RIFT: Planes of Telara Review
It's easy to be skeptical of every major MMORPG being released. So many of them promised so much and then languished for years in development through multiple delays, only to deliver an unfinished, unpolished, often just downright awful gameplay experience. And it's a tall order to ask gamers to give up their friends and guilds and move over to a new game, so MMO developers have to offer up an experience that feels like it's more than just a little better than the competition. This social attachment means that the next big one they move to has to be way better. So, with that setup, let's just come right out and say it. While RIFT is a great game, it's not going to be causing too many World of Warcraft players to cancel their accounts.
I'm sure the developers have insisted many times that they're not trying to yank players away from Blizzard's big bad MMORPG, and that they are doing their best to forge out on their own, but even just five minutes with RIFT makes it obvious that this is an attempt to build upon Blizzard's success, fix some of WoW's core problems, and update its visuals. In some ways, this came off very well, but in others, you'll find it's eerily familiar to so many other MMORPGs.
After a couple of hours playing, you'll likely notice that RIFT has a quite a serious tone to it. Sure, Deathwing in that other game is threatening Azeroth, but there's a sense of humor to many of the things you do in WoW, while here it's pretty much 100% serious all the time. That becomes a bit of an issue, because even a video game can do with some comic relief, and RIFT offers little to none.
Almost every major feature that makes WoW so great has been reproduced here in RIFT, which is actually a pretty major accomplishment because Blizzard's game has been in constant development for a full decade now. It'd be silly to go through a massive list of features, so let's just touch on some key ones: you get things like banks, auction houses, guilds, raids, PvP areas, faction-based PvP servers, a very wide range of classes, achievements, rested XP, randomized and unique loot, ways to buy some of the best gear as well as get them in raids, a configurable (but not moddable, at least, not for a while) user interface, a full range of detail and control options, a big open world, and a ton of other stuff that I've neglected to mention. Many of the features that WoW has added in the last few years are here, so you won't feel like you're making too big a step backwards if you do decide to make the transition to RIFT.
There are two major gameplay features that I think separate this game from its competition: public events and the more freeform class system. Let's start with the namesake rifts. So, this big bad dude named Regulos is trying to break into the world of Telara, and he's opening up portals with tons of monsters pouring through. These are the rifts, and they are marked on zone maps - it's up to players to head to these spots in the world and close the rifts. You wade in, take on waves of monsters, and finish off a boss, and the rift closes when you're done. Minor rifts can be closed by one player of an appropriate level, but bigger ones will require a group or even a raid, especially when there's a zone-wide invasion by one of the game's minor boss-type characters, where not only are the rifts multi-staged, but then the zone's players also have to close a bunch of rifts, defend parts of the zone, and then all jump in to a huge group to take out the boss. It's a good way to get players participating and working together, even at a very low level, and it helps that closing rifts is not only fun but can net you some good loot and experience, too.
Then there's the Soul system for building your custom class. Combat works almost exactly how you'd expect, with a global cooldown system stopping you from spamming your abilities and the general tank-healer-dps model, so that basic gameplay is exactly what you expect. What changes everything is the fact that even your basic powers and abilities can be mixed and matched in ways that you probably wouldn't expect, especially if you're coming from WoW. I'll try to explain it from that point of view. Here, all of the game's six races (three each for both sides, the Defiants and the Guardians) can be all four of the game's base classes: the Warrior, Rogue, Cleric, and Mage. By level six or so, you'll have unlocked three Souls, each of which is like a single talent tree.
It'd be like, say, if you chose a generic "fighter" in WoW and then got to pick and choose from fighter-type talent trees. Maybe you grab the Arms tree from a Warrior, the Holy tree from a Paladin, and the Frost tree from the Death Knight. Or a caster would pick Fire from the WoW Mage tree, Affliction from a Warlock, and Shadow from a Priest. (Obviously, RIFT doesn't copy these directly, but you'll see a lot of similar fantasy archetypes in their Soul designs.)
What makes this system even more unique is that you don't get access to every ability for any given Soul you're using out of your three. As you add points to the talent tree, you're simultaneously unlocking a linear progression of general abilities below it. It makes for a really fun system that asks you not only to carefully choose from not only your talents you're putting points into, but to think about the combination of spells you get access to. And these Souls can make for vastly different characters even in one base class: one Cleric can play as a tank, while another can choose three entirely different souls and become a ranged-damage specialist.
RIFT does try to one-up World of Warcraft in ways that can seem similar to the way Schick and Gillette keep slapping more and more blades on their razors, but it does make a nice difference. For example, you can dual-spec in WoW and some players have already asked for triple specs, so in RIFT, you just get four "roles". Of course, it makes a difference here because any given role isn't likely to even have the same talent trees as another. Tradeskills are affected by this too. What? You can only take two tradeskills in your game? Why would you ever play that when RIFT gives you three? OK, admittedly there are a few other innovative features, like the Coin Lock system which is a nice extra account-security feature for those who don't want to have to deal with authenticator devices or smartphone apps, and Trion has added some of the better functionality of more advanced WoW mods, like a map that can be smoothly scrolled and zoomed like you would Google Maps - or the power to hover over an action bar slot and directly press a key to bind that key to whatever ability's in the slot.
I want to stop here and point out that RIFT's presentation is decidedly less silly and more serious than Warcraft fans may be used to, but its visuals are really quite impressive overall and can push even the fastest computers to their limits if you go past Ultra settings with antialiasing and high resolutions. The sights and sounds while you're in rifts are pretty amazing, where the usually picturesque scenery is overgrown with different types of sinister motifs (death, water, fire, and the like), and then the growths slowly fade away when the rift is closed - a nice effect considering you're out in the populated game world while doing this. The sound design is fantastic, too, with a good chunk of voice acting going into the major story-based fights. Sure, it's all overly melodramatic and any attention-deficit MMO player is ignoring the story anyway, but for those who want it, it's there.
One of the biggest issues RIFT has is that this is a damn tough genre to break into - no game with a monthly subscription has gotten even close to matching WoW's success, and the social element of these games means that nothing short of a revolution in design, fun, and charm will pull people away. And no, RIFT is not a revolution in any of these areas, not compared to what's already out there. It's a damn good game and if you just hate WoW on general principle but still want to play a fantasy MMORPG, then this is easily the right choice for you to try out. Even seasoned WoW veterans who love Blizzard's creation will tell you this is next best thing to the world of Azeroth, and it's by far the best effort yet to yank players away. But, if you simply hate MMOs or the fantasy setting - or both - RIFT won't do anything to change your opinions.
This means that the number of people that this game appeals to is probably not nearly as big as developer Trion was hoping for, and despite solid initial sales, I'm betting that RIFT will have to suffer the exodus of players as they get bored and cancel their subscriptions. We've seen that quite a few times now in Age of Conan, AION, and Warhammer Online. But the difference is that those games either launched poorly, had huge and uneven in their leveling content, or both. RIFT may still hemorrhage a good number of players, but this game feels much closer to being "done", its launch was mostly smooth, and it includes a robust set of features - all of that will go a long way to keeping people playing. These are very difficult games to make, almost to the point that calling any freshly-launched MMO "not an instant failure" has become high praise. So, on that note, I can confidently say that RIFT is not an instant failure, and that's already a huge head start over many of the MMOs that came before it.