Waging WAR: Finding the sandbox

In this installment of Waging WAR, Greg takes a look at Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning from a few different angles and goes in search of the proverbial "sandbox" in a game that contains neither sand nor boxes.

Somewhere along the line during my childhood, I developed a habit for playing games with nearly every game I've ever played. I can even remember a time in my early teens when I sat down with a few friends and collaborated on making our own version of battlechess. Pages of chicken-scratched rules and several dice results-tables later, and we were off and running for a solid week of the most entertaining chess matches I've ever played. Or there was that time with The Sims when I started creating experimental families and then leaving my computer on overnight and not interacting with them, just to see how successful they could be without my help. I could bore you for hours on end with examples of how I twisted the rules and made my own games from the games I've played.

I suppose I can blame my penchant for metagaming on my early introduction to pen-and-paper roleplaying (i.e., D&D 1st Ed., to be specific). All I had was a sheet of paper, a handful of dice, a description of the world around me, and my imagination. By its very nature, PnP gaming is sandbox gaming. The reason I'm bringing this up now is that, until WAR, I had pretty much been able to "find the sandbox" in any MMO I was able to get my hands on. Whether it was building hardcore Dungeons & Dragons Online characters, roleplaying in City of Heroes, or achievement-chasing in World of Warcraft, I've never really been troubled with finding something to do when the grind started to wear me down. But now, with WAR, I'm finding most of my old tricks for MMO metagaming just aren't working.

To read about what I've tried, and why it didn't work in WAR, follow along after the break.

When I talk about "hardcore" gaming I don't mean 16-hour sessions, raiding five nights a week for six hours a night, or anything like that. What I'm talking about is probably closer to what others would call "permadeath." I suppose I cling to the term out of respect for the Diablo series. In some other MMOs, most notably DDO, the challenge of creating a character and playing permadeath style is actually quite exhilarating. The idea of risk takes on a whole new meaning, and characters actually come to life when their deaths are benchmarks for success and often deletion as well. In Diablo, not an MMO by any means or stretch of imagination, hardcore-play takes an even more interesting turn when you add the "ironman" challenge to the mix; playing with only the equipment and consumables that drop and never interacting with NPCs for any reason adds a whole new level to the permadeath challenge.

While in most games involving persistent, progressive characters, death is seen as inevitable, permadeath is the challenge of avoiding that moment for as long as you can. In WAR that inevitability happens much sooner. In fact, WAR's single-minded focus on RvR and PvP makes a character's death completely unavoidable. It will happen, often before the character reaches 5th level (or soon thereafter, depending entirely on how long it takes you to find an RvR lake and join a warband or queue for a scenario). Thus, permadeath-play in WAR is simply absurd. It is possible, but neither fun, nor challenging as it is all too easy to camp empty PQs pulling single mobs all the way to level 40.

Another throwback to my dice-rolling days is the idea that creating a persistent, progressive character for gaming should come with some backstory or a quirky concept at the very least. For me, the idea of rolling a character brings with it a whole plethora of additional meanings and implications that I'm sure are entirely unnecessary. For instance, whenever I finished creating a character in Champions Online or CoX, I asked myself, "Would I read a comic featuring this character?" The concept or backstory had to be just that interesting (to me), or I would immediately delete the toon and start anew. As a result, I can't say that I've ever suffered from any sort of alt-itis, as I tend to stick to one character. Even in WAR I gave myself creative reasons as to why I saved my collector's edition head until my archmage hit level 40. When new players ask me why my toon is blindfolded, I am more likely to explain that mortal sight is unreliable, and that I rely on divine guidance from Isha, rather than simply state that it was a special customization item available from the collector's edition pre-order.

It's not to say that roleplaying in WAR is impossible. Indeed, there is lore, backstory, and setting enough to make roleplaying entirely plausible. In my experience, however, there is very little opportunity, and if there is a roleplaying community in WAR, it is very good at hiding itself. I can't recall ever seeing others roleplaying in WAR, aside from the few random times I've been called a "long-ear" by some stuntie. The single-minded development focus leaning toward RvR and PvP is probably the reason why. Everyone is simply too busy fighting!

I also tend to be a completionist when it comes to my characters. I've often found myself researching the "best-in-slot" items available for my class and where to find them. Although I can't say that I've ever completed a character in this way, I've definitely fantasized about it. On one memorable character in WoW, long before achievements were implemented, I enjoyed spending time grinding obsolete or obscure factions to exalted status for absolutely no good reason. I wasn't even an enchanter. In my first Mass Effect 2 playthrough (another non-MMO reference, sorry), I took it upon myself to not only explore every last planet, but deplete the resources from each one. I guess, ultimately, I enjoy following rainbows to the end, regardless of the presence of a pot of gold or leprechauns. The end itself, or sense of completion, is often gratifying enough, even if it is only one rainbow in a multitude of rainbows.

And while WAR has plenty of rainbows to follow, none of those rainbows seems to have an end. Aside from one or two breaks, I've played WAR since launch and still don't have a character at RR80. My closest is 76. And now, with the prospect of RR100 looming on the horizon, my will to continue that RR grind has all but evaporated. To me, renown rank has become a limitless, unachievable ceiling, much like the system of tome unlocks. Sure, I get an unlock for killing 10 wolves. Perhaps another unlock for killing 240 more. But do I have the patience to add another 750 to that total? Or another 9000 on top of that? In WAR, the rainbows have all been bent into straight lines with such length that the light at the end of those tunnels is no longer visible.

Lately, I've taken to farming up the Keeper's set of gear found in the sewers of Altdorf. For some reason, the Hunter's Vale is capped at level 11, and my archmage will never be able to see the mysteries within. Of course, I can always roll an alt and go exploring, but again, I don't really like playing alts when I can enjoy my main. I suppose once I've acquired my Keeper's set, I'll step it up a level and see if I can solo my way through Gunbad and get my Redeye set. With a four-day lockout on stage-three city loot stagnating my sovereign set's progression, and my having lost all will to continue grinding my RR, what else can I do?
Every Saturday afternoon, Waging WAR hits the cover of Massively with the latest and greatest in all things Warhammer Online. From patch news to career reviews, Greg Waller writes about it all. Email comments and questions to greg@massively.com.
This article was originally published on Massively.