When Rift was undergoing development and nearing release, it was at the tail end of my active participation in World of Warcraft. I'd grown tired of that game, and other titles failed to get their hooks in, so I had sworn off fantasy-themed MMOs altogether. For me, the genre was simply played out. Rift certainly follows a fantasy theme, and it has many of the same features that are in other similar games, but it presents them in slightly and sometimes completely different ways. Similar enough to be familiar yet different enough to not immediately invoke a boring sense of sameness, Rift has done what I thought was impossible: getting me back to donning some armor and diving in headfirst into a war-torn world filled with magic.
The story of Rift is set in the world of Telara, where there is war between civilized factions as well as with forces from other planes of existence. The overarching story spans a long period of time filled with these wars. One of Telara's factions, the Eth, accidentally used their powerful grasp of technology to weaken the veil between their plane of existence and the others. This allowed Regulos to enter the world, and he would have claimed dominion over it had the Methosian race not stepped in. After destroying the machines and pushing back Regulos to where he came, the Eth and the Methosians found themselves in an uneasy peace with one another. With the former angry that their machines were destroyed by another faction and the latter angry that the machines that damaged the veil, it was only a matter of time before an event sparked war between the two.
When a power-hungry king took control of the Methosians, he made an almost literal deal with the devil: He would bring back Regulos if Regulos promised to make him all-powerful in return. Thus, he allowed the Eth to willfully violate the terms of the peace agreement and rebuild their technology. As before, this weakened the veil, but this time, forces from the planar realms were poised to launch full-scale invasions into Telara. The Methosians and two other races banded together under the banner of the Guardians, and their members believe that it is the will of the gods for them to defeat Regulos. Likewise, the Eth formed alliances with two other races of Telara under the banner of the Defiants, who feel that by properly harnessing their technologies, they can push back Regulos and stop the forces of the planar realms from pouring into Telara. Naturally, these two factions don't see eye to eye on each other's methods and are destined to clash.
From the outset, the game certainly incorporates many of the successful design choices found in other MMOs. The UI is a healthy mix of modern ideas but borrows a page from Warhammer Online's playbook in allowing you to move, scale and redesign each element of the UI. However, customization nuts shouldn't get their hopes up too high in that regard, as third-party mods are currently not allowed. That aside, the UI has a lot of functionality and is quite polished, and it incorporates many of the ideas that mods have added for other MMOs.
The same overall feeling of polished familiarity pervades much of the game. Rift is not a game that revolutionizes the genre and takes it to the next generation; it is one that takes the current generation and polishes it up. Quests are the same sort of routine where you must go to A and bring B to C, but both quest hubs and locations are bundled into the same general areas that are marked on your map. If the exact location of where you need to go isn't given, the game will at least give you a marked area to help you along. The transitioning between questing zones is very smooth, and this in turn makes leveling feel less like you're grinding toward the next level.
The game deviates wildly from the norm in that there are only four classes: Cleric, Mage, Rogue and Warrior. It almost becomes necessary to think of these classes are mere containers, though, as each one can be customized using the nine souls unique to each class. Given that your character is one of the Ascended, either via the Guardians' religious fervor or the Defiants' technical prowess, you can equip three souls at any given time. These souls function much as the talent trees do in other games, but just as with the rest of the game, there are some key differences.
Every time you level, you gain one or two points to spend on your souls. When you first equip a soul, it automatically grants you a small number of abilities for free, but to further develop it, you must spend points in it. Each soul is broken up into branches and roots, and you mainly spend points on the branches to further develop existing abilities, though you occasionally get the chance to gain new ones. Every point you spend in a soul's branches counts as a point toward the roots, which unlock new abilities in linear succession. Though juggling three different soul trees offers a large array of options, it is hard to pick one that is "incorrect," as each soul has its own strengths and weaknesses that together define your character's build.
That's not to say that you only ever pick three souls and then you are locked into it. By purchasing a few additional roles, you can use each one to save and switch between sets of souls. This allows you to easily switch between a tanking build you've put together on your Warrior, a PvE DPS build, and a PvP build at the press of a button. With every class but the Warrior having at least one healing soul and every class but the Mage having at least one tanking soul, this makes it pretty difficult to get bored with a character. With a Cleric, you can be viable — if not the best — in any role of the game, and each one plays distinctly different than each other. This also means that rather than leveling many characters to see them all, you only need to level four of them.
Much of the game centers on the PvE content, with Regulos and other planar forces attempting to take over. Throughout the game world, there are locations where rifts can spawn, with its type based on the planar elements such as death, earth or water. When these rifts open, the landscape beneath them is warped in accordance to the rift's type, and it begins to spawn monsters. These rifts are considered public quest sites, so anyone can wander over and lend a hand in closing the rift. Each rift has various stages that must be completed to do so, and it's as simple as killing a few monsters or one bigger one, or it can be as complicated as dragging monsters to other objects, where they are weakened and you can them kill them. Successfully closing a rift gets you a pretty healthy amount of experience, and it's also one of the only sources where you can get Planarite and other currency to buy special items and equipment.
One rift on its own isn't that big of a deal, but in each zone, there are events that occur that cause many rifts to open simultaneously across the entire zone. These rifts spawn invasion forces that immediately head toward quest hubs and other settlements and cities. Left unchecked, these invasions can actually take over these quest hubs, gathering around a corrupted shard that must be destroyed before any of the quest givers or merchants will respawn. When these events occur, players in the zone must work toward a variety of goals: defending quest hubs, intercepting invasion forces and closing the rifts. Once all of that is accomplished, a boss monster invades the zone, and the players can band together in another public quest to slay; the intensity of these quests rivals that of many raid instance boss fights.
Trion has attempted an even larger event, the River of Souls, though rather than building upon the excellence of their lesser events, it showed that Trion still has some work to do. Though the event spanned weeks and was composed of many phases, the first few phases lasted longer than intended due to bugs that needed to be worked out in the later phases. When those phases were released, they were completed so quickly that many players didn't know what had transpired and thought that the entire event had bugged out prematurely. Since then, the developers have been pretty public in admitting the botched nature of that event, and even though their first attempt was a false start, it showed that there is a lot of promise for the future.
Instances play less of a role than one would hope, due mainly to the lack of a "Looking for Group" tool. At the time of this review, one has been announced to be added, but it hasn't made it yet. Thankfully, the community is surprisingly helpful and more than willing to throw together a pick-up group for a quick run. The instances often have a lot of associated quests that also have interesting design elements, so it's more than a repetitive cycle of killing trash monsters and bosses. There's still a lot of that to be had, but the instances manage to remain interesting.
When you aren't completing quests or closing rifts, you can choose to engage in a Warfront, the game's PvP offering. Warfronts can be queued from the UI at any time, and once your queue pops, you can immediately join the battle. These Warfronts are broken up into level groups, such as levels 10-19, 20-29, etc. To help even out the fight, any players who are at the lower end of the level scale for that group get a buff to their stats, though their abilities and equipment don't get changed. This makes it definitely possible for a level 30 player to be competitive in Warfront excursions, though not as much of a juggernaut as if he were a level 39 with all of the equipment and new ability ranks that nine levels bring.
Warfronts follow much of the same design found in other MMOs, making them objective-based, such as capturing and holding locations on a map to generate points for your team or holding on to an object to do the same. However, there are some balancing issues in that whether or not a match can even be competitive is truly random. At times, you engage in matches that are so even that the victory margin could be measured by the tiniest of hairs. At other times, your team won't have a single healer and their team will have an overabundance of them. You gain favor either way, which is the game's PvP currency, though you obviously gain a lot more from winning than from losing.
If you decide that you've had enough cracking skulls for one day, you can pursue a variety of crafting disciplines. Each character can learn up to three crafting abilities of the many that are available. There are three devoted to crafting — gathering hide from animals, wood and plants from the land, or ore from mineral deposits — but almost twice as many for the further processing of these goods. The crafting engine isn't really any different than the genre norm, but the produced goods are incredibly useful, assuming you are leveling your crafting and leveling at the same time.
To help facilitate the exchange of goods, there is an auction house system in place, though this is one where the support of mods, such as Auctioneer, would be handy. Buying and selling goods is a pretty volatile proposition, as the supply and demand of items varies often. On top of that, it can be difficult to make a sale with basic goods, such as cloth or wood, given that it is so easy to get them and the supply greatly exceeds even peak demand. Still, it's a good way to offload the rarer items you find on your travels or sell some of your crafted gear, assuming you are savvy enough to do some of the homework; incidentally, this might be a reason for mods such as Auctioneer to not rear their head.
One area in which Rift clearly impresses is with its engine, delivering some of the best graphics seen in a MMO to date. Characters are well modeled and have quite a few animations, and when they strike, they do so in a variety of special effects. The lighting engine takes center stage as an invasion occurs, plunging the entire zone into a moody dusk, but it also excels when the shadows of a tree overhead realistically play over your character. On the downside, the engine can take its toll, so expect to have a fairly modern PC if you wish to max out every slider. It's a stunning game when you do so, but even on PCs with less oomph, the game doesn't skimp in quality when you have to sacrifice to get a nice, steady frame rate in the larger encounters.
There was a time a mere few months ago when I was convinced that I was tired of playing fantasy MMOs. With so many of them simply regurgitating each other's ideas, it's not as if the genre has grown much in recent years. While Rift certainly isn't reinventing the wheel, it takes some of the better ideas and refines them. The gameplay is spiced up by the innovation of a small number of classes and a large number of souls, and Rift doesn't innovate but relentlessly polishes to deliver as smooth a gameplay experience as possible. Out of nowhere, Trion has delivered a solid MMO with a balance of smart innovation and polished imitation, and it sets itself apart enough to be worth a look for those who are seeking something different than the same old grind.
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