PAX 2010: Hands on with Rift: Planes of Telara

The dungeon portal loomed ahead as a developer pushed a headset into my hands. "You heal," he said to me then moved on to the other four players standing next to me. "You tank. You three DPS. Don't worry too much; you're all a little over-leveled for this dungeon. Let us know when you're ready."

I hardly heard him as I frantically tried to memorize the full array of skills in front of me, rearranging my hotbar to put my heals up front and center. "Ohh, you're a druid," another Trion Worlds developer said over my shoulder. "They're fun -- they get a faerie pet that heals your team as well." I followed his pointing finger and clicked on the skill to summon what appeared to be a cross-breed between Tinkerbell and a Troll doll. Fun times.

The developer who pulled me into the live demonstration at PAX Prime took up his microphone and directed everyone around the booth to look up at the big screen and watch a team of total strangers jump into a mid-level dungeon. Welcome to Rift, I thought nervously. There's nothing like diving in head-first with your potential humiliation on public display.
Cyberpunk fantasy

Earlier that day, I had the opportunity to bend the ears of the Trion team members as they set up for the imminent PAX crowds. Squirreled away in a private room, a pair of devs walked me through the character creation process. I had to admit: Up to this point, Rift had been clocking pretty low on my interest radar. It took just one interview and a hands-on demo to change all that.

On the surface, Rift may seem like every other fantasy game out there -- after all, there are elves, humans, dwarves, swords and demons. I'd even wager heavily on the presence of dragons somewhere. But the devs stressed that this was a fantasy world in upheaval as it was under constant threat of invasion from chaotic dimensions, and this had the effect of subverting all the typical fantasy tropes. For example, one of the two main factions -- the Defiant -- have eschewed the old religion and gods for cold, hard technology. To illustrate this, their characters can choose pseudo-cyberpunk (fantasypunk?) looks.

As we fiddled around with the character creation visuals, the devs stressed that their primary goal with the art style was to make a beautiful, bold aesthetic that wasn't quite as realistic as it was highly-detailed and memorable. There were several options to pick from -- skin, eyes, hair, makeup, markings, and sliders for the face and highlights -- although Trion wanted to avoid going overboard with too many options. "When you start fiddling with dozens of sliders," a dev commented, "It's ridiculously easy to end up with an ugly character and no way to make him or her attractive." I couldn't agree more.

Charging ahead

While I -- ever the consummate professional journalist -- failed to write down the name of the dungeon we were running, I blame the fact that the combat started fast, continued furiously, and never quite slowed down. We weren't too concerned about mezzing and single pulls, but instead resorted to the time-tested tactic of the tank running in and trying to grab aggro while the rest of us inconsiderately did our best to take it away.

Our main foes were goblins, and they came in several varieties as we wound our way down what appeared to be a torchlit hive of sorts. As the healer, I started out by just spamming the group heal, but that drained my mana faster than I would've liked. I eventually discovered that I had several different varieties of heals on hand, as well as a skill that would boost my next heal spell by 50% when used. After that, it got a bit easier.

I found myself pleasantly surprised at how fluid the gameplay was; everything felt polished, looked terrific, and performed spot-on. In fact, it all flowed together so well that I simply concentrated on the dungeon run like I was sitting at home instead of having my every healing flaw pointed out on the jumbotron with color commentary.

A class of your own

Back in the quieter demo room, I was shown one of the key features of the game: the character builds. Unlike most MMOs, Rift doesn't want to pigeon-hole you into a rigid, pre-defined class with little room for individuality. Instead, players will collect "souls" (think of souls as specialty classes) to mix-and-match in order to create a unique build. Eventually you'll have the option of a three-soul build, so you can pick three out of however many souls you've collected already in order to make a class of your own.

For example, I was shown an elf rogue whom the dev wanted to fashion into a close-quarters powerhouse. So he chose three souls that complemented each other: assassin (for close-combat DPS), blade dancer (DPS and dodge) and saboteur (who launches bombs and injects poison at point-blank range). The dev stressed that he didn't know whether this was going to be an effective build or not, but he had the option of starting with an idea -- running into a crowd of mobs, dancing out of the way of damage while throwing down a bomb or two.

Classes are further customized by investing points into each of the souls' talent trees. These function much like you might have seen in other titles, although they do have an interesting twist. The more points you invest into the top part of the tree (which contains passive and active talents), the more bonus talents you unlock in the bottom part of the tree, which may grant additional skills. With several build presets available, and a minimal respec cost for the talent trees, Trion hopes that players will feel free to create as many classes as they desire.

Don't stand in the fire, noob

At the bottom of the pit's spiral lay our first boss, an ugly cuss of a goblin with a penchant for launching firebombs at us left and right. It was here that we experienced our first wipe, due to my inadequacies as a healer and our entire party being flagged for the burn ward.

Fortunately, it wasn't too difficult to recover (except for our ever-wounded pride) -- a virtual snack of food took away the death penalty, and I rejuggled a few heal spells to conserve mana for a longer fight. With experience at our back, we steamrolled the goblin, looted a couple pieces of choice armor, and unlocked the next phase of the dungeon.

Riding the rift

If the vast array of character build options is one of the tentpole features of Rift, the titular effects deserve equal recognition. Rifts are basically rips in the fabric of the universe where six chaotic dimensions -- death, life, water, fire, earth and air -- are doing their darndest to spit in Captain Planet's eye and make this world just like their own. Wardstones defend certain areas from rifts opening, but they can't cover the entire landscape, and sooner or later nasty things will happen.

The devs explained that the game is smart enough to slow down the process of rifts appearing and opening when players aren't around (say, in the middle of the night), and to move the action to where the crowds are. When a rift appears, players have the option of jumping into it -- although I wasn't shown this aspect -- or combating the inevitable invasion that follows. An opened rift changes the landscape around it according to its element and launches a dynamic invasion of demons and other nasty critters that march toward wardstones to take them down. Seeing as how invasions can be repelled and wardstones repaired, it behooves players to join the fight instead of ignoring it and going on their merry way.

Trion Worlds has designed the rift system to not only offer dynamic world events, but to entice players into working together by increasing the rewards when more and more characters are involved. On an interesting note, I learned that the dimensions actually hate each other, and if two invasions from different dimensions cross paths, they're as likely to fight each other as they are players. Each dimension also has a representative cult in Telara, so even when rifts aren't present, the danger always is.

Until we meet again

I declined to stay past the hour it took to reach the first boss of the dungeon, although it certainly wasn't for a lack of fun. If anything, I came away from PAX this year with a newfound respect for Rift -- its creative concepts, its attractive art design, and one of the coolest mounts I've ever seen (the Yarnosaur, a rhino/camel beast). I can't vouch for the rest of the game, but Trion Worlds certainly appears to have a serious contender in the works.

This article was originally published on Massively.