First Impressions of RuneScape 3 from a returning player

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Over a decade ago, two brothers working out of their parents' house in Nottingham set themselves the impossible task of building their own graphical multi-user dungeon, a genre that later evolved into the MMOs we know today. RuneScape launched to the public in 2001 as a low-res browser game with only a few hundred players and 2-D sprites for monsters, but several years later it boasted over a million paying monthly subscribers. The 2007 Sunday Times Rich List even estimated the Gower brothers' business empire to be worth over £113,000,000, due almost entirely to RuneScape.

The secret behind RuneScape's success is that it's been continually updated throughout its lifetime, not just with regular infusions of new content but also with several major graphical and gameplay overhauls. The game was recently reincarnated as RuneScape 3, which is as far as it gets from the primitive game many of us grew up with. It now boasts a visually improved HTML 5 client with graphics acceleration, orchestral music, some voice-acted quests with cutscenes, and a fully customisable UI. This combines with last year's Evolution of Combat update and over a decade of new quests and zones to produce an MMO with more depth and character than many other AAA titles.

In this hands-on opinion piece, I put RuneScape's three major versions side by side and look at how far RuneScape 3 has come since those early days of punching 2-D goblins and mining for fish.
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A brief history of RuneScape

The original RuneScape was crude even for its day, with a world that barely qualified as 3-D, no sound effects, and very little to do but grind skills for months on end. Writing the game in Java presented some pretty serious graphical limitations but was ultimately a huge boon for developer Jagex as accessibility through a web browser helped the game's initial explosion in popularity. The first major engine overhaul came with 2004's RuneScape 2 beta, which replaced the 2-D monster sprites, and characters with basic animated 3-D models and produced new graphics for practically every object in the game. RuneScape still looked a generation behind the big industry players, but for the first time it was a fully 3-D MMO.

This was the version that most people played, and it can still be played on the Oldschool RuneScape server with a new character. Smaller incremental upgrades were made in the years that followed, and developers began releasing new quests and content every few weeks. The first fullscreen client landed in 2008 as RuneScape HD, which offered players a new high-detail mode that required a graphics card. The latest release is a similarly huge step forward, adding an all-new HTML 5 client that will run on any PC, tablet, or smart device, as well as a dedicated downloadable desktop client for Windows. Now officially named RuneScape 3, the game has evolved far beyond the previous numbered versions, and I found it a hell of a lot more fun to play.

Game side imageMajor differences for returning players

If you've played RuneScape in the past nine months, the gameplay won't have actually changed all that much. The new HTML 5 client looks a hell of a lot better than the Java version, the audio has received an overhaul, and the entire user interface is now customisable, but the core game is still the same. For most recent players, the upgraded client simply acts a shiny lens through which to view the world and the overhauled user interface. The content from updates spanning the past decade is all still there, with every quest and area having been kept up to date and in working order.

Older returning players will have to learn the new combat system introduced in November 2012's Evolution of Combat update, which took a serious departure from the classic combat mechanics of standing still and taking turns to hit each other. A series of abilities are now unlocked with the Attack, Strength, Defense, Magic, and Ranged skills, offering more hands-on and combo-based fighting mechanics. Most combat spells now only require elemental runes and the appropriate magic level to cast, and all abilities generate Adrenaline that can be expended to use powerful threshold and ultimate abilities. It takes some time to get to grips with all the new abilities, but I found that good timing made a lot of difference in PvP or when fighting tough monsters.

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Your first moments in RuneScape 3

Rather than force new players to muddle through an elaborate and text-heavy tutorial island as in past versions, RuneScape starts off with a voiced cutscene. Players are given a quick demo of one chosen combat style (Melee, Magic, or Ranged) before being dropped into Burthorpe, which has been redesigned as a training area for new characters. NPCs here will explain how each of the game's skills works and set you tasks to get you started. Existing players logging in for the first time since the update will see a cutscene introducing the story behind the Sixth age of RuneScape, with the gods Zamorak and Saradomin returning to raise armies and do battle.

It's an interesting change to see cutscenes and voice acting in RuneScape, though the graphics engine honestly doesn't suit close-ups on characters' faces. The voice work in the newer quests definitely helps immerse you more in the story, but the cutscenes sometimes just look out of place and unnecessary. My first impression is that this is more of an incremental update than a total overhaul, and there's definitely still a lot of room for the game to grow. The new UI system is a welcome change, allowing you to move every element around, combine windows, and snap windows into position next to each other.

Game side imageQuests and events

The world event that is going on right now sees players take sides in a war between the gods Zamorak and Saradomin by collecting God Tears and exchanging them for favour with their chosen deity. A warzone has opened in Lumbridge where tears can be harvested; they can also be found randomly when you're training skills anywhere in the world. Earning favour gets you tickets to spend in a weekly global vote to decide what minions should be added to the battlefield next. Players essentially decide how the event unfolds through their collective actions, though the sheer number of active players means you can't make much of a difference.

RuneScape has always been about completing the latest quests, and time not spent questing or PvPing is usually spent grinding up skills to meet the requirements for the next quest you want to do. The skill grind now feels a lot more forgiving than it was in RuneScape 2, and winning the occasional XP lamp in your daily Squeal of Fortune spins certainly helps. You can also now set a quest as your currently active task to keep track of it and set a destination on the map to get a handy direction arrow on the minimap. But a lot of information is still not easily accessible in-game, so you'll find yourself frequently looking up the RuneScape Wikia page to check what an item does or see what the next step is in a quest.

RuneScape has come a long way since it first saw the light of day in 2001, having seen hundreds of content updates and several major engine overhauls. Regular content updates have introduced nearly 200 quests, clan guild halls, player-designed battlegrounds, an endless dungeon system, open PvP areas, and dozens of new zones and minigames. The latest major updates have added a skill hotbar and customisable user interfaces to that list, in addition to kicking off a new round of quests with the Sixth Age storyline.

If you're planning to return to RuneScape after years away or just to give it a go for the first time, I highly recommend using the downloadable HTML 5 beta client. Though the game can technically be played in a browser, the standalone client runs a lot more smoothly and comes with all the high-resolution textures, anti-aliasing, and bloom effects of the online HTML 5 version. Also remember that a lot of the content is still behind the subscription paywall, though the $7.95 (£4.95) per month fee is around half what you'd pay for any other subscription MMO.

Massively's not big on scored reviews -- what use are those to ever-changing MMOs? That's why we bring you first impressions, previews, hands-on experiences, and even follow-up impressions for nearly every game we stumble across. First impressions count for a lot, but games evolve, so why shouldn't our opinions?
This article was originally published on Massively.