Most of you probably know that I've been playing Rift since beta. Since my time is most likely drawing to a close there, I thought I'd give it the usual treatment. It is the kind of MMO that I tend to like: deep, complex, and the kind of game where player skill is important and immediately apparent. There's a lot to like which I'll sum up here in the usual no-particular-order.
Well Realized World
The world as a whole is consistent both in art and in storytelling for the most part. The settings are all fairly distinct though perhaps not as memorable as, say, Snake Gulch, but really. Each zone has its own theme and a story line of varying quality weaving through the quest chains that more people would enjoy if they could be bothered to read. The instances are also themed and woven fairly interestingly in with the plot of the rest of the world. The end result is quite good if you're into that kind of thing which I realize most people aren't.
The Ascended Class System
The mile high view of the class system goes a little something like this: you pick one of four classes and then three of a bunch of souls which determines what your character can do. Each soul is themed (offense, defense, heals, utility, etc.) and tailored per class. You get your typical one or two points per level and actively spend them to get the improvements you want but those points count two ways. First, you get the thing you're directly improving (reduce cast times, increase crit chances, get a new spell, etc). Second, you get points toward that tree which opens up a set of fixed powers (the "root" powers). So you can spend 10 points however you like within the framework and get the same root powers that everyone spending point in that soul gets. The upshot is that finding the best builds is a little trickier but that you're never really left with an unplayable build.
Putting builds together in interesting ways is the crux of this system. You can build offense powerhouses, rock-hard defensive masters, and jacks of all trades with a little effort. Mages and rogues can heal, clerics and rogues can tank, and warriors can be masterful damage dealers. But it's better than that, even. You can have up to four roles which you can use to house completely different builds. My main character is a cleric and I mainly tanked, but I can also DPS or heal with a pretty simple change of a role. If you like the meta game of creating effective builds, then you'll love Rift. Unfortunately, this also causes some issues which we'll discuss in the next installment.
Cutting Edge UI
As a former UI programmer, I know all too well that UI tends to fall into the bin labeled "under the radar unless it's crap" which usually means that if you get feedback for it at all, it's usually negative. Rift bucks this trend by doing exactly what WoW did: it took the best parts of contemporary games and added some bits that make it even better. There's a button that sells all the vendor trash from your inventory. There's a search for your backpack in case you can't find what you're looking for. There's a clickable icon in your on-screen quest tracker for items you need to use to advance a quest. It's not any one thing, but myriad small things tacked onto a UI that's both different and familiar that makes it great. It just plain makes the game better and I like that.
Many people criticize the UI as being "too WoW-like". Are they mad? Why wouldn't you steal the streamlined and polished UI from the industry leader from which some very large percentage of your user base comes from? I'm sorry, it's like a candy bar being too chocolatey--it just doesn't make sense! Conventions, whether we like where they came from or not, are just that. You expect them to be there and in the way you remember; changing them for spite's sake is not conducive to usability.
One of Rift's better additions is that occasionally, based on population, rifts will open up periodically in the game world. These can have varied encounter mechanics usually culminating in a boss all defeatable in about ten minutes. If not closed, these rifts will periodically spawn an invasion squad that tromps through the world attacking players and NPCs it encounters on the way. If the population is high enough in an area, the game will start a major invasion in which piles of rifts will open up spawning yet more piles of invasion squads that usually takes over quest hubs and the like. Lose too many quest hubs and the invasion "succeeds" and the boss won't spawn typically leaving quest hubs in an unusable but reversible state. With a little bit of strategery, however, players can defend key points, drive back the invaders, and spawn a raid boss that tromps through the world wreaking havoc. Downing any of the invaders yields currencies that can be used to buy interesting gear and downing one of the raid bosses can be very lucrative.
You would think that having your quest hubs worked over by mobs would suck and it indeed can be unfortunate to log into the middle of a giant invasion. In practice however, it's quite fun and you can lose hours just flowing from rift to rift. Being OCD about playing these kinds of games, I leveled quickly and I was very saddened to not see an invasion once I'd passed the middle of the leveling curve.
Back in the bad old days you had a tank, plopped them in front of a mob, stuck a healer behind with the "1" key weighted down and went to town. Sure, you needed a team of oxen to move the tank into place and you had to be mindful to punch at least one breathing hole into his helmet, but it was nonetheless pretty good. Then someone got the bright idea that what these encounters really needed was more dancing. It isn't difficult at all to imagine a malicious encounter designer belting off a proper evil laugh from the depths of a hollowed out volcano in expectation of thousands of players being manipulated as if by invisible designery strings.
Most of the encounter dances in Rift are of the form "don't stand in the fire" or "don't do X when Y is announced". Since most of this comes through clearly in the presentation often with AV accompaniment from the UI, the cues are fairly hard to miss. Then penalties for not doing the right thing in these events is usually pretty harsh and is sometimes "death" in a "do not pass go" kind of way. A lot of people dislike this, but I think it's fantastic. It means that you must be at least this competent to progress and it starts out in the very first instances. Player skill matters and in a game that you expect people to play a lot of, you need that kind of thing.
So it's all Good, Then?
Well...no. We'll discuss some of what they got wrong (and got really, really wrong) in the next installments.