When we last played Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning a few months back, we came away impressed by the Mythic MMO's ideas, but concerned about its look, its basic combat mechanics and its feel. Like it or not, this is a game aimed at World of Warcraft's heartlands - a colourful, traditional, grind-happy, high-fantasy RPG romp. That means it's bound to be judged by the highest standards of quality and polish in the MMO world. If it's found wanting, the battle could be over before it's begun, and the announcement of feature cuts didn't do anything to assuage fears.
Back then, producer Jeff Hickman promised us that the game's delay to autumn this year would be used to address those areas. After a hands-on bash at E3 in the company of Hickman and his colleague Josh Drescher - playing the game on a busy live beta server - we've got to admit that Mythic's developers are getting there. In fact, they're nailing it.
There's a gorgeously slick new interface for character selection and creation, with a camera that glides between character line-ups - of race, and faction, and your own roster - that recall the Warhammer licence's roots in table-top miniatures. It's as inviting and pretty as an MMO front-end could be. The only disappointment is the basic character-customisation options - they're no more limited than WOW's in theory, but the identikit hordes charging around the game world suggest it's unduly hard to imbue characters with individuality.
Where WAR will offer you a bit more freedom for self-expression is in its dye system. This will allow you choose the colour scheme of your armour set (of which there are some 400 in the game, unique to each career). Dyes are handed out as quest or achievement rewards or can be bought from vendors.
Having already seen the Dark Elf starting area, and being a diehard bad guy, we go Greenskin - a goblin Squig Herder, which is a pet-wrangling class with ranged attacks - and are dumped in the world at Mount Bloodhorn. The difference from the last time we played is immediately and startlingly apparent.
With much-improved effects, animation and (if we're not mistaken) lighting in place, WAR has stepped over the line from bland to the beginnings of beautiful. Sparing with the polys and generous with scale and colour, it will likely scale much better to low-end machines than Age of Conan or Lord of the Rings Online do, too.
Also impressive is the sense of life and bustle. Even without the outpourings of new players on this server, the surroundings would be very busy, with dozens of wandering NPC patrols, and AI-driven running battles taking place with the opposing Dwarf faction. There's drama here that MMO humble-beginnings don't usually muster.
There's character too - but in this case, we might just have been lucky in our choice of army. Both Elven races start on the Blighted Isle, a very classical and gloomy zone, and the quest plots and writing seemed dour and po-faced back in the spring. Here on Mount Bloodhorn, the orcs' purposely illiterate ramblings, and the Dwarves' cries of "Bollocks!" when they fall, capture the exuberant, bloodthirsty irreverence of Warhammer to a tee.
There's been a top-notch overhaul of the user interface as well. It's perhaps a shade too busy - even though the starting combat options are minimal, WAR bombards you with information, buttons and progress bars - but the layout is logical, the finish superb, and the implementation fast and intuitive. The Tome of Knowledge - Mythic's brilliant combination of quest log, achievement system and encyclopaedia - is a joy to behold and navigate.
All of this is nice to see. A relief, even. Months from release, Warhammer Online can already confidently stand alongside WOW and LOTRO in an MMO beauty pageant, and impress the judges with its grace and deportment. But what is there that sets it apart?
That's easy. In fact, after a scant three levels and thirty minutes of play, it's blindingly obvious. It's public quests.
These rolling multiplayer scenarios take place in the open world. When you get near, live objectives pop up on the screen telling you what needs to be done to get to the next of the public quest's three stages. You can join in at any time, and at the end, a combination of contribution and blind luck will determine whether you get any loot. Participating in public quests also adds to your "influence" within that zone, which in turn grants access to three tiers of rewards, from potions to fine armour.
You can be at the Mount Bloodhorn public quest within a minute or two of starting a new character. In the first phase, players grind through troublesome Squigs (hopping, toothy, dog-like monsters) to stop them nipping at the ankles of a giant ogre. In the second, more Squigs have to be fended off while you feed the ogre barrels of ale for courage. Then he suicide-bombs the gates of a Dwarven fortress, and the third phase begins: waves of Dwarves, introducing the major class types, pour out of the fortress, and have to be killed before the Greenskin players can take on a Dwarf boss.
It's a revelation. Forget the usual ten or twenty levels of obligatory solo grind. At the very, very beginning of WAR, you will find yourself taking part in the kind of dramatic, large-scale confrontation usually reserved for mid- and high-level dungeons. You'll find yourself banding together with others to take on boss enemies.
And best of all, it all happens in an unforced, organic way that requires no organisation. The feeling as you start the first phase on your own, and players gradually gravitate to the quest as it escalates until you're a band of half a dozen or more, is a special one. This is what massive multiplayer gaming is all about, and Mythic has come up with the best possible introduction to it. With your public quest influence recorded prominently in the "chapters" of the game in the Tome of Knowledge, it's easy to imagine completing these becoming the primary obsession of players moving through the game. What a difference to the grind that will make.
As well as a progress bar tracking your influence in the current zone, there's another showing the struggle for control of the current tier (pair of antagonistic zones) between the two realms - Dwarves and Greenskins, in this example. The direct, always-visible graphical feedback on your contribution to the war effort in WAR is another strong reminder of the massive nature of the game, and encouragement to do your bit.
As with many of WAR's features though, you have to wonder how well public quests and the overarching game of realm-versus-realm will work once the game's population is more mature. A fresh, wide-eyed brace of beta testers is a very different picture to an established community of top-level players and a handful of level-grinders. There's a worry that pursuits such as these might end up ignored in the lower levels, effectively locking out the minority who might want to experience them for the first time.
There is also, sad to say, still some clunkiness to the combat, although such a low-level character is hardly a fair representation. It takes a little adjusting to the shift in balance to an extremely slow, weak auto-attack, and hammering away at fast-recharging basic attack skills; the rhythm and tactile feedback still feel a little off. Even with the loss of four careers in the feature cuts (Hickman simply says they weren't fun enough, and didn't live up to their iconic status), WAR has a huge field of 20, and we wonder if Mythic really can imbue every one of them with enough distinct personality and gratifying, show-stopping powers.
At least the cuts indicate that there is active and serious quality control going on behind the scenes at Mythic, and we've no hesitation in saying that the cuts are an encouraging, not a discouraging, sign. As far as the slimming of the line-up of six racial captial cities to two factional ones goes, Hickman is more bullish.
The benefits, he says, are not just in quality of content but in focusing the community on a single, core goal, and he's not at all convinced that reinstating the other racial capitals in the same form - as cities you can lay siege to, and sack - would be the right thing to do. They may yet appear in other guises, he hints; in the mean time, the vanished Elven, Dwarf and Greenskin cities will be replaced with forts which act as gateways to the two remaining capitals, Altdorf and The Inevitable City.
Hickman also notes that the decision was taken many months ago, and is very far from being a last-minute fix. Given the extremely solid state of the game in the current beta phase, as we see it at E3, it's easy to believe him. Latter-level content is the only major unknown at this point, but the likelihood that Mythic and EA will leave it to the sort of hairy, down-to-the-wire scramble of Age of Conan's release is next to non-existent. These men mean business, and their game is coming together beautifully. Ladies and gentlemen, we have a contender.