Thursday, August 21, 2008

Classy Gamer Warhammer Online Beta Review

One whole year has passed since the beginning of Warhammer Online’s beta. It’s been a fun and bumpy ride with both glorious and discouraging moments that involved thousands of beta testers around the world. Now we have just a further month before this period our our virtual lifes ends, before the virtual war we’ve been fighting under the flags of order and destruction ends just to be replaced by a larger all-out conflict after release.

This review took a little more time than I foreseen and I guess you can easily understand why. I wanted to gather my ideas and make sure I didn’t leave out anything of importance, and by the bloody hand of Khaine, there’s a whole lot to say, so grab a cup of coffee, make yourself comfortable and read on.

Since reading this whole wall of text here isn’t exactly the best option for everyone, you can download a .rtf version here, for easier reading and printing.

The World

As soon as you finish creating your character you’ll appear in your race’s starting zone. A difference with other games is that such zone isn’t a city or a bucolic border village. It’s a stronghold right on the frontlines and currently under attack by the enemy. Your first quests won’t be to go kill rabbits or bears, but will throw you in the middle of battle, to kill your hated racial enemy. You’ll be immediately thrown in the unmistakable (at least for the ones that know it) gritty atmosphere of Warhammer, surrounded by battle and conflict.

Everywhere you go, if you look around yourself, you’ll see NPCs from the two factions patrolling the land and fighting each other in an eternal struggle.

The world itself is split into three macro-areas each temed around two racial arch enemies. The northern provinces of the Empire up to the Chaos Wastes for the conflict between the imperial army and the hordes of Tzeentch, the mystical Island of Ulthuan, on which the High Elves battle their Dark Elven cousins, and the southern mountains of the Old World almost up to the Border Princes where Dwarfs and Greenskins are locked in a deadly struggle.

Each macro area is split into four tiers. The three smaller ones are made of two zones each and are dedicated to players between levels 1 and 11, 12 and 21 and 22 to 31. Tier 4, instead, is dedicated to players between levels 32 to 40 and to the endgame, and is much bigger. Each tier 4 is composed of three main areas surrounded by one to two accessory areas (like the Isle of the dead for the elven pairing) to the sides of the central one, and two fortress areas at each extreme. In addition to this the empire/chaos pairing has the two capital cities of Altdorf and the Inevitable City beyond the fortress areas.

While there’s a loading screen when you move from one tier to the next, the zones between the same tier are seamless, and the only thing that will tell you that you moved between them is a small lag of around half a second.

Each zone is divided between a PvE and an RvR area (passage is of course seamless), the second getting bigger and bigger as you advance in tiers, but clearly signalled so that no one will enter an RvR area (and as such conflict against other players) unless he wants to.

As soon as you enter the RvR zone, a 10 seconds count will tell you that you’re about to be flagged as game for RvR, and when the count runs out, you’ll be a target for the enemy and able to target and kill them until. This condition will stay until you exit the RvR area and stay outside for a fair amount of minutes (this means that two enemies that just left the RvR area will still be able to fight each other, and running out when an enemy is still pursuing you won’t put you instantly in a safe condition).

For the ones that don’t like this clear line between RvR and PvE, will be able to join the “open” servers, in which every place is unsafe, and your enemy will be able to attack you everywhere besides camps and settlements.

Incidentally, Mythic has gone a long way to prevent ganking and unfair killing of lowbies by high level characters. If your level is beyond the level range of a tier and you enter the RvR zone you’ll receive a ten seconds warning, and then you will be turned into a chicken as a reward for your cowardice, unable to fight as everyone can oneshot you, and you will hit anyone for just one point of damage. Since I seriously dislike ganking and pkilling, I have to admit that I wholeheartedly welcome this feature.

Of course, as long as you keep out of the RvR zones you’re entirely allowed to travel trough each tier and to go help and socialize with your lower level friends (this, of course, considering you'll chose the core ruleset).

Considering the tree racial pairings, the world is definitely big, and even more importantly, it’s extremely rich in features. Mythic put a lot of attention to their area design, and definitely made some extremely immersive scenic zones. It’s rare to find empty spots, and you’ll always find yourself surrounded by canyons, mountains, forests, statues, towers, villages…

While some (especially if they’re used to some quite empty and dull worlds developed by other MMO designers) might initially feel a little claustrophobic while being surrounded by so many visual elements, when one gets used to them, he’ll really start to feel immersed in a living and breathing world, where the attention to detail is really extreme.

One thing that Mythic really stressed on is size. Many of the buildings you’ll encounter during your travels are absolutely humongous, making you feel dwarfed and awed in their presence and testifying the power and glory of the races that built them. Few examples are the Temple of Change in High Pass, the Dragon Gate between the Shadownlands and Ellyrion and the imperial towers scattered trough the land.

You probably noticed that my impressions about the world are extremely positive. I can’t stress enough on how immersive and scenic the whole Warhammer Online environment is, fulfilling more or less every wet dream of a Warhammer veteran.

Extensive public footage of each zone will soon be available on the Classy Gamer Youtube channel.

Graphics

This is by far the first aspect of a game that people notice, and one that many greatly criticized prior the lifting of the NDA, due to some factors I’ll explain in a little bit.

The art direction for Warhammer Online is simply fantastic. As a Warhammer player for twenty full years (since the end of 1987), I cannot stress enough what a great job Mythic’s artists have done in portraying the world of Warhammer. For years, as MMORPGs were young, I wondered how it would have been to adventure in such a world, and I cannot say I’m unimpressed. Every little detail of the world oozes a characteristic “warhammer-ish” aura, from architecture to decor, passing trough heraldry and material texturing.

Some defined warhammer graphics as “cartoonish”, but such a definition is quite off-mark. The overall look closely resembles that of illustrations, and casually looking at a still picture of a Warhammer environment some might easily mistake it for a painting.

Most of the pictures sown before the lifting of the NDA shown the game without or with a very early version of the lighting engine. Such an element was the main reason why many (even if they didn’t know) didn’t appreciate the graphics. Lack of proper lighting makes objects look flat and dull, mitigating their three-dimensional aspect and making them look more cartoonish (one of the main element of American cartoons is that they normally lack lighting and shading).

Recently a more advanced lighting engine has been introduced and (even if we don’t know if it’s the final one or there’s still room for improvement), it completely turned around the tables of Warhammer Online’s graphics. Characters and objects gained depth and realism (drifting further away from the “cartoonish” look), environments received a great improvement in atmosphere and overall charm. I can easily say that what’s featured in Warhammer Online is one of the very best moonlight effects I ever saw in a MMORPG (as you can see here). I did predict this would have happened (having played with 3D graphics and lighting before), and I’m pretty happy to see I was right. At the moment Warhammer’s graphics are really starting to show quite some muscle.

Despite the fact that Warhammer Online already looks good, in the current version of the beta some effects are still missing and the graphical settings seem to be locked to mid to low settings, expecially due to the low resolution textures and the draw distance (both for textures and for 3D items), this means that I feel there’s still quite a lot we didn’t see and that the graphics at release (for the ones that will be able to use full settings) will probably be even better than this. Full, or at least extended, draw distance was actually shown in a short phase of the beta around last christmas, and the results were simply amazing even without final lighting, as you can see here.

Races

In the initial release of Warhammer Online you’ll be able to play six different races, three for Order and three for Destruction:

-Empire
Placed in the middle of the Old World and just south of the warped lands under control of chaos, the Empire is the human country that most bears the blunt of the Chaos invasion. Currently ruled by Karl Franz, that many define as the most glorious Emperor that ever lived, it’s government is actually more similar to a federation of provinces, originated by the founding human tribes that generated the Empire, and each under the strong rule of an Elector Count.

While the most visible religion is the cult of Sigmar, the first emperor, whose church is extremely poiwerful and influential in the government, the inhabitants of the Empire still worship a whole pantheon of old gods.

The Imperial Military might is mostly based on it’s powerful heavy cavalry and sturdy infantry, aided by the advanced but dangerous technology specialized on warmachine and siege engines, partly inherited from the dwarfs, and by the magic learned from the High Elves.

Despite such might the Empire is hard pressed by external and internal enemies, and is always on verge of being overrun by Chaos.

-Dwarfs
The Dwarfs in Warhammer are a race in the brink of their own destruction. Once extremely powerful in the mountains south of the Empire, they are now facing their worst enemies in a struggle during which they often loose many of their ancestral strongholds.

The Dwarf kings are bound to the humans of the Empire by an ancient bond of friendship since the times of Sigmar.

Their armies are mainly based on their extremely powerful and heavily armed infantry, able to create a wall of steel that can stop almost every charge, expecially while the famous Dwarven cannons rain fiery death on their enemies.

Despite almost every major dwarven stronghold having it’s own king, most of the power between the dwarfs is held by the king of Karak-a-Karaz, Thorgrim Grudgebearer. He’s the one that bears the great Book of Grudges, a true foundation of the dwarven society, where all the grudges against other races are recorded, ready to be avenged.

-High Elves
The High Elves are an ancient and wise race. Having abandoned their colonies in the Old World after the war of the Beard against the Dwarfs (The two races still look at each other begrudgingly despite being allied against the forces of Destruction), they now live almost exclusively in the mystical island of Ulthuan, in the middle of the ocean. Their influence in the Old World didn’t chease yet, as their coming to the aid of the younger humans isn’t unheard of. The high elven mage Teclis is the one that thaught the humans to control magic properly and founded the Imperial Colleges of Magic.

Despite their love for study and magic, it would be a mistake to identify the High Elves as a race of Scholars, as their military prowess is legendary as much as their studies, and their armies are mostly based on their powerful cavalry and warriors, just as much as on their mages.

Finubar the seafarer is the current ruler of the High Elves, characterized by his willingness to aid his newfound allies and interest in the rest of the world that proved much superior to most of his predecessors.

-Chaos
The evil (at least by human standards) powers of chaos are a corruptive energy that has it’s most powerful influence on humans, and sneakily infiltrates their societies with seductive visions of power and lust. Such corruption results with many warriors rallying under the banners of the four Chaos Gods. Khorne, lord of battle, Nurgle, father of decay and plague, Slaneesh, lord of desire and lust, and Tzeentch, the mystical lord of change and magic. While all the four powers of chaos are present in Warhammer Online in some way, the playable faction belongs to the powers of Tzeentch, that founds their power in the use of illusion and extremely powerful magic just as much as on the strength of arms.

While power between the chaos forces is extremely fickle, as a warlord is easily replaced by the next as soon as he even slightly displeases his patron power (and often meets an horrible end as a chaos spawn), Warhammer Online features a powerful Tzeentch lord called Tchar'zanek as the ruler of the chaos faction.

-Greenskins
The greenskins are a warrior race split between the powerful Orcs and the small but sneaky Goblins. As they’re normally identified as asexual, so much that some guess that they are born from fungi, the greenskin society is pretty simple and devoted to just one thing: War.

Greenskins normally lack a centralized government, being radically split in several tribes (and many argue this division is the only reason why they still didn’t overrun the entire Old World.

Sometimes, though, some extremely strong greenskin warlord raises trough the ranks and begins to unite the tribes in a mighty horde defined the Waaagh.

In the Age of Reckoning the greenskins have been united by the Black Orc Warlord Grumlok and his smallish companion, the Goblin Shaman Gazbag, posing a serious threat to the races of Order.

-Dark Elves
The Dark Elves are the warped and depraved descendants of those high elves that were exiled during a civil war over succession to the throne of Ulthuan and had to flee across the sea to the north, near the chaos wastes. While unmistakeably evil and definitely sadistic, the dark elves still somewhat retain the wisdom and ingenuity of their race, and their military might is extremely powerful. Based both on strength of arms and powerful magic.

Their ruler, Malekith, is still the same that caused the ancient civil war (Elves live much longer than humans), and as such he’s still full of hatred and despise for his cousins, as he still firmly believe that he’s the legitimate heir to the rule of the race (and many would argue that he actually is).

Besides the six playable races, which represent some of the most popular between the ones that populate the Warhammer world, there are many others, the chivalric human kingdom of Bretonnia (my personal favourite, and the army I played on the tabletop warhammer for several years), the forest-dwelling Wood Elves, the savage Beastmen of Chaos, the ancient Lizardmen, the barbaric Ogre Kingdoms, the sneaky Skaven, the undead Tomb Kings and the mysterious and dangerous Vampire Counts. Many of them already make several appearances (expecially the Skaven) in the game as NPCs, but they sure give Mythic a lot of room for expansion for several years. Some argue that each expansion could introduce a new racial pairing, and I sure hope such voices prove right. The Warhammer world can easily become, over the years, even more immense and complex than it already is.

Classes

Warhammer Online has twenty classes, but, unless you plan on switching sides a lot (but Mythic style is to prevent players to play on both sides on the same server, to avoid unfair behaviour in RvR), you’re going to be limited to a choice of ten, since classes are tied to your faction of choice. All classes are divided into four basic archetypes: Tank, Support, Ranged DPS and Melee DPS. As a Tank your role is to soak up most damage and to protect the other players, as a Support character your main role is to heal yourself and your companions, but you can still deal a fair amount of damage, either in melee or ranged, as a Melee DPS and as a Ranged DPS, your role is to wreak the most possible havoc in your enemies’ lines, either in the midst of the fray or at range.

While most classes have a pretty similar “mirrored” (with some differences, but somewhat equivalent) one on the opposite side, to retain overall balance, classes belonging to the same archetype on the same side play in a quite different way, despite having some common “archetype” abilities. A White Lion, for instance, will play in a very different way from a Witch Hunter, despite both being melee DPSs, and a Swordmaster will feel and play very different from an Iron Breaker, even if they are both tanks.

In addition to your class choice, further customization is granted by the existence of Masteries. Each class has access to three masteries trough their levelling progression, and the amount of points you’ll allocate to each will contribute to determine their overall playstyle. While some may identify this with the talent trees you can find in WoW, the overall effect is quite different. In World of Warcraft the spec you chose will specialize you radically towards a purpose or an aspect of the game (for instance towards PvE or PvP), Warhammer’s masteries will customize your character’s playstyle, but they won’t radically fossilize you to a single role or environment, allowing for much more flexibility. In other games, moving from PvP to PvE would require a respect, which can be pretty sluggish. In Warhammer all masteries choices will still let you be viable for each role your class is supposed to cover, without overly weakening you for the others. I feel this is a very good thing, because people will chose their mastery due to their taste and the gamestyle they feel more fun, instead of being forced to go for the usual cookie cutter specs everyone uses to be viable.

Masteries aren’t the only thing that will let your customize your gamestyle and performance. Progressing trough levels and masteries you will earn new tactics and morale abilities. Tactics are icons that you can put in the special “tactics bar” to tweak and modify your stats and the effect of some abilities (for instance adding a root to a direct damage attack), Morale abilities are set more or less in the same way as tactics, but are actual activable abilities with a stronger effect than normal ones, representing heroic feats that can somewhat change the course of a battle. During a fight your morale bar will fill over time (given that you aren’t hit by a morale-reducing ability), and when it fills to 25%, 50%, 75% and 100% you’ll be able to activate respectively your rank 1, rank 2, rank 3 and rank 4 morale. That way you’ll be faced with the choice of using your lower rank ones early in the fight or waiting for your higher rank ones to be ready to unleash a more devastating attack (even if attacks aren’t the only effects) later into the battle.

Combat

Combat in Warhammer Online is quite similar to the classic MMORPG “click to fire ability plus autoattack” style, with a few quirks. It feels a bit faster than most previous MMORPGs, but definitely not so fast to be defined twitchy, leaving the player enough time between keypresses/clicks to give attention to other elements, like group synergies, positioning and skill selection. Every character has an action points bar that they can expend to use their skills. When you use an attack skill, you actually push autoattack back in priority, so you’ll find yourself clicking to attack most of the time, while autoattack will most likely kick in just once in a while or when you’re out of action points. The AP bar depletes quite slowly, so you won’t find yourself relying on autoattack very often unless a fight draws too long.

Personally I’m quite happy with this layout, not being a lover of overly twitchy systems and loving to be able to pay attention to the tactical aspect of the battle more than being too busy mashing buttons over and over seriously weakening my situational awareness and my ability to pay attention to my fellow players. Of course some won’t find it appealing, but after all MMORPGs, like all games, can’t make everyone happy.

One big difference between Warhammer and Dark Age of Camelot is that crowd control abilities are much different. You can forget clicking one ability to paralyze a tens of enemies for several seconds. Crowd control abilities in Warhammer are either single target or have a small area of effect, and their duration isn’t long. This doesn’t mean that crowd control is weak. There actually are plenty abilities to make the enemy inoffensive, snares, roots, knockdowns, knockbacks, silences… The variety is even wider than in most other games. But you’ll have to be careful and chose your targets and timing carefully to be effective. No more tab -> mez -> win, and that’s quite great, at least for my taste.

In the current version of the beta, combat animations still need a bit of polish here and there, especially in their synchronization. Some skills still don’t trigger any animation, and while client response to input is now very fast and pretty much optimized, some animations still feel sluggish. Nothing that can’t be fixed though, and Mythic seems on the ball, as we saw quite a big improvement already. A factor that was also improved greatly is the responsiveness of commands, that is now basically instantaneous on the US servers (the European servers still need a bit of optimization).

PvE – Quests

The first thing you’ll likely tackle when you enter the game’s world are quests.

Your progression trough the world of each pairing is divided in chapters, each chapter being a main quest hub in which you’ll find almost all your quests (some are still scattered trough the land, so it’s better to explore instead of just sticking to the hubs), the quests will, anyway, send you to travel all across the zone, so you’ll find more or less all the available quests easily.

While Warhammer’s quests are pretty much classic in style, they’re extremely well written, and I strongly encourage everyone to read trough them, since, for a change, the text is actually meaningful and perfect to get involved in that living and breathing lore that is Warhammer.

Scripting and triggered events are quite good and scenic, and ensure that the player will feel the impact of his questing on the gaming world.

You’ll be able to access the quests for all the races of your faction, and this pretty much means that there are enough quests scattered trough the place to let you level your character to cap (level 40) almost twice over.

Some quests will also send you in some of the PvE dungeons available in the game (which also contain public quests, that I’ll describe below). They’re quite spectacular in looks and feel, and end with an encounter with an overall boss, that feels epic and quite climatic. While such dungeons aren’t instanced (they just have different instances for each faction, meaning you won’t encounter the enemy in them), the final encounters are, making sure that other groups won’t interfere with yours as you kill the boss.

Last but not least, scattered trough the land, you’ll find a number of epic quests, that are quite longwinded and very cinematic, dragging you in an epic adventure that will let you discover some of the deepest secrets of the Warhammer world and reap some quite juicy rewards.

PvE – Public Quests

Public quests are one of the best parts of the PvE of the game, and a very innovative aspect of Warhammer Online (and you don’t find much innovation in MMORPGs nowadays). Public quests make the most of the story of each zone in which you’ll be travelling at any given time (a story that will be promptly recorded by your Tome of Knowledge) and are basically ongoing battles against an AI controlled “army” split in several (normally three) narrative stages. During the first stage you and your fellows will normally have to cut a bloody path trough the rank and file troops of the enemy, during the second you’ll find yourself performing some special task (like destroying the enemy warmachines) while facing stronger elite opponents, and then the enemy’s leader will stride forward in a climatic final battle. This scheme, of course, undergoes some variation between different public quests, but gives you a pretty good idea.

The best part of it all, is that you won’t have to find a party or a warband (the extended version of parties, that include twentyfour people) to tackle a public quest. You’ll just need to walk in and join the ongoing fight alongside other players of your realm. As long as you’re in the zone and killing the enemies your contribution is recorded and will be rewarded.

Each time your actions contribute to the progression of the public quest, you will earn influence points that will contribute to your influence total for the appropriate chapter. Every time your influence score reaches a certain amount you’ll be able to collect a prize (usually three class-specific items per chapter) that will reward you for your efforts.

In addition to this, each time a boss is killed all the players that took part in the killing will be able to roll on a special reward. Their roll will be modified by their actual contribution in the quest’s completion and by the number of times they completed the quest without winning the loot (to make it as fair as possible) and the highest rollers will win a loot bag that will grant them a selection of special rewards in the form of items, gold or crafting materials.

Overally public quests are a very well thought addition to the MMORPG genre, and a big selling point for Warhammer Online. Their progression from rank and file enemies to the boss is almost cinematic and definitely climatic making them very fun and immersive. Not to mention the fact that their rewards are pretty awesome.

Together with quests, dungeons and Tome of Knowledge unlocks they definitely determine the fact that even if Warhammer online is focused on the war between Order and Destruction, the PvE aspect of the game is by no means secondary or underdeveloped.

Extensive public quest footage will soon be available on the Classy Gamer Youtube channel.

RvR – Campaign

One of the main features of the game is of course the war between the forces of Order and the ruthless hordes of Destruction. While in other games that feature factions (like WoW), the players’ actions don’t have much (if at all) influence on the game’s world, in Warhammer Online every battle fought (actually almost every action of the game, PvE ones included, even if their influence will be minor) will contribute to a larger campaign.

Each faction will be able to gain control of each zone of the game, ultimately influencing, directly or indirectly, the control of the tier 4 zones. Such areas features a dynamic frontline that will move back and forth trough the land depending on each faction’s performance. When a faction acquires total control of the tier they’ll be able to siege a massive fortress held by the enemy at their edge of the tier. In the case a faction manages to conquer two of such fortress (each faction owns three, one for each racial pairing) then the enemy’s capital will become vulnerable. When that happens, a massive siege will occur, during which the two faction will struggle over the control of the city.

They will be able to conquer objectives, take part in special scenarios and massively bash each others’ heads in a climatic 48 vs 48 (the whole number of attackers and defenders will be split in several instances to avoid overcrowding) urban fight in the streets and halls of the vulnerable capital city.

If the defenders manage to win, then the city will become safe again, and their honor will be safe, if the attackers win, they will take control of the streets and will be able to pillage, destroy and massacre the inhabitants, as well as taking part in massive public quests that will end in the killing of the most important and iconic NPCs of the enemy faction and in the capture of the enemy’s ruler, utterly humiliating their adversaries and gaining some shiny loot for themselves. After a while the attackers will be pushed out of the city and the campaign will be reset, allowing for new battles to start.

Personally I feel the overall concept of the campaign to be absolutely awesome, allowing for a true feeling of competition and immersion between the two factions. Even more than what we had in DAoC, in which realms captured relics whose influence of the gaming world was important but limited. Capturing and pillaging the enemy capital and bringing their ruler away in chains gives a whole different feel of involvement.

RvR – Scenarios

Scenarios are instanced battlegrounds in which a limited number of players (usually from 12 to 24 per side) are able to battle it out over some very precise objectives in a medium sized map.

There are several different ones scattered trough the world, and some are even locked and unlocked according to who controls a given zone.

Any time you want to play a scenario, you will just have to click a button on the UI, and you’ll be prompted with all the available scenarios in the zone you’re in. As you confirm your will to enter the fray, you will be entered in a queue that will then subtly sleep in the system while you continue to do whatever you want. When enough players are gathered (it normally happens almost immediately in a normally populated zone) you’ll be prompted a choice to join the scenario immediately, wait a few seconds, or leave the queue. As you join you will be teleported to the scenario directly (you’ll be teleported exactly where you left when the scenario ends).

If you joined the scenario as a group you will still be together (but the group will be filled with others if it isn’t already full), otherwise you will be automatically matched with other players that joined, so no groups will need to be formed when the scenario starts.

Each scenario will end after the timer runs out or when a number of points are earned by one faction. Conditions to earn points vary according to each scenario’s settings.

Scenario battles are normally very balanced (given that each side has the same number of players) and fought over some very specific objectives that often resemble those of popular FPS’s (capture the flag, king of the hill, bombing run and more). More often than not winning against a skilled enemy requires very good coordination and tactical ability, proving quite challenging (if not impossible) for the ones that just attack every enemy in sight mindlessly without much planning. Gank groups and hardcore PvPers will probably find scenarios to be their favourite haven in the game, as their complex nature and balance in numbers will probably allow them to shine.

Personally, when I first heard of scenarios I was completely irked, being strongly allergic to every kind of instancing, especially for PvP. Upon trying them I had to admit I was wrong. Scenarios are fun. A LOT of fun. They are definitely the best iteration of the concept of the instanced battlefield I ever saw in any MMORPG, and by a long shot. Their tactical nature and great variety makes them really interesting even over time, and they are a wonderful way to play even when you have just half an hour to dedicate to the game on the fly.

Extensive scenario footage is available on the Classy Gamer Youtube channel and more will come soon.

RvR – Open World

Of course the true strong point of RvR (at least for me) are massive open world battles. As I stated previously, each zone has an extensive (the more you go on with level, the bigger it is) RvR zone in which you’re most likely to encounter the enemy and you’ll be able to face off in battle.

The RvR zones include battlefield objectives that mark strategic locations, and keeps to siege and capture (will talk about keeps in the next section).

In a server with an healthy population RvR battles (unless people purposedly look for isolated zones to fight in small groups) can get definitely heated and massive. It’s not unlikely for hundreds of players to meet in the same place to fight off for control, and such battles immediately turn in an attractor for even more people (they get marked on the map). The situation may get truly challenging for one’s situational awareness, and leaders will be hard pressed in retaining control of their fellows, with pyrotechnic explosions all around them missile fire exchanged from both sides and tanks and melee charging and countercharging back and forth. I was actually surprised to see that the lag is pretty low even in extremely crowded situation, allowing for quite precise control of one’s character even with several tens or hundreds of enemies on screen and full effects (my computer is good, but not top notch).

Seldom one faction will be able to push the enemy so hard that they will get to press against their warcamp (the main RvR hub for a faction in each zone), but they need to be careful with that, because each warcamp is heavily defended not only by NPC guards, but also by a whole siege train of warmachines. I will talk about them more in depth in the siege section, but believe me, being in the aiming sight of an imperial Hellblaster Volley Gun isn’t a pleasant experience.

My personal experience in open world RvR is nothing short of awesome. It felt like I went back to Dark Age of Camelot, and boy, that was good. Some might not like the randomness and chaos of such massive battles, but they do encourage leaders to raise trough the ranks of each faction, and reward the social skills of such leaders, which, I believe, is a very good thing in a MMORPG.

When you get used to it, anyway, you’ll start to manage to read trough the chaos of battle, and you’ll begin finding yourself noticing things beyond the explosions. At that time you’ll really start to find open RvR challenging an fun, and you’ll find that your contribution, even if dwarfed by numbers, won’t be negligible.

Extensive RvR footage will soon be available on the Classy Gamer Youtube channel.

RvR – Sieges

The focal point of open world RvR are keep sieges, during which you’ll find yourself attacking and defending the fortresses scattered trough the RvR zones.

Keeps are present in tiers 2 to 4, and while in tier 2 they’re made just by the keep itself, from tier 3 onwards they’re protected by an outer wall, and they are absolutely massive in size.

When a faction sets out to siege an enemy keep, their first task will be to crash the door (or doors) open to gain access to the bowels of the keep. To do that they have the (normally not very effective) option of just bashing the door with their weapons, or to mount a ram that four of them will operate trough a little minigame that somewhat resembles a golf game. When the lead player swings the ram, a bar will rapidly fill and all the players will have to click when the bar is as near as possible to the sweet spot, but not go over it, or their contribution to the swing will be weak. When all the players have swinged their contributions will be added up and will result in the damage dealt to the door. In the meanwhile a player from the defending side can pour searing hot oil over their heads to cause massive damage to the attackers (that can in turn defend themselves trough the use of some skills and try to destroy the cauldron with ranged attacks).

This isn’t nearly all, though, because while people are battling for the door (and exchanging ranged shots all over the place), both the attackers and the defenders can mount various siege engines on several prearranged pads on the ramparts and on the area in front of the keep. Each siege engines (ballistas, catpults and Hellblaster volley guns are what we already saw in the beta, besides cannons and hellcannons that you can find, so far, only at warcamps) is a fun minigame by itself. When you activate it you’ll enter a first person aiming view, and you’ll have to manually target your enemies. direct damage bolt weapons will aim more or less like in an FPS, while AOE (that hit an area) weapons will require you to place a marker on the ground where you want to hit and will be influenced by the direction of the wind.

As the battle rages on, either the attackers will be repelled or the doors will finally give in to their rams. If that happens they’ll be able to flood into the castle to face the defenders in close combat across the ramps and the halls, up to the position of the NPC keep lord and his guards, that need to be killed and defended by each side. If he falls the keep is conquered and all that’s left for the attackers to do is to mop the ground with the remaining defenders and cheer over their victory.

Of course keeps aren’t instanced, so reinforcements for either side can reach the scene at any time. It isn’t unheard of that attackers that already entered the keep found themselves steamrolled from behind by a relief force came to rescue the defenders.

Keep fights are definitely a focal and fun part of RvR, and they make for some very climatic and exciting for both sides. My favourite situation is when I’m part of reinforcements hurrying to the castle when the enemy is already in. Time is of essence, and a few seconds wasted can mark the difference between catching the enemy from behind and unprepared and finding the doors already closed with no allies left to rescue (or even worse, entering the keep right when the enemy conquers it, remaining blocked inside to be slaughtered). This not to mention the fun of manning a siege engine raining death on the enemy.

Extensive Siege footage will soon be available on the Classy Gamer Youtube channel.

RvR – Progression

One of the main selling points of Warhammer Online (at least for a portion of it’s players) is that you can level up your character efficiently in RvR as much as in PvE. Every enemy you kill and scenario you complete will award you a reasonable amount of experience points that will help you level up at a steady pace, exactly like you were killing mobs in PvE. In addition to this, special (often repeatable) RvR quests will speed up the whole process further.

But that’s not all. Every action in RvR (killing enemies, winning scenarios, capturing objectives and keeps and defending them) will earn you renown points and will let you raise trough renown ranks (more or less similar to realm ranks in DAoC). Each time you earn a new rank you’ll be able to visit the renown trainer and purchase stat improvements and new tactics and abilities.

Finally, RvR will grant you equipment as well. Not only enemies you kill have a chance to drop some quite great items, but your renown rank will give you access to special renown vendors that will sell you class-specific armor with some quite impressive stats.

All in all, if you’re a PvP fan and you really really hate PvE, it’s entirely possible to level all the way to cap in RvR, and to fully equip yourself in the same way. Even if personally I prefer an healty mix between PvP and PvE, the “PvP only” way is entirely viable.

Capital Cities

The final objective of the RvR campaign are capital cities, but they’re much, much more.

Altdorf and the Inevitable City can be described only with one word: Immense.
The time of MMORPG cities extremely downsized and looking more like bucolic border villages than capitals has ended, and Warhammer’s cities have the size and the scope of a true capital.

As I said they’re much more than RvR objectives, because even while they’re safe from enemy attack they included about an hundred of quests and public quests for their inhabitants to tackle and dungeons to explore and pillage.

A very interesting factor is that cities “level up” as players kill enemies and complete quests in them. They start at a one star rating and can evolve up to five star. Each time a star is gained new areas, new dungeons and new quests will be made available to the players. For instance you won’t be able to access the imperial palace in Altdorf when the city is stuck in a low rating, but upon progress to higher ratings you’ll be able to enter, meet the rulers of the order faction, receive quests from them, and so forth.

Altdorf is the perfect embodiment of a medieval/gothic city on the brink of destruction, with untold dangers lurking beyond the surface, and constantly threatened by criminality, corruption and plague. It definitely lets you experience the dark and gritty atmosphere of the Empire.

The Inevitable city, on the contrary, is a city that already went beyond the brink of chaos, or, better, it’s built on chaos itself. Floating into the void of the warp, kept like that by the very energy of chaos. It definitely feels unnatural and warped (as it should be) and is perfectly appropriate to the eerie nature of the forces of Destruction.
Even if the city itself is dedicated to Tzeentch, the lord of change, there are sections dedicated to the other chaos gods, Nurgle, Slaneesh and Khorne.

A pretty neat feature is a square in both capital cities, in which the most glorious players from each faction will be awarded statues, as a visible sign of their heroism. And an even neater feature is that enemy players, upon sieging the capital, will be able to destroy such statues, contributing to their realm’s pride and the humiliation of their adversaries.

Warhammer capital cities definitely aren’t a cold lifeless hub in which people just go to access vendors and bankers, but living and breathing entities in which you’ll be able to meet, adventure and have pretty much a lot of fun. Definitely one of the best aspects of the game, both for their size and for their quality.

Many probably know already that four capitals (those for High Elves, Greenskins, Dark Elves and Dwarfs) have been cut from the initial release of the game, and even if this is saddening (I really want to see Mythic’s take on Lothern, the beautiful capital of the high elves), it’s by far outweighted by the content that is already in the game. Mythic plans to include them in the future anyway, as free content patches.

Extensive Capital City footage is available on the Classy Gamer Youtube channel.

Guilds

Joining a guild in Warhammer Online is a pretty meaningful experience. In most games guilds are just a common chat to keep the players together and organize them. In WAR they are a quite more complex entity.

First of all, the guild UI is very complete, with important features like events calendars that will allow leaders to automatically communicate events and raids to their guild mates that will have every event listed orderly on their own client (limiting the need for external forums).

But the most anticipated and well implemented feature is the “living” aspect of guilds. While in other games to increase one’s guild power one often needs to grind thousands of units of materials or hundreds of golds, in Warhammer Online a guild’s power is increased naturally as it’s members level up and play. Every action they do in the game’s world influences the guild’s experience, as it’s level raises and new features are unlocked.

For instance the guild can unlock access to a special tavern in the capital city in which the guild members will be able to meet and socialize, or to reserve an unique heraldry that will be displayed on the guild flags and on the members cloaks (like in DAoC). Initially just the overall colors of the emblem will be visible, and more details of it will be unlocked as the guild level progresses.

A major feature is of course the ability (at guild level 15) to claim keeps. Upon conquering a castle, a guild is able to take upon itself the responsibility of the claim. The keep will display the guild’s banners and guild members will be warned when the keep is under attack. Also claiming guilds will be able to improve the keeps defenses. This allows the most powerful guilds to leave a mark on the gaming world, as their flags fly over the ramparts of their chosen keep. Of course it’s a pretty volatile honor, as the keep needs to be defended from enemy attack.

Another pretty great goodie is the implementation of standard bearers (in perfect warhammer-ish style). Each guild will be able to grant some of it’s members the title of standard bearer and the ability to carry a banner in the midst of battle. Such banners can be granted tactics that can influence and increase their guild members’ performance in battle (much like normal character tactics) and will be a rallying point on the battlefield. A standard bearer can even plant the banner on the ground and fight independently.

But being a standard bearer is also a responsibility, because defeating a standard bearer or capturing a planted standard can grant the enemy much honor and benefits (in the form of banner scraps, that can be exchanged with items) and will mean the loss of the banner for the defeated guild.

All things considered, guilds in Warhammer Online are extremely solid and well implemented, probably the best ever seen in a MMORPG to date.

Customization and Itemization

During this phase of the beta itemization is good, but not yet excellent, since several sets of armor still aren’t implemented and looks are a bit monotonous due to that. There are, though, a lot of leaked image from the “elder” closed beta on the net that show a lot of new sets, that add a lot of room for very different looks and stats in game. I won’t link the pictures, since they are an obvious NDA breach (the elder beta is still covered by NDA), but voices speak of a wide variety of sets expecially at high level. Some go as far as naming more than ten per class.

Variety in looks is granted by an absolutely excellent dye system. All pieces of equipment can be dyed different colors in two distinct areas, allowing for a wide array of color schemes and combinations. At the moment the beta includes around thirty colors, but mythic announced that there will be more than one hundred at release, including metallic ones and a quite original white dye (something that software houses always struggled to do), that will grant an absolutely stunning level of customization

Customization in character looks itself (the face) at the moment is good but not yet exceptional, expecially due to the low quality of textures. There are 8 features to change for each character, and each of them includes a wide number of options that will make for a lot of variation, but Mythic can (and should) definitely improve this aspect of the game. The implementation of higher resolution textures will definitely help a lot, but a few more option would be welcome as well. Speaking about faces, Mythic hinted at the possibility to change one’s looks during the game, but it’s unknown if this will be restricted to the ones that bought a collector’s edition to allow them to access their exclusive faces, or will be a widespread feature.

Crafting

Crafting is a pretty controversial feature in Warhammer Online. It seems definitely more limited than in other games, at least at first sight.

First of all you can forget forcing your own armor and weapons, that won’t happen, at least at release. Crafting skills are apothecary and talisman making. While apothecary lets you create concotions and potions for use during battle, talisman making results in the creation of special gems that will let you enchant the weapons and armor you bought or dropped during the game.

In addition to this you’re able to specialize in one of the three harvesting skills: cultivation, butchering and scavenging. The first will allow you to cultivate your little potted plants and harvest crafting ingredients from them, the other two will let you gather ingredients from the corpses of dead enemies, animals and humanoids respectively. This means that you’ll always have the chance to find the needed materials on the most readily available source. Your enemies.

While, as I said, this may seem limited (and in some aspects it is), it turns crafting away from what it became in many other games, a grindfest. Crafters will be able to progress in their skills naturally while their level up (at the price of using a bit more time to cultivate their plants or to harvest materials from corpses), without the need to partake in endless grinds.

In the end it’s not too bad, considering that many software houses torn their crafting systems into a timesink to hide the fact that the game itself lacks in content. Luckily Warhammer Online doesn’t surfer from this problem.

Miscellaneous

There are many other less visible effects that characterize Warhammer Online, and I probably won’t be able to describe them all, since, after fourteen word pages of review my brain is undergoing a structural failure. Anyway there are a couple things I’d like to still talk about:

One of the most interesting features of Warhammer’s combat is Collision detection (even if as of now it’s still a tad buggy, causing people to sometimes get stuck into each other). This means that you won’t be able to run trough enemies and friends alike. It definitely proves an addition to the tactical aspect of battles and sieges. During the beta, for instance, I had great fun as an High Elven Swordmaster, as me and a few other Swormasters and dwarf Ironbreakers lined in a keep’s doorway (after the door was already beaten down by the forces of Destruction) with our faithful healers safely hidden behind us, and managed to hold against wave after wave of enemy attacks despite our inferior number. At the end the proud forces of Chaos had to give up and be slaughtered in a glorious sortie. I have to say that was really an exhilarating moment.

Talking about tanks, a very welcome thing is that they aren’t, in PvP, the usual indestructible boulders in the middle of battle that everyone ignores because their damage is so puny that can be considered negligible. Even while their damage isn’t to be considered devastating, their tanking skills fully work in RvR as much as in PvE. From level ten they’ll be able to keep an ally under guard, making sure that all damage dealt to him is halved, while the other half is redirected on the tank himself. From level twenty onwards things get even better, as the Challenge ability reduces all the damage dealt by the enemies in a frontal cone area of effect by 30% unless they attack the tank directly. This, alongside some useful crowd control abilities, means that tanks are a real thorn in the side of their enemy, able to effectively protect their mates.

A final feature I want to talk about are battle ranks. As soon as a low level character enters an RvR area their level will be temporarily bolstered to an acceptable one to be competitive. Meaning that in tier 1 you’ll be bolstered to level 8, in tier 2 to level 18, in tier 3 to level 28 and in tier 4 to level 36 (of course your level reverts to the normal one as soon as you exit the RvR area). This means that everyone that takes part in RvR will be at least viable and competitive for that area, mitigating a lot the difference in power between characters at the beginning of a tier and the ones that are about to move to the next. This definitely evens the playing field, and makes RvR much more challenging and less frustrating for low level characters.

Final Thoughts

I hope I managed to give you an almost complete and fair overview of the game. And after this mighty wall of text, I hope everyone will be able to make up his own idea on it’s potential (considering that the only way to really understand if you like the game or not is to play it yourself).

Personally, after twenty years of “living” in the world of Warhammer trough tabletop games, pen and paper RPGs and videogames, I definitely love most of what Mythic Entertainment did with Warhammer Online, and after one whole year of beta testing, I can say that, according to my own, personal opinion, Warhammer Online is on the good way to be the best MMORPG ever created. Will it be good for everyone? Probably not.

Will it throw World of Warcraft out of it’s throne in sales? Most probably not.

Is it perfect? Definitely not yet. It’s very near to completion (nearer than basically any other MMORPG released in the last few years) Mythic will have to work hard in the next months to get it 100% ready for release.

Is it good for me? Yes. Definitely.

15 comments:

  1. You were slain by a Giant Wall of Text!

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  2. Awesome review!!

    5/5 stars

    Makes me wanna go bash some skulls

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  3. A little biased I would say. Not a review at all, simply the author's opinion. No objectivity... all subjectivity.

    Don't worry author, as you get older you'll probably become a better writer.

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  4. Yeah and you are probably biased towards WoW lmao.

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  5. Oh of course, if someone says good things about the game, they are "biased" and not "objective", but oh if they say the game is terrible and does not meet expectations, well they are obviously brilliant writers!

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  6. be there be a bee?

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  7. A interesting article, quite lenghty but I found it helpful with trying to form an opinion of the game. I wouldn't say article was completely biased however.

    Author did descripe things in excited fashion on things he really enjoyed, but didn't descripe it as being definatly way or another.

    It's also worth paying attention to articles' end where he tells readers that only way to really learn if game is for you is to play it yourself. Quite honestly I wholeheartily agree there.

    I also like the style he descriped things. He told us what is exciting in his opinion and reasoning for why it is so. It's perfect source to draw your own conclusions: if it indeed sounds grand idea and you get excited too then most likely you also enjoy those parts of the game.

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  8. Awesome read thank you for taking your time and writing this out.I was hoping someone would.Not once did I read on your views that this game is about gear, and it seems from what I have read that is the case and am glad Mythic stayed with the same philosy.

    I invest alot of time in WOW but am ready to move on I had my fun, got my money's worth out of wow and am ready for something new, the endless level cap every expansion and rep grind it makes it feel like a part time job.

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  9. Simply AWESOME post. So much great information. I want to thank you for posting. So.. thanks!

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  10. Interesting read, but couldn't you come up with a blog title a tad less awful than "classy gamer"? Puh-leeeeeze.

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  11. 5/5. Excellent information, screenshots and video.

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  12. no objectivity? what did you want another review saying how bad wow is and how good this game is in comparison? theres enough of those out there, this gives a lot of info that most reviews dont and is helpful unlike all the others that just slag off wow.

    thanks for the info

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  13. Good article. Gave me an idea of what I'm to expect from the game. Gonna try the game today or tomorrow and see how much I like it. I must admit, I'm only expecting WAR to be a filler until WotLK comes out, but if it's really as amazing as I get from reading your artcicle, I might even stay with WAR as my main game and play WoW now and then when I need.

    In short: I like WoW, but I'm intrigued about this new MMO.

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  14. If your seriously considering buying this game and are going through reviews to help you decide. This is NOT that review. I actually bought the game mainly because of this review.....BIG MISTAKE! The author of this review CHOSE to not mention the MAJOR negatives about this game. The game was released about 6 months too early, shouldve stayed in beta.
    Some examples of things he chose not to mention are: Character animations are completely bugged. He didnt mention anything about the fact that the apothecary crafting skill is literally use-less since you have to memorize every single ingredient of every potion. It takes a minimum of 15 minutes just to get in game..ETC ETC...basically as of september, 2008, the game is not worth the cost. It should stay as a free beta. Very biased review.

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  15. here's another anonimous troll trying to spread lies on the game. Sorry mate

    1: animations aren't bugged. They were in the beta. Now they're not. So either you're misinformed, or you're a liar
    2: you obviously didn't even TRY apothechary (or you're simply an ABSOLUTE noob), because every single apothecary incredient tells you what it's used for in it's toltip.
    3: it can take 15 minutes get in the game because some servers are crowded, because, you know, despite what trolls would hope, the game is being VERY successful. If you don't want queues, you can simply roll on a less crowded server.

    Fun to see some people recurring to cheap lies to criticize the game, because they don't have any solid arguments.

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