Written on the whiteboard in executive producer Jeff Hickman's office is the legend, "Fun, you f***ers." It was scrawled there - unsanitised, we might add - as a reminder by Mythic's eccentric and excitable British-imported creative director, Paul Barnett. Jeff and Paul, along with the more sedate and composed producer, Lance Robertson, present a force to be reckoned with. They intend to make an MMO that won't get crushed under Blizzard's might, instead helping the genre take an evolutionary step forward. Their emphasis, driven by the long-established character of the Warhammer licence, is on brutal fun.
"MMOs take themselves too seriously," explains Jeff. "They try to make a world, instead of a game. They try to cure cancer, instead of causing laughter."
Warhammer: Age of Reckoning has chosen its acronym, "WAR", very deliberately. This is a game focused purely on the subject. Set in a bubble of the Warhammer world, Mythic are being given the unique opportunity to pluck races and enemies from any period of Games Workshop's elaborate history. Under the banner of Tzeentch, Chaos are storming into the Empire's home, while the Greenskins are waging war in the mountainous homes of the Dwarfs. As ever, the Elves are involved, the High Elves called to help the human Empire, while the Dark Elves spot the opportunity to not only wipe out their goody-goody brothers, but the rest of Order's races too.
Coming from the developers of Dark Age of Camelot, their invented Realm vs. Realm design is at the very core of MMO. This means that rather than the static nature of your average online world, in WAR the two opposing realms, Destruction and Order, are pitted in a permanent struggle for territory, fighting across the server for control of the enemy's capital city.
Race around the world
There are six races to choose from, each with four classes. On the side of Order are the High Elves, the Empire (humans), and the Dwarfs. For Destruction are the Dark Elves, Greenskins (Goblins and Orcs), and Chaos. From the start, each race is in conflict, Dwarf vs. Greenskin, Elves vs. Elves, and Empire vs. Chaos. And this isn't just a narrative conflict - you'll come face to face almost immediately. Alongside the more familiar Player vs. Environment (PvE) quests that you'd expect from, let's state the obvious, World of Warcraft, are Mythic's distinct Realm vs. Realm (RvR) games. These range from the regular PvP zones where you can hack away at any opponent you encounter, onto the "Battlegrounds" - instanced multiplayer zones featuring timed battles based around games more familiar to FPS players like capture-the-flag - and finally the server-wide territory race to siege the opposition capital. In fact, all RvR encounters count toward this goal, with personal wins scoring points for your entire realm.
At the higher end of the game are the pure RvR zones, five per server, the battle starting in the central "Contested Zone". When one realm begins to dominate, the playing area will move a zone closer to the opponents' capital, until eventually reaching the gates to the enemy city, and if successful, the sieging therein. Once inside players will be able to ransack and pillage the enemy's area, and even kidnap their king. Then, by the magics of cleverly powerful NPCs, be driven back to the central zone again so the whole thing can take place once more. Such a thing is going to take a week say Mythic, with the main confrontations taking place each evening.
WoW, what a difference
"It's easy for players of WoW to look at our game and say, 'What are you giving me that I'm not getting elsewhere?'" says Jeff. "And it's really important for those people to hear about RvR." For once, this doesn't appear to be puff. Having sat down and played Warhammer for a day, as much as I might have had my cynical doubts, this really is distinct from Blizzard's cash-Tauren.
Despite the sharing of Humans, Orcs, Dwarfs, etc, the RvR appears to be more than a gimmick to force a difference. (Of course, some might point out that it's a little unfair for a Games Workshop licensed game to receive the implication of mimicking familiar fantasy races...). Instead it's a mentality that permeates the entire game. While you may not be storming capitals at a low rank, you'll certainly find yourself encouraged to enter the Battlegrounds and score some points for your side.
These instanced sections prove another extremely distinctive ingredient. You enter the queue for a game, then carry on about your business until enough players are entered (balanced out by the game's NPC characters known as Dogs of War, who will leap in if too few players sign up on one side). Then it's into the instance, and off to battle. One game we played had us attempting to gain control of a gated wall dividing two territories, achieved by gaining possession of three stationary flags, and the deaths of the enemy. Another required finding and keeping an artefact, much like capturing a flag. These simple FPS motifs are given new life by a screen full of elaborate attacks and spells, letting the complexity of an RPG enjoy the visceral fun of a shooter.
Also in the RvR canon are Scenarios. These are instanced, objective-based quests, featuring battles alongside NPC allies, again scoring points for your realm, and at the same time providing an intriguing alternative to the average instanced quest dungeon.
Another important feature to mention are the Public Quests (PQs). As you explore a zone, entering a certain area will alert you to a quest that all who happen to be present can participate in. These are in stages, letting you join in at any point. Perhaps players need to kill a certain number of enemies in the surrounding area. Once complete, this might mean you can all start recruiting the locals to help out. Get enough and it will trigger the finale, hopefully the arrival of something exceptionally big and dangerous like an angry giant. All around can then begin attacking this uber-tough bad, until communal victory. The amount you participate defines the reward you'll receive at the end, the game noticing how great your contribution to the group effort was. It's a splendid idea, and a cunning way to remove ghastly spawn queues that plague so many MMOs. And having played one, it really works. There's no seams, no instancing, you just turn up and pitch in.
And there's much more besides, as Jeff is keen to point out. The Tome of Knowledge at first appears to simply be a notebook that's filled in as you encounter new zones, monsters, etc. But Jeff insists, "The things we're going to do with it, in terms of discovery, achievements, unlocking, scrapbooking, it's going to be unbelievably cool." But how so? "The concept of the Tome is a concept of achievements, discovery and unlocking, but even beyond that, it's a concept of having a history of your life within the game, that you can share with other people. Item unlocking and discovery, monster unlocking and discovery, NPCs, areas in the game, different quests, anything and everything that's a major event in your life as a player, has the opportunity to become an unlock, an achievement, and an award for you."
And it goes a stage further, more than simply cute decoration. "Say you kill your first chaos warrior, you get a new unlock which is a scribbled old picture of his face that you hand-drew in there. The second thing when you kill one hundred of them is you get a little bit more detail. The third thing when you kill five hundred is you get, 'Chaos Killer' above your head as a new title. At level four when you've killed five thousand of them, you get the Chaos Killer Ability, which gives you a new icon to put on your hotbar, which gives you a five percent damage increase against Chaos Warriors..."
What's my motivation?
It's clear that Paul Barnett wouldn't approve of the past few paragraphs. He'd point out that these are dry facts, and instead want to elaborate on the motivations of the races. And it's important that he does, as it represents the depth of thinking that is going into the game. When you first see Chaos - a race that thrives on disorder, and the breaking down of reality - it might be hard to see the appeal in playing an opposing human Empire. Chaos might grow a tentacle out their bum at any moment, infecting the world around them. So why would I be the race I already am?
"Empire is a world about the End of Days," bellows Paul. "A world on the brink of extinction. No matter what they do, the Humans must keep fighting or they'll all die. Breed and fight, expand or die, that's all they can do. The Empire deals with the strengths and weaknesses of human beings, their humanity. Their fantastic dreams, their terrible nightmares. It's that idea that when they get magic, they can't stop themselves. They get super-magic and blow the world up. When they figure out how to harvest food, they harvest until extinction."
And then of course, you could always be an Empire Bright Wizard - a magnificently regal result of the lies the Elves told the Humans about magic. They're fire wizards, and everything the do involves fire, and a lot of it. There's the Warrior Priest, a melee pro and a healer, who gains his "faith" through combat. Or perhaps you'd choose a Witch Hunter, expert in melee, but also equipped with an impressive gun (and hat). Oh, or why not a Knight of the Blazing Sun, tanking your way along in your ridiculous get-up?
While there are only four classes per race, their distinctions are so great that it begins to look like twenty-four classes. Essentially divided up into tanker, melee, healer and magic, it's far more involved than that. The Empire's Warrior Priest is a healer, but don't expect to be standing at the back, bored. He gains his aiding abilities only through the violence he's giving out and receiving. There's no background characters in Warhammer, and as such everyone's involved in the fight.
Previously Mythic had intended to completely abandon levels, and hence levelling, in an attempt to divert people from the grind and focus on the events. While an interesting idea, Hickman points out that it just didn't click for them. "We've tried to stay with the principle behind that as much as we can. When you play the game you still get this mini-movement within a rank. If you want to call a rank a 'level' you're welcome to do that. Basically what we found was that it's so important that a player feels his progress definitively. There needs to be easy comparison between that monster and you."
However, that doesn't mean the ambition is abandoned. "I don't want to say we stepped back from the old system because we've kept a lot of it. Within each rank, you're still gaining Abilities, Moral and Tactics. And they're not at the same point each rank - some ranks you'll get two, others you'll get four - there's definite variation of reward, trying to cut that feeling of, 'I've got to climb another level'. We loved the idea behind it, and we could probably make it work, but it didn't feel right. So we went back to giving people a way of measuring. The old system is still there, but it's running underneath."
Building on the experience of six years of Dark Age of Camelot, Mythic has the advantage of being one of the very few second-generation MMO developers, with knowledge of the problems that befall a new project. And in a world so stuffed with PvP, griefing would be the most obvious one. Jeff leaps in.
"The RvR system is very carefully constructed to prevent such problems, from simple ideas to complex devices. Simple things like bad guys can't talk to good guys to prevent smack-talking. (Can I dance on your corpse? Absolutely. But there's a bit of fun to that. See, when you die, your gravestone might be left there. Your gravestone could have funny things on it about who killed you and how)."
And on the more complicated level? "Well, for instance, we're not letting high-level characters come down and gank low-level characters. We're in fact pushing back against things like that. Say a fortieth level character comes into a fifth level zone, and he wants to run into an RvR area and kill the fifth level guys? Well, not only can he not attack them, but he doesn't even get flagged for RvR. He can't attack the low level guys at all. But that guy who comes down has a debuff placed upon him that makes him vulnerable to the low level guys. This is the kind of disincentive against griefing we're using."
There's lots more detail to come. Not all the races' classes are announced, but to prevent your crazed anger at not being told, the three freshly announced Chaos classes are Chosen (melee/tanker), Zeolot (magic/healer) and the Magus (spellcasters who fly around on a magic disc), and with a year's development still to go, more unique IP will be negotiated with Games Workshop as the team create their unique bubble in the Warhammer world. Will it beat WoW? Who cares? Will it offer something significantly different to WoW? From what we've seen and played, yes, absolutely.
Warhammer: Age of Reckoning is aiming for completion by the end of the year, with betas planned throughout. We'll certainly bring you more, including the unannounced details of the Elves, as soon as they appear.