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.