I was watching my housemate, also an on-off WAR player, creating yet another character. "What's the point in choosing a face for him," he asked, "when they all look the same?" On-screen, a parade of only faintly distinguishable Dark Elf visages cycled around and around. In truth, I couldn't tell at what point we returned to the first face in the roster, but nonetheless I unconvincingly offered "yeah, but you can change the colour of your outfit at any point". My housemate remained silent. Meanwhile, the near-identical faces continued their eerie dance.
Warhammer Online's argument is that this kind of thing simply isn't important. Only war is important. Haircuts and clothes and personality - these things only get in the way of the war without end, the only cause that matters. This steely-jawed, flinty-eyed determination doesn't just deny aesthetic elements, either. You don't need to worry about buying new inventory space, recharging health doesn't require sitting down and having a protracted snack, mounts are available very quickly, the exact location of your quest targets is highlighted on the map, player-versus-player battlegrounds can be travelled to instantly, a poor build choice can be undone cheaply, common XP is earned from both PvE and PvP, and everyone has essentially the same gear as anyone else of the same level and class. If it slows things down, if it gets in the way of fighting, fighting, fighting, WAR has thrown it out.
It's a noble sentiment, and one intended to directly address, even bust, many of the more ridiculous and irritating stereotypes or compromises of the oft-cynical MMORPG genre. Mythic's developers don't want you to waste your time saving up money for a bigger rucksack. They just want to you to fight - ideally, to fight other players. The game's greatest triumph is a largely seamless blend between punching NPCs and punching real people - no need for different skill sets or alternative armour. The enemy is the enemy. That row of number keys and a few team-mates, be they anonymous or known chums, are all you need.
The sad side-effect of such single-mindedness is a glaring loss of personality. With everything so distilled to pure mechanics, WAR slaps you around the face with its sheer gameyness. This isn't a world. This isn't a place. It's simply combat systems with sometimes spectacular and sometimes dreary fantasy graphics painted over the top. Look at its UI, for instance - so many pointers and bars and numbers and icons. You can't pretend for one second you're controlling a person, least of all one in largely technology-free, war-torn fantasy world.
Is this what we want MMOs to be? Is this why we play them? The pursuit of a funny hat is certainly anathema to a certain breed of player, to whom striving to be the best is the only challenge worth undertaking. Certainly, WAR offers a wealth of opportunities to feel good about yourself in such a fashion - from the loot rolls which better reward the most effective players come the conclusion of a public quest, to the scoreboard at the close of a PvP scenario, to the bragging rights page of the character screen…. Such achievements are genuinely thrilling, especially because they're always preceded by an adrenal pile-on, an almighty punch-up between dozens of characters that relies as much on enthusiastic button-mashing as it does on careful tactics. More than anything, WAR is a competition, even a sport - and I can't help but feel that, had it been clearer about that instead of pretending to be a believable, functioning online world, its servers mightn't be as distressingly empty as they are today.
Who honestly wanted another World of Warcraft rival? Really, we wanted something else, something palpably different - and Warhammer truly does offer that. But in its marketing, in its visual styling, in its setting, even in its name (and trust me, I'm fully aware of the debt Warcraft owes to Warhammer) it appeared to be something it wasn't. Its fans famously spurn any suggestion of commonality with WOW, and in a great many ways they're right to do so. This isn't a WOW clone, much as it superficially appears to be so: its major purpose is to get dozens of players fighting each other at any given time, almost more akin to something like Modern Warfare. But to claim that either publisher EA or developer Mythic knowingly piggy-backed the appeal and success of Blizzard's online goliath hardly seems like false logic.
Had WAR been clearer about what it was, and had it even thrown out some of the strangely tokenistic world-building (its crafting system, for instance, is so unenthusiastically implemented it's almost funny) in favour of something tighter and more determinedly its own, it might have attracted a more relevant crowd in the first place. As it is, the bored hordes looking for a break from WOW have long since departed WAR's shores - and either returned to their more relaxed home, or given up on the entire genre for now.
Sure, there are definite hotspots in WAR, certain zones in constant contention, flipping back and forth between ownership by the monstrous forces of Destruction or the more Tolkienesque Order. Tier 4, the collection of top-level zones that ultimately lead to the two realms' capital cities, is always busy enough to find something to do, and someone to fight who isn't a respawning, half-witted NPC. The new Land of the Dead area, the biggest free content update yet, is currently drawing the bulk of the crowds, and is certainly the place where the game's at its most visually and thematically ambitious.
The game's architects have been able to indulge themselves hugely with the Egyptian-themed Land of the Dead, and the character designers able to play around with stuff like mummified vultures that fly hapless players off to their nests. However, its goals are still the pursuit of numbers and icons, clearly marked out on the map and HUD. It's not a place, it's a collection of systems. The NPCs stand stock-still, the monsters wander around clearly-delineated killing fields, and accessing the set-piece fights requires the collection of specific glyphs earned by repeating specific public quests. There's still no "look at that, look at what I did, look what I found!" You just do what the UI tells you to do.
The tragedy is that it would be twice the game it is if the player-base had stayed as mighty as it was in that first month. Public quests remain a splendid innovation - open-world missions anyone can roll up to, pitch in, and be rewarded by without having to specifically join a party or find someone wanting to do exactly the same quest. But even an update that lowered the number of recommended players for many to a meagre two or three hasn't helped - the vast bulk remain abandoned. There simply aren't enough people, and as a result this great idea, a significant slice of the game, is essentially redundant. Is that the fault of the game, the MMO market, the players? A little of each, I'd guess.
The same pox affects the PvP scenarios, instanced battlegrounds containing often imaginative variants of capture-the-flag and point defence. Multiple server merges, the option to simultaneously queue for all scenarios and improved team balancing mean the horrific queues of launch month are now a thing of the past, but in most zones it's rare to find a full warband of players on each side. The open-world keep sieges are more spectacular, and feel more like a fight with purpose, but they tend to be sporadic surges rather than constant push-and-pull between two armies.
WAR successfully transformed PvP from a presumptive, often frustrating experience aimed only at relatively hardcore gamers into an open-to-all-comers fairgound. It deserves respect for that, and with a big crowd it would function perfectly as a game you drop into for a month or so here and there, one in which you can find an honestly satisfying fight at any time of day. Without a big crowd, though, that fairground's ferris wheels are left to wobble in the wind, and the bumper cars stand rusting. Then you realise that there isn't even anywhere to go sit and have a drink and a chat whenever the rides aren't working. So you just go punch someone you don't like the look of, because there's nothing else to do.
Still: getting towards a year on from launch, there are just enough players to ensure most of the game's systems do work, and those systems certainly offer a good time, even if they don't allow you to stamp any meaningful imprint of your own upon them. It's not beyond imagination that a patch or expansion can lure some of the crowds back, and watching that ferris wheel start to spin again, the lights on those dodgems flicker back into life, would be a marvellous, thrilling time.
For sure, Warhammer Online remains an incredibly accessible MMO - there's no fear of getting lost, little worry about getting stranded on the other side of the continent to your chums, and you're not rendered useless because you're not clad in ultra-loot you spent 400 hours grinding for. It wants anyone and everyone to come right on in and have fun with the minimum of effort. Big guilds take it that much more seriously, and are those chiefly responsible for the tug-of-war zone ownership, but at the same time my housemate plays the game almost like Diablo - flailing and clicking wildly at anything in sight, and getting away it often enough to feel he's some sort of powerhouse.
What I'm trying to say, but pussyfooting around for fear he'll read this, is that he's a bit rubbish at games. To WAR's eternal credit, this doesn't matter. Other MMOs seem to do anything they can to make you feel humble and puny, but WAR never fails to make you feel like a warrior.
Such a shame, then, that the game's sense of place and atmosphere doesn't extend beyond some impressive vistas. Players are never more than templates, and the hugely welcome addition of four extra classes since launch hasn't reduced the dread sense of seeing the same faces again and again and again. Oh, hey, it's Dwarf With A Shield again, and there goes Chaos Bloke With The Funny Arm. Again.
When you don't feel as though you're in the shoes of anyone in particular, this in turn affects the ultimate purpose, the endless realm-versus-realm conflict that WAR is built upon. There isn't much sense of fighting for anything but better statistics, and so people will continue to drift away. If the crowds were to dwindle any further, so would the score below, however strong the design, or consistent the updates.
WAR might well have the best PvP structures any fantasy MMO has to offer, but without more meaning and without more bodies, it can only fade. Only war isn't enough after all.
7 / 10