There are some notable touches in the game that contribute much to the usability of the user interface. For example, we love the way quest areas are marked on your map -- once you pick up a quest, the general area where you need to go gets a red ringed outline. It falls short of spoon-feeding you a tloc, and cuts down on the time spent wandering around trying to figure out where the heck those unruly ungors and ravenous squigs can be found. The bestiary and lore book are also excellent resources provided within the game itself, which means less time alt-tabbing to research backstory.
Overall, Warhammer is starting to look like a truly impressive contender for a slice of that coveted MMO market. It draws from the strength of an existing fanbase familiar with the Warhammer lore, displays evidence of well-designed and nuanced gameplay and environments, and even has its own clear and unique sense of humor. We can't help but be excited for the beta to re-open in December, and disappointed that the launch has been moved back to Q2 of next year -- but with the extra time spent on polishing and balancing, we have a big hunch it's going to be worth the wait for this one.