In fact, that shift in development focus is precisely what I was at Trion's studio to test -- I got to check out the Rifts themselves in all their glory, in the context of the greater dynamic content system that the developers are so excited about. Massively's writers have been able to play and report on character creation and the starting areas of Rift several times over the last year or so, including earlier this summer at E3. But until today's embargo lift (coinciding with the reveal at Gamescom), no one had quite seen the fabled planar invasions and takeovers in action.
Now we have.
The very first thing I got to do was roll up a new character. I kinda knew what to expect, since our previous demos of Rift all started this way too. What I wasn't expecting were the new classes not yet revealed or only hinted at in earlier articles. Paladins, assassins, sentinels, and pyromancers (the last two since revealed officially) were among the new classes I spied; I also caught a glimpse of the Kelari and the Dwarves, who were also announced in the interim (we were assured that female Dwarves are en route and will not, in all likelihood, have beards). I must say that the Eth are hardly done justice by their portrayal on the official site. Characters of all genders seemed more or less well-proportioned and realistic (no one looked ready to keel over due to being, shall we say, top-heavy). I saw a good mix of eye colors, hair styles, and skin tones (important to me after all too many games sporting a hundred shades of pasty). It's no Star Wars Galaxies when it comes to character customization, but it doesn't have to be.
I was particularly impressed at how lovely all of the characters were at creation. It seems to me that Trion has found the sweet-spot between so-few-options-that-everyone-looks-the-same and so-many-options-that-there's-a-million-ways-to-make-an-ugly-character. And I don't just say that because I'm obsessed with my character having just the right shade of lilac eyes. The game is split into two extremely interesting philosophical factions -- the faithy Guardians hand-picked by the gods to save the world, and the anti-theist Defiants who decide to bypass those useless gods and save the world themselves using technomagery. And if you know anything about games with two factions, you know that no amount of deep philosophizing and backstory about the lore of these two sides will ever, ever convince the players that one side isn't good and the other isn't evil. That dichotomy is inevitable. Players can't resist taking shortcuts to conclusions like these. So it's especially important that the "obviously evil" side not also be loaded down with a grotesque sideshow of freakish and unappealing races or species, or players will look only at that and sort themselves accordingly, just as in World of Warcraft and EverQuest II and Warhammer Online: goodie-two-shoes on one side, hardcore thuggin' on the other. Sure, the noble, holy Guardian faction gets the High Elves and sure I saw some angel-wing spell effects floating around, but the Defiants' humanoids are exotic and beautiful too. The team's goal is to banish those cheap storyline cliches and make the players' choices more about philosophy than about whose butt you want to stare at all the way to 50.
In any case, it's not just the characters who are appealing -- everything is exceptionally beautiful. The game is clearly employing clever tricks to reduce the strain of all the eye-candy (low polygon counts on things like foliage and reduced landscape textures when your attention is elsewhere), but the world is nevertheless gorgeous, and the devs are sparing no expense when it comes to the stuff players look at all the time. The particle effects are splashy and fun; the level-up effects are compelling; and the NPCs are ridiculously detailed and appealing. Heck, in some places, the terrain was so lush and the grass so thick that I could hardly see the LotRO-style targeting circle at the mobs' feet. It was fun to hear some of the Trion employees (who hadn't yet seen all of the characters we were running into) gasp with surprise at how amazing it all looked as the sum of its parts. They almost seemed shocked at their own handiwork. And maybe they should be -- I was similarly unprepared for the shock of seeing an NPC in game who looked identical to the impressive concept art on the site. Not since Guild Wars have I seen something like that! I was also gratified to see that female NPCs had a nice mix of clothing and armor both chaste and racy, unlike characters in some games I could note.
Pew pew and pets
I decided, in the end, to roll up a Defiant elementalist, complete with her "charge" bar -- every class has a unique mechanic, and the mage classes get a fun little bar that improves their boom factor. I don't usually go for mages straightaway in MMOs because I find fire spells a bit on the dull side, but I do love earth and water and air magic. The elementalist begins life with an earth elemental pet, crystalline earth shards, an earth ward, and... lightning comin' outta the sky? Yes please. I haven't really seen a good magician class since EverQuest, and I've been jonesing for my earth controller in City of Heroes.
Let me rephrase here. I shouldn't say my character begins life -- I ought to say she was reborn, as that is the chosen game mechanic. Every player character has died and is returning to the land of the living to save the world via sheer will. I jumped into the Shadowlands newbie area and proceeded to carve a path through the lowbie mobs -- rather, my pet did. Pet controls were lined up just like LotRO's or WoW's, and my pet was chomping down on mobs with barely any input from me, which is exactly the reason pet classes are so much fun -- laziness! The earthie was surprisingly well-animated and put to shame such pets in other games (I'm sorry, Mister Poo). I discovered that I would later get an air elemental pet too, along with an arsenal including fire to round out the elementalist. Earthie and I smashed our way through the now-expected assortment of kill, click, travel, possession, and gather quests, cackling gleefully at the iconic death squeal of the newbie mobs (will those be so adorable after a thousand squeals?).
Since I keep comparing Rift to other games, I should get something out of the way. I'm a WoW fangirl. In fact I've played so much WoW that when I take a break to sample other games, I suffer a strange readjustment period. WoW makes me forget how much clunk there is in gaming. There's something about WoW's combat and movement system that's so smooth; there's a brilliant, intuitive intersection of animation and effects at play. Most games -- even those I love (hi LotRO!) -- just don't have that. They have funky skidding feet and pauses and jerking, and nothing ever works quite like you expect. WoW just works in a comfortable and organic way without any fuss, and you never notice how polished it is until you try to play something else.
So please understand that I mean it as a high compliment when I say that Rift: Planes of Telara has borrowed many of WoW's very best assets, including a distinct lack of movement clunk. I kept hearing caveats like "it's still in alpha" -- and indeed, the other media folks and I were playing on the alpha server along with alpha testers and internal testers, and every time we found a bug, someone would call upstairs and add it to some poor programmer's to-do list -- but I'll be frank and say I've seen releases from top-tier companies that were far less polished than this. Granted, we were a bit on rails during the Rift testing, but we got to play for several hours across several zones and instances. What I saw was polished and playable, and I was feeling completely comfortable with the game within about 15 minutes. If this is alpha, and content implementation continues at this pace and quality, I have high hopes for launch.
But Rift has significantly more in common with WoW and the preceding generation of games than just fluid movement and animations. Mobs and quest objects glitter to catch your attention. Inventory bags pop up like WoW's old standard. Merchants sell food and water to restore health and mana, along with familiar scrolls and potions to restore the same. Combat text scrolls along overhead. A resting mechanic rewards you for time offline. Emotes weren't quite finished yet (no /spit? what!?) but /wave worked just fine. Rift is even eschewing ammo for its ranged classes just like Cataclysm will. Stylistically, of course, it probably leans more heavily on newer games like Allods Online or Warhammer Online, whose updated graphics and interesting melds of fantasy and steampunk-lite make for strangely gritty cartoon settings. Scott Hartsman told us that the game will ship with a full complement of crafting professions, as well, from which players can choose three per character. In fact, three is precisely what I saw in the early areas; there were NPCs willing to train butchering, mining, and foraging. Rift will do away with crafting tools altogether, leaving your bag space open for the good stuff.
It also seems as though Trion has grand plans for PvP akin to WoW's and WAR's. Although I did not get to participate in any PvP at the event (unless you count the /kill cheat!), I did flip my way to a game panel sporting several joinable PvP battlegrounds, called Warfronts. I saw several lower-level battlegrounds tiered for levels 8-10, 16-20, and 10-19, marked as capture-the-flag events. We know Rift will offer both PvP and PvE servers, and the Trion team assured us that a PvP-flagging mechanic would be in place even on PvE servers, allowing for both consensual PvP and PvP during city raids (yes, city raids!). In fact, Scott told us that the team is considering allowing experience to be gained during PvP sessions, if that doesn't prove too unbalancing to the world-experience and dungeon-experience formulae.