There's nothing quite like an MMO launch. These games are laden with so much detail, have been in development for so long, have so much blood, sweat and tear-soaked money stacked up behind them, that the run-up to launch takes on a momentous significance. While it's true that all MMOs - subscribers willing - have long developmental journeys ahead of them, that only seems to add more weight to the occasion. If an ordinary game launch is a sprinter leaping out of the blocks, an MMO's introduction to the world is more like an ocean liner easing out the shipyard for the first time, while a crowd of thousands waves little handkerchiefs in black-and-white.
That time is now upon Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning. Its 18th September release date was announced this week, and the open beta testing phase is due to start very soon, along with the lifting of the non-disclosure agreement that will see torrents of information and hype gush out of every fan-site and forum. Eurogamer MMO has been playing the closed beta ever since we came away impressed from a brief hands-on at E3, and we've wriggled our way out from under NDA to bring you our first impressions.
Creative director Paul Barnett claims that the game could ship now. He's right. He was right three weeks ago, he's even more right now, and he'll be righter still come 18th September. Warhammer Online has an abundance of content, an embarrassment of play styles. It may have lost two cities and four classes along the way, but as far as we can tell at this stage, what remains is full to bursting - and this does seem to go for high-level content, too.
With all that in store, recent patches have attended to even more slick interface improvements, and engine and network optimisation to get it running as smoothly as possible. It still lags a little when the war between Order and Destruction is at its busiest - and it gets very busy indeed - and there is currently one irritating crash bug that occasionally and unceremoniously dumps you back to your desktop. But that's all. Leaving these issues (and the unknown that is server performance) aside, we're sure that WAR will be the most complete and polished MMO launch ever, and that does include World of Warcraft.
Now that we've invoked the name that is impossible to avoid when discussing WAR - the two games being so close in style, setting and basic mechanics - we should lay out what we've learned from the beta about where they differ. The first thing that strikes you - well, the second, after the Public Quests, of which more later - is that this is a quite a linear game. Where WOW branches out early on, unfurling a head-spinningly expansive globe for you to explore, WAR sets you at one end of a deep trench of content and gives you your marching orders.
It's a quick march, too. Starting as a Greenskin (the cheerfully illiterate and nasty orcs and goblins), by level ten you'll have gone through three major questing hubs or "Chapters", each with at least one Public Quest; you'll have received your first quests leading you into the second zone; and you'll have arrived at your first War Camp. War Camps sit on the edge of Realm-versus-Realm war zones, where you'll be given battlefield objectives to take, and expect to encounter players from your race's opposing faction - in this case, Dwarfs. They also offer cheap and quick flights connecting you to the game's two other strands, Empire versus Chaos, and High Elves versus Dark Elves.
These three paths through the game are dense with quests - mostly pretty quick-fire and entertaining ones, with low kill-counts, and no drop rates to worry about (if you kill a boar, you get its head, end of story). If you're not careful you'll find yourself loitering in an area long after you've outlevelled it, hoovering up every last crumb of XP. You're even more likely to find yourself ignoring the quests completely and squatting on a Public Quest instead. We discussed these rolling, drop-in-drop-out multiplayer scenarios in detail in our E3 impressions, and they remain the single most exciting feature of the game.