Saturday, September 13, 2008

Warhammer Online Open Beta Impressions

It’s not hard for MMORPG fans to be excited about the upcoming Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning. World of Warcraft is starting to become stagnant for many, gripped tightly by a pre-expansion lull. Other genre newcomers like Age of Conan and Pirates of the Burning Sea disappointed players and proved to be stop-gaps and minor distractions between other regular MMO play. WAR is the biggest contender facing Blizzard since WoW launched against Everquest 2, leaving players anticipating a big MMO that feels like a genuinely new experience.

Unfortunately WAR is a product severely hindered by World of Warcraft. In an attempt to beat WoW’s next expansion to stores WAR in its current Open Beta state feels incomplete and full of unrealized potential.

While WAR has long promised to change the PvP space, the game ultimately does not live up to its own acronym. Instead of realizing that balance was the main hindrance behind MMOs having valuable PvP the developers instead focused on integrating PvP throughout the leveling experience. It’s a great way to keep a competitive feeling among players even at low levels, and helps to alleviate the game revolving solely around the end game, but the game doesn’t elevate itself to a point different from any other MMOs.

PvP “strategy” devolves into players overwhelming enemies as a pack. If the pack you’re in is bigger than the pack they’re in, congratulations, you win. Making this even more painful is how drawn out WAR’s combat is. Battles decided from the outcome take place in slow motion before your eyes as you watch you continue to whittle your opponents bar down at a faster rate than he can to yours. There are no turning points in battles, and the only “strategy” is for the player who knows they’re bound to lose to retreat back to allies to outnumber you.

The combat itself feels beyond basic for certain classes. Black Orcs, for example, need to use certain moves to open up more powerful abilities. This leaves you using the same abilities in the same order for every battle over and over again hoping your opponent drops before you do. It creates an overwhelming sense of monotony. This is amplified in PvE content with so few enemy types. Enemies are either hardy enemies with low damage output or weak enemies with high damage output from a distance that settle for a decent melee damage output when you run up to them. Really, that’s about as exotic as it gets, and because of the deeply rooted “faction rivalries” in the game you can expect about 80% of the PvE enemies you fight to be the race your faction hates.

Public Quests are another example of a great idea gone completely wrong in Warhammer Online. They’re scripted events around the world that players contribute to as a group without having to commit, with immediate loot rewards for players who are most helpful in addition to Influence Rewards that can be earned by anyone. You get Influence Points for each monster you kill and objective you complete, with bigger rewards for the more difficult kills. Its good fun for awhile and it leads to the best rewards you’re able to obtain while leveling up.

It doesn’t take long however to notice that repetitive nature of Public Quests. For example, let’s say one PQ has players killing 125 dwarf soldiers before introducing a boss who is a dwarf with about ten times as much health as the dwarves you were just killing. You’re still trying to earn enough influence points to get the reward, but you’ve already been killing these same dwarves for half an hour, so you look around the zone to find another PQ. You walk for about two minutes before coming up on another PQ where players now have to kill 150 dwarf road workers before the ultimate dwarf road worker comes out and defends the realm.

While Public Quests are certain to initially wow players, they’re ultimately incredibly linear, repetitive, and unbalanced. Once again it comes back to players being able to overwhelm enemies with numbers to trump the time limit to progress to the next stage of the PQ. At low levels PQs serve as a substitute to other MMOs dungeons, and they really are unable to compete. Enemy types are unvaried and unimaginative, and instead of being split up by interesting and excited boss encounters throughout they force players to grind through all the trash before getting to a boss that feels like a bloated fight against a standard enemy.

Some tiers of zones don’t have anywhere near enough quests to assist you in leveling an adequate amount to progress on through the game, so players resort to constantly redoing public quests and PvP to help them gain experience. Races also have had crucial classes cut, leaving certain races to level through their zones without adequate class balance. One of the worst offenders of this is the tank class being cut from Dark Elves, meaning you’ll be hard pressed to have anyone around to tank boss mobs spawned from Public Quests.

WAR just feels rushed in so many aspects. Afraid to be crushed by a WoW expansion in the same way Vanguard was it is giving players full access to a beta when it releases September 18, 2008.

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