Friday, October 17, 2008

Review: Warhammer Online - Age of Reckoning

No doubt both my regular readers will have noted that my content has dropped off for the last few weeks (thank goodness for Zero Punctuation, eh?). I'm in Warhammer Online and I'm hooked.

My highest level character is only mid 20s (out of a max 40), so really I don't feel comfortable doing a full review, but I also feel that already too much time has passed where I've been playing the game and not writing about it. So, here's my look at the non-endgame tiers of Warhammer Online.

First of all, let's get something out of the way - the experience of playing Warhammer Online is very distinct from the experience of playing World of Warcraft. The only thing they really have in common is the layout of the default interface and the ability to add in LUA-based interface addons. Yes, WoW draws on Warhammer for its inspiration and basic art, but the two diverged a long time ago. Warhammer's atmosphere is much more dark, bestial, brooding and dystopian. Warcraft "reformed" the Orcish Horde and now there's a "sort of" war going on between two sides where there's really no bad guy (except, of course, the NPCs), whereas the war between the forces of destruction and order is so bloody and desperate that lofty ideals and morality have pretty much gone out the window in a frantic scrabble just to survive. The forces of Destruction are unrepentantly evil, and the forces of Order are just as likely to impress a 15 year old into military duty and execute his Father for objecting.

Furthermore, Warhammer Online was designed from the ground up as a game where PvP, or rather, RvR, is the focus (as opposed to WoW which was entirely calibrated around PvE and continues to make that the primary focus of the game, all the way through the endgame). You can engage in RvR (Realm vs Realm, the Mythic/EA word for team-based objective-oriented PvP combat) from level 1, in your newbie gear and still stand a reasonable chance of contributing and advancing. As a matter of fact, PvE content takes a back seat and becomes just "something to do" to fill the relatively small gaps between RvR breaking out. This emphasis means that for the most part the character classes are extremely well balanced against each other (with a couple small exceptions to be noted later), and exponentially raises the replayability factor of the game at any given level.

Warhammer is extremely casual-gamer-friendly, in that the content does not require large consecutive blocks of time. The matchmaking tools are also very good, featuring a grouping model very novel for the genre: the "open" group. Unless you otherwise specify, your group can be joined at any time by anyone who wants to join it (though the group leader still retains the ability to kick out members, set loot rules, even change the group to the traditional "closed" group). Also, the UI has an excellent tool to find nearby "open" groups and get you into them. RvR scenarios typically run 15 minutes and "public quests" rarely take more than half an hour, with rewards being doled out generously. Also, there are separate rulesets available on special servers to suit the player's taste, whether you desire RvR to be limited only to designated areas or for there to be the potential for combat with the enemy no matter where you are. There are no "hardcore free-for-all" PvP servers as of yet where team restrictions would be ignored for PvP combat... and really, the nature of the game doesn't really lend itself to such a setup, and it isn't needed in any case.

The world is broken into 3 theaters of conflict, with 4 tiers of progression in each area. Each tier area has a slider of "control" which moves according to who is winning in RvR (both kills and objectives). Control of an area grants bonuses to the winning side (increased XP and cash drop rates, or better merchant prices for example) and control of some areas "opens" other areas to invasion at the 4th tier. The final objective of course is to invade the enemy's capital city, kill their leader and leave no stone standing upon another. This is a rather long and convoluted process of territorial acquisition.

The game itself however is pretty taxing on your hardware. If you haven't upgraded in the last year or two you will probably feel some of that strain on the kind of graphical settings you see in screenshots. You can turn them down, but texture quality tends to degrade very quickly when you do that, and even on low settings you really ought to have 2 gigs of ram, a multicore processor and a fairly recent video card.

The PvE has the usual "go here and kill this" type quests up for offer, but the real star of the show are the "Public Quests." Public Quests, or PQs for short, are multistage npc-driven events which usually require player cooperation to complete. You don't have to go see somebody to get a public quest, nor turn it in. Just wandering into the area automatically makes you part of the public quest. Most PQs are 3 stages, the first stage usually requiring the mass slaying or gathering of plentiful mobs or items that pop up on the ground. The second stage will usually be either a "miniboss" or another item-driven objective (burn down X houses, for example), and the final stage is almost always a boss encounter. The game keeps track of who contributes to the completion of these objectives, because when the PQ is successfully concluded there is loot to be rolled for (rolling happens automatically but transparently, like a scoreboard), and the more you contribute the higher a bonus will be added to your roll. This generally makes for a rather equitable distribution of loot, but it isn't perfect. I personally HAVE walked into a PQ that was nearly done killing the 3rd stage boss, took two whacks at the boss mob, and when it was over I won first place in the rolling (granting me the best item that dropped) and people who contributed exponentially more to the PQ got lesser items or nothing. Conversely, I have also many times been the "most contributing" member and walked away with nothing more than the XP and "influence" I gained for doing the PQ (each little area has an "influence" bar you can fill up, with rewards available once you do. Doing PQs is the only way to raise influence). However, the injustice is rather diminished because the PQ will reset itself quickly, and you can go through again, this time with yet another roll bonus for "persistence" because you did the PQ already and didn't win anything.

Really, though, as far as I'm concerned, PvE is only something to do in the sparse minutes between RvR scenarios and keep fights... not something I ever seem to need to do for any stretch of time. Really, I often don't WANT to level up, I want to stay at the top of the tier I'm in, trashin' bozos... but eventually the slaughter levels me despite my wishes and I'm back to being a small fry in the next tier. But fortunately, the game is balanced such that it is still entirely plausible for low level characters to contribute meaningfully in RvR, within their appropriate tier. If the influence rewards for doing PQs weren't so nice, I doubt I'd PvE at all, personally.

At this stage (a month after release), the patches have been small and frequent, mostly concerned with fixing bugs. There are still some pesky bugs flitting about but nothing near the caliber of Age of Conan's problems, and there are more things coming. Mythic maintains an excellent avenue of communication to their playerbase through their "herald" website and their GM, Mark Jacobs actually spends a great deal of time posting on the IGN warhammer forums (Mythic seems to be repeating their practice from DAOC of not having "official" forums but using IGN's forums extensively). I worry about the influence of the hordes of brain-dead whiny preteens (and mental preteens) that hang out at IGN searching for reasons to hate the games they play, but so far Mr. Jacobs has proven rather resilient and resistant to their influence. Mythic clearly has remembered the lessons they learned during DAOC's time in the sun and is building upon them carefully.

At this point, I can give my hearty endorsement of Warhammer Online, and recommend it unflinchingly with the one caveat that you need a pretty nice system to get max enjoyment out of it. Not as much so as Conan, but still pretty beefy. I think I've found my drug of choice for the forseeable future.

Verdict: A+.


Coco said...


Having played WAR myself (up to level 19), I disagree.

I'd rate it more of a B to B+, but a few things should at least temper your view and/or other readers of this review;

- Public Quests are a great idea. Unfortunately past level 10, you're lucky to ever get a group to do them, rendering them unplayable. Mythic should have had 1-2 per Tier vs. 4-6. There is simply too many of them, scattered too far apart, with too few people to ever get the critical mass needed to do them. Good, but wasted content, imo.

- Server populations. They seem low to me, I'd guess no more than 2500 people per server. The nature of serial-queuing for scenarios (PvP battlegrounds) that most people seem to follow may exacerbate this, but the world doesn't feel as populated as other MMOs. It is, however, much better than AoC.

- General animations and combat feedback. Not I often have a chain of "Target too far" or some other spell feedback messages spam my screen when questing or PvPing that seem batched up and disconnected from the actual actions I am taking. I think part of this has to do with the single animation Mythic uses, which doesn't buffer client lag to the player as, say WoW (yes, I went there) which has three animations (pre-cast/cast/effect) that seems to make the gameplay more fluid and responsive, even if it isn't. Picky? Perhaps, but it does take away some of the immersion.

- The 4-5 splash screens and EULA you MUST accept EVERY TIME YOU PLAY that makes logging into the game a 2 minute process vs. something that just puts you at the login screen gets old quickly.

- Crafting. A joke. Why they even included it, I don't know. If they couldn't a decent crafting game, they should just have omitted it entirely. Heck, they removed 4/6 cities and a number of classes because they felt they were lacking. They should have held back crafting until they could do it right.

- Guilds. This is not a solo-friendly game. I joined a guild on one character, which does have better systems than WoW (i.e., alliances, guild levels w/ bonuses, etc.) but anyone who wants to play solo will find this game lacking.

I admit, some of these are minor gripes, and I'd call this the best competitor to WoW out there at the moment. The PvP is clearly better, I will not deny that. The PvE is inferior. Finally, the remaining bits-and-pieces that most people have come to expect from MMO's is at best, average.

If you're a big MMO PvPer, this is probably the best place for you. However, I find the PvP experience of say, a Team Fortress 2, much more satisfying that what WAR currently offers.

Anonymous said...

A+ ? Are you joking?
What would you give a game that is actually good then?

WAR gets boring so fast that it's not even funny... and that's just one of the problems COUNTLESS people are nagging about all over the internet...

Are you completely oblivious to reality ?

I seriously don't understand reviewers like this...

Anonymous said...

Pik says a plus for mmo pvp time sink.

Anonymous said...

No offense but this game is more like a c-

Hundreds of bugs
Bad net code
Horrible outdated engine
lackluster and awful pve

I hit lvl 38 and did not renew my account, very disappointing game.

Gas Bandit said...

I dunno what game you Anony-mooses are playing, but it must not be Warhammer.

"WAR gets boring so fast that it's not even funny... and that's just one of the problems COUNTLESS people are nagging about all over the internet..."

All I can tell you is I'm having a blast and can't get enough. Maybe if you had spent your time playing with people instead of hanging out on the IGN boards where people hate to have fun, you might enjoy yourself a little more.

"Pik says a plus for mmo pvp time sink."

Well, yeah, if you don't like MMOs you probably won't like WO. Time sink is the Modus Operandi of all of them on the market. I do like, though, that you don't even have to spend any time grinding to get right into the RvR.

"No offense but this game is more like a c-
Hundreds of bugs
Bad net code
Horrible outdated engine
lackluster and awful pve
I hit lvl 38 and did not renew my account, very disappointing game."

Show me an MMO with no bugs, especially in the first month of release. People have short memories. Age of Conan was still gamebreakingly broken 4 months after release. Even WoW was having constant server crashes well past this point in its lifespan, and do you remember the "stuck looting" bug? Some perspective is needed here. Warhammer's had the smoothest launch since Dark Age of Camelot, and 90% of the bugs are purely cosmetic, and none of them are really dealbreakers. As for the PvE, if you ask me ALL PvE is lackluster at this point. Be it WoW, Warhammer, AoC or whatever, the core of what you're doing in PvE is "go here and kill this, repeat." PvP is what gives these games replayability, and it shines in Warhammer.

Thank you, CoCo, for going into more detail in your post, as compared to those who came after you. I'll give you my thoughts on your points:

1) Public Quests - I have found that, with very very few exceptions, most public quests can be completed by 3 people, and at least half can be done by 2, so long as you have a tank and a healer. The guilds I have been in have all been gung ho about helping each other get PQs done. I disagree that there should be fewer, I think they got it right with approximately 3 per chapter. Limiting them to 1 or 2 per tier would get mindnumbingly repetitive, doing the same PQ for 10 levels.

2) Server Population. Well, here Your Mileage May Vary. I picked two medium-heavy servers to play on (Chaos Wastes and Bechafen) and haven't had a problem getting into scenarios quickly, especially on the order side where I can usually barely get 10 steps before my number comes up. Some servers are experiencing population imbalances or deficiencies though, and Mythic is taking steps to try and address that. Frankly, I like the "less populated" feel (I liked it about Conan, too, actually), because games like Everquest and WoW, where I was always jostling elbows with 10 other people trying to do the same quests made me feel less like I was immersed in the game and more like I was standing in line at Disneyland.

3)Animation/combat glitches. You raise a valid point here in that the client does not wait for confirmation from the server before playing its animation that your target is in range, and sometimes I've had my characters get "stuck" in an animation. This is largely cosmetic though, and doesn't really affect the actual combat itself. It is something that does serve to damage the experience, however, and I'm sure it will get addressed soon. Mythic's shown so far that they are aggressive and dependable about patching out things that hurt the game.

4)Time to Log In. Longer than WoW, shorter than AOC, frankly not that big a deal to me. The interface for logging in is a little clunky if you're not logging in with the same character you were playing last time, but trust me, there are far longer intro sequences than the 3 quick splash screens at the start of Warhammer.

5) Crafting - I should have said something about this, you're right. Crafting isn't a very large part of the game right now, and actually can be pretty much ignored. Mythic tried to do something new with it and ended up making something dreadfully unintuitive and only marginally useful. One can only hope they'll get to it down the road. This is a far cry from DAOC, where the absolute best armor was player crafted.

6) Guilds vs Solo play - Yes, you're not going to have much fun in PvE or open RvR as a solo player here (Scenarios you should do fine though), but I honestly don't think that you're supposed to, in an MMO. You can't do Public Quests alone (unless you're tagging along with another group that's doing them, obviously) and a player out by himself in RvR is just meat on the table for his enemies. But even so much as grouping with 1 friend changes that dramatically, and having even a group of 3 suddenly opens the world to you. Guilds help with that a lot, and I am very impressed by the guild UI in this game. It is very useful and beneficial to those joining and running guilds.

All in all I didn't find any of the above issues to be too terribly damaging to the game as a whole, or the ones that were rather substantial were counterbalanced by other incredible aspects of the game. Mythic has really outdone themselves with the number and variety of RvR scenarios, the design and scale of the open RvR worlds, and the incredible balancing act of making every class viable in RvR. I also like how they have made stealth a very limited and situational aspect of the classes that use it, so that you don't get the same "we're not playing the same game as you" elitist stealther wars we saw back in DAOC.

For an MMO in its first month of public release, I still stand by my assertion that it is an A+ game which is only getting better with each patch. Even Blizzard is starting to get nervous because they're starting to spread rumors and badmouth it in interviews. While I don't think Warhammer will come close to the 10 million subscribers level of WoW, I do think it will be extremely profitable for Mythic and enjoyable for the players, showing that there's room for more than just 1 MMO out there as long as the game is good.

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