Each beta event was only the length of a weekend, so I had to prioritize what I wanted to explore. I played a healer to level 20 during each event and also played other archetypes into the low teens. As a Defiant, I was an Inquisitor/Justicar/Purifier, and as a Guardian I was a Sentinel/Justicar/Shaman. I saw both instances and completed the Realm of the Fae dungeon. I ran through every solo quest I could find and ran dozens of rift invasions -- sometimes alone, sometimes grouped, and a few times as part of a raid. I did not have a chance to explore crafting or PvP, and from what I could tell, Warfronts weren't yet available to test.
I don't easily get into lore, but I have to admit, the way the story is presented really hooked me. Starting areas have clear and compelling storylines, and I particularly liked the surprise twist at the end of the Defiant starter area. This is not a game with a "good" and "bad" pair of factions. As the trailer says, the Guardians aren't chosen for their virtue, but for their might. Similarly, the Defiants aren't evil, but they reject the gods that have shunned them, and they want to save Telara on their own.
The world of Telara is gorgeous and runs surprisingly smoothly considering the level of detail in the game. I enjoyed running up the broken bridge near Port Scion, seeing Freemarch (where I played in beta just a few weeks earlier), and realizing that the two sides are going to decimate each other for control of the city.
Rift invasions affect every single choice you make in game. Do you bypass the road full of invaders for the equally dangerous overlands? Do you head to Argent Glade to craft, despite the 12 arrows of invaders en route to attack? Do you attack the foothold in the middle of your quest area or put those quests off until later? At any moment, what was once mundane can suddenly become deadly. At one point, I died while questing and chose to soul resurrect by Rudi's wagon. Unfortunately, my timing was poor, and as I turned towards the soul mender, he ran by me, screaming for help with about eight Defiant invaders chasing him down. It wasn't until the invaders were driven back that the soul mender returned and I could heal myself.
Sometimes, however, invaders are your allies. There are six different types of planar invasions, along with the two warring factions on Telara, and they all hate each other. A group of fire invaders might actually be a welcome arrival to help drive back a Life rift. But as soon as they help finish off the enemy, they'll turn their attention to you. I only saw three types of rifts in the two beta events -- Death in beta one, and Fire and Life in beta two. The addition of two competing rifts made things much more interesting, and I'm looking forward to seeing what it will be like to have all six in game.
The best part about rift invasions is that they encourage teamwork and social interaction. Players quickly learned over the weekend that grouping up, rather than fighting solo, meant better experience and rewards for all. One of my favorite moments during beta was when I was questing and suddenly got an invite to join a rift raid. I was only a level 9 Assassin/Bard, in a raid with about 14 others, some of whom were level 20, yet everyone in the raid felt like an active participant. I knew I wasn't contributing as much as a level 20, but I still managed to put a dent in the mobs. I was getting better experience than I was when solo questing, and I had a lot of fun following the mass of purple dots on the screen run from rift to rift. This is where RIFT shines -- invasions are refreshingly social and encourage players to include others. There were lots of "woots" when tough invasions were repelled, especially when the maps exploded with rifts.
The other major part of the game is the soul system, but this is difficult to critique right now, because even if you reached level 20, you barely scratched the surface of what the different souls and soul combinations can do. I also found it difficult to get a feel for the soul choices based on how they were presented in game. While I liked the little animations that showed how each soul worked, I wish there were a way to see the trees and get a little more detail on each choice. Based on what Executive Producer and CCO Scott Hartsman posted, we should see that for the next beta event.
I initially chose an Inquisitor during beta one and was surprised to find out that I was playing a healer that, initially, had no heals. As I leveled up, however, I began to enjoy the way the soul system worked. The Justicar's ability to gain heals from use of offensive abilities reminded me of Vanguard's fun Disciple class. The Bard's ability to run several short-term buffs reminded me a bit of Bard-twisting in EverQuest. And it's refreshing to be able to swap different soul combinations with different talents. During a tough boss fight encountered by my Realm of the Fae group, one of our Mages changed specs to emphasize the healing abilities of the Chloromancer. After we won, he changed back to favor more DPS. I love the challenge of figuring out a tough encounter, and the additional flexibility of the soul system makes it even more enjoyable.
Questing is no different from what you find in most MMOs, but in RIFT, it serves a different purpose. In many MMOs, questing is the fastest path to the endgame. In RIFT, it's one path, but if beta two is any indication, it's not necessarily a faster path than rift hunting or grouping. Hopefully, people see it for what it is and don't shun rifts and groups for fear of leaving their comfort zones. There is a danger that players familiar with the World of Warcraft-on-rails experience will roll up a toon, start heads-down questing, and zoom all the way to the level cap without ever understanding that the RIFT experience is broader and deeper than the solo questlines alone.
Thanks to the well-designed world map and the ability to mouse over a mob to see whether it's needed for an update, questing is more intuitive and (to me) far more enjoyable than in other MMOs. Often, questing involves stopping to check a journal, check a location, check the map, and sometimes even check a third-party site for quest tips. The map covers it all; it shows important quest locations and tracks distance and direction for updates. Also, the map becomes slightly transparent when you start to move -- a small detail that comes in handy countless times during questing and rift hunting.
The two instances were fun, but again, if you've run group crawls in any recent MMO, the two starter instances will feel very familiar -- clear trash, defeat scripted boss encounters, and get nice loot. I did love the look of the Realm of the Fae, though, with its stark changes in environment as you go through each of the seasons. The hike up the snow-capped mountain was stunning, and the final fight against Lord Twyl had a nice plot twist at the end.
Both starter areas felt complete, and most of the little details have been properly treated and fleshed out. Shiny collectibles, discovery experience, rare vendors, guild perks, nico lights, flying squirrel illusion (see picture below for the last two) -- it's all there. Early on, I killed a Defiant technomagician in the Guardian starter area and got a memo revealing the location of a magic artifact. I followed the clues, and sure enough, there was a clickable artifact that gave me a nice short-term buff. It's easy to miss and not part of any questline, but for those who like to explore, it's a nice reward for the effort.
I was also impressed by the quick response of the development team to player feedback from the two beta events. There was an 8,000-word post of changes made between beta one and two, and that didn't include the many changes made on the fly during the beta events themselves. I ran into two broken quests that had bottlenecked me from going further along in the line. By the next morning, both were fixed. Both betas featured quick reaction and solid communication from the team, and hopefully that's a trend that will continue post launch.
RIFT has a lot going for it, but no MMO is perfect. One of my biggest issues with the game is the fact that we haven't seen the "fun" in the soul system. The potential is there, but I think it needs to arrive a lot sooner. I also don't like the fact that the third soul came from a quest line. There were countless questions from people about how to get the third soul, and if you were bottlenecked due to broken quests as I was, or if you don't like to level up by questing, it's possible you wouldn't get it at all.
I also felt that some things need to be a bit faster. Running, turning around, moving backwards, and panning in and out with the mousewheel all felt really slow. I'm happy Trion sped up the global cooldown between betas and added in a soft queue, but I'd still love to see combat ramped up a bit as well.
I didn't have many issues with performance, but I did run into some major lag during some of the larger invasions, and a few guildmates who were in raid ended up crashing out of the Sunday night invasion event. I'd love a way to swap from a high setting to a lower one instantly, for those unexpected moments when a large invasion suddenly pops up.
I'd also like to see an easier way to form up a group or raid for rifts. Any time you have to spend inviting someone is time taken away from tagging mobs and climbing the leaderboards. I'd also love to see in-game voice chat, so players on a PUG rift raid can instantly pop into chat to coordinate their rift hunting. This is a game that's screaming for Vivox, seriously.
Lastly, I'd like to see some of the guild tools fleshed out a bit. I miss not having a guild bank or the ability to note which alts belong to whose main character. The raid UI seems a bit too simple, and I wasn't thrilled with the short duration and long cooldown on the guild rally banner.
RIFT isn't perfect, and there's a lot that might feel all-to-familiar, but the rift invasions and the soul system address the two biggest problems in MMOs today: lack of player interaction and the limitations of the holy trinity in groups. Rifts encourage players to band together, include each other, and fight against a common enemy. The soul system encourages five people, regardless of class, to group up and still have the tools to make progress together. If rift invasions are tuned correctly, and if the soul system realizes its potential, RIFT has a real opportunity to breathe new life into the MMO genre.