It's with a bit of disbelief that I find myself writing a review of Rift today instead of Dragon Age II. The former, developed by Trion Worlds, is a massively multiplayer online role-playing games-a genre in which, due mostly to time constraints, I rarely permit myself to indulge-while the latter is a single-player role-playing game from one of my favourite developers, Edmonton-based BioWare. I've been in possession of both games for about the same amount of time and I normally would have spent that time fully invested in BioWare's offering. Instead, I've divided my gaming hours about equally between the two and I find myself ready and wanting to discuss Trion World's game first. I can't really explain it. I'll get to Dragon Age II next week, I promise.
Much debate exists over how much time one should spend playing an MMORPG before reviewing it. My High Elf Warrior Guardian is only up to level 16, but I'd reckon I've put around 20 hours into him so far. That might seem like a significant amount of time, but, this being an MMORPG, I've seen only a fraction of what Rift has to offer. Based on the in-game map, I'd estimate I've explored around 7 or 8 per cent of the world of Telara. Still, I've become familiar enough with the overall design and play mechanics that I feel fairly comfortable offering a few opinions.
First off, I'm having fun. The quests are pretty standard for this sort of game-kill 12 faeries, bring back 8 bits of mined tin, free 3 prisoners in wooden cages, take this message to that person, protect that fellow as he wanders through a villain-infested forest-but they're speedy, easy to understand, and overlap in such a way that you're almost always working on two or three quests at the same time in the same area.
Also important: Rewards received for completing quests are satisfying. Players typically obtain a significant amount of experience for their deeds and are often allowed to choose from a selection of powerful equipment upgrades that noticeably improve battle prowess and stature. The feeling of progression is constant, and we are never unfairly punished for failing tasks or falling in battle. Indeed, the notion of death and ressurection has been cleverly explained and woven into the fabric of the story.
Unfortunately, the rest of the tale isn't particularly interesting. Players begin by choosing whether to become a member of the Guardians or the Defiant, a pair of essentially noble factions with wildly varying philosophies on how to save their world from an evil extraplanetary force. The game tries to build up a deep mythology around these groups-a lengthy graphic novel that comes with deluxe version of the game helps shed some light on the history of this world-but the plight of my faction, the Guardians, has yet to grab me on an emotional level.
To be fair, I've never encountered a satisfying MMORPG narrative. It seems to me that there's a problem inherent in telling a story set in a world in which thousands of player-controlled characters are performing the same tasks at different times. Everything feels perpetually out of sync, and few problems ever seem to get fully, truly resolved. Nothing shatters suspension of disbelief quite like putting a difficult unique enemy to death after a long battle and then watching another player fight a freshly spawned copy of him a few seconds later.
Consequently, I find I pay little heed to what other characters have to say. I rarely stop to chat with NPCs to learn more about them or what's happening in their neck of the woods and I often just click through dialogue. Sometimes I don't even read quest descriptions, opting instead to simply accept missions and make do with the four- or five-word objective that pop up on the side of my screen.
But while the story has yet to-and I suspect never will-capture my imagination, the world in which it is taking place has proven exceptionally compelling. Telara is easily the most breathtaking free-to-explore fantasy realm I've encountered. With graphics settings nearly maxed (which, sadly, resulted in substantial lag on my upper-mid-level rig) the draw distances were enormous. And the locations I've visited-a shipwreck, a hedge maze, a water-encircled sanctum, forests with tree trunks the size of small houses-have a magical charm that makes me want to continue to set out and find new areas. All MMORPG's foster our innate longing for discovery, but I'm not sure I've ever played one that makes me want to keep exploring as much as Rift does. This is one of its greatest strengths.
But what I like most about Trion Worlds' game is that it allows me to play as an individual as much as I like. I know that MMORGs are supposed to be about the multiplayer experience, but, if I'm being completely honest, I'm just not into the pressures that go along with large parties and guild memberships. I prefer adventuring by myself most of the time and hooking up with other players only when I'm in the mood. Rift does an excellent job of facilitating this style of play. I've yet to encounter a level-specific quest that I couldn't complete on my own (assuming I show a little prudence and enlist the help of my trusty summoned companions-becoming a Beastmaster is an undeniable boon for lone wolfs like me). And when the party bug strikes, I can always find a nearby rift-a tear in the fabric of reality through which evil spawn pour through (this is the game's shtick)-or an invasion of Defiant forces and join a public group to fight back the invaders. Should a bond occur between me and another player during these battles, I might even team up with them for a while.
That's just about the exact amount of multiplayer interaction I crave. I realize this might make me a bad candidate for a traditional MMORPG experience. Some readers will undoubtedly suggest that I should just stick with single-player games. But there are things about playing in a giant public world that appeal to me. Watching human-controlled avatars running around doing their own thing creates a sense of community, even if I'm not a part of their adventures. And I like that I can stop and ask any of these people for help or advice. What's more, I take a certain pleasure in biding my time in dangerous areas, waiting for other players to come along and attract the attention of high-level enemies so I can sneak through. Simply put, I like being a part of these worlds, but I also want to remain somewhat anonymous. Rift makes this possible.
Of course, there's a lot more to Trion Worlds' game than I've discussed here, including character classes and roles, abilities and soul tree points, skill raining and crafting, and player-versus-player quests. But despite having invested two weeks of myself in the game, I'm not sure I'm far enough along to have a valid opinion on anything other than what I've already discussed. I've only created one character on one server and I've earned just a handful of skills and abilities.
That's why I'm going to stop here and simply state that I've enjoyed myself up to this point. In fact, I might even keep playing-a luxury I rarely allow myself when it comes to MMORPGs. (At least until Star Wars: The Old Republic hits shelves.)
So, if you happen to be in Rift's Dimroot shard and run into a sharp-nosed, flat-eared elf with pointy amber hair named Flinky, be sure to say hi. Even if I'm having too much fun adventuring on my own, I'm always happy to have a quick chat.