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.