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.
Sometimes they present an awkward obstacle you'll have to navigate around to get to the chapter, if no other players are around. It's amazing how often those players do come, though, and once a large group settles on a PQ it tends to stay there, replaying it over and over again to grind up influence, or for one more shot at the horribly addictive slot-machine loot system. And Public Quests really are everywhere: although Mythic has included quest pointers to them, they're hardly necessary; you'll stumble upon them naturally all the time. It's even possible to jump into open parties and warbands (raid parties) created by other players, and the game helpfully tells you what parties are open and nearby.
After such a packed and satisfying questing experience, it's a disappointment to arrive at the RVR battlefield - player-versus-player realm warfare being the hook Warhammer Online is hung on - and find it barren. Deserted. No scraps anywhere. That's fine, you think, I'll just queue up for a Scenario instead: Scenarios are WAR's equivalent of Battlegrounds - instanced multiplayer maps, usually with a base-capture theme - and unlike WOW's tiny handful, there are dozens of these, one for each zone. But you can queue all you like in the Greenskin starting zone: you won't get a match.
It soon becomes apparent that all the RVR action, whether in the open world or in scenarios, is concentrated on the Empire versus Chaos line. This could merely be a quirk of this relatively low-population beta server, or it could be down to the fact that players are naturally gravitating to where the ultimate endgame of city sieges will be played out, now that the Empire and Chaos capitals are the only remaining cities in the game.
Either way, it illustrates a problem Mythic will face with Warhammer Online: controlling the flow of the game's population. Because this is a genuinely massively multiplayer game, with genuinely massively multiplayer content - as opposed to WOW, which is a massively multiplayer world with content aimed mostly at solo players and small groups - it relies very much on players doing what they're supposed to, and filling out the numbers. Public Quests are working well at the moment, but RVR is only working in certain places.
Empty battlefields give your suspension of disbelief a nasty knock, but the good news is that it's easy and quick to get to where the action is. We jump in to an early-levels Empire versus Chaos Scenario and enjoy its seesawing scraps very much. Although Scenarios add nothing particularly new to a well-worn format, having the option to play them out across multiple subtly different maps will certainly make a nice change; here's hoping that doesn't spread players out too thinly to be able to reliably get games.
Open-world player-versus-player - always a failing of WOW's - works well enough, when we finally encounter it in Nordland. The tightly limited size of the RVR areas in the game does help focus the action on a single battlefront, even when there are multiple bases to capture; with this, as in Public Quests, Mythic's world designers deserve a lot of credit for their carefully funnelling players into the action through the landscape design.
WAR's dense and linear nature does mean that simple exploration isn't the unalloyed joy it can be in the best MMOs. This is a game for fighters, not adventurers. The game world is a good deal more handsome than we first thought, but even a bit of flight-hopping around later levels reveals that it's not particularly varied. The Elven areas have some startlingly beautiful architecture and lush meadows, but overall are the most boring of the three.
The Dwarfs and Greenskins make their way through craggy mountains littered with ancient relics and siege engines; dramatic and well-executed, but rather clichd. Once again, Empire and Chaos come off the best by far, making excellent use of the less familiar reference points of the Warhammer licence in their vision of a 17th-century pastoral idyll gone horribly wrong, a sort of occult English Civil War.
Continuing the tourism, we take in the streets of the two remaining capitals, Altdorf and the Inevitable City. Their scale certainly is impressive, and considering the need to cycle them through several ranks of prosperity, it's easy to see why creating six towns on such a scale was just too much for Mythic. Altdorf is one of the most detailed and credible virtual towns we can think of, with no loading breaks whatsoever. The Inevitable City looks fantastic, but it's harder to imagine it feeling like an actual, organic home to its player inhabitants, as the likes of WOW's Orgrimmar and Stormwind do so spectacularly well.
There is, of course, one other crucial side to a massively multiplayer RPG's content, and that's its classes, skills, and the depth and feel of its combat. Here, we have to confess to not having delved particularly deep into the game, but we can give some basic impressions across several of the game's 20 careers. These belong to four standard archetypes: ranged damage, melee damage, tank and healer.
Levelling is fast, especially if you keep yourself rested for the WOW-style XP bonus. With no inns, all you need to do is sit or log out in a friendly encampment to rest. You also get an XP bonus for killing multiple enemies in quick succession - a "killing spree". Skills come at the rate of one or more per level. Most use action points, but many have no cost beyond their cool-downs; this is a game where you use skills a lot, and your choices are limited by your class's particular combo system. For example, the Black Orc tank moves through three tiers of skills in a cycle, while the Witch Hunter damage-dealer builds up combo points and then spends them on finishing moves.
On top of this, you get a morale bar which builds up gradually the more time you spend in combat, and can be spent on a series of increasingly powerful morale skills; you get the first of these at level 8. Just as in the over-arching systems of adventuring and realm warfare, WAR's combat design is complex, split across multiple fronts. At level 11, Mastery - the game's quite simple talent-tree specialisation system - comes into play, as do Tactics, the system of permanent, equippable buffs earned from the one-size-fits-all career trainers, or from increasing your RVR renown, or from the achievement system of the Tome of Knowledge in-game encyclopaedia. You can set up several preset Tactics builds to switch between quickly.
It's too early to say for sure, but we get the feeling that WAR's combat is designed for breadth, not depth. In an MMO, that's not necessarily a bad thing at all; more systems means more long-term fiddling and obsessing to do. But it's a shame the design of the very basics - the skills themselves - aren't a little stronger. Without clearly defined animations or conceptual hooks, you often need to remind yourself which of the wide selection of "does x amount of damage plus this buff or debuff" strikes you're using. It's all a bit woolly, and that's not helped by slightly lumpy pacing and lack of strong feedback.
That said, the basic tank and melee damage classes are solidly satisfying to play. Ranged damage is probably the weakest link; these classes, including the pet-based Squig Herder and Magus, can feel quite repetitive and detached to play in the early stages. Few of WAR's classes present particularly novel or flexible takes on their tried-and-true archetypes, it must be said, although the White Lion (a melee pet class) and Disciple of Kaine (a front-line healer which builds up healing power through combat) are both interesting.
Warhammer Online's crafting system is a more definite departure from the norm. Trying out Apothecary, we discover that it's not recipe-based, but reliant on experimentation. You'll select a main ingredient that will give the potion you're creating a certain effect - an armour buff, say - and then combine it with others that modify the length or strength of the effect. Volatility is an issue, too, with some combinations more likely to fail than others, so "fixer" ingredients can be added to stabilise the mixture. It's an odd system, a little frustrating, and seemingly designed to relegate crafting to a mini-game rather than a complex career path of its own. That's fair enough; Mythic has always maintained that the Warhammer universe is all about the fighting.
Warhammer Online isn't just about fighting, though - it's about everybody fighting, everywhere, all the time, and together. It's both thoroughly and accessibly massive: you don't need to join a guild or even a group to find yourself warring against or alongside dozens of other players. At this stage of the closed beta, it's halfway to pulling it off: all it needs, we hope, is more players, to spread the war out across more fronts. We'll report back in the coming weeks from the open phase of the beta, and the later levels of content, to let you know how it's getting on.
Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning is due out on 18th September.