An ancient, extraterrestrial race sweeps across the universe, destroying and consuming worlds until they finally come upon the one whose children are capable of and willing to fight back. After some infighting amongst these beings, a serpentine god of death is banished to the elemental planes while a magical barrier is erected to keep the rest of the malcontents back. Years later, a crack in this shield is created and the nefarious deity is released upon the world once again, bringing the rest of the elemental lords and their minions with them. An all-out assault is made against its peoples, whose differing views on how to deal with the problem create deep socio-cultural chasms between said schools of thought. One side — devoted servants of the benevolent gods that seem to have abandoned them. The other — techno-shamanic nomads who would rather save the world no matter what the cost than wait for the heavens to intervene.
Sure, the details and names might be different, but the story of Rift, at its core, sounds remarkably familiar. I noticed during the most recent phase of Beta (and my first) that the similarities did not end with the lore. Turning once again to my favorite archetype — the Rogue — I felt myself slip into the gameplay like a silky-skinned hand into a tailor-made glove. My first two abilities? “Savage Strike” and “Final Blow,” complete with a regenerating energy system and combo points.
However, to obsess over Rift‘s derivations would be to completely miss the things that cause it to stand out. For instance, my Rogue played like a World of Warcraft Rogue because I chose the role that most closely mimicked it. The game really only has four “classes,” but by the end of the starting zone, you’ll have picked three of seven potential “souls” that effectively form your talent trees. Some are more conventional, while others feel fresh, and you’ll eventually get the option to swap souls out for the ones you missed. What seems like a routine skill system at first becomes something insanely — and uncharacteristically — flexible for the genre.
But let’s get back to the story and its relationship with the game’s most unique feature, its titular “rifts.” Like Azeroth, the world of Telara has attracted the unwanted attention of both malevolent terrestrial and extra-planetary forces. It’s special, because it contains an obscene amount of sourcestone and happens to exist smack dab in the middle of all of the elemental planes. The sourcestone is capable of tethering these other realms, thus making them easy to transgress and Telara a convenient seat of power for the gang of old gods wreaking havoc across the cosmos known as the Burning Legion Blood Storm. They don’t want to destroy it, they want to rule it. With its protective barrier breached, it’s up to the players — heroes known as the Ascended — to seek out and contain the various holes that continuously and somewhat randomly pop up all over the world.
While standard questing in Rift isn’t anything out of the ordinary, these elemental invasions keep the content from wearing thin too quickly. Dependent on the number of players in any given zone (and other variables calculated behind the scenes), events can range from a few war parties sacking outposts to full-scale assaults made up of multiple stages that cap off with massive world raid bosses. Defending Telara from rifts is a public affair that players are encouraged — and sometimes forced — to participate in. Failure to contain them means that NPC outposts become overrun, cutting off access to vital resources like quest givers and merchants. On top of that, you’re always rewarded for your participation and how much you’ve contributed, whether that be in the form of the special currency Planarite or more powerful items for your character.
And as I played Rift, all of these concepts started to melt into one another — the story, the mechanics, the sense of being a part of something bigger. For all of the content that Cataclysm has introduced to Azeroth, from the revamped old zones to the massive new, Rift features as its main hook exactly what World of Warcraft is missing. Deathwing sunders the world and, aside from randomly popping out to toast a few players and shower them with achievements, sits on his duff until some future patch when we’re finally allowed to get all up in his face. The Twilight Hammer Cult feels weak and ineffective, and let’s face it, we’ve already kind of brought the fight to their front door in the Twilight Highlands. The other Elemental Lords kind of feel like a distraction, so what else is there left to do?
I know this is symptomatic of the unavoidable disconnect between gameplay and story, but Azeroth just feels so static in the wake of an event that should’ve produced persistent upheaval. There should be Cultists bringing their unique, nihilistic brand of “indoctrination” to the capital cities each day, elementals pouring out of every planar orifice, and roaming bands of hostile opposing-faction NPCs populating the countryside. Blizzard has tried to paint this picture of constant strife and a world in absolute chaos, but the sheen and sense of urgency wears off pretty quickly when you realize that the content — once you’re gone through it once — is as static as it has ever been.
The point will come when Rift suffers from this, as well. It happens to all games, and Trion Worlds’ baby is no exception. But keeping people engaged is the lifeblood of an MMO. The promise of new content keeps people in the game and subscriptions rolling from month to month. While not a panacea, Rift‘s core concept should extend interest far beyond what the basic quest-and-dungeon structure has to offer.
Beyond all that, it just seems to make sense. Azeroth has always been characterized as a world in continuous strife. This concept was conveniently brushed under the rug in previous content by keeping the focus off of the basic Horde/Alliance conflict, but the lore has forced in a direction where it can no longer be ignored. Then there’s Deathwing, scores of elementals, faction in-fighting, and natural disasters to deal with, too.
Just think what it could do for the stunted social aspects of the game, as well. Rifts, as I mentioned, are generally not compulsory content. Instead they’re something you want to do, and generally that means grouping up with other random people in a meaningful way. That sure beats the lonely path to the level cap that World of Warcraft’s fosters from its very roots. Sure, you can do that in Rift, but why would you want to the entire time? The option to knock some skulls together with your fellow players is always there.
Better yet, Blizzard. Take that concept and spin a little bit of PvP into it. Capitalize on players’ competitive nature and offer commendations that you can turn in for items or vanity rewards to the faction that contributes the most in a certain area (or manages to take over the opposing ones’ outposts and resources). Sounds much more exciting than the soporific game of ring-around-the-rosies that Tol Barad ended up being, doesn’t it?
To be sure, Rift doesn’t always put its best foot forward, either, but even my short time with the Beta has told me that Trion World has something solid, if not fascinating, on their hands. The next phase may not start until Februrary 4th, but stay tuned for more coverage (including footage of one of the game’s early instances) on Lore Hound later this week.