As central as realm warfare is, Mythic has not neglected to pump some fresh ideas into the more conventional adventuring side of Warhammer Online. The public quests are a particularly engaging change from the fetch-and-carry-and-kill norm. These rolling scenarios take place in a set area of the open game world, and require a series of conditions to be met - soloable at first then requiring ever more players, usually culminating in a boss fight. Anyone can join in and be rewarded just by entering the area, without needing to group first: it's a painless, immediate and dynamically exciting way to experience some of the thrill of a more co-ordinated dungeon raid.
If we had to lay bets on one of Warhammer Online's features becoming an industry standard, however, it would be the Tome of Knowledge. This in-game quest log, encyclopaedia and achievement system - with a slick book interface - is in many ways an extension of the deeds and titles introduced in Lord of the Rings Online.
As you play, it collates the story of the world and your character's adventures within it, and rewards certain "tome unlocks" - kill a thousand of these, discover a rare thing, die a hundred thousand times - with jokey titles and themed stat boosts and abilities, called "tactics". Some unlocks are listed, others will have to be uncovered in what Mythic calls a "meta game" that will encourage exhaustive exploration. One example: follow a man who only appears at a certain time each day, eavesdrop on his conversation, steal his key and use it to access a secret area, and kill a wizard for the unlock.
The Tome is guaranteed to enslave obsessive-compulsive players and provide a variety of variously grind-heavy or diverting ways to waste your time in Warhammer's world, beyond the main campaign. But aside from the unlocks, its potential as an information centre for the game - something all MMOs need, as complex as they are, but so few have - is huge, if limited in its current form. Pending announcement of out-of-game website support (still unconfirmed), and the integration of the kind of database features discussed in our interview with producer Jeff Hickman, the Tome could change the way players relate to online worlds dramatically.
There is an end to Mythic's innovation, however, and it's a sudden cliff-drop of an end. Character progression and combat in Warhammer Online are, for the most part, deeply conventional. Having gone back on its original decision to do away with levels, Mythic has also been forced to concede defeat on its flexible character customisation system. Although you can still respec your character at will and on the fly - by equipping and unequpping the "tactics" buffs you have earned - a more conventional and more permanent Mastery system has been added since early beta. It's identical to WOW's talent trees in almost every respect.
The character classes (or "careers" - WAR has an acute case of that MMO disease of needing to rebrand every convention, with levels becoming ranks, battlegrounds becoming scenarios, PVP becoming RVR and so on) are a strange mix of diversity and restriction. Since each race has a unique selection of four careers, there are a huge number to choose from: but they all slot neatly into the archetypes of healer, tank (damage-soaking warrior), ranged damage and melee damage.
There are some interesting mechanics in there, such as the risk-reward of the volatile dark elf Sorceress, but also a sense that hybridisation and personality have been limited by the push-and-pull need to create so many careers while fulfilling the four basic functions in each race. The Witch Elf, in particular, seems an absolutely by-the-numbers rogue.
Crucially - and very worryingly - when you're sat in front of Warhammer Online, excitement at all those big and clever idea starts to ebb. Whether questing or playing realm-versus-realm scenarios, combat feels sluggish, vague, and painfully lacking in tactile reward: the sound, particularly, is poor, devoid of both impact and information.
The skills are cleverly designed, but far from intuitive; of the three careers we played, only the mage-style Sorceress fell into a natural rhythm. Many classes seem to reward a risky, fast-paced chaining of enemies, which is welcome, but in the circumstances it only mitigates the stodginess of the combat. The almost complete absence of a death penalty is refreshing, though.
Even more worrying is the feeling that, unless you're a Warhammer fan steeped in the lore, WAR's world isn't really somewhere you'll want to be. The graphics are sharp and well-finished, but the artwork is quite plain and characterless, and the animation isn't fluid enough. There's nothing to surprise and delight in the visual cues, and the effects are weak.
There's definitely a sense of humour present, but it doesn't seem to have seeped into the detail and atmosphere of the world, and Mythic will end up ruing the day it decided to exclude dancing from the range of emotes. It's as if someone has taken WOW's world and drained half the colour, atmosphere and liveliness from it.
If Warhammer Online is lacking one thing, it's "feel". Improving that "feel" is exactly what Hickman says the recent delay of the game's release to the end of 2008 is about. We'd say Mythic, EA and GOA made absolutely the right decision, Lich King or no Lich King. Warhammer Online deserves that extra level of polish and as clever as it is, the game needs it. Until then, those big ideas are enough - just - to make it worth keeping the faith.