I have never met the guys that developed Rift, but I'm willing to bet that they're sort of a timid bunch – perfectly nice and polite, I'd wager, and easy to get a long with, and not the sort of dudes who'll grab you by the neck and make you pay attention to them. I'm judging this, of course, by looking at their Facebook profiles.
I'm judging this by the game they developed – Rift, obviously. This game came out with a significant amount of fanfare and hoopla, a name change, and a very aggressive marketing campaign. I was intrigued. It promised a change! We weren't in Azeroth anymore. Things were going to be different.
The truth is, though, that Rift is a game which rests firmly in the shadow of World of Warcraft and its legacy. The team at Trion brings little to the table here that is really fresh or innovative. It's a smorgasbord, essentially; some kind of weird MMORPG potluck. They picked out the parts they thought were totally awesome from earlier entries in the genre, put a fresh coat of paint on, and stuck 'em all together.
"I guess you could call it “inoffensive."
That isn't to say, though, that Rift is a bad a game. It's not bad, but it isn't really good. I guess you could call it “inoffensive.” It's not going to ignite your imagination or redefine the MMO experience, but it sure as hell will give you an easy, painless way to kill three or four hours at a time. Trion has manufactured one of the slickest, most accessible MMORPGs to date – but in doing so, they created something that is also highly derivative. That is a crime that gamers should not easily forgive.
Is it pretty? Absolutely. Even on my measly laptop, the game runs smoothly and looks pleasing enough. Cranked up and on a higher-end machine, it looks great. The art direction isn't exactly Picasso, but it is somewhat distinctive. The moody, down-trodden nature of the game world is communicated well through the art-style, even if it only veers a few blocks away from the typical high-fantasy neighborhood. The developers did a good job of letting your character actually look good and wear cool things – we all know how crucial this is in an MMO. The monster design is more standard fare, but the bosses do a good job of being real big and scary. What more can you ask? The sound is serviceable – the battle music blares riotously when you engage any enemy, but it won't be stuck in your head anytime soon. The towns feature some pleasantly relaxing tunes, and the obligatory clashing swords and guttural yells all communicate the appropriate sense of bloodshed.
Apparently, this game has a story. It's there, somewhere, hidden within walls of texts and sporadic cutscenes. As with most MMORPGs, the story isn't really center stage or all that interesting. Rift's narrative has a lot of cool, arcane sounding words and some good voice acting, but it lacks any kind of emotion or real intrigue. It provides a serviceable explanation of who you are and what you're doing, but it never really tells why you should care. It is also really convoluted and labyrinthine – if you get lost, it can be hard to catch up. You probably won't have much motivation to follow it regardless.
The art direction and the plot are both satisfactory – I'm not one to ask for every new game to totally reinvent the wheel, and it certainly doesn't, but Rift has enough flair to give it a distinctive kind of flavor. The actual gameplay is where the game really starts to become another nameless and faceless MMORPG. If you've ever played a game like WoW or Lord of the Rings Online before, then ostensibly you have played Rift. It does little to differentiate itself from the competition. You know, auto-attacks and hotbar pounding. We've all been there before. It's proficient, certainly, and altogether combat and moving around Telara are fun and decently rewarding – but it has all been done before in a lot of places – even, I don't know, Azeroth.
"The class system does provide some kind of freshness."
The class system does provide some kind of freshness. At the onset, the player chooses what “calling” he is going to play as: rogue, warrior, cleric, and mage. Each of these callings has a large number of classes beneath – rogue has things like “blade dancer” and “rift stalker”; warrior has ones like “paladin” and “void knight.” The player is then able to basically mix and match these classes via equipping three of them at a time. The “souls,” as they are called, are able to be switched in and out and tweaked fairly painlessly, allowing for a large amount of customization and creativity. This system is the best and most interesting part of the game, and it is one that offers a lot of depth – and, as a result, a lot of personal satisfaction for the player.
The titular rifts are good fun, too. For the uninitiated, occasionally, as you go about your business in Telara, a giant hole in the planar fabric of the multiverse will pop open and a bunch of really angry dudes will come pouring out. It's up to the players, then, to bond together and repel these insurgents. This mechanic is an excellent way to gain experience and loot, and it is also really smooth. Finding rifts and quickly joining parties to close them could not be easier. Trion deserves praise for making this kind of more organic, less structured gameplay fun and accessible. If you've played Warhammer, you know that the public quests in that game were fun but not always the best experience – the rifts in Rift are that concept perfected. The one complaint against the rift system is that it is kind of meaningless – the Rifts open and close without any real implications. Eventually, it becomes just another grind.
Rift's realm-versus-realm-centric player-versus-player isn't something I experienced very fully in my time with the game, but it seems up to snuff. It's fast and actually kind of brutal (read: I got pwned) – and it's easy to get to. Hopping into battle is streamlined and available early on. I haven't done much of the more open-world kind of battling, but it is there, and seems to be pretty popular. It is worth noting here that PvP in Rift also awards experience points and loot, keeping in-line with Trion's “reward everything” mantra.
I have trouble calling Rift a real genre standout or an important game. I would love to be able to look at this game as a bookend, a signifier of the end of the WoW era. It recycles a great deal of the systems and mechanics of its predecessors, only with a little spicing up and a shiny coat of paint. It, in fact, improves on a lot of stuff other games are doing. The problem here is that the MMORPG world is getting really crowded and simply buffing up old ideas isn't enough to warrant an exceptional game anymore. I like Rift, and it is a good way to spend your evening – it won't make you too mad or even ask that much of you – but it just doesn't do enough innovating to demand high praise.
The game is receiving a steady diet of updates and patches. Maybe, if Trion decides to get a little ballsy, it could grow into something special. The framework is there and the game has a strong set of core fundamentals. In time, the developers may decide that they have to try something new, something to break the mold and give Rift a more unique personality. Until then, though, the game will have a tough time cementing itself as an MMORPG landmark. It's a hard fact to admit, but MMORPGs are facing a dilemma: the genre that once showed such promise is becoming tired and hackneyed. Rift is a good game but also a perfect example of this problem – and here's to hoping that it either grows into an answer to that plight or a marker for the end of an era.