Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning
|a game by||Mythic Entertainment|
|User Rating:||8.0/10 - 1 vote|
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You Can't Get my mother to watch Star Trek. You can tell her its just like any of the other programmes in funny clothes, but she'll just fold her arms and say, "I dont like it." She's the same with goblins. The first crackle of magic, runes or friendly trees and she's in the kitchen watching Maid In Manhattan for the 30th time. So my mum, who reads because I've told her that 'staff writer' is a highly prestigious position, is probably beginning to despair. World Of Warcraft, Lord Of The Rings Online. Warhammer - what has become of her son, who once loved to play in the daylight?
Well, his skin may be paler, but lie's happy. Happy that WOW has broadened MMO appeal so much that it's on South Park, and happier still that two monster fantasy newcomers are about to be set upon us. But for new chums such as Warhammer Online and LOTRO, making an impact on the scale required to get a permanent place in the MMO pantheon is difficult.
Witness the online loneliness of Auto Assault, the now subscription-free Archlord and, erm, Roma Victor. Admittedly, LOTRO developers Turbine have the massive franchise appeal of Middle-earth on their side, but then EA Mythic have nearly unsurpassed experience in multiplayer RPGs that dates back to CEO Mark Jacob's 1984 MUD, Aradath. He remembers when all this was ASCII, far as the eye can see.
Give Peace? No Chance
But while the competition between these new MMO heavyweights is sure to be fierce, the two are actually very different games. Unlike LOTRO, for instance, dont expect Warhammer to start off in a time of relative peace. This is Warhammer, not Middle-earth, and living memory doesn't have much in the way of peace, even among relatives. For a start, Chaos Marauders have been threatening the stoic warriors of Nordland for centuries, but with their plague tearing through the town of Grimmenhagen, they seem closer than ever to taking control.
Meanwhile, The Bloody Sun Boyz, the vintage band of greenskin hooligans led by the performance-enhanced orc Grumlok and his shoulder-mounted goblin Shaman Gazbag, have taken over and vandalised Eight Peaks, traditionally dwarf country. Still hungry for bloody conquest, theyre looking to take over Karaz-A-Karak, the dwarven capital. Why? Pretty much because they hate dwarves as much as they love fighting.
That so many areas are on the brink of collapse isn't just hollow, scene-setting drama. As EA Mythics Steve Perkins says: "In our game, you're joining an ARMY." His capitals - he totally means it. Mythic invented realm vs realm (RvR) combat with Dark Age Of Camelot, and have had years to develop and refine the experience. The battlefields of WOW, for all their frantic pointcapturing, feel like little more than a distracting side-game in areas kept artificially on the brink. In WO.AOR (or WO to its friends) you'll capture whole areas, plunder cities - even capital cities - for loot uniquely available to the RvR players. You can play old-fashioned player vs environment (PvE) if you like, but the war will find you in the end.
Moreover, players of Camelot had to wait for this kind of combat as a high-level endgame; in WO, you'll be able to take part in the faction power-play from an early level. You'll even be able to build your character entirely from RvR missions. Youll miss out on some similarly unique PvE rewards, but at least no-one will come up to you and emote a clucking chicken.
Before you get to take down capital cities, however, there's lower-level PvP to fill your hours. In everyday world skirmishes, players are left to their own devices by the servers. Battlefields aren't like WOW's instances - they're free-for-alls with reinforcements potentially arriving at any time, depending on whos online. If you want a more controlled environment, you can play a scenario, in which teams are balanced using a point system, distantly akin to that used in setting up a game of tabletop Warhammer. Any player imbalance is adjusted automatically by NPCs joining the fray, a feature that'll also reduce waiting times for these instances.
Evil In War
Personality too is important. Whereas proper' role-playing in a lot of other MMOs seems to be the preserve of tedious escapists who think role-playing equates to talking a bit medieval and saying yon really, really hate the other guys, playing in character in IVO could turn out to be half the fun. Take the hooligan orcs. A far cry from the misunderstood Shamans of WOW or the monstrous puppets of Sauron in LOTRO, the orcs love war, almost for wars sake. They love humiliating the dwarves, defiling their buildings and cutting off their cherished beards for trophies.
More to the point, the way the different classes benefit from certain combat styles will force players into a kind of role-playing. Dwarves are better at holding a location, with sniping engineers drawing in the enemy, and Runepriests buffing the Hammerers to cause maximum damage. Meanwhile, goblin Shamans draw jxiwer from conflict around them, so will? forced to close to the action.
The cliaracters have to the? strong, of course, because that's the source of Warhammer's infamous humour. Hie six main playable races each play their roles, like one of the darker episodes of Friends. The abilities of Black Orcs, for instance, reflect their unsophisticated methodology. Well, that's if the 'Right in the? Jibblies! attack is anything to go by. Idiotic NPC goblins, on the other hand, will lie baffled by dwarven engineering skills, to the ixiint of putting their heads inside them to try and figure it out. Some of it rings depressingly true, too - take the supixisedly good-guy Empire Witch Hunter class. Dedicated to the cleansing of heretics, theyll Ilappily expand heresy to include anyone wlio needs killing. War is hell-arious.
Warhammer's attitude is summed up by associate producer Josh Drescher, and the way he recently phrased WOW quests. He thinks the "kill ten squirrels and collect some magic daisies brigade are missing out on proper war. But how to turn a such a player into a bloodthirsty RvR fanatic? Mythic know it's a conversion process for some, so they're going to coax you into the battlezones. At first with a mission to find someone. Then maybe you'll have to help out a little bit. Then kill a specific person, then... Well, by then Mythic reckon youll be hooked, so its more likely you'll need coaxing out.
This War Needs You
Certainly, playing against other humans can be frustrating. They dont just stand there, and they don't run away at predictable low-health triggers. They jump around like idiots while you're trying to smite them, and they come back with higher-level mates when you kill them. For most MMOs, this is something to be feared and shunned. LOTRO, for instance, is primarily you against the computer, with Monster Mode offered to placate the PvP nuts. For Mythic, however, it's PvE players who are nuts - why play identical, instanced dungeons when you can have the infinite variety of huge, human-populated wars? Perkins namechecks Counter-Strike more than once.
With such a refreshing take on MMO combat, WO should have no problem (jetting followers. The Chaos Hordes are a stunning bunch of freaks, and if youre into PvP, it'll be as natural as a barrel of ducks rolling into a pond. But Mythic will be aiming to pull customers from WOW and the Warhammer fanbase, rather than converting players from their own game, Dark Age Of Camelot. To get the most out of the game, players of non-PvP-orientated games will have to pull their socks up, hone their tactics and - how to put this delicately - grow a set of balls.
Download Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning
- PC compatible
- Operating systems: Windows 10/Windows 8/Windows 7/2000/Vista/WinXP
It's Easy To forget that Mythic's creative director Paul Barnett isn't a celebrity of some kind. He's certainly famous in game development circles, simply because he makes disarmingly honest comments and has a mouth that never stops frothing with interesting, and often unpublishable, stories. He's also known to fans of Warhammer as the bloke at conventions, getting everyone to talk into his phone's video camera.
Deputy content director Kate Flack (unpictured due to unwillingness to send a bad photo) has a long history with Warhammer too. She wrote for the first Warhammer MUD, and worked on the first, aborted Warhammer MMO.
Jon Blyth met Paul and Kate in the foyer of a hotel, helped himself to the endless bowls of complimentary nuts, and talked to them about making a game.
- What's In A Name...
"There's some fantastic name gags in Warhammer Online, literally fantastic name gags - if you know your name gags. There's a great gravestone which marks the death of the dwarf explorer 'Thorskin Thrumek'. So you've got a place called 'Thorskin's End', and if you look at the gravestone, it says 'It was a sticky one'."
"One of the dev's dads is a plumber who's dying of brain cancer. So this dev put his dad in the game as an engineer where he's working with the dwarves on a bit of plumbing. He took a screenshot of it and emailed it to his dad who was like 'Aww, my son's put me in the game. Isn't that awesome!' There's loads of stuff like that."
- Voice Of Reason
"All our voice actors were brilliant You can see the difference, because normal actors come in and move their arms a lot - thinking that that gets picked up by the microphone - whereas these people just come in with their headphones on, sipping at their little teacups, and they can hit any range. You can say 'Can you do it an octave lower than that?', and they're straight on it. They're absolutely astonishing and they're worth every penny."
"The lady who did half the Dark Elf voices is about 45,50 maybe? Older lady, but she's got that kinda deep sultry voice we wanted for the that class. Her son and his friends are all into Warhammer, and she's now really upset because her son's friends keep taking the piss out of him, saying 'Who is that? She sounds really hot!'"
"Our music is performed by a Prague orchestra. Brad Derrick was our composer, we flew him over to Prague to watch it. He walks into the hall with this enormous fur coat and big Elton John glasses. The orchestra hands Brad a baton and says, 'Mr Derrick, if you would'. He looks at the baton and the orchestra, and thinks Tm in a bit of trouble here'. Being the American abroad, he picks it up thinking 'This is just going to be terrible,' and he's sweating profusely in that coat. Four steps from the podium, this hand taps his shoulder. It's the conductor saying, 'I think that's for me'. Turns out the orchestra do this with everybody as an icebreaker, and they see how long it is before the person looks like they're gonna lose their mind."
- Post-Release Pleasures
Ihave a scheduled time in my day to just relax and play the game and see how people are using it. The people are the fifth participle in the game. They're the bit you anticipate during development and try and design around, but until you see how they're talking, what they're saying, what the slang is, how they're using the game, what they intend to do, you just don't know.
"What I enjoy personally is that the crowd that have come in now aren't so good at RvR because they don't know how to do it yet, so I'm actually playing with people who are of equal ability to me. I can finally play RvR instead of being repeatedly crushed into the ground by our QA team, who are total ninjas."
- Shelving Crisis
"I was on Oxford Street in London yesterday. So I go into a game shop (you can guess which one), thinking it'd be great to see WAR at maybe number two in their chart, near the top. It's at number 24. It's beneath Morrowind. It's six places under Simon the Sorcerer 4. There's clearly something terribly, terribly wrong. I ring up our people and they confirm the shop's wrong - it's number one everywhere.
"Two hours later they call me back with the explanation - apparently the shop didn't have any copies left in stock, so they didn't want to put it at number one.
"Somewhere in their numpty logic they decided to put it at number 24 to stop people wanting to buy it. It's one of the most lunatic decisions I think I've ever come across."
- Role Playing Servers
"I don't go onto servers fishing for feedback, because for me it feels a little dishonest. I love watching people playing the game, though. I log on to a roleplaying server and watch people doing their crazy roleplay. A lot of it is really funny.
"The weirdest things motivate them. I was running around in RvR with two other players. We decided to take a battlefield objective and were attacked by a bunch of NPCs.
"For some reason there was a bug with the pathing of a Dark Elf mounted on a Cold One - it kept rearing up into one guy's face. He was going, 'My face is being humped by a Cold One!' We all died, but we had to go back and kill that Cold One because it insulted his honour."
- For Now
"There's an awful lot of decompression happening among our staff at the moment, as you can imagine. Three years of their lives has been spent creating this thing, working on it every day, overtime, obsessively ranting to your wife about it, your kids don't see you because you're making this damn game. And suddenly it's like, 'This is an awful lot of people rating us on Metacritic', which is refreshing."
"Ninety-one average, right? Universal acclaim. I want that to be frozen exactly where it is for posterity, so people can see it and go 'Ahh, very clever'. Anyone giving it a lower score should be ashamed of themselves."
This Is One of the first, if not the first, MMOs to truly sit down and make sure that players work together from the start, shedding the ironic selfishness of a genre that's meant to get people playing together in the first place.
It's weird to say it, but until you play Warhammer Online and take part in the war itself - taking battlefield objectives, winning scenarios, and fighting in glorious public quests -you'll look back on how much time you spent soloing in WOW and sob.
The backstory is that the Age of Reckoning has finally been reached, and the armies of Destruction have decided to lay waste to everything. The forces of Order are trying to hold back the vnpce.
Mythic have absolutely taken the Warhammer mythos by the horns, embracing every part of the grim fantasy without pulling any punches. While the mollycoddling is there in the sense of players being eased into the game through a selection of easy quests and hand-holding throughout the first few levels, you will be at war with other players well before level 10, and depending on what side you're on, you're going to do something uniquely Warhammer. Ores kick dwarves off of the side of buildings, the Empire has the warhost on its doorstep and watch as its crops burn and people are slaughtered, and the Dark Elves release gigantic dinosaurs to eat people laying flowers at graves. The atmosphere is one of having no safe haven, one that draws you right into the conflict and gives you the drive necessary to slaughter your way through lines of your enemies.
And the real beauty of war is that this isn't all fluff - you're at war, from the off, constantly, and it's fun. PvP (or realm vs realm as it's known in WAR, and the rest of this review) is an integrated, fun-packed and addictive part of the game.
Orcs, Orcs, Orcs
WAR is still an MMO though, and there are core concepts it hasn't shaken off. You control one of 20 careers (classes), split reasonably evenly between the two realms (sides) of Order and Destruction. Choosing a side locks whichever server you join to that side, to stop people from playing cross-realm spy games with each other.
The realm of Order is made up of the Empire, high elf and dwarf armies, and the realm of Destruction holds the Chaos Warhost, dark elf House and the Greenskin aaagh!. The latter is the only non-racial army - it's made up of pres and goblins -and will probably end up being flooded by roleplaying types who insist on typing everything like the bower boy ores they're playing as.
Careers are army specific (see 'Career progression'), split between the archetypes of tanking, healing, ranged damage and up-close melee damage. There's some that overlap, such as the Bright Wizard and the Sorcerer, to keep the lore-monkeys happy without blocking players from their favourite role.
The careers fit reasonably comfortably into the usual class roles, with a few notable differences. Careers are fess dependent on the hpool of mana or energy, and each has a special mechanic they depend on to do most damage.
While abilities use action points, they generally depend on some other source to do the most damage. For exampfe, the Black Ore, as he uses different attacks, moves towards 'Da Best Plan,' a state that lets him unleash his most damaging attacks. The Bright Wizard builds combustion with each attack, doing more powerful and frequent critical hits, but also damaging himself in the process. There's a degree of micromanagement that requires you to be a little more alert than the average thumping of keys. It's not rocket science, neither is it really doing much to advance the basic mechanics of MMO combat, but it's satisfying, playable, and most importantly it works.
If you've read any of Mythic's press releases, you'll know they've built WAR with the idea of a gigantic battle held firmly in their mind. From the outset, you're introduced to the other side as a marauding force of evil or as your upstart prey. You'll be flung (in the case of the Greenskins, literally, from a catapult) into direct combat with the other side's PvE forces. Yes, it's questing, and yes, you kill five of something, pick up items or activate things to get experience (with 40 ranks/levels to go through), but Mythic have streamlined the process so that you're not doing too many mundane quests. Everything has a "point" to it, and thankfully, you'll always find the items you need on the monster you kill. If you're getting dwarf skulls, you can bet that each dwarf you kill will drop one, and there's a welcome lack of quests involving the butchery of random wildlife. They're there, and yes, there's a butchery trade skill, but at least there's something approaching a storyline behind them.
There was a danger that Mythic could have made anything PvE-related effectively foreplay for the player vs player environments, as they did with Dark Age of Camelot. But there's a strong marriage between both.RvR and PvE content. The most obvious - and arguably the most enjoyable - is the public quest system. These are essentially walk-in quests that rely on groups of people to complete. You complete f objectives to advance the quest through : stages (See 'The anatomy of a public quest'), gaining influence and experience as you go, with the biggest contributors (those who do the most damage, buff people the most, heal the most) rolling dice for the biggest rewards from the quest. The influence you gain is specific to the chapter of the game's story you're on, and as you gain more you get access to Basic, Advanced and Elite rewards.
The idea of grouping with strangers usually sends chills down people's spines, but WAR introduces open groups that you can choose to join automatically. As everybody receives the experience and 9 influence from the public quest, and you can't really advance them on your own, PQ's grow a spirit of teamwork within even ardent soloists. WAR opens up grouping to those who would not group, and gives them pause to consider doing it in the future. While there's a lot of good, run-of-the-mill questing to be had, these public quests pervade the entire game, and are rewarding and fun on a scale that trumps almost anything we've seen in WOW. The later ones even have raid-style content, and making a warband (a raid party) is as simple as right-clicking and selecting "form warband."
Public quests also help tie together the PvE content with RvR. There're some (such as the Kron Komar Gap) where both realms actively complete a public quest in front of each other, with real players killing both each other and AI soldiers to advance their separate quest. The reward for doing so is not only influence, but control of the surrounding area and access to extra facilities and quests. It's a lovely surprise how well integrated and commonplace they become, too. It's so common for MMOs to talk about new hot features, and then fail to integrate them meaningfully into the game, that we were ready for public quests to be a let-down. They aren't.
What's shocking is how thoroughly enjoyable RvR is, even for people who're reluctant to face up to PvP combat. It's introduced very early on, with a selection of quests from a war camp where you're given quests, much like NPC-related ones but relating to real, live players. You descend into specific RvR areas to capture objectives, which can provide tactical advantages (healing boons and NPC guards) and fight your fellow man. Killing him nets you both your normal experience and "renown," which levels a completely separate pool of 80 Renown Levels, with their own rewards, tactics and morale (see Tactics and morale').
As you advance, these objectives become bigger and harder to conquer, ranging from a gun emplacement to a gigantic keep surrounded with soldiers, with rewards to match the scale of the effort. Each time you complete one of these smaller objectives, you bring the current area closer to being under your control. The reward for doing so, apart from accessing more content and annoying the piss out of the enemy, is the huge boost to your renown and experience gains - a controlled territory can give you anywhere up to 20% extra renown and experience. This keeps the war constantly fresh, as arriving in a zone to find you're not netting those gains gets you fired up to rip somebody's guts out. That, and you get experience and renown for killing them, so the risk versus reward of going after a skilled opponent makes it genuinely tempting.
There's a real synergy between renown and experience. As you gain renown levels, you can buy new equipment that's useful for both questing and RvR. The same goes for quest rewards, which are less rewarding but less time-consuming than your average man-barney, and still manage to gear you up reasonably well. In fact, WAR caters very convincingly to the PvE-aholic, but also leaves a tasty-looking trail of breadcrumbs to the RvR dark side, with experience rewarding quests for getting involved. It's also far less time-intensive than anything in WOWs PvP-circuit, as in a 15-minute game you can run into an RvR battlefield, chop a few heads off, and then bugger off to Tesco. It's a simple, well-designed and brilliantly executed system that oozes with well-realised lore and the necessary atmosphere to draw you into the conflict.
Mythic have used the Warhammer licence well, and created a structurally sound MMO that's actually multiplayer game, with enticing elements for both the lower and higher end players. An issue, however, is how much high-end content will be available that caters to large-scale PvE grinders. While there are dungeons and there are raid encounters, it remains to be seen just how much there is in comparison to WOW, Age of Conan and EverQuest II. There isn't, however, any question of the quality. Mythic have done exceedingly well in creating interesting, story driven quests, and have created the first major advance in the genre - public qnests - since content was instanced to avoid players cramming together.
Ironically, that's actually what makes' WAR such a joy. The reason that instanced PvP areas in MMOs, like WOWs Battlegrounds, exist are to make it so that progression isn't reliant on static content in areas. Mythic have taken this idea and put it on its head, making it a good thing when an area is crammed with people trying to do the same thing by rewarding everybody for taking part. Even when you're not a top contributor in a public quest, you still receive a bounty of influence and experience. In RvR battlefields, defending Keeps and other areas from assaults still rewards everybody for being in the area. The land even changes as realms take control of different areas, taking away the classic MMO-stodge of static, immovable content.
WAR is the first true push in ears to try and make MMOs 'more, well... multiplayer, and it succeeds because it doesn't forget that games should be fun. By giving players so many options and making everything so cohesive and interesting, Mythic will score many disenfranchised Battleground-lovers, along with a slew of bored PvErs from a multitude of games with broken promises. Ultimately, their ongoing support and the amount of people that play WAR will be what makes or breaks the game, mostly because it gets more fun when more people get involved.
For now, it's up to the players. This is such a strongly community-driven game that it guarantees that there will be some bitter, angry struggles in the Age of Reckoning, and we hope that Mythic (and European publishers and server-runners GOA) are prepared to support it The license is strong, the game is great, and the quality of the content is second-to-none. If servers are stable, players are listened to, and expansion content is as well tweaked, inventive and superbly written as its launch material, this could be the game that savages WOWs subscription numbers.
What makes WAR'S careers so special
The general aim of WAR'S careers is to get players into the fray - so there isn't one that can't make themselves useful in a scrap, no matter what play style they have.
The Disciple of Khaine and Warrior Priests' healing abilities are rooted in their offensive abilities, and are good enough to hold their own even against the tougher melee opponents. Bright Wizards and Sorcerers build a pool of energy that, when full, gives them a 50% extra chance to critical hit and double critical damage, at the risk of exploding.
Even basic melee careers, like the Black Ore and the Stabbin' Squig Herder, are kept lively by their adaptability. Squig Herders have three types of squig that adapt to any solo or group situation, and Black Ores are equal parts damage-dealer and super-tank.
Tome of Knowledge
Quest journals are so passe...
The Tome of Knowledge, rather than being a simple place to read your quests from, catalogues your escapades over the various chapters of the WAR storyline, as well as rewarding you for completing certain tasks.
Kill 100 squigs, and you get a 500 experience reward. Click yourself 100 times and receive the title 'Ow My Eye'. More complex Tome Unlocks, as they're known, will require you going across the entirety of the Warhammer World, but reward you with Tome Tactics specific to the achievement.
The TOK also keeps track of where you've been, how many things you've killed, and just how much experience fulfilling its dark desires has netted you.
The upcoming launch of Age of Reckoning has lit a cold fire in many guts. Suddenly, unexpected people are popping up and showing a surprising knowledge of words like Tzeentch, Khaine and Sigmar. Who knew, when we were reading those rulebooks and manuals all those years ago, that Games Workshop were laying their dirty lore eggs in our fertile teenage brains, set to hatch as adults?
If you're a fan of any comparable MMO, we definitely can tell you how you'll feel after spending your first 20 hours in WAR: you'll be awestruck and overwhelmed. You'll have about five characters on the go, and you'll be trying to decide which one you'll take into the higher levels first. You'll be considering a graphics card upgrade. Having spoken to a number of people who've played the opening zones of Warhammer Online, there's a surprising consensus: it beats the living shit out of World of Warcraft, and no-one wants to go back.
We'll have our full review next issue, but we simply couldn't resist spending an issue telling you exactly what you'll discover should you choose to drink down a free trial draught of Mythic's canny poison.
The first decision you'll face is which faction you want to join - Order or Destruction. These are actually called realms, and aren't to be confused with WOWs realms, which are fancily named servers. You then decide which army to join: the Order have High Elves, Dwarfs or the human's Empire, or if you prefer Destruction, you can choose from Dark Elves, Greenskins (Ores, Goblins, Giants and the like) and Chaos (humans corrupted by demonic forces). These choices decide which opening storylines you'll encounter.
For instance, choose to be a human from the Empire and you'll find yourself in the battlefields of Nordland, with almost no time to get used to your class before you're attacking the hordes of Chaos. Choose to be the fungal Greenskins, and you'll be thrown into a siege of a dwarven fortress, and onto the stunties1 ramparts using catapults. Join the pious High Elves in their battle against the Khaine-worshipping Dark Elves, and you'll find yourselves defending a continent that's had a ruddy great ship full of the bastards driven into the side.
So the opening areas... they're not tranguil. Enemies are always close by, and the rate at which defeated enemies reappear leaves you little time to hang around. You'll be safe from PvP for the first few levels, if you want to be - and you can play a fully PvE game and still benefit your Realm. But it's quickly very obvious that the WAR effort is really about killing other players.
Death is so much a part of the WAR experience, when you're killed you're told "don't worry, it's a part of the game!" Although its cheerful optimism is queerly at odds with the Warhammer World, it's how the system works. You're instantly resurrected, with no penalty beyond the XP and renown you just gave to the opposing army. If the spawn point is close to the RvR battlefield, you'll be back in the fray in under 30 seconds, hunting the bastard that killed you.
Progress is quick. Killing AI mobs gives you experience, but killing other players gives you experience and renown. Experience levels you up, with every level bringing you new abilities, tactics and morale powers. Meanwhile, renown levels give you points to spend on a separate, RvR-focused tree, giving you a chance to personalise you character with stat boosts and tactics. From level 11 onwards, you get mastery points too, which give you the chance to specialise in one of your career's three paths. These are unique to every class of every race - although there's some thematic overlap.
This is all far from simple. From the early levels, you'll notice that most of your attacks have a side-effect, or a dual purpose that needs to be factored in. Learn quickly as it won't be long before you've got another one.
If you've played any traditional MMO, you'll have learned to hate fetch quests. Because WAR shifts the focus onto group activities, the solo fetching quests are kept simple. Better than that, the drop rate - the bane of WOW players - has been removed. If you -need black wolf paws, they'll always be found on the ends of dead black wolves' legs. While saying that sounds ridiculous, players of WOW will testify to the insulting amount of time you can spend killing Satyrs in Ashenvale, only to have their horns disappear when they die, 75% of the time.
This is a basic distinction, but one that is important: WOW feels like it's making you play. Throughout the earl levels, WAR cheerfully lets you play. You do what you're do because you're having a good time.
As well as experience and renown, your influence in an area can be traded for rewards. As you progress through your race's storyline, you'll stumble across the public quests (PQs). These are how you earn influence and are Mythic's moment of genius. Taking place over a number of stages, as you enter a PQ area, you'll be notified what the objectives are and what stage everyone's at. Regular PvE guests take you into these areas too, giving you the chance to join in with some Realm-boosting missions at nearly any time, and without having to join a party or enter an instance. The group's best performers will get a loot bag, too.
The Drunk Giant
An early Greenskin guest, this is the one that Mythic have been touting for ages - certainly before they were snapped up by EA. In tabletop Warhammer, Giants are solo units that are roughly equivalant to a platoon of goblins, which is why they're not a playable race. This Giant is having trouble with a host of Sguiggly Beasts. As you enter the PQ area, you'll see him running around, surrounded by the bouncing creatures.
Your first part of the guest is to kill them all, but by then the Giant is exhausted; and won't move until you fetched him 25 barrels of beer - unfortunately, Sguigs like beer too. Once you've got him pissed, lie'll finally grab the spiked ball and attack the dwarf fortress, leaving you to face the finale: waves of superior Champion dwarfs, headed up by a hugely superior Hero dwarf. This requires a balanced team of five - or two idiots and a charitable level 12 Black Ore, which is what we had.
Over in the Chaos starting zones, the first PQ you'll find involves a group of your witches performing a summoning ceremony. They're under attack by a crowd of easily despatched Empire soldiers. In the early levels, you can handle about three or four mobs at once before you start feeling prone, giving you a chance to try out all your moves.
Once you've killed these guys, stage two begins, and you have to defile their graves. However, Empire Champion units have been alerted. You can't take these guys out alone but a couple of you should be able to manage it, if you're careful. With all the graves disrespected, the summoning process finally begins - only to have Wizard Lord Mathus arse it all up, producing Kar'Thok The Bloodhowler.
Essentially a massive red spiny demon dog, Kar'Thok dishes plenty of damage out - and once lie's taken a certain amount back, he just starts running around the summoning circle. People naturally chase him, and this is how I was introduced to Public Quests - running past a scene that looked like a drug-fuelled finale to an episode of Benny Hill. That's the brilliance of WAR'S public quests - you just want to join in.
Warh LOG GOT all frothy and excited over Warhammer Online's opening levels, I was tasked with beating my head against walls until I reached the higher end of the game. You'd think after this kind of intense scrutiny I'd grow tired of WAR, but as I got embroiled in the storyline, the atmosphere of the Warhammer World, and the bliss of sheer playability WAR provides, I couldn't help but enjoy the game more as I advance.
While we're all used to a playing curve that begins to gnaw at us past the first 20 levels, WAR rewards the time invested with rich lore, constant rewards, and some of the most actual 'multiplayer' action in an MMO.
WAR turns the well-worn MMO structure on its head, by blending PvP and PvE into a mishmash referred to as RvR - Realm versus Realm. In RvR the armies of Destruction and Order do battle across a varied and incredibly packed landscape.
In other MMOs the areas in which you battle other players are either sectioned off or made completely free-for-all, which leads to lower-level players getting mashed into pulp. -Solo or even group PvE questing is usually made distinctly unenjoyable due to the fever of warmongering in the direct vicinity. In WAR, you'll find the game naturally leads you into RvR combat. At which point a big red warning says "YOU ARE ENTERING RvR TERRITORY'' and a countdown to how long you'll have to get the hell out appears. But WAR'S RvR combat is fun. Mythic have always been the best at making killing your fellow man/beast a good laugh, and with the emphasis shifted onto helping your realm rather than yourself, you rarely feel alone.
When you defend a keep, or when your realm takes control of an area everybody on your side receives a burst of renown and experience, which keeps the process of defending and invading both fun and rewarding. It's also varied and treacherous work, taking the simple stages of early public quests to much more advanced FVP levels - like having you break down the keep's door using a siege engine and kill the NPC keep lord, whilst fighting off the defending realm's player and AI forces. Fighting doesn't feel as repetitive as in WOW, simply because you rarely fight alone. Everybody's rewarded for being a team player and everyone has fun.
The spoils of the larger battles go to those who contribute, so sitting at the side and hoping to leech off other people's hard work won't get you much. Healers, buffers and fighters all get rewarded for being part of the fight, and the reward system is fair in its dealing out of loot and renown. This is for both offensive and defensive battles - defensive battles being a counterpoint to the opposing realm's attacks. It's rewarding, even if you're literally standing in front of a keep and shooting down attackers; and if the sides are unbalanced, AI dogs of war will even out the forces.
The New Pvp
WARs different take on the MMO genre doesn't stop at blending and PvE into one landscape. Tactics are passive abilities that you earn through earning renown in RvR, levelling up, and getting masteries (the WAR equivalent of talents), or unlocking entries in the Tome of Knowledge. You can equip five of them - three from levelling and masteries, one from renown, and one from your Tome - and they usually give boring yet functional upgrades to your critical hits, armour or the duration of effects.
Morale moves are more interesting. You equip up to four of them and as K you continue fighting you build up a gauge that unlocks different Wr ability levels. Some of these are awesome - for example, the Black Ore can fix his target and himself in place, forcing his foe into one-on-one combat (a huge help when drawing attacks off healers). Another level of morale allows him to spin his axe around, whirlwind style, for five seconds, slicing up any enemies standing nearby.
Over time The Tome of Knowledge evolves from a gimmicky way of looking at your quests into a robust way of tracking your development. Within it you can see how much influence you've gained in a particular chapter, and what rewards you can gain throughout, and even track the quests you've already completed and things you've killed.
The Tome also apes LOTRO by rewarding you for a series of tasks, from the silly to the Herculean, with anything ranging from a funny title (click on yourself 100 times as an Ore, and you get "Ow, Me Eye!") to a full-scale tactic (critical hit 100 times, for example). Each tome unlock, as they're known, also gives you a chunk of experience. Trying to see what different things trigger the delightful burst of percussion that accompanies each one is a nice little metagame.
Tying together these core concepts is the atmosphere and lore of the Warhammer universe. In my opinion the one thing that has befallen the bigger disappointments in MMOs (Hellgate: London, Vanguard and, to a lesser extent, Tabula Rasa) is their inability to really draw a player into the storyline and myths of the world.
From the word 'go', be you a Greenskin or a Human or a High Elf, you're steeped in atmospheric content that grounds you in what it is to be that race. While Ore quests are described almost completely in short, angry sentences with "lankwidge like diz," Humans are dramatically ordered to save farmers trapped in their burning homes, shoot Chaos hordes with cannons, and watch as the Nordland is overrun with evil.
This is helped by the combination of a great art team and a great engine, which combine to create the gritty, utterly grim environs of every part of the WAR world. Nobody is safe from the taint of evil, and the general feeling is one of constant doom - even in the gloriousness of the Elven vistas of Eataine, you'll find the Greenskins pelting you with squigs from catapults. It gets better, too - run towards the source of the squigs, and you'll find yourself in yet another public quest.
Oh My Gork
And that's par for the course with WAR. Everything ties together beautifully. You can't seem to walk for more than a few minutes without hitting a public quest, and the moment you do, you can click an icon and join the people doing it. Alternatively, you could join a party doing RvR - and the UI will tell you how far away you are, too. A great deal of care and energy has been put into making WAR a cogent and fun experience. Even potentially boring classes are refreshingly interesting, like the Bright Wizard and his ability to do huge critical hits - at the very real risk of setting himself on fire. We're not talking cosmetic fire, either - you get damaged, and it's a real risk to your character. This leads to you having constantly low health and repeatedly killing yourself, unlocking a special title in the Tome of Knowledge for managing to explode yourself too many times. In fact, I died more times through self-combustion than by the hands of an enemy.
In the end, the amount of people playing WAR will make or break its success. While many MMOs are unpleasant when they're crammed with people (such as WOW when The Burning Crusade came out), whenever you play WAR you'll want them around.
While soloing is as fun as it is in WOW, with as many set pieces and quests as you could ever want, the real meat of the game is enjoying it with others.
The later public quests require a sizeable party to complete - I formed a war band (read: raid party) near Black Crag to take on the last stage of a keep siege against a bunch of dwarfs. All 15 of us were wiped out by the final boss. This was disappointing, too, as players got quickly demoralised and wandered off to quest on their own. We can only hope they all sat down and did a quick suggestion email about balancing the quest.
A New Standard
However, this raid was during a closed beta, when there was only a mere 150 people on Order and Destruction. I imagine that once the gates open and the hordes flood in, we'll be seeing 500-a-side, balanced, as promised, by Mythic. - The controlled chaos of the Warhammer World is something to behold, and they've genuinely delivered on their promise to expertly coax the reluctant solo player into the world of massive, player versus player combat, whilst still offering enough PvE fun to entertain everyone.
The Age of Reckoning is nearly upon us, and it's exciting. I can say from a fair amount of time playing it that Warhammer Online is a slick, deep and enjoyable MMORPG, and will give the genre a much-needed energy boost. Choose a side, warrior, because we're only a few days away from the biggest war yet.