Warhammer Online Impressions

Thoughts of what constitutes true torture and true innovation

To clarify, I’m providing this trailer along with these words: This trailer is actually pretty representative of the spirit captured by this game.


The game is not literally the trailer, which is pre-rendered CGI, but what they accomplish in the game is a fair replacement.  I’m about to talk about what the game literally is, but first I wanted to express that I acknowledge that this game is actually pretty awesome.

What I needed to say first, before getting into the nuts and bolts of what this game really is, was just why “awesome” may not be enough for me.

MMORPGs as a form of torture

What is it about a mainstream MMORPG that makes me want to at least try it long after I’ve bored the entire genre – very much derivatives of EverQuest or Meridian 59 (over 10 year old games)?

I buy the box, subscribe to the game, and am invariably burned, time and time again.  This has literally happened to me dozens of times.  None of them enthralled me as much as EverQuest, because when I bored of EverQuest I bored of the core game in which they imitated.  This, of course, all lead up to World of Warcraft… which lasted me about 4 weeks before it happened again.  Yet, I still feel compelled to play MMORPGs.

I’m a grown, 31-year-old man, and I think if I were forced – it would have to be at gunpoint – to play another EverQuest clone I would seriously break down and start blubbering.  At the very least least, on the inside I would be.  The feeling would be:The World Isn’t Fair: You’re Making Me Play A Game.

Once again, I rely on Lolcats to express the appropriate furor.

Once again, I rely on Lolcats to express the appropriate furor.

I’m aware of the irony that this is not how a person should feel about playing a game – I’m sure most of us would agree such a fate is much better than the starvation that tens of thousands perish of every day.  So, what the hell is my problem?

It’s important to realize that what’s actually going on here is actually a deviation of the Chinese Water Torture.  I mean that literally, and I can prove it via reason.  Amongst victims of that torture, the thought is, “It’s not fair, you’re dripping water on my forehead” and that does not make sense until you realize the victim is confined to this situation against their will for an extremely prolonged period of time.

Because I keep having this strange compulsion to want to keep trying MMORPGs, that’s exactly the situation I find myself in: I keep confining myself (against my better judgment if not will) to play yet another EverQuest clone.  I shouldn’t mind EverQuest, but then, neither should anyone mind a little water on their forehead.  Yet, the Chinese Water Torture really works!  (Mythbusters confirmed.)

Come to think of it, what we have with the MMORPG situation might even be worse.  What if you modify the Chinese Water Torture so there might not be yet another drop of water hitting you on the forehead – there’s a random chance it’ll be something you like instead.   You look at that drop of water descending, thinking to yourself, “Oh, that might not be a bit of water…” and you do this for months, and then it finally arrives and you experience it and realize that, “Oh, God, here we go again!”

That’s how it is when waiting months for the next hot new MMORPG to arrive.  So, pardon me if I might get a bit weepy if you deliver to me yet another EverQuest derivative after 12 years of this!

I’ve read Mark Jacobs of EA/Mythic’s forum posts back on Grimwell Online (when it had a forum) shortly after the EA merger, and they left me with the belief that he is a pretty nice guy.  If so, it’s a fair guess he does not want to torture people with Warhammer Online.

To transform his game from torture to bliss, he merely has to break the pattern enough that I find something worth playing.  Does he succeed?  The NDA has been down for a few weeks now, and I shelled out for a FilePlanet subscription to get an open beta key.  So, how does the game perform?  Yes, on with the impressions already!

First Impressions: Oh God, here we go again.

At its most basic level, Mythic’s latest foray into the genre of MMORPGs does not seek to reinvent the wheel.  There is a large experience bar, there is an expandable hotbar that can contain up to 12 moves per line, there is a health bar, there are wandering mobs to slay, and (as is the current standard) the context to kill these wandering mobs is provided by a nearly endless procession of quests.  It looks like most MMORPGs, it controls like most MMORPGs, and this (of course) is done for the benefit of existing MMORPG players.

Meridian 59, a 1996 game, had many of the elements we can see in the modern MMORPG.

Meridian 59, a 1996 game, had many of the elements we can see in the modern MMORPG.

As you could reasonably predict, the quests in Warhammer Online are largely composed of the usual: kill x number of monsters, talk to NPC y, find z objects in the game world and interact with them… and also with the occasional unique and interesting quest (of which mentioning a specific is nothing less than a spoiler).  The ratio of standard:unique quests is about the same as World of Warcraft… at least, the traditional type of quests, but we’ll get to that in a bit.

I stress again that this is merely the first impression.  That’s a pity, because it’s going to cause people as burned out from MMORPGs as myself to bolt for the unsubscribe button within the first hour of gameplay.

I’ve an unusually inquisitive mind – or perhaps I just really want a good MMORPG worth playing – so I was willing to ease myself deeper into the game by my usual ritual of rolling up 10 characters or so to find the most bearable one for me.  I’ve still yet to succeed in finding that impossible, perfect character, but I did at least manage to get a Dwarven Enginer somewhere in the level 4-6 range.

Second Impression: Actually, this works as an improved compilation of the best of MMORPGs.

As I played deeper into Warhammer Online, I began to realize that Mythic/EA has features they’ve admired from everywhere, and not just World of Warcraft.  Any hack could do that, but Mythic has a lot of experience with MMORPGs.  Consequently, they understood what made those features tick, and had adequate talent to make their own improvements to each.

World of Warcraft

From World of Warcraft, the reigning champion, they borrowed some of the style, the base gameplay, and class mechanic. A pretty big piece of game, it’s little wonder most player’s impressions are that this is a WoW clone  However, remember: improvements have been made.

The base gameplay, of course, is in the GUI, the timing, and the flow of the game, and this feels extremely similar to World of Warcraft, differing only on a sort of tacticle code remnant feel.  Mythic’s main innovation here is in tweaking the GUI to be good enough that it resembles not just WoW’s base interface, but WoW’s interface if it were enhanced with a Cosmo-like plugin.   (This is not to say it’s very much like Cosmo, but the base GUI of Warhammer Online does offer several more features that you’d need Cosmo-like improvement to get.)

World of Warcraft is still pretty much Meridian 59 at its core, but with 12 years of refinement.

World of Warcraft is still pretty much Meridian 59 at its core, but with 12 years of refinement.

The classes in Warhammer Online are all based around the idea WoW pioneered of giving most classes a unique GUI element.  You’ll see the WoW Rogue combo system, with minor differences, on the Witch Hunter class.  Mythic has improved this by coming up with some mechanics of their own.  For example, the Bright Wizard generates force points through his attacks, which can either be spent rapidly for more damage or hoarded for a really powerful attack that has a chance of severely harming the Bright Wizard.

Lord of the Rings Online

From Lord of the Rings Online, they borrowed the extensive journal and unique titling systems.  This is basically a virtual book you open at any time to read up on the world lore you’ve uncovered in the game.  The main improvements Mythic/EA introduces here are broad rather than deep – there’s better detail put into the overall implementation, such as broader and better illustrated entries.

Another thing they did was actually write the class role on the class selection screen: “Tank,” “Melee DPS,” “Ranged DPS,” and “Healer.” This is something I only previously noticed on Lord of the Rings Online. I’m not sure if this was a good idea or not, and thus far it seems like the actual class selection is a bit simpler because all classes have a good smattering of offense and defense.

Guild Wars

From Guild Wars, they borrowed a means to enter an instanced player versus player combat map from wherever you are in the game.  (This was also borrowed by WoW and Age of Conan.)  The main innovation I see here is that the GUI allows you to do it very comfortably when you’re still busily engaged in a PvE zone – when the match begins, you’re prompted if you wish to participate, and away you (and possibly your party) goes.  When the match is over, you’re instantly teleported back to where you started.

Diablo

There seems to be a way to slot enhancements (talisman) into items, a very Diablo innovation.  I think some other MMORPGs already do this, but not many.  Mythic innovates by adding actual trophies you can slot into your items, which show up as visible parts of your character and can even be graphically tweaked in placement.

Third Impression: Awesome New Features

There are some things I can’t quite attribute to a specific game, to which Mythic/EA definitely deserves some props.

Core Mechanic

In the core combat mechanic, there is no mana or stamina bar.  Instead, this is replaced with an “Action Point” bar.   Action points replenish very rapidly, even during combat.

What action points essentially turn out to be is a sort of a per-round limiter of overall activities you can perform (though it doesn’t quite feel that way thanks to the real time mechanic).  Consequently, mana and stamina is technically eliminated.

Auto-attack, I’m very happy to say, has taken an extremely minor role – it cycles very slowly, and the majority of your damage comes from manual activation of abilities. I love it when a RPG mechanic is built to involve the player.

Group Adventure Areas

They have a fascinating new “group adventure area” mechanic where parts of the zone are related to a timed scenario.  This is completed by actual well-done voice acting and an GUI elements supporting the area.

At last, an actual Warhammer Online screenshot.  The differences between World of Warcraft are much subtler, but they are there.

At last, an actual Warhammer Online screenshot. The differences between World of Warcraft are much subtler, but they are there.

In the example I played today, there are entrenched orcs outside of the dwarven city.  The players are challenged to head into their fort and perform a number of tasks.  They do not even need to be grouped to contribute to eachother’s actions.

If the group adventure tasks are completed, a random roll is performed, and the top 6 players are given a shot to loot the chest.  I had a couple goes at that chest (a gold and silver drop) and it was very good loot.

I probably didn’t describe it well enough to explain just how good this is.  I think they aught to kill all the rest of the PvE content entirely and just turn the whole game into scenarios like this… though, admittedly, that would hurt the gameplay diversity a bit.

Cannons?

For some reason, they’ve coded sections of the game where you can aim and fire cannons or other siege equipment like a sniper rifle.  I’m not sure how much use that gets yet, or even if it belongs in a MMORPG.

Realm Versus Realm’s Triumphant Return

Realm versus Realm is back with a vengeance, which is understandable considering Mythic largely pioneered it in Dark Age of Camelot.  (Which World of Warcraft plundered in the Alliance versus the Hoarde, but they didn’t do quite as good of a job of duplicating!)

There are only two sides this time, there are still keeps to capture, and there is even an always-visible gauge in the upper right corner showing you which side is winning and what bonuses your side has earned.

I haven’t done this yet, so my details are limited.  However, between this and the previously mentioned Guild Wars-like engagement, Warhammer Online makes it easier than most MMORPGs to get everyone involved in a PvP.

Let me say that one more time: Warhammer Online makes it easier than most MMORPGs to get everyone involved in PvP. What this means is that all those “carebears” who usually cower in PvE lands in other MMORPGs are very likely to actually get used to fighting other players and learn to deliver a royal beatdown to your punk-ass PvP-favoring face.

You might not realize it, but making a good PvP MMORPG is damn hard.   Typically PvP is tacked on as an afterthought – e.g. EverQuest, City of Heroes, and World of Warcraft.  (Shut up – the PvP felt tacked on in WoW and you should know it.)  There have been MMORPGs that have been built specifically to be fun PvP games (e.g. Shadowbane) and they didn’t quite pull it off.  In most MMORPGs, PvP feels painful, and was largely favored by incredible egotists whose joy of trouncing other players overcomes the pain, or the masochists who (by definition) just enjoy being tortured.

Warhammer Online is a good PvP MMORPG.  It actually does the best job of helping people make the PvE to PvP transition of any MMORPG in existence… but no one has played every MMORPG in existence so I can’t prove that.   However, from what I’ve seen, it’s very much a PvPers game that PvE players can feel very comfortable participating in.  That’s an awesome achievement.

Other

There’s an extremely nice looking-for-group interface.  Basically, when you enter an area you’re able to click on a button and see all “open parties” in that area, along with estimated time (in minutes) to walk over and join them.  You can actually just click the group and instantly join that group – no sending a /tell to the leader asking for an invite.  By default, your party is an open party, but you can configure it to only accept certain classes or require manual invites.

The Looking For Group interface, perhaps taking a hint from Dungeons and Dragons Online, does not burden group leaders with the task of finding members.

The "Looking For Group" interface, perhaps taking a hint from Dungeons and Dragons Online, does not burden group leaders with the task of finding members.

In a final note, I answer the age old question: Is there housing and trade skills?

Trade skills: Definitely.   There appears to be some rather interesting trade skills that do not center on creating armor or weapons so much creating unique commodities such as plants (horticulture trade skill).

Housing… probably not.  I haven’t seen it, at least.

There is an auction house (something pioneered by Eastern MMORPGs), and  mail box kiosks with item transfers (popularized by WoW but not the first to use it).  I have yet to find the auction house, but the mail boxes have support for them so I know they’re in the game somewhere.

So… would I buy Warhammer Online?

Answer: Too early to say.

Yes, I know I just wrote enough details to fill a small textbook, but the thing is that – despite Warhammer Online’s incredible showing – I’m still not sure it’s enough to overcome my own personal aversion to mainstream MMORPGs.  Honestly, I think I’d be better off making my own game with BYOND.  It would, if nothing else, be more mentally challenging.

Then again, my history with MMORPGs has shown that whether or not the game is worth playing has very little to do with if I’m willing to buy it and play it. A better question would have been if I would stay subscribed to it, but the answer is the same: Too early to say.

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