Disparate players, following the disparate threads of solo quests, find themselves thrown together in one of the game's hundreds of excellent Public Quests - the addictive, dynamic openworld scenarios that culminate in big boss fights and exciting fruit-machine loot drops. Opposing bands of players charging from spawn point to Public Quest (respawning on death is instant, and penalties are cheaply bought off, meaning you can use suicide as a travel short-cut) find their paths crossed, and battle ensues.
All hell breaks loose, all over the place. The culmination of this is seen on the final level 30-40 tier, where players naturally fall into Keep sieges and monumental scraps for control of key zones; we took part in one memorable massed battle for Praag, the central town in the final tier of the Empire versus Chaos line, the fulcrum of the ultimate struggle for control of Altdorf and the Inevitable City.
Keep sieges, intended to be the focus of Guild-on-Guild warfare, allow you to employ cheap, consumable siege engines, from boiling oil to battering rams, around their strategically-placed choke points. Incredibly, every single zone has its own instanced Scenario battleground, with a flawlessly simple queuing system that allows you to jump in at any point in play. They're based on simple game-ypes - capture the flag, base capture, tag - but with a splendid variety of tweaks and quirks of map design, and agreeably short-and-sweet play times. They're always busy, and rightly so; as good as WOW's handful of Battlegrounds are, this lavish banquet of PVP action shames them.
The openworld battlefield objectives seem less successful at gathering a critical mass of players behind them at the moment. Once a side has gained control of them, they're guarded by tough NPC opposition, which despite some tasty loot drops, tend to scare off the losing side. One of WAR's greatest strengths is how easy it is to get involved with other players without formally grouping with them - in Public Quests and RVR alike - but the downside is that the will to get organised when it's called for is a little lacking.
This, Mythic hopes, is where guilds will come in to play. It's offered every incentive, with a guild-levelling path that allows access to ever greater rewards, and the system of Standards that can be used as buffs in battle as well as decorative emblems. Social organisation is key to making a game like this work, and while it's still relatively untested, the very fact of its existence shows that Mythic knows exactly what it's doing here.
It's probably fair to say that there isn't a single massively multiplayer game out there that's better at throwing players together than WAR. But - and it's a pretty big but, this - the players have to be there in the first place. When they're not - because it's a quiet server, because it's an unsociable hour, because everybody's over on the Empire versus Chaos line - Warhammer Online has the life sucked out of it.
You can play it solo, or in a small group; WOW made that a base stipulation of the modern MMO, and WAR meets it to a fault. It's just not that much fun. It's hard to say what, if anything, is wrong with the questing, because it's painless and well-organised and grind-free and provides a steady stream of cash and XP and generally does what's needed. The Tome of Knowledge in-game encyclopaedia, and excellent map system, make it a breeze to keep track of your achievements and progress, and the Tome provides the satisfaction of constant unlocks and plenty of diverting nonsense besides.
Perhaps it's that the monster behaviours aren't all that sophisticated, or that their placement isn't just so, or that the humour and storytelling seem a bit forced. Perhaps it's that those watercooler quests, despite Mythic's evident and worthy efforts, aren't really there. Perhaps it's just that you know that the other things the game has to offer - Public Quests and Keep sieges and Scenarios - are that bit better. You can theoretically advance all the way through Warhammer Online without questing, and that amazing fact tends to dent your desire to quest.
Mythic has dutifully done everything it needs to to compete with Blizzard's jack of all trades and master of most. Crafting is weak, and dungeons - the small, instanced experiences that really cement the group dynamics in an MMO - are frustratingly rare, but aside from that WAR does it all, and does it well. That said, you can very easily tell which parts of this grand enterprise Mythic's heart was in, and those parts - RVR and Public Quests - are completely thrilling, and surprisingly accessible.
But they're also fragile. They're at the whim of an unpredictable player base and a hundred other factors besides. They're utterly dependent on en even balance between the two realms on each server - and at beta stage, there's a worrying bias towards Destruction on all servers. That means that, until it's been out in the wild a while, this extremely well-made and highly enjoyable MMO remains unproven. And it remains - until our first re-review, at least - one step short of true greatness.