My personal skills aside, there's depth to the character advancement system that goes beyond a mere flood of abilities. While you'll initially choose from a base of four standard classes (Warrior, Cleric, Mage and Rogue) used to form the traditional holy trinity of MMO group play, each class can be further enhanced by adding two of a further eight sub-classes within each base role. Want to add a paladin healing flavour to your tank? No problem. Perhaps a magical de-buffer element is required for a particular encounter? Simply choose from one of your four saved configurations for the job at hand.
It's a staggering opportunity for player progress in the genre and, if my GCSE maths hasn't failed me completely, the system allows for 112 possibilities for specialisation of each class. Once you factor in the distribution of 'talent' points, the potential for unique development of your character becomes near endless.
With that said, complexity and competitiveness make for an explosive combination in the MMO community, and it remains a concern that this freedom to experiment will be over-taken by perceived advantages of cookie-cutter character builds within the collective audience. The technological backbone of Rift allows for the developers to make changes and update encounters on the fly without patching the client. It's hoped that the variety of content promised through event programming will keep experimentation alive in this wonderfully unconstrained system.
From my time with the game, it's not apparent which skill-sets another player has enabled. As a result, player-versus-player encounters may present either an unusually deep challenge or button-mashing frustration.
As with the crafting and economy, the PVP component of Rift was sadly not available for preview although we're promised a fully-fledged experience launching with four Warfronts (Rift's battlegrounds) which will include a variety of competitive objectives. Clearly, balancing the expansive class system in a PVP environment is going to be a significant challenge, and it will be interesting to see how both the developers and the community react.
So Rift will fulfil the elements we've come to expect from a triple-A MMO release: dungeons, the holy trinity group composition, a vibrant world and PVP environments. But what of the unique Rifts themselves?
Tears appearing in the world map can be opened by the players, initiating an event similar to the public quests of Warhammer Online. They're far more engaging though, with additional puzzle elements that make the encounters deeper than a mere DPS race or simple tank-and-spank.
Left to their own devices, Rifts will eventually spawn invasions into each zone, taking over towns, destroying quest givers, merchants and altering the environment. While the developers are quick to point out that these essential characters will re-spawn within an hour or so, it's a clever way of bringing the community together to combat a common foe, and bringing a static world to life.
Both initiating events and responding to invasions are extraordinarily compulsive experiences. With the former finely tuned to be neither too short to be unsatisfying nor too long to leave you feeling tied to the PC, the perfect balance between depth and one-more-go addictiveness is ingrained.
After a couple of hours feeling that I really should move on to experience a new part of the game, I have seen the future – and it's a Friday night, early hours, undertaking just one more rift and gathering one more essence before bed. If the rest of the game launches to this quality, what tattered remains of life World of Warcraft and EVE Online have left me will be no more than dust in the wind.
Trion Worlds is in bullish mood about the prospects for its fledgling MMO and on the strength of what I've seen at its San Francisco studio, it has good reason to be. The post-apocalyptic wreckage left in WOW's wake is littered with innovative features clipped awkwardly onto half-finished games. There is no shame in revisiting these missed opportunities in order to get them marching to a tighter beat.
More than this, the MMO industry has almost become defined by grand-standing, broken promises and thinly veiled inter-developer smack-talk. By contrast, Trion is to be applauded for waiting until the game can stand on its own two feet before earnestly talking shop and winding up the publicity machine.
Among the dispiriting number of titles released to face Goliath, stand their own ground and give something back to an audience craving innovation rather than re-iteration, Rift is a refreshingly complete game offering enough new experiences to make it worthy of close attention. In the battle of the heavyweights, Trion's first venture into MMOs may turn out to be the sucker-punch nobody saw coming.
Trion Worlds is currently taking applications for the upcoming Rift: Planes of Telara beta. Sign up on the official website.
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