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My experience with RIFT: third time lucky

Here’s something that would have surprised me a year ago: I just got my first RIFT character to the level cap. (I know, I know, years behind dot com.)

Shimmersand by night

I tried RIFT with some friends for the first time last year, and at the time I was fairly unenthused by it. Sure, it was prettier than WoW, and the souls system was interesting, but really – as I described it to Kris – it was just like WoW except I was a lowbie with no money or resources. (And it was prettier.) Although RIFT clicked for a couple of my friends, as a group we drifted off to some other game — all the while playing and raiding in WoW as our primary game.

Then we tried RIFT again a few months later, and again, it just didn’t stick. I had more fun this time around, because we focused on the elements that made RIFT unique – to wit, we did a lot of rift-closing and invasion-chasing (and world-event-completing), and we spent almost no time questing. Still, RIFT didn’t offer me anything much that I couldn’t get elsewhere, and it occurred to me that I am so done with questing.

It’s not RIFT’s fault, of course — nor is it WoW’s, even. I’ve just seen how quests can be done better, and as a result my standards are higher. First SWTOR missions set the bar for emotional immersion (bear in mind that I’m also a pen-and-paper gamer in a roleplaying-heavy group; although I don’t RP in MMOs, story immersion is like catnip to me). Then TSW missions set the bar for intellectual immersion, being challenging, interesting and largely unique.

I Hope You Like SurprisesBy comparison, the “traditional” (ie WoW-style) questing in RIFT is almost entirely unappealing, and I’ve become one of those players who used to horrify me – I click to accept the quest without reading a scrap of quest text, and I only go back to read the quest in my log if I need more info to complete it. Ridiculously, I feel guilty about it, especially since I used to quietly judge other players for behaving like this. But now that I’ve seen questing done better, in two different ways, the old-school of questing holds almost no appeal for me. (Which is a shame, since then I miss the entertainment value of quests like “I Hope You Like Surprises”, the hilariously amusing quest in Shimmersand.)

This time around, though, I had a mission. I’d seen some preview videos of the upcoming Storm Legion expansion, and I fell in love with the player housing. Sadly I’m unlikely to ever find a player housing system like Star Wars Galaxies’, but a well-done housing system of any sort is a huge draw for me – I spent many, many hours in LotRO making my house and our kinship house look just right. Knowing housing was coming drew me back to RIFT, and I’ve been having enough fun that I plonked money down for the year long subscription with bonus free expansion. It seems player housing was the ‘killer app’ that I needed to turn RIFT from “fun enough” into something I actively look forward to playing.

So here I am in RIFT, level 50 and everything. Oddly, I’m actually looking forward to the process of gearing up, learning the RIFT endgame, and maybe even dabbling in raiding waters.

Sashire at 50

The doom of factions

So it’s been a busy week for gaming news, with updates pouring out of Gamescom and several games lined up to go head to head on August 28th. One piece of news that attracted surprisingly little commentary in the blogosphere was the announcement that RIFT would be minimising the divide between player factions.

(If this post is slightly less coherent than usual, you can blame the lovely head cold I’ve got; I’ve been sleeping about 18 hours a day, and coughing for most of the rest. Hooray!)

The news broke on RIFT’s forums, where CM James Nicholls posted that

With the death of four of the dragons much has changed in Telara. Old rivalries are questioned as new challenges arise, the greatest the Ascended have ever had to face. Destruction of the Blood Storm is now essential if this world is to ever find peace – Guardians & Defiants must unite if they are to ultimately travel to the planes and defeat them.

The powers that control Meridian and Sanctum still remain at odds and it will take time for those wounds to heal… but as Ascended the choice to work together is now yours to make outside the city walls.

Now, this is being spun as “RIFT is doing away with factions”, but that’s actually not the case. Instead, it’ll work much like, say, The Secret World: you’ll be able to group, trade, chat, use LFG and so on with players from the opposite faction. (Unlike TSW, cross-faction guilds will also be allowed.) However, the NPCs will still have factional allegiances, so I expect that a Defiant wandering into Sanctum is still going to have a miserable time of things. I haven’t yet seen any info on whether zones will be opened up to the opposite faction — will Guardians be able to do the quest chains in Freemarch?

Speaking personally, I absolutely applaud this move on Trion’s part; I just think it doesn’t go far enough.

Factions - Sith Empire, Dragons, Defiants, Horde

Let’s face it, the factional divide is a legacy of WoW’s dominance, and it’s the result of the franchise being based on a 2-faction RTS series. (If Blizzard had made World of Starcraft instead of World of Warcraft, would every MMO now feature three equally-balanced stalemated factions?) It made sense in WoW at the time, given the series’ backstory, but Blizzard’s continual adherence to a static (and arbitrary) political divide was frustrating in the face of global threats like the Old Gods, Arthas and Deathwing. And even the Big Bear Butt’s nine-year-old thinks the renewed emphasis on the Horde-vs-Alliance war is boring.

The problem with a factional divide is that unless the devs are going to put a lot of work in, it’s going to feel extremely stale and limiting after a while, because – contrary to actual politics – nothing ever changes; everyone’s loyalties are fixed forever. It’s even worse in RIFT where the divide is somehow philosophical and racial. You mean to tell me there are no religious Eth? No apostate High Elves? Surely not. There’s no co-operation in the face of existential threats — despite the dangers posed to the entire fabric of the world by the Lich King, Regulos or whoever, the opposing factions would rather spend their time taking potshots at each other and it’s down to the heroic player characters to save the day. (Whether or not you think that’s reflective of RL politics, depending on your level of cynicism, it doesn’t make for fun or heroic stories.) As Green Armadillo puts it over at Player vs Developer, as long as everyone is fighting the same enemies, a two-faction system simply feels like an unnecessary obstacle.

There are some games where the factional divide makes sense and is well-implemented. In SWTOR, for instance, the struggle between the Sith and the “good guys”, the fundamental opposition of Light and Dark, is an intrinsic part of the story’s setting, and they are each other’s ultimate enemies; there’s no third party posing a serious threat to the entire galaxy. In DCUO, all the factional content is nicely opposed — if you’re playing a hero, you’re actively engaged in undoing whatever dastardly deeds the villains have done (and the story instances, in particular, are often nicely mirrored, with one faction’s instance storyline being a reaction to the other’s).

But in general, factional divides don’t add much to a game unless they’re an intrinsic part of the basic setting. Far better, I think, to adopt a system like Guild Wars 2, where factional conflict is World vs World; LotRO, where the opposing faction is a separate PvP-only part of the game; or The Secret World, where you can work with anyone you like regardless of where your loyalties lie.