As part of its recent Gamer Day event, Trion Worlds invited Massively back to its studio for another look at Rift: Planes of Telara. Having now been to two of these Gamer Day events, I can say without a doubt that last week's was the more festive -- the player-community leaders and swarm of devs certainly made the whole experience much more wild than the first and reminded me that I was supposed to be having fun (not just studiously taking notes for you lovely readers, although I did that too!).

Since this was my second day-long hands-on with the game (the first being last summer when I got to check out Rift's dynamic content), I thought it best to focus on two areas: improvements to systems I'd seen before, and totally new elements I hadn't seen at all (like the Guardian starting zone, PvP, UI enhancements, Deepstrike Mines, and several new souls including Riftblades, Bards, and Wardens!). Follow along after the break for my second impressions of this MMO that continues to surprise me with its glittering shine of polish. "Find your greatness" -Guardian saying

Because in my last hands-on I'd rolled up a Defiant Elementalist, I thought I'd check out the Guardian starting zone with a melee class this time around, so I was off to play with the character creator. More races are in now, including male Dwarves (which incidentally are exceptionally detailed, with impressive high-res skin textures and none of the comic cheesiness many games assign to the shorter races). In fact, the character creator is much changed from my last play; there are more options overall, extra choices for hair color (including hair highlighting), a triangle of facial structures (as opposed to just a stock slider of premades), really cool duo-tone makeups, facial tattoos, and so on. Elf hair in particular is adorable, with leaves and flowers poking out. There aren't very many games out there with more options, and it's heartening to see that the team is continuing to work on pleasing the playerbase with enhanced customization.

The Guardians' starting zone (in contrast to the Defiants') is a city under siege, a fachwerk village charred and aflame, with smoke billowing into a teal-and-fire sky (lots of effort has been spent on coloring this world, you can tell!). Maris, my Mathusian Champion (a Warrior geared for extreme melee DPS), proceeded along, slaying zombies and ghosts and skeletal things. Interestingly, the brown undertones of the zone made the whole place feel more dead than haunted, especially when compared to the almost oppressively purple Defiant newbie area. Of course, my quests leaned heavily on the holy themes of the Guardian faction; more than once, I was asked to purge and pray and so on. It's not my thing, but the town itself more than made up for it: the burning upper stories loomed out over each alleyway, creating an incredibly creepy and realistic and claustrophobic faux-medieval town. Think Oblivion's Skingrad painted up like Warhammer Online's Altdorf. You know, with zombies.

Polishing perfection

Trion's devs were not kidding around when they said the starting experience had been revamped. For starters, my Warrior couldn't choose Champion right away; I had to learn about each starting soul first, in-character. Almost immediately, I met several iconic quest-giving NPCs whose lore-equivalents I do not recall from last summer in the other zone (like Shyla Starhearth of the Skimpy Outfit). Instead of allowing you to stumble into a Rift by accident and figure out what to do with one on your own, the team has installed a permanent Rift into the zone; a core quest leads you to its doorstep, explaining why it's there and what it does along the way through a new pop-up tip system. In fact, that quest winds up being quite a showdown between the Big Baddie of the area and the local hero NPCs whom I met before, giving the whole storyline a much more epic, cinematic feel -- not unlike Lord of the Rings Online's freeze-you-in-place-while-the-NPCs-chat-ominously trope.

Before funneling you on past the tutorial, the game requires you to choose your second soul, yet another feature not present at such a low level in the older build. I didn't feel the game was confusing or noob-unfriendly before, but these new additions really show how even polished content can be improved. Players are introduced to core game systems in a much more overt way, and I can only imagine that the Defiant starting zone has received a similar rework with the novice player in mind. For my part, I chose Riftblade, which added some elemental flair to my hack-n-slash, not that I'm sure anyone would notice elemental sparkles in the shadow of my incredibly giant two-handed sword. Several Trion devs even passed by my station and commented on the size of that thing... it was a bit over the top, but in a good way! The best part was the animation after finishing up a kill but before returning to a default state -- Maris very gently rested the blade on her open palm, as if the whole weapon weighed nothing at all. What a badass. My sword and I leap-charged our way into every battle. So satisfying!

Off the beaten path

The transition from the starting zone to Silverwood was almost jolting. Transitions are risky. Sometimes a game will end up with a Guild Wars-esque Pre-Searing/Post-Searing Ascalon switch that leaves players depressed at being "rewarded" with an eyesore zone for all their efforts. Silverwood reverses that. It's still a field of battle, but its music shifted from a tense military theme accented by the wailing of NPCs to a peaceful melody that kept reminding me of something from The Lord of the Rings movies. The area itself is a glowing, glimmering violet-hued zone at water's edge. Even had the very first quest not invited me in for a swim (to rescue drowning compatriots) I'd have jumped in. I was once again surprised at how lovely and detailed the underwater locations were -- these areas are often neglected in other games, yet in Rift, the sea floor is populated with sunken ships and wild and monstrous alien seaweed, lit realistically depending on depth. Beneath the surface, sound becomes muffled; even the music dims. At one point, I swam upwards and could see the firebombs streaking across the sky... truly beautiful touches for a place hardly anyone will ever see.

Roleplayers and lore buffs, you'll love this: Nicholas McDowell, the Guardian lore lead dev, pointed out to me that the team planned a special collector panel for books, separate from the normal inventory and the artifact collection window. I saw several books scattered through the wreckage of the starting zone, all of which can presumably be added to my book collection and re-read later (it wasn't working in this alpha build). McDowell said he didn't want roleplayers to have to make a Sophie's Choice between inventory space and lore. I naturally asked him whether that meant we'd see an appearance tab or costume system to the same end, and he just laughed and said he'd seen what I'd done there. It was worth a try, right? The devs did relate, however, that they hadn't yet ruled out housing, only that it wouldn't be in at launch. So there's some hope!

"Live gloriously; die heroically" -Guardian saying

When it was time for all of us to group up and try out a dungeon, I intended to give a Kelari Pyromancer a spin, but a shortage of healers led me to pick the Eth Cleric out of the lineup. We were choosing from premade level-30 toons with their souls fully slotted, and once I'd had a look at my character's spells, I was thrilled. She was spec'd in part with a Warden soul -- a water-based mage/healer. Not frost, but water -- my very favorite, not officially announced! Water spells, especially nukes, are incredibly difficult to realize on-screen, so I was pleased that they looked pretty good (even though they seemed terribly weak).

My group was a man short and sported two tanks, so I expected difficulty in Deepstrike Mines, but we actually did surprisingly well in our short time inside the instance, taking out two bosses with extreme ease and a third after a few attempts and hasty strategery. One thing my group commented on was that -- even when we factored out our low-DPS four-man group -- mobs and bosses did not fall over at a sneeze. Even battles with mundane "trash mobs" seem pitched to last a good long time, allowing classes specializing in damage-over-time spells and finishing moves to really utilize their arsenals. Another thing immediately obvious to me was that it was darn hard for me as a healer to run myself out of mana. Most fights barely saw my mana bar move at all. One of the devs explained to me that the design was to keep the healer busy in a fight; my goal was to use the right spells at the right time and keep my water heals-over-time going, not to manage a resource bar. It seems like it'd make for a slow dance, but especially on the boss fights, I was button-mashing furiously, since my spells really weren't very powerful -- heal-spamming was outright required. Still, considering that we did so well in such a bizarre and short-handed group, I wasn't surprised to hear murmurs about hard-mode.

One thing I discovered during our wipes on that second boss is that the death penalty has been retooled completely since last summer. While you can still choose to soulwalk (resurrect near your corpse after a few seconds) once per hour, selecting respawn instead no longer instantly hits you with a debuff counterable only with food. Instead, you must pay an NPC to remove the penalty debuff, although reportedly it's not truly debilitating until several deaths in a row. The hovering devs assured us that the death penalty was still a work in progress.

"Come with me if you want to live" -Fluffy

The last objective of the day was PvP, something that no press had seen to that point. I love a good battleground, so I hopped in, picking a Bahmi Rogue since that was the only starting calling I'd yet to try. A quick click on an amusing script-NPC named Fluffy boosted me to level 50, and I was then ported to Meridian, city of the Defiants. I was trying to figure out how to spec my Rogue when I realized something: I had a Bard soul equipped! I knew Bards would be in the game, but I didn't know they were playable yet. If a game has Bards, I'm pretty much guaranteed to be playing one, so naturally I put every talent point in that soul and had a look. My gut feeling is that it plays more like a Guild Wars Paragon than a more standard EverQuest II Troubador/Dirge or LotRO Minstrel. My character got several songs and anthems, most of them lasting but 30 seconds or so, and many of them overwrote each other. I was also pleased to see several healing and buffing songs in addition to a single-target charm. When playing the songs, my character made a brief animation (either blasting a long horn or strumming something resembling a lute), but the music wasn't particularly varied each time, leading me to suspect it's simply not finished yet (which is why it's not on the website!).

Warfronts -- what Rift calls battlegrounds -- aren't revolutionary. At level 50, three were available to me: The Codex, Whitefall, and Black Garden. They're a typical mix of capture-the-flag, node control, hold-the-relic, and so on, and a Warfront panel allows you to join queues for them singly or en masse from presumably anywhere. These familiar features are exactly what MMO PvPers want to see: streamlined matches that borrow the best mechanics from World of Warcraft and Warhammer Online. The two WFs I was able to join were both beautiful (particularly Rivendell-lookalike Black Garden) but seemed pretty confusing for a newbie. It didn't help that I'd spec'd so heavily for Bard songs and had very few attacks, forcing me to stick to the zerg. Still, the alpha-test PvPers were out in force. I even won a couple of matches and got to Prestige Rank 2, though probably not due to anything I did. I will note that enemy players seem to die pretty slowly, much like their mob-counterparts, which suggests that a more thoughtful PvP battleplan will be in order. Ganking is much harder when hitpoints are high and damage output is low.

While waiting for my last Warfront to pop, I decided to dig into the UI and was surprised to find implemented some of the UI tweaks Scott Hartsman suggested at the last Gamer Day. If you're a fan of the easily movable interfaces of Guild Wars, City of Heroes, and LotRO, you'll love Rift's. Prefer your health bar (and the bars of your team members) a bit more front-and-center for easier healing? Want your chat box up at the top of the screen and out of the way? Yep, you can do all of that now, in one of the sleeker setups I've seen. It's a long way from WoW's elaborate Lua scripting, but it covers the fundamentals just fine.

Playing to succeed

It seems that several of the MMOs due out next year are doing things the right way -- companies like Trion are not basing their games on get-rich-quick schemes or pop psychology or the gimmick du jour. Rift: Planes of Telara embodies that philosophy. It feels like a neo-traditional MMO, a game that's gone back to the genre's roots to reimagine all the things that made pre-WoW games great, then layered in all the best post-WoW innovations. I still worry that it might be too traditional for the next gen of MMOs, but you know what? The beauty of this genre is that a game doesn't need to win to succeed. I can't really call the game an underdog, given how much money and talent is being poured into it (and how ardent and large the fanbase is), but it's certainly giving off an underdog vibe. It's the industry's hidden gem, and I'm starting to think that's exactly how Trion likes it.

This article was originally published on Massively.
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