Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning

WAR counsel.

"The acronym should be WOAR, not WAR," our esteemed and not at all pedantic editor complained in the pub last night. Well, he's half-right; Mythic Entertainment's long-awaited, oft-delayed, EA-backed, Games Workshop-licensed monster fantasy MMO, Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning, should technically be dubbed WOAoR.

But he's also missing the point. Mythic picked the abbreviation with the same single-minded sense of purpose with which it has crafted this impressive new entry in the field of massively multiplayer RPGs. Those three angry letters send a message just as clear and pointed as Blizzard's three-letter exclamation of wonder. For all its tremendous debt to World of Warcraft, Warhammer Online is not about losing yourself in the scale and grandeur of an extravagant fantasy world. It's about the hard and gritty business of battle. WAR is all about war.

The push and counter-push of the battlefront is everywhere you look: from the bar in the top right of the screen that indicates whether Order or Destruction controls the zone you're in, to the grand Realm-versus-Realm endgame of capital city sieges; from the dynamic NPC battles littered throughout questing zones, to the way even small-scale player-versus-player battles naturally coalesce around a single, see-sawing frontline. At its best, WAR is less about standing toe-to-toe with your enemies than shoulder-to-shoulder with your allies.

As we remarked in our recent E3 and closed beta reports, this makes Warhammer Online a genuinely massively multiplayer game in a way most of its immediate competitors aren't. Although it's entirely possible to enjoy solo - and although it contains almost everything the millions who came to MMOs through WOW have come to expect - WAR's focus on realm warfare and the brilliant Public Quest system rely heavily on player mass.

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Horses for courses, dinosaurs for scandily-clad evil elf ladies.

This makes it hard to review before launch, especially on the underpopulated servers of the European open beta. However, there's nothing to say that this side of the game will have settled down in weeks' or even months' time; and in the meantime, we've had ample time on the finely finished and stable beta, exploring both early and late-level content. That's the basis of this review.

It's been obvious for some time now that Warhammer Online would be fighting-fit for its launch, and that's absolutely the case. With those final troublesome crash bugs eradicated, the game boasts sturdy networking, stable servers, rare bugs, a functional and detailed interface, a lavish amount of quests and play styles, and a reasonably if not spectacularly well-optimised engine (the frame-rate struggles a little more than it should, although most landscapes are more than usually busy with monsters and NPCs). With the account-creation problems of European operator GOA now ironed out, this is a very solid gaming experience, by MMO standards.

Solid is also the best word to describe the way WAR tackles the MMO basics. Mythic's grand vision and greatest innovations are all focused on pitching the Chaos mutants, Greenskins and Dark Elves of the Destruction side against the Empire humans, Dwarfs and High Elves who fight for Order. But like all grand visions, this needs to be built on something, and in this case it's the foundation stones of every RPG: class design, character progression, combat, loot, questing. In these, Warhammer Online is absolutely competent - but seldom inspired.

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Dwarf on gyrocopter not pictured. Yes really.

With Warhammer lore demanding that every class must be specific to one of the game's six races (technically seven, if you count both the goblins and orcs of the Greenskins), Mythic has had to field a huge roster of character careers. The fact that an additional four had to be cut shows just how difficult this was, and of the 20 remaining careers, there are no out-and-out duds. Most offer an interesting spin on one of the four classic archetypes (melee damage, ranged damage, tank and healer), but few have the clear personality, depth, and flexibility that characterise the very best MMORPG classes.

There's an attempt to give each class more individuality with a plethora of gimmicky skill mechanics, but in most cases, this doesn't help. The Witch Hunter's Judgements are just dressed-up combo points, and do nothing to distinguish this admittedly stylish gun-slinging crusader from a regular rogue. The Black Orc's three-stage battle plan makes playing this capable tank more limited and repetitive than it should be. The Sorceress's gradual build-up of risk-versus-reward is exciting, but frustrating in day-to-day play.

It's notable that one of the game's best careers - the Dwarf Engineer, a defensive rifleman who can build gun turrets - has no such overlaying system, succeeding on the ingenuity and variety of his abilities. Creating skills for 40 levels of play across 20 careers seems to have been too much for Mythic, and far too many of them are anonymous and indistinguishable variants on damage-over-time, or damage X plus debuff Y.

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