Leaving aside the fact that the Open Beta that all buyers of the Collector's Edition were "guaranteed" access to was a bit of a farce and that it took me three days to get into the six day long beta and the wonderful communication from the "Community Managers" (who I assume have been firmly slapped on the wrists for making insulting posts without the knowledge of their bosses)... well, Mythic have produced something a bit good here.
Some of you might remember about nine months ago I was ranting at length about failures in the MMO genre as a whole, that basicly in order to enjoy about 50% of the content and keep yourself from looking like Liberace if he got dressed in the dark you'd have to dedicate hundreds of hours to the game and that failure to make even a minimal contribution of twenty or so hours per week would keep you from ever seeing about 30% of the game at all. Well the guys behind Warhammer Online seem to be thinking along my lines, big time.
First off, the game looks beautiful, the pseudo medieval/renaissance background is rendered in spectacular fashion from the second you enter the game. Playing, as you do, a soldier in one of several armies, you are placed right on the battlefront from the get go. I decided to go with the Empire and play a Witch Hunter because I'm a sucker for any character who eventually gets to wear awesome hats and a big long coat while shooting and stabbing people with my flintlock and rapier. As a result I was landed in a small village surrounded by norse raiders and the first several missions dealt with thinning that particular force down (of course they respawn a minute later but some things can't change) before breaking through their lines, pushing them back and moving on to the next village. Somehow, despite the fact that they're respawning and never actually get pushed back, the fact that they so quickly cease to be a threat to you personally helps the sensation that you've helped turn the battle. On the other hand, if you pay attention, it does break the immersion a bit once you realise that many of the rampaging horde are actually standing in the middle of a field on their own. Still, two minutes later when I was killing them so I could kick in the door of a burning cottage to rescue the people inside I kind of forgot about it.
So, that done, I took off down the road to the next village. Now, even though it was roughly one minute away, it took me a lot longer because you can't go more than a few hundred yards without encountering something interesting and about twenty seconds out I encountered the first new thing Warhammer has to offer - Public Quests. Public Quests are kind of like a traditional MMO dungeon in that they have scripts and events but they're outside and anyone who happens to be nearby can join in on them. So I did.
The quest involved initially killing a load of raiders, around fifty, which is doable solo quite easily if not quickly. The first thing I noticed in the public quest was that not only was I getting experience but I was also getting something called "influence" which it seems, equates to reputation in WoW or in essence, how much the nearest town likes you, so after a few dozen raiders were shown the business end of my sword I decided to take a trip back to town to see what I could get. It turned out that every town or stage in the story has an associated character and influence level so for killing the raiders I had reached the first of three levels of influence with the town so I got a free potion. Later, as I reached higher levels I got a decent piece of armour and then later a very nice weapon. You only get three rewards in total from the guy but its an example of the guiding principle of Warhammer - everything you do, gets you something or makes progress towards something. Sure, most MMOs do that to some degree but in Warhammer its very tangible and immediate. Happy with my potion I returned to the public quest, still not really understanding what it was all about. By the time I returned, a group was industriously dealing with the raiders some more and I joined in the fight. After killing the raiders, some more enemies appeared, cultists of some kind, which were duly dispatched, then another crowd arrived, this time much much tougher, then another wave. All the while, scripted events were taking place behind us as an NPC priest gathered the townsfolk to escape once we'd dealt with the enemies. Upon dealing with the final enemy, I won't go into details about exactly what happned but it had to be seen to be believed. It was the first time in a long time I was genuinely shocked by what happened.
Once we'd finished the public quest, it was reward time. Everyone who had participated got a grade based on how much damage or healing they'd done. This grade was a number between 0 and 500. Then the system rolled a random number between 1 and 1000 and added the grade to it. You got given a bag based on your eventual score (I participated well but rolled low so I came in fifth and got a white bag) and the bag contains items that are all of use to your character, so there was money, a new sword, some crafting ingredients and a ring. I took the sword from my bag and trundled off, happy that I'd just gotten a small upgrade for a very difficult battle.
So here's the thing, I'm not a social guy, I don't like grouping with people I don't know because generally they're pricks but here I was, having a blast with complete strangers because the game just drew me in, hell, it probably tricked me into it and I fell for it entirely. As an added bonus, your contribution directly impacts the loot you get, no exceptions, no cheating, no one deciding that they need that sword even though they use a bow 99% of the time. If I had any complaint about the game that far it would be that the explanations about what the hell I was supposed to be doing were scant but you get into it quick enough.
A couple of hours and one town and another public quest later I found myself at the end of the zone, a warcamp where you really get introduced to the big part of the game - PvP. The warcamp is on the outskirts of a town where you can just walk in and start putting the boot to chaotic arse. Or you can join the PvP scenario, a system wherby you click on a button, say "I want to join the scenario" and a minute or two later you're in a battlefield, reasonably evenly balanced, trying to take objectives and kill the enemy and it is *fantastic*. Frantic, brutal and pitched. If you don't get stuck in your team doesn't win. If your team doesn't win and if your team wins then you're going to make some serious advancement so everyone gets stuck in, no one sitting in the starting area just soaking up the work of others.
All this brings me to another element of the game - renown. This is a second kind of level from your regular character level and completely independent of each other. So you have influence within an area, gained from quests and public quest. You have character which you gain from quests and PvP and then you have renown, which you gain just from killing other characters. Renown levels let you buy *really* good gear from vendors depending on your renown and character level. You also get a renown point per level which you can spend on skills and talents to make you more effective at killing other players.
So here's the thing, you can play how the hell you want.
You can quest your way to level 40 without ever striking another person in anger. You'll get quest rewards, you'll buy loot and you'll hit level 40 well equipped.
You can PVP your way to level 40 without completing more than one quest, the one that tells you about PVP. You'll get your gold from killing other players and you'll buy renown gear and hit level 40 well equipped.
You can get stuck into the open PVP by going into that town beside the warcamp and taking strategic points, getting some renown and loot from killing enemies because (and I love this) not only do you get experience from killing other players but there's a chance that they'll drop loot when you do - not THEIR loot, just random loot generated from a random table.
Or you can explore and try to unlock your tome of knowledge and get experience for just learning and killing everything about different monsters.
Then there's guilds that level with players, they can form alliances with other guilds, they can set taxes, members can donate a tithe, they can have a standard bearer and capture castles from the enemy.
The list of things you can do is exhaustive, seriously. Even doing all the public quests in a given zone once would take several hours, and thats in the first of eight areas in one of the three lands- by my guess, it could take about forty minutes to run from one end of a land to the other, and thats without ever going off the beaten track to discover one of the thousands of hidden, neat little things. I would guess that to explore everything it was practical to explore throughout the three lands could take forty or fifty hours, it is VAST.
Then you'd hit Altdorf and be stunned at how imposing and claustraphobic they've managed to make a virtual city.
I can't really say anything about the endgame yet, I don't know much about the raiding element but by all accounts it'll follow much the same principles of drawing people into social groups so the theory is that raid dungeons will allow anyone in but raid bosses are instanced to your raid group, so trash loot becomes a thing of the past while making sure that raid bosses require a well prepared and well geared group to take down. Dungeons are much the same idea but the majority of the endgame involves raiding the opposition's land, killing the captains of the castles along the way and eventually sacking their capital and killing or kidnapping their king. As cool as that sounds, and believe me, I'll be getting stuck in there, given how well they've implemented everything else, I'm going to be very interested in being involved with the raids.
So, in summary, WAR is an amazingly well designed game, probably the best MMO I've ever seen (though the competition isn't exactly intense) and subscribes perfectly to what I want out of an MMO, namely this:
When I spend half an hour playing, I want my half hour to mean something, I want to make half an hour's worth of progress and see half an hour's worth of reward. I don't want my half hour to mean less simply because I cannot devote a four hour chunk of my time to a game. I certainly don't want my activities during that half hour to be strictly limited to a half dozen quest I've done forty times before and maybe just killing the same monster another hundred times so I can gather beads and hand them into someone so their town will like me 1% more than they did before. Even if I DO have the time, once in a while to commit four hours to a dungeon or some such, I want variety and an intelligent opponent who keeps me on my toes, I never want to be in a situation where I have a predictable four hours that always progresses and ends in the same manner
Oh, did I mention that there's collision detection when you run in to an enemy? One friend of mine discovered this in the best way possible, in a tunnel during a PVP scenario he realised that just him, his sword and a shield were able to block the tunnel while the healers kept him alive and the mages destroyed anything and anyone that tried to get past. He tanked a PVP battle. How cool is that?
Is this a WOW killer? No, I don't think there's any such thing. Is it a very powerful alternative? Hell yes. This game will draw a LOT of people away from WoW but not convincingly enough I suspect to cancel their subscriptions for a while yet. I think Age of Conan did a lot to make people wary of abandoning their old MMO for something new and shiny which is a shame really. I don't think this is generally a game for the hardcore WoW raider but the endgame may very well support them before long but its definitely a game for everyone else.