Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning
MMOs have a lot to thank tabletop gaming for. Back in the dark ages before the mystical series of tubes known as the internets was carried into the sky by a fleet of big trucks, fantasy fans would have to actually sit and meet face to face to get their roleplaying fix. Online gaming juggernaut World of Warcraft owes a lot to the Warhammer series of games, sometimes resembling a pastel-colored version of the classic dark fantasy universe created by Games Workshop. In another twist of fate, though, Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning now owes much to World of Warcraft. In theory, this is the theoretical meeting between The Beatles and U2: the melding of two pioneers in their respective fields. Unfortunately, the mixture isn’t quite that amazing, but WAR has a good amount going for it.
WAR provides two main factions for new players to join: Chaos and Order. These umbrella factions house classes culled from many races in Warhammer mythology, which have been tooled to fit MMO archetypes; for example, the Greenskin Black Orc is a perfect fit for a tank class, whereas the human Witchhunters have been molded to fit the role of the classic rogue type. It’s a well thought out mix (and as of this writing, two more classes have been added to the roster) that should be instantly familiar to MMO players and perfectly reasonable to tabletop die-hards. The newbie experience for WAR is quite friendly – too friendly, in some ways. The starting areas for each class are absolutely massive, and filled with low-level quests to undertake for easy experience points. The abundance of these simple chores allow for a surprising amount of levels in each zone: on my first character, I hit level 8 before even thinking about leaving the cozy confines of my Orc paradise. These early quests are really just tutorials in disguise, but they’re well masked and provide a nice way to get to know a specific class, although for people who start multiple characters, the amount of time it takes to complete the huge amount of early quests could get tiresome. Leaving the early zones without grinding for a bit is practically a death warrant, too – meaning that like it or not, players will probably play these tutorial quests for a while.
After settling in, however, the game takes a definite positive change. WAR‘s environments are big, but are designed to funnel characters along loose paths that end up bunching lots of players together. It goes a long way in creating a sense of scale, with groups of people hanging around in towns and on roads. Out and about, however, the game opens up a bit, but the party system allows for large groups to stick together whilst traveling – a party of eight can join up with a Warband, essentially a party made up of parties – and provides plenty of encouragement to do so. Public quests, the one feature that truly sets WAR apart from its peers, are quests that are joinable by anyone, taking place at the same time for all characters in the area. Usually, these quests involve killing a massive amount of NPC monsters, which would be both grueling and difficult alone. These events are reset every few minutes, which is a blessing and a curse: it’s nice that everyone gets a chance, especially considering the reward system only favors the top players of the round. However, the fact that each of these quests has its own little backstory completely breaks any sense of accomplishment. After killing 100 so-and-sos and saving the village of wotsitsame, it’s a little crushing to see the clock reset and all your hard work become naught. Obviously, these missions have to reset – it’d be unfair otherwise – but considering the fact that they’re the best source of experience in a lot of cases, it doesn’t do much to make grinding feel like not grinding.
Player vs. Player gameplay is another area full of good ideas that work in some ways but not in others. Unlike public quests, PvP (or Realm vs Realm, as the game calls it) takes place in an instanced zone with clear objectives. Basically, each match involves two sides clashing together and duking it out over spawn points, similar to Battlefield 1942 or Star Wars Battlefront, albeit on a much smaller scale. Competing in RvR is the best way to earn Reputation points, a separate set of levels for your character that determine what kinds of gear can be worn. This is an interesting mode, but it can get frustrating when one high level player mops the floor with the more balanced opposing team, effectively earning Reputation points for his do-nothing followers. It’s also hard to know what to expect; in one instance, I encountered a team made up entirely out of healers and low-level tanks who wanted nothing to do with each other. Good matches far outweigh bad matches, but it’s still a design flaw that could cause a few headaches for players looking for teamwork.
The art featured in WAR comes from a rich history of fantasy paintings: pick up any Warhammer rule book and you’ll be treated to detailed, dramatic artwork that is totally over the top and completely fitting. The game isn’t exactly pretty, but the influence is certainly there. Character models are expressive, and the landscape, while simple and barren, definitely evokes the feeling of the Warhammer Universe. It’s a nice mix of appealing design and drab atmosphere. The sound design is a touch above, though. Players will be greeted by a spine-tingling fanfare when logging into the game, a rousing main theme that perfectly sets the mood. The rest of the music is equally excellent, featuring dramatic horns and tense strings, like something out of a blockbuster fantasy film. There is a decent amount of voicework from NPCs, too, which ranges from passable to brilliant – it’s worth playing an Orc or a Dwarf just to hear some of the lines – and help bring out the sense of fun that so many MMOs sorely lack. Nobody could accuse WAR of being clinical; what it lacks in gameplay innovation, it makes up for in presentation in spades.
Once the initial awe has passed, though, the appeal of the game breaks down into two things. For one, how important is the presentation in an MMO to you? WAR features a very polished audiovisual component, but the gameplay isn’t exactly genre-bending. For fans of Warhammer, the strong presentation could be enough to warrant a subscription. For hardcore MMO players, however, it boils down to this: what can I do that I can’t do in all of the other MMOs out there? The answer is, not that much. Public quests are great fun when taken in a giant Warband, and the PvP system is definitely worth a look. Really, though, it’s a matter of preference. There is nothing that weights Warhammer Online down, and nothing that propels it to heights unknown. It’s a great online experience, but one that is probably best left to those who dust off their original rule set every now and then.