There have been quite a few MMOs who have thought themselves to be WoW-breakers and all have fallen by the wayside. I'm thinking of Age of Conan and Aion in particular. While they delivered at the start, the games didn't appear to have the same longevity and, while they have kept a loyal player base, a lot of people have either lost interest or gone back to games they played previously.
After playing Rift to level 16 on a character, I don't think this game is ready to steal WoW's crown, but it is very good, for various reasons, and has the potential to 'stick' if enough people play it and decide to keep with it. I think it's unrealistic to expect any new MMO to throw itself onto the scene fully polished - like with some TV shows, it takes a couple of seasons for things to shine. But this is a good start, and some of the features already in place bode well for the future.
The one thing I particularly like, and which differentiates Rift from many other games of its type, is that from the moment your first character gets out of their starting area you can join in with huge public raids. All you need to do to join them is to be passing through an area where a bad rift has opened up and various unsavoury entities are spilling out of it. There are various kinds, such as life, fire, water. Once you draw close you get the message onscreen to join the raid if you wish to. You don't have to. But it is fun! I think it's a great feature that players are involved in exciting stuff from the start, and it's not just a case of 'kill this many wolves' or 'collect that many fangs' until you reach a level where the game gets more interesting. That is one of the drawbacks of many MMOs. You can choose to ignore the rifts if you prefer to carry on questing or farming, but everyone who takes part in such raids gets a bag of loot in their inventory. These include items that can be cashed in for blue level pieces of gear and other enhancements, appropriate for your level. There are also daily quests to participate in rift fights, which mean xp and gold when you cash them in. It really is no hassle if you're on your way to a quest and pass by a rift where people are fighting. Might as well join in for a few minutes and share the spoils.
The Official blurb:
Rift is set on Telara, a fantasy world which lies alarmingly close to a variety of other planes of existence. In the final days of the Mathosian civil war, the Ward that protected Telara from planar convergence with these other worlds was severely weakened by a disaster known as the Shade. Since that time, rifts between Telara and other planes have been increasingly devastating the land, and old enemies in the form of monsters, held at bay by elemental prisons have begun actively clawing their way out. Telara's greatest enemy, the god Regulos, pounds against the outside of the Ward, seeking re-entry into Telara to finish the job he once started. Meanwhile, Telara's own pantheon of gods has suddenly grown silent, and the world is descending into total chaos.
The people of Telara are now convinced that the end of the world is at hand. In these desperate final days, two major factions have arisen to battle the coming apocalypse: the Guardians and the Defiant. Though each faction wants to save the world, their beliefs and methods differ, and they war upon each other as often as they do other enemies of Telara.
Character creation has quite a wide scope. I found that the characters I made looked better in the game than they did while I was creating them. They don't have quite the extreme amount of customisation that Aion offered, but far more than WoW does. As for the character classes, the choices are huge. There are two factions, Defiant and Guardians, and within each of those you have a choice of four 'starter' types: mage, warrior, cleric and rogue. These are known as 'callings' and refer to the first choice you make for your character. At first, this appeared limiting until I saw the actual classes available within each calling. Mages include, for example, all manner of magic users; warlocks, necromancers and elementalists, to name but three. The rogue calling encompasses the ranged fighters, with or without pets, the archetypal dagger-wielding, stealthing rogue and also a class that can only be likened to engineering in WoW - the Saboteur who uses bombs, explosives and other such devices. The warrior calling, which I've not yet tried, includes different styles of fighter as well as the more familiar tank. Clerics can be healers, or smiters (even melee), or hybrids. There are 8 different classes (or souls as they are called in the game) for each calling, and in the early stages of the game you are allowed to have 3 of them for a character, which allows for a massive amount of customisation as to how your character performs. As you level up you get points to spend in each 'soul tree', which unlocks skills. I understand that later on, you are able to have even more classes and can change specs 'on the fly' as it were, should you need to swap to a healer, dps or tank role for a specific situation.
By the time you finish the starter quests, you will have chosen your three classes, and pointers are given to you as to which other classes combine to best effect with the first one you chose.
It can be argued that this multiplicity of choice really over-complicates the game and might well lead to hideous problems with class balancing later on, but at the moment I'm just finding it fun and interesting to play around with the different choices. The potential to spend your soul points unwisely is of course rather large, when you do have so many branches to follow, but you can always respec later on when you know more about the game.
Everyone who plays MMOs hates having to travel on foot. Well, good news here. In Rift, you can ride mounts from level 1. The only restriction is gold. I've found mount vendors in a couple of early locations, with mounts of various speeds suitable for different levels, and quite exotic looking beasts they are too, but they're not cheap. At level 16 I've got over half of what I need to buy my first mount, so I guess it's similar to WoW in that respect. By level 20 a character should be able to ride. And if you stick with the game and roll alts, your main character should easily be able to fund their riding for them. So effectively, you'll only have to trot around on foot until level 20 once.
The other mode of travel is using Porticulums, which are portals found in various towns and cities. These have to be unlocked, so you can't take advantage of them until you've discovered at least two, but it will save a lot of time later on. You can bind a character's soul to a Porticulum, which means you can teleport back to its location wherever you are in the world of Telara. The locations for the soul bind can be changed as you move through the zones, levelling up.
The User Interface
One good thing about most MMOs is that the UIs tend to be pretty much the same, allowing new players to get to grips with a game quickly. Rift is no different there. But a particularly cool feature about this game is that you can customise your UI a great deal. Many players are used to installing 'add ons' written by other players to enhance their favourite games, which at best can be a cumbersome and irksome requirement, since add ons can go out of date and not be updated, or they can interfere with game play by conflicting with other add ons or the game itself. In Rift, there are many options in the UI that you might in other MMOs have to find outside the game. Some options are turned off by default, but you can activate them easily. And if it's your choice you can modify totally the way your interface looks with an editor that's fairly easy to use.
You will need a high spec computer to run the game on 'ultra' video mode. I turned up the graphics settings on my machine just to take a peek at what it could look like, and it was stunning. Just unplayable on my machine, unfortunately.
Game Play and Other Features
Gearing up your character isn't that much of a chore, since the quest lines provide constant gear upgrades. Obviously, when the character is of a level to sample the instanced dungeons more fabulous loots will be on offer, but in the early stages it's great to see significant improvements just by questing.
Quest objectives are fairly easy to find using map features and tracking, and don't require a lot of 'out of the way' travel. And the quests themselves are often quirky and inventive, rather than just killing mobs or collecting items from them.
Like any MMO, Rift encourages people to team up with others and to join or form guilds. As in WoW, a guild can level up and earn perks for its members. At this stage of the game there isn't a feature in place to help players team up easily with random strangers for dungeons, but it's young, and there aren't that many high level players yet. Perhaps that is a feature Trion might consider adding later on. My character is just about at the point where he can enter a dungeon, but although I've heard very good reports about the Rift instances, in terms of appearance and play, I haven't looked inside one myself yet.
Again, another similarity to WoW in Rift is an achievement system, where players can complete tasks to get rewards or titles. This also applies to guilds.
You will find all the things you'd expect to find in a quality MMO: banks, auctions houses, mail boxes, trade skill professions and so on. These don't have to be much different from any other game; they are part of the backbone of a virtual world, and should fit seamlessly, which they do.
On PvE servers, this appears to be confined to Warfronts, which are cross-server battlegrounds that you can enter once your character reaches level 10. There is a choice to join a PvP server when you first start creating your character, so I presume that is like any other game and that PvP takes place in the wider landscape as well as on the Warfronts. PvP players can earn ranks, titles, loot and unique souls to enhance their character for that purpose.
I guess what everyone really wants to know is what's the end game going to be and will it be worth sticking around for? Although I've not even encountered the early dungeon part of the game yet, there is information around about what's in store for higher levels. Each zone will have a dungeon appropriate for player level within that zone. These are for teams of 5 people. At top level 50, harder dungeons will become available, in both normal and expert modes. It also seems that the harder versions will also be tiered, in that there will be expert tier 1 and after that a more difficult tier 2. After this will come raids, in 10 and 20 person versions. As to which team size you take, that will be entirely your choice.
One thing that has struck me is how virtual worlds have a definite character and feel to them. Rift has a Tim Burtonesque, surreal Alice in Wonderland quality, while others have more of an epic fantasy ambience, or a science fiction theme and the atmosphere within them reflects that. In my opinion, a good MMO should have this palpable sense of place and character. You don't feel a deep sense of history in Rift, but that might be because it is so new. But it certainly has character. I felt the landscapes weren't as awesome as those in WoW, where the environment is an important part of the game. But the cities and towns in Rift are pretty stunning. A lot of the appearance of the game might be down to the fact I can't play it on a very high video setting, and that is an important consideration because not everyone has an ultra top end gaming machine. However, the Rift NPCs are beautifully realised in fantastic costumes, and there is much interplay going on between them if you can be bothered to stand and listen. Some of the creatures I've met while questing are really quite scary looking. They remind me of something from Edward Lear, just bizarre and grotesque things that might be invented to scare kids into behaving themselves! And fairies in the game are right hard little buggers. Not pleasant at all, and spooky to look at. They really do remind me of weird illustrations in some old childhood books that were a bit... off kilter, as it were. Some of them are little flimsy females with wings, yes, but they're deathly pallid, far from pretty, and look eminently squashable, like malevolent butterflies. And they hit hard.
It's difficult to say whether Rift has staying power. You really can't tell until you've played a game for a while. Rift is a subscription game, so does require some financial outlay if you want to give it a decent try of a few months. But it's important to bear in mind that subscription games usually work out far cheaper than so-called free to play MMOs. You don't have to shell out any money at a game store to enhance your game experience; everything you want is in game. At the moment, Trion are offering cheap deals for founder members, obviously to try and encourage people to play. Any game has its work cut out for it to compete with WoW; no one can argue with that whether they are WoW fans or not. Just re-entering Azeroth after Rift made me appreciate how polished it is. But that said, raw edges aside, Rift is probably the best of other MMOs I've given a try. The developers have cribbed from WoW massively, but that just makes it easier to learn. They've tried to give their game its own character and in that I think they've succeeded. But I don't think it's the WoW-breaker. My thought is that the only game that will do that is the next one Blizzard brings out. But Rift is worth a try nonetheless and, who knows, it might well stick and develop into something greater.