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Enter At Your Own Rift: Dispelling the WoWhammer myth

Karen Bryan

If you've participated in RIFT's beta events at all, you're probably wishing you had a nickel for every time you heard a player claim that RIFT is just like World of Warcraft or Warhammer Online -- WAR because of the comparison of rifts to public quests, and WoW mainly because it's the gold standard of MMOs today. Last week, my colleague Justin gave a great argument as to why the familiar isn't necessarily a bad thing. But while RIFT does have several familiar features, it manages in several ways to set itself apart from the pack.

This week, I'm going to tackle the argument that RIFT is just like WoW and Warhammer Online. Join me for a look at what makes this game stand out from the crowd, and see why it's time to dispel the WoWhammer myth.

These aren't your grandmother's public quests. In the low-level areas, you'll often hear players compare rift invasions to Warhammer Online's system of public quests. Interestingly enough, you don't hear that comparison made at the higher levels, because players realize that rifts are a totally different breed of content. The map is seeded with so many invasion points that it's impossible to know when or where they will show up. You don't see players milling around in one spot waiting for a ring event to reset, because rifts are much more fluid. They're also much more varied than public quests. A rift invasion can start out as a simple minor event, and depending on how well players are doing, it can suddenly increase in difficulty, with bonus objectives and stronger groups of invaders that slip through and charge up the road to a nearby town or hub. And now you really have your hands full because, unlike in other MMOs, you're forced to choose whether to forego the unsafe roads for the even more treacherous overland areas.

Doing things together is no longer a hellish, drama-filled experience. Grouping in RIFT brings to mind a great article by John Walker titled The Trouble with Other People. In it, he explains that he likes MMOs because, unlike single-player games, MMOs are open-ended. But he hates the responsibility that comes from trying to do things with others. This is probably one of the biggest differences in RIFT compared other MMOs -- players can do things together and not have to feel like they're going through the dating process. Players usually can find dozens of different ways to find each other insufficient and unworthy of a group. But with rift invasions, it's the opposite.

As Trion Worlds CCO Scott Hartsman recently said on the Massively Podcast, "You reinforce the behavior that you want by the gameplay that you provide," and that is certainly the case when it comes to RIFT's inclusiveness. You can come and go from a rift group without having to excuse yourself. You can join at a lower level than others and still walk away with experience and loot. You can put together a less-than-ideal mix of classes and still create a viable group. And there's always room for more during a rift invasion -- no arbitrary caps on how many can participate. You can be king of the parse or you can spend your time casting nothing but smoke and no one will mind, because rift loot is awarded individually. Other games have chipped away at barriers to grouping, but RIFT comes closer than others in removing those barriers completely.

Another thing that sets RIFT apart is that it has massive, open world, epic battles, but they aren't necessarily zergfests. Fights against the named bosses come with tricks, and it's in a player's best interest to figure them out and counter them. It's been fun during the large battles to see a player call out in channel that players should stand clear of fire on the ground around a named or that they need to move back when the Werebeast starts huffing and puffing. Yes, you can mash buttons, zerg it, and skip past trying to figure out a mob's tricks, but you'll spend more time with the soul mender and walk away with fewer rewards if you do.

The soul system is not warmed-over dual-speccing. The soul system may seem similar to WoW's talent tree system, but the sheer volume of different soul combinations and talent point allocations make it an entirely new ballgame. Being able to instantly respec among four different soul builds without having to go to a trainer or back to town basically means that a dungeon group of five players has hundreds of combinations at its disposal. The souls are still undergoing changes, but so far, there is a uniqueness to each soul, and you do need to go beyond button mashing if you really want to get the most out of them. For example, with the right spec, a smartly played Bard can cover healing for a group, as I learned one night when I crashed and left my group without a Cleric. A large part of the fun during beta was being able to test-drive each calling and compare notes with other guildmates as we all got a taste of different soul combinations.

This is not just another "quest on rails" game. During beta one, this statement would probably be true, but over time, Trion has made questing a completely independent path to leveling. You can level up, gear up, attain additional souls, and progress through the world without having to bounce from quest hub to quest hub doing menial tasks. In RIFT, there is more than one road to take. Yes, you can quest, but you can also level by running rifts or grouping up for dungeons. And as my guildmate Raislek has discovered, it even pays to explore. As he was crossing Scarlet Gorge, he came across a puzzle in a hard-to-find location, and when he completed it, he got a very nice piece of gear. As it turns out, there are secret puzzles and treasure stashes hidden throughout the world of Telara, stashes that can award players some great level-appropriate upgrades.

Trion has found the sweet spot of communication. The devs aren't wearing white sunglasses and telling you everything you're going to see and do before you do it, and they're not squirreled away in a bunker telling you it's ready when it's ready. The team has "danced the dance," as Community Manager Cindy Bowens once said on the Rift Podcast, and it knows that there's a happy medium between the two. The developers are quick to absorb player feedback, quick to reply, and lightning fast when it comes to getting it fixed and patching it through. They've paced players along nicely during these beta events and slowly revealed more of the game each time. What's refreshing is that they've largely left it up to the players to evaluate it and come up with their own impressions, rather than crashing onto the scene with a hard sell and undelivered promises.

WoW is not the driving force behind decisions. There have been some big changes between beta one and now, and they've been a result of player feedback and solid judgment, not from the notion that "we can't change it because WoW did it that way." And I think that's the biggest indication that RIFT is not your typical MMO -- the team seems confident in its choices of what to change and what to keep familiar. To use Justin's car as an example, a go-cart and a Lamborghini might both have four wheels and a steering wheel, but they offer two completely different driving experiences.

Lots of other games have used WoW features, but so far, few have been able to choose wisely when it comes to selecting which features break away from the mold. It's too early to tell, but so far, Trion seems to be hitting the right notes when choosing what to keep the same and what to innovate upon. The key question to ask yourself when you play RIFT is this: Are you doing the same things you have done in other MMOs, or has Trion changed the way you see and interact with virtual worlds in an MMO? On the surface, you might feel like you've been down this road before, but upon a closer inspection, I think Trion has subtly changed the way we play.

Whether they're keeping the vigil or defying the gods, Karen Bryan and Justin Olivetti save Telara on a weekly basis. Covering all aspects of life in RIFT, from solo play to guild raids, their column is dedicated to backhanding multidimensional tears so hard that they go crying to their mommas. Email Karen and Justin for questions, comments, and adulation.

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