When World of Warcraft first launched, it was difficult to explain just how astonishing the game really felt. The innovations that it brought to the table have become so commonplace over the years that we forget how stunning they really were. And when I first logged in, I had visions of what the world could support, the things that could be done, and the ways that players would get to explore hidden vistas and small corners of the world.
As it happened, World of Warcraft went along quite well for several years, but somewhere along the line the magic faded for me. I can point to exactly when, but that's not the goal because RIFT seems to catch a lot of those dropped promises and put them into the game. And it's a game of extremes, with summits and valleys aplenty, but there's enough to like that I don't mind the bad so much.
The soul system, for example, is an extremely potent experience. Instead of being forced down a handful of paths in the game, you have three trees to choose from, and how you use them is entirely up to you as you find synergies between trees, figure out how skills interact with one another, and specialize in any tree you want. You can level two different characters of the same race and class and have two entirely different experiences in terms of play because there are just so many different ways to specialize and play. You can even have tweaks on the same core specialization: A Druid could be a melee-happy character with a pet, or you could focus on casting spells and hanging back while your pet does the grunt work.
Of course, the soul system is also an enormous mess. You get thrown into the deep end quite early, and you wind up swamped with abilities early on without any clear picture of why you should use one set of skills over another. That's not even getting into the fact that some trees work well only as backup rather than as a focal tree. It's a great idea for a system, but it winds up being messy in practice, which is true in much of the game -- brilliant concepts with messy execution.
But that's part of the fun. If I want to play something with a balanced class setup, I play Star Wars: The Old Republic. If I want to just throw caution to the wind and try to make some kind of crazy elemental bard, I play RIFT. The game pulls in aspects of pretty much every MMO that's had an innovative idea, and half the fun is just throwing things together and seeing how they work.
If you were the type of child who threw all of her toys together into a single arena just to see if she could get Batman and Optimus Prime to ride a LEGO tank against Star Wars troopers, you know exactly the feeling I'm describing.
There are dynamic events going on all over the place. Sure, there are some issues there; a lot of time the events are happening away from what you're doing or are right in your face and you have to try and stop them by your lonesome. But when the stars align and you find yourself facing down a huge multi-stage invasion with other players, or when you just run into a small patrol group that you trace back to a foothold, making a larger change in the overall layout of the map, the whole thing feels like a welcome change. It's something new and different, a rush of the unexpected.
The game also does something that I've long wished more games would do in that it really stretches what is acceptable for a fantasy setting. You don't just have elemental influence as a vague concept; it's a tangible thing that invades every once in a while. The setting is absolutely lousy with magic, and instead of feeling like an ersatz version of 13th-century Europe, it feels appropriately magical and unusual. The rifts tearing their way into the world looks appropriately surreal and bracing.
Plus, there's costuming, there's Artifacts, there's an achievement system, there's a whole pile of different mounts, there's crafting... there's a lot of stuff. If one thing doesn't quite float your boat, the game almost always has something right around the corner meant to engage you all over again. It's got a dedication to throwing in new ideas that is rivaled only by City of Heroes.
Balanced? Heck no. But sometimes it's fun to have a game that's not concerned about polish but is dedicated to just trying something new and wacky.
That is the game's biggest weakness: There's no real sense of polish. Animations are frequently stiff, skills and rotations are frequently inelegant, and the graphical glitches range from strange to outright horrifying. Plus, the core of the game is supposed to lie with quests and dungeons, and those are both so numbingly rote that it's hard not to get just a little bitter about it. Despite coming out long after World of Warcraft learned several lessons about how to make interesting dungeons and quests, RIFT seems to have ignored all of those lessons in favor of the most boring variants. It's a real shame considering how adaptive and novel the game really is.
RIFT has tried to distance itself from WoW in the past, but I think that's a mistake. It's my understanding of the latter that leads to my affection for the former precisely because it's more willing to take risks and try something new. And while the result isn't always spot-on, it makes the game a lot of fun just for the earnestness of its attempts.
There's an MMO born every day, and every game is someone's favorite. Why I Play is a column in which the Massively staff members kick back and reminisce about all their favorite MMOs. Whether it's the new hotness or an old fan favorite loaded with nostalgia, each title we cover here tugs at our heartstrings and keeps us coming back for more.