Interface and mods

Rift has a standard, modern interface that's easy on the eyes and simple to learn. Players of the major MMOs of the last few years will be right at home with button bars, minimaps, party windows, and so on. The map includes a quest tracker, quest pointers, quest pop-ups, and quest map-highlighting (something that's becoming more and more standard for the genre). I found the UI a bit clunky for healing (more on that later) but honestly that's because I'm spoiled by games like WoW with their huge array of addons. Healing in almost every MMO is an awkward flurry of clicking at UI elements and inefficient eye-movement as you try to monitor too many bars set just too far apart. It just seems out of place in a game like Rift -- a game in which the designers are intentionally attempting to focus player attention on the center of the screen, not the periphery. Being the mod-junkie I am, I asked Scott Hartsman specifically about Rift's future insofar as addons and was told that the team is currently planning for basics like resizing, rescaling, transparency, and possibly even skinning, but that we shouldn't expect full-scale modding at launch. Scott suggested that the framework for such addons might be a post-launch project. I pouted, but I can understand the decision to polish first and pile on later.

Different strokes

Some of the genre staples Rift has borrowed have been vastly improved. For example, Rift features an elaborate achievements and collections system that rewards the player with various cosmetic bonuses like pets, mounts, and titles, without bogging him down with tedious grind. Several of these items dropped for me in the lowbie zone and I had only to click them to add them to my collections panel. Interestingly, Trion has chosen to tally your achievement points (though not achievements themselves) across your entire account, meaning that you haven't got to be a completionist on every character -- unless you really want to be.

I hardly had time to peek at my character's talent pane let alone play with respecs, but my glimpses showed talent trees very similar to WoW's -- with a multi-classing twist. Much has been said on Rift's elaborate build system, and for good reason -- few MMOs give players so many options to build their characters just the way they like. While we'll not be able to change our initial calling (i.e., class), players will be able to pick and choose skills and talents from all of the possible callings to craft their own hybrids -- ideally, players can choose to spec wide or spec deep. Scott told us that he estimated there would be over 270 combos at launch. And you'll get to try many of those out -- each character can have up to four loadouts at a time, so you can have your normal adventuring build, a build for when the guild needs you to tank, a farming setup, and maybe a build for PvP. Not every combo will work for every situation, and the team believes that by allowing everyone to do everything, balance issues will be mitigated. Easy respecialization built right into primary gameplay will help too -- respecs can be performed on the fly anywhere when not in combat. You can actually swap in a different build for trash mobs vs. bosses!

So how dynamic is dynamic?

I should have been prepared for Rifts and yet I wasn't. Public quests aren't new; several Mythic games like Ultima Online and Warhammer Online have them, and Champions Online polished them into a quality MMO concept. But Rifts... Rifts are even better. When you see one pop up on your map or minimap, you can gather up your friends and charge on in, forcing the Rift to open on its own if it's being pokey. Entering the area will provoke a pop-up with instructions for completing the encounter. The Rift will transform the landscape and spawn waves of mobs, scaled to the folks in the area. Solo? No problem. Twenty of your best friends? Rift can handle big. You needn't even be grouped up; your contribution is tallied individually, and even if you should perish, a convenient pop-up loot panel will ensure that you're properly rewarded for your efforts (and everyone is rewarded with something -- no losers here!). I found the Rifts to be pretty spooky and entertaining, if over a little too fast for my over-eager groupmates. Presumably, higher-level public quests will be more difficult, and they seemed to be propagating fairly consistently since so many of us were in the zone.

"An enemy planar boss and his minions had spawned, and they were steadily marching toward the nearest town, intent on laying waste to my allies."

Past the newbie zone, the map widened considerably and became dotted with the multi-colored warning symbols of enemy footholds. These enemy base camps are generated randomly based on zone participation, and can be attacked and subdued for fortune and glory just as Rifts can. In fact, if two opposing footholds spawn too close to each other, they are very likely to begin fighting each other (since the planes are all at war, too). I really loved that I could see the enemy's position on the large map, as if I were some general plotting out my campaign. But what really got everyone interested was a funny little arrow slicing its way across the map. That arrow, we were told, was the first sign of an enemy invasion. An enemy planar boss and his minions had spawned, and they were steadily marching toward the nearest town, intent on laying waste to my allies. Players could choose to tackle the invading army immediately, or proceed with a bit more strategery -- a bit of patience might allow the players to ambush the army while it was busy skirmishing with an enemy foothold along the way. Why not let the other NPCs do some of your dirty work, after all? And all of this is going on amidst normal questing endeavors. On a PvP server, this mechanic could get even more interesting!

Should the invaders make it to their destination unharried, they will carve a wide path through NPCs, including quest-givers in the hub towns, so everyone has a vested interest in stopping invasions quickly, although Trion has made clear that this system won't create more burden than it's worth for players who just want to carry on with their questing. Given the experience and loot rewarded by these types of encounters, I am hard-pressed to understand why players wouldn't leap at the chance to hunt down invasion NPCs! I can hardly imagine what Heroes of Telara would have been like if the team hadn't added in Rifts and these other dynamic aspects. Except for these unique features, Rift is actually fairly standard fantasy. It really needs a stand-out mechanic, a hook to bring in the crowds, and the invasion system delivers. Literally!

High elves can't jump

Yes, you can jump in Telara. As we all know, the ability to jump is a critical gameplay feature! Really -- while jumping really won't reduce your aggro, it does instill the player with a sense that the world is truly 3-D. It helps sell the space and suspend disbelief. In fact, several Trion folks made a point of showing us that we could jump up into places other games would forbid, including up and over mountains and into zones that might be a tad out of our level range -- your life is yours to risk in the name of exploration. Of course, you can die when falling, so it's best not to climb too high. In Gloamwood (the recently released werewolf-ridden zone where the attendees were grouping up for adventure) I took it upon myself to climb up one of the bizarre, Gothic, Ewok-treehouse towers and throw myself off in an emo tribute to the gloom, but alas, I never did manage to kill myself, although I did come pretty close to drowning while taking notes. While most of the other writers were busy gaming up the levels, I was happily swimming (and fighting!) in greenish waters and thinking how fluid (forgive the pun) the animations were. Anyone can create a monster-bashing level grind; a great team manipulates the little things to convince us that the world is more than just a nicely painted hamster wheel.

I continued my adventure off the rails after getting separated from my team. Mounting up on the free epic mount I was given -- some sort of woolly-rhino thing -- I bounded around for a bit, enjoying the speed and smoothness of the ride. (I've spent too long in SWG, I fear, where the creature mounts are annoyingly slow.) I ran east toward what looked like a castle and was greeted with the gleaming spires of the Holy City of Sanctum. I treated myself to a tour, being primarily impressed with the quality and quantity of the NPCs stationed in Tavril Plaza and inside the keep itself. I could only wonder whether those NPCs would be victims of -- or victorious allies in -- the next invasion.

Fighting and dying (mostly dying) in the Realm of the Fae

After my excursion to the city, my level-18 group re-coalesced just in time to plunge (literally) into the depths of the Realm of the Fae instance. (The zone entrance was a watery hole in the ground!) Our five-person team (complete with an overleveled rogue tank -- yes, this is a game that really doesn't want you pigeon-holed too much into just one role) set about mopping up ents and fairies and dionysian satyrs wielding wine cups, all of whom seemed quite offended that we were crashing their festivities. The instance was divided up into several seasonally themed areas (greenery for summer; dead leaves for fall; snowstorm for winter), and it was a bit guided, to be sure -- hedges often marked out our path, and they didn't always look placed to perfection. And yet we still managed to get lost a few times. Nothing out of the ordinary for our first trip in a new dungeon, and at least the encounters appeared functional and playable (a far cry above the pathetic dungeons with which Warhammer launched).

I was quite pleased with how my premade cleric held up. He was pretty cute for a High Elf (we'd switched to Guardian faction for the afternoon), but I was wary -- while I like to play healers, I usually avoid holy-based healers. Strangely, my cleric's spells reminded me a whole lot more of my LotRO minstrel than my long-abandoned EQ cleric or WoW priest. I love that he sort of dipped to the side and behind to call forth his shimmering light. I certainly wished for a better healing UI, but I think we did all right with the default, barring a few deaths when we got split up or overextended. Not to worry; death in Rift seems fairly trivial. Once per hour, you can "soul walk" -- that is, resurrect right at your corpse, similarly to the revive/retreat system in LotRO, although in Rift you're given several seconds of impunity to scurry away from any lingering danger. After my second death, I resurrected inside the entrance to the dungeon, just as in Champions Online. A small health debuff was applied to my character until I ate a bit of food, and then we were off and en route to the final boss, whose death triggered yet another convenient pop-up that distributed loot to everyone on the team.

Over lunch, one of the other participants noted that she found the early game a bit too easy for her tastes, and most of the writers agreed. But the instance seemed appropriately challenging for mid-level characters, especially given our unfamiliarity with the premade characters we were playing. The Trion reps said that the scaling difficulty was intentional -- they want the starting areas to be accessible for newcomers to the genre; the later game will ramp up in challenge if you seek it out. Indeed, Scott told us that they particularly aim to ensure that no Rifts murder any newbies in the area, EverQuest-style. And no hell levels! Ever!

Closing my Rift

You know you've got something special when you're genuinely sorry to log out of the alpha client to go play more games, and yet that's exactly how I felt. I was skeptical about the game, going in. Among gamers, there's a feeling that MMOs made by "indie" companies -- at least companies not counted among The Big Three -- will forever be doomed to second-tier status. I have concerns about Trion's insistence that Rift: Planes of Telara will function under a traditional subscription model, not because I don't think the game is worthy (it is), but because I'm worried that the industry will have moved even further from that model by the time the game releases. We see the signs already in other top-tier MMOs, and players have begun to rebel against both extremes of the F2P/P2P spectrum. In some ways, Trion is asking people to risk a lot of money on an untried, untested dev team and an unknown, original IP. Will players be willing to do that next year when Rift sidles up to not just WoW: Cataclysm, but Guild Wars 2 and SWTOR too? I really hope so, because if Rift were releasing today, it'd probably be the smash hit of the last few years, WotLK notwithstanding. This is the game Warhammer should have been. I don't want to see it elbowed aside by sequels and star-power from teams with deeper pockets.

In the meantime, I've seen enough to know I'm looking forward to it anyway.