Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning
19th Sep 2008 | 11:02
Dwarves are rubbish. Gold, beards, beer, shortness, regional accents - we've seen it a thousand times. Why play a dwarf when you could play a goblin with a pet squig or a Chaos marauder who can turn his arm into a fleshy club? So we're surprised to find ourselves playing as a dwarf. And loving it. Especially the shield bash, which knocks our enemies onto their backs with a bone-crunching thud, allowing us to get in a few very cheap axe blows before they get up. Dirty. And we like it. You still won't catch us being a bloody high elf, mind.
During this last decade of Peter Jackson and Blizzard defining the general public's idea of fantasy, it's been forgotten that Games Workshop quietly redefined namby-pamby Tolkien stereotypes decades ago. That's why Warhammer Online's dwarves feel like grim warriors, not comedic Scotsmen. That's why its orcs are genuinely ugly, not humanised. WAR is the same Light vs Dark setup as seen in, let's be frank, World of Warcraft, but that acronym is no accident. Neither is the omission of /dance. WAR is war. And it's going to be huge.
There are two opposing factions: Order and Destruction, each consisting of three races. It's High Elves, Dwarves and the Human Empire for the former, and Dark Elves, Greenskins and Chaos for the latter. Each race has three to four of its own 'careers' (classes), amounting to 20 in all. Though there are definite analogues, no two races have the same classes. Each of the two sides has one city to its name - purdy, Germanic Altdorf for Order, and the epic, otherwordly Inevitable City for Destruction. These aren't social or shopping hubs so much as enormous trophies and goals, the ultimate battleground for the RvR meta-game. Once one side has a decisive upper hand on the server, they get to raid the enemy capital. The zones eventually reset so war can begin anew, but in the meantime there's glorious pillage to be had.
Before we go any further, please indulge us in a brief look behind the curtain. Reviewing an MMO isn't the same as reviewing any other game. It takes months to see everything. It'll change massively not just over its lifetime, but in the first couple of months following release. Some aspects of it won't be properly up and running until the player base is big enough and the kinks are ironed out. So, making a final, final judgement on every part of the game based on our time spent in the closed and open betas ahead of full release just isn't honest. Server-side teething trouble hasn't helped, and is why you might observe the characters in most of the screenshots are fairly low level - in fact we've played multiple characters at much higher levels in the largely embargoed closed beta. We've spent dozens of hours immersed in this game, but we're not going to pretend we've played every class up to level 40 and run every battleground and siege it has.
So: this review will tell you what you can expect to get by buying a boxed copy of WAR and spending the next few weeks with it. OK? No more tears? No more yelling? Let's get on with it, then. Warhammer Online is comfortably the most important MMO since World of Warcraft. To a significant extent it adheres slavishly to the old ways, but at the same time it's the first that's interested in advancing the idea of what an MMO can be. Lord of the Rings Online, Age of Conan, Vanguard - each has its own achievements, but all they ultimately do is to add a few piercings and tattoos to the aging, out of shape EverQuest body that WoW so successfully dragged off to the gym. WAR might employ most of the same mechanisms - and the same aesthetic values - as World of Warcraft, but the difference is it often opts for 'Instead Of' rather than 'As Well As'.
Its Realm vs Realm aspect is a river that runs deep, not a superficial trickle of extra features. It isn't MMO v2 by a long shot, but it is a response to rather than simply an imitation of WoW. As well as incorporating Mythic's own RvR concepts from Dark Age of Camelot into a current-gen game, it's identified much of what has and hasn't proved successful in the last three years of MMOs. As a result, compared to all the other post-WoW MMOs, WAR is both dramatically more ambitious and an odd admission of failure on the entire genre's part. Where others have tried to set themselves up as huge worlds full of discovery and mystery, a place for adventurers, this is perhaps more cynical.
Most people don't want that, as evidenced by the likes of Thottbot.com. It was never hard to work out where to go and what to do for an MMO quest, and even if it was, you could always ask other players - the risk of someone calling you a noob aside - but the last few years have proven that a lot of people don't want journeys of discovery. They want constant achievement and progression, and they don't want to get lost or confused in the process. If WAR were a buffet, it would have a neat little label in front of each plate stating exactly what's in it, how many times you should chew it, and directions to the next plate.
It's not that the game is easy or moronic, but rather that a philosophy of no time-wasting underpins it. Everything is clearly marked on the map, tracked on the HUD and written up at length in the Tome of Knowledge. Throughout the game, giant messages spam your screen, forever keeping you aware of exactly what's going on. The more organic carnage of RvR scuffles aren't quite as prescribed, but even so to achieve the larger goals you need to grab precise locations and monitor a tidy little list of exactly how many NPC guards are left to kill. Even the siege machinery is limited to a fixed number of 'siege pads' - this is no organic war, but more a sport with specific rules and specific goals. There are two good reasons for that: balance and focus. It might be artificial, but it keeps things fair and thrilling.
Whether your preference is for PvP or PvE, the frustrations of aimless wandering and vague directions are gone. It is, though, a reflection of arguably WAR's greatest failing: it doesn't create much of a world, a sense of place. It leans on the constant war for this, expecting the omnipresent factional barney to be atmosphere enough. In a way it is - it's logical to argue that eternal conflict is the only preoccupation any player or character would need. It's presented as fundamentally game-y though, and for all the tight integration of PvP with PvE, there's no potential to convince yourself that this is all really happening. Stumble into an RvR area or Public Quest and the game as good as pops a neon sign announcing it out of the top of your monitor.
It might well be necessary, but it's an overly-obvious, immersion-breaking way to go about it. WAR's mechanisms have received far more attention than has its polish - it's cursory in much of its presentation. There's also no potential to explore or to be surprised. WAR is a sequence of combat-pockets, chained together and rarely far apart. You stumble from fight to fight to fight, with no stumbling off the beaten track. There is some genuinely incredible architecture to be seen, squeezing remarkable sights out of the toonish engine, but you're invariably shepherded to it. There is only war, and that's certainly a better thing than solemnly mining rocks or sewing cloth, but sometimes a boy just wants a jolly adventure.
WAR's real adventures come from personal narratives, not from its pre-generated world or narratives. An intense duel with an enemy player or a push-'n'-pull siege that lasts long into the night - the stuff you'll relate with friends after a long session. Don't believe the Angry Internet Men who scream that WAR is a PvP game and thus shouldn't be compared to WoW or LotRO or Conan. It's at least as much a PvE game as it is a PvP one - the telltale green icon marking a new quest is omnipresent, while achievements and XP can be had on a near-infinite basis from quests handed out by Kill Collectors and The Tome of Knowledge's Bestiary. So long as you're happy to grind away at infinitely (and frankly too quickly) respawning NPC mobs for long enough, anyway.
It's entirely possible to sidestep the Realm vs Realm altogether, and even to solo the game. You'd be missing out on its best features were you to do so, but one of the many lessons of WoW is that this is precisely what an awful lot of players want. They want Diablo. WAR tries to cater to these guys as much as to the most rabid PvPers. Trouble is, again, there's this sense of tokenism to much of it. The PvE is in there and it's hugely substantial, but it comes off more like Lineage. The quests are an awful lot quicker than that, but if you slow yourself down and actually observe what's going on, you'll see it's very obviously zoned killing fields full of brain-dead NPCs who pop back into existence faster than you can kill them.
It's a pure grind, the most cynical of all MMO conventions, but done at such high speeds that it's very difficult to be annoyed by it. Aside from a bit too much cheerless back-'n'-forth running, quests are over almost before you know it. There's also none of the "collect 20 ToothBeast teeth" rubbish, only to find that only one in every eight ToothBeasts have teeth. If you have to collect something from something, each instance of that something will have it. WAR doesn't jerk its players around, and that's very much something to be grateful for. With that, though, comes a bit of a shortage of imagination. It's not without its playfulness - early tasks such as firing yourself out of a cannon or mounting an enemy chief's head on a pole once you've vanquished him amuse the first time around, but generally quests are there to give you XP and nothing else.
Again though, Mythic have observed what hasn't worked out so well in earlier MMOs and come up with a few solutions. By far the best example is the Public Quests (whose inclusion are also all the proof you need that PvE is an essential part of WAR). Most people aren't playing MMOs to socialise. They're playing MMOs to play the game. In a public quest, you can achieve something larger (i.e. kill something massive) than you ever could on your own, but with none of the hassle of talking to anyone else, and associated risk they'll turn out to be a nutter who keeps talking about their foot fetish.
Players turn up individually but are all contributing to the same objective simply by being there. Everyone's rewarded for their individual efforts, while those who do choose to group do better out of it because the XP and influence is shared. The initial stage of killing 50 to 100 Somethings builds to just a few harder Somethings and finally to a really massive Something that requires everyone to pile on. It's a Raid with none of the organisation, essentially. You get the sense of accomplishment that only comes from group play, but you don't have to talk to anyone.
To sound all supervillain for a moment, this is brilliant in its simplicity. It extends beyond the PQs too - you can form an open group that anyone can wordlessly join if they're in the area. It's not just about avoiding talking to strangers, but also about not having to muck around with invitations and OK/Cancel boxes when you're in the middle of smacking a snotling around the chops. Especially during PvP, which open groups carry over into. A passer-by can come save your neck without worrying that he won't get any XP or renown out of it, and without distracting you with on-screen prompts.
So what of the Realm vs Realm itself? It's definitely the game's heart even if it's not as much its majority as you might think. It's fairly evident that's where the developers' love lies, as it feels much grander than the shallow PvE. This is the aspect that we're most reticent to pass judgment on just yet, as it likely won't be until a couple of months into the full release that the whole picture becomes clear. The high-level keep and city sieges could well be the most spectacular fights any fantasy MMO has ever offered, but it'll take a large, experienced population to make them work. The earlier, lower-key PvP definitely makes it an exciting prospect, however. There's a sense of intertwining to it, everything working towards a single purpose rather than being a collection of smaller, standalone tasks. Whatever your PvP activity, be it ganking RvR-flagged enemy players, seizing objectives in the open Battlefields or piling into all-out war in the closed Scenarios, it's all adding to your Renown points and your side's power.
Most of the game's loot is purchased via Renown, which reduces the obsessive drop-hunting of other games but does homogenise everything somewhat, as so many folk of the same Career and level as you will be picking up exactly the same kit. It's hard to feel like an individual in WAR - at first, at least. There is definite scope for difference in both your abilities and your appearance, but generally it's quite a templated game. That's not necessarily a failing - you are, after all, a foot soldier in a vast war, not the hero come to save the world. Another reflection of that is the class design. While they do all ultimately fall into the comfortable boxes of tank, DPS, ranged and healer, they really aren't the same old stereotypes. In how they look and how they play, each and every one feels versatile, powerful and an agreeably long way outside of the ancient D&D blueprint.
Similarly, despite their geographic separation, the PvP and the PvE are very much thematically intertwined - you're always fighting against the opposing faction, whether it's an NPC, a player or a mixed army of both. Maybe it reduces the variety a little, but it definitely strengthens the sense of purpose, and when you do take those first steps into RvR they feel natural and in keeping with the monster-bashing. Aside from that calamitous beta launch and the occasional minor bug, what WAR also is, or at least seems likely to be from where we're standing, is the most polished, complete MMO launch in history. With proper PvP and PvE there from the off, a vast choice of classes and a hatful of new ideas, it makes the likes of LotRO and Conan seem like footnotes, and even WoW's initial launch seems pedestrian by comparison.
Its similarities to and improvements on WoW - most especially in PvP - make it the natural next home for anyone either dispossessed by Blizzard's effort or who has held out from all MMOs in the hope of something a bit meatier. Playing Warhammer Online, it's easy to forget that this game stems from a hobby so often accused of nerdiness. It shares design values, fiction and certain concepts with the Warhammer tabletop game, but really it's only the name that binds them. Conan was supposed to be the so-macho MMO, but against this it seems a bit Sealed Knot. WAR is war. The associated intensity of this means it probably won't pick up anything like the audience WoW has, but it will get a large one. And a very, very satisfied one at that.