RIFT: The Next MMO?

I’ve had the pleasure of beta testing RIFT, a new MMO from Trion Worlds.

As a six-year veteran of World of Warcraft, I have hardly encountered another game (of any genre) which comes close to WoW in quality of storyline, world depth, intelligent game design, difficulty calibration.

During WoW’s impressive reign of the genre (and before), I have tried many other MMOs and found them sorely lacking in one or more regards. Among those discarded lie Dark and Light, EVE, City of Heroes/Villains, Perfect World International, Champions Online, and Warhammer. And while I have good things to say about most of them, they simply didn’t capture me in the way WoW did.

I bring a critical eye to the MMO landscape, an eye tempered by years of game-tweaking of my own in tabletop roleplaying, as well as endeavors into player-content-creation opportunities afforded by venues like Spore: Galactic Adventures and Neverwinter Nights.

RIFT was the first game in a long time to bring some new concepts to a saturated market: Ideas like truly mixed classes, and dynamic world-altering events.

So how does RIFT stack up to the giants of the industry? Is it worth playing? Or will it shortly be set aside?

First Impressions

The first thing I noticed about RIFT is its ease of use. Anyone with familiarity of MMO control concepts (menus, directional controls, hotbars) will instantly recognize the layout. What’s more important is that the layout is immediately and easily customizable.

In fact, right in the main menu, there’s an option called “rearrange” which does to your UI exactly what it says: Lets you rearrange it to your liking. Resize boxes, move others. Items that aren’t yet in your interface can still be specified where they WILL appear when necessary, and different elements can be anchored to each other.

I’m the type of player who spend literally hours customizing my interface, playing with different hotkey configurations, all to find the most efficient layout. I’ve had friends looking over my shoulder in dismay at LAN parties, exclaiming with dismay, “He’s STILL customizing his interface!”

The good news is that RIFT allowed me to do in mere seconds what WoW requires a dozen different addons to accomplish. Worse, each addon in WoW has its own interface, menu, and learning curve. Just because you’re an expert in Xperl doesn’t mean you’ll maximize your use of Bartender 4 immediately after installation. And some addons aren’t compatible with others.

But the real coup de grace for RIFT’s interface is not just its quick-and-easy customization. It’s the fact that with a few clicks, you can copy your whole interface (key bindings and all) from one character to another. I’ve never before had that option in any MMO, and for an altoholic like me, it’s a dream come true.

Since a clunky interface can turn you off to a game, the fact that RIFT’s is not only clean and easy to use, but highly customizable without much effort means one less barrier between the player and the virtual world.

Enough about the damn interface; what about gameplay?

Gameplay in RIFT is much like any other MMO, and that’s not a bad thing. You accept quests, kill monsters, loot, and group, like you would in any other game. The interactions and icons are now some of the industry-standards created by WoW: Exclamation-point questgivers, right-click to speak to NPCs, etc.

The built-in quest helper is an invaluable resource which means you won’t have to spend precious minutes poring over quest text to find the critical clue that you were supposed to turn left at the third bale of hay to find the dreaded monster. No more backtracking with the log open; RIFT tells you directly where to go, both on your minimap and on your main map. Those who ascribe to this being “too easy” won’t like this, but I’ve never thought that reading lines of text in a game was a good representation of the real-world equivalent of a person pointing, “Hey, the monster is over there.” You can see where they’re pointing; you don’t have to consult your journal to figure it out.

Nor would a character intimately familiar with the world s/he grew up in, regardless of the fact his/her USER is new to it.

What about these “rifts”?

The game’s central mechanic is an innovative one: The world is being torn apart by dimensional vortexes. These vortexes represent great risk to both adventurers and the world itself. To the adventurer, they represent opportunity.

What’s great about the rifts is they happen dynamically, seeming to spawn at random. Left unchecked, they can sweep across the map (bringing demonic forces with them) and even take over towns the players rely on. These events bring a PvP “feel” to a PvE element: Defend your town, or else.

Also, the rifts generally can’t be soloed, but instead of having to go through a tedious “LFG” process, upon approaching a rift, you’re offered the opportunity to “Join Public Group”. This will let you share xp and loot with the other raid members, but you aren’t required to join. Even if you do your own thing, you will still receive special currency rewards for closing the rift just by being there.

You can jump in/jump out as you like from these events, making them your primary goal or ignoring them entirely as you run other errands. But rifts run amok can get in your way or even take over a town, so players are rewarded for keeping them in check. And the currency given by rift rewards allow access to better gear than typical quests do.

The rifts occur in phases of increasing difficulty, which also gives them a dynamic feel. You get a sense while you’re playing of whether you are rapidly sealing a rift, or instead, it is spiraling out of control and you need to call for backup. The phases provide a sense of progression and victory.

The rift mechanics are a casual player’s dream come true: They aren’t “easy” in the sense that a lone player can solo everything, they require group efforts to defeat, but there’s no calendar signups, no raid leader, and no waiting around for the rest of the raid to arrive, buff, and pull. The event is happening whether you like it or not: You can jump in and help, or go your own way.

Character Building

My favorite aspect of RIFT is the character building. I say “building” because within your framework (Rogue, Mage, Fighter, Cleric) there are 8 total classes, of which you can be three at a time, combining them in any manner you choose.

The number of talents you spend on a class’ talent tree (e.g. “paladin”) in the “branches” (upper portion of the tree) unlocks powers in the “roots” (lower portion of the tree). So your talent build determines which spells you get, and from which classes you take it.

Between these classes, you can be highly specialized or highly generalized. The combinations are nearly endless — for example, consider a Stormcaller (weather mage) with barely any points in Elementalist (elemental pet class) and Dominator (cc support class and MCer). He can take attack spells from the first two, a pet and additional damage from the 2nd, and buffs and CC from the third.

The game advises you which builds go well together, but you can also pick wildly different classes if you think they work. While this may seem ridiculously overpowered, it will help to remember that if you’re level 9 overall, your talent build could either be level 9 in one class, level 0 or 1 in both others (giving you basic abilities), or you could effectively be level 3 in all 3 classes.

Visit http://rift.zam.com/en/stc.html to begin building classes of your own and see just how many combinations there are. By my count, there are over 200 possible combinations within each of the four frameworks, and that doesn’t even account for different talent builds.

RIFT was also clever in solving a problem that has plagued multiclassing engines since tabletop games. In every version of D&D, clumsy rules have been written to prevent the high-damage mages with fireball arsenals from wearing the protective plate of fighters.

RIFT’s division of subclasses into four major archetypes simplifies this: Fighters dual class in types of fighters, but they are still all fighters. There are wardens, inquisitors, druids, and shamans, but they are all considered “Clerics”. Same for mages and rogues. Whichever framework you choose also determines your loot, so there’s no confusion. Within the over-200 combinations of mages you can roll, all of them have access to the same loot — and the same loot as other mages. You aren’t in competition with the fighters, clerics, and rogues.

The Story

Avid gaming is problematic in that you get to a point where it really feels like you’ve seen everything. In that regard, RIFT’s plot is no more epic than anything else I’ve played. But I can honestly say it is no worse than any other game, and it is better than most.

If you’re a power-leveler who skips quest text, RIFT’s gameplay certainly allows it. But if you enjoy a good story, you’ll be doing yourself a disservice. I’ve played RIFT both ways (and so have friends and family), and the consensus is that the quests are so well-written that you’re missing out if you gloss over them.


RIFT is pretty. Almost nothing else need be said; the graphics are good. Even at default settings. Crank your settings up to ultra, or in my case even higher, and you’re in for a real treat.

The gamescape has a sense of realism not possessed by other games, and while “realism” seems wonky in some attempts, RIFT seems to have gotten it mostly right.

Best of all, even at the highest settings available, and in crowded areas, I barely experience any lag. While my system is no slouch, it’s not top-of-the-line, and this is not true in other games. RIFT has managed to look better at low and high settings, and somehow improve delivery to my system in such a way that my resources are more efficient.

And how does it stack up to WoW?

Love it or hate it, WoW is now the yardstick by which other MMOs may be measured. With more subscribers than any other game, and a longevity that is gradually outstripping other games, it simply cannot be ignored by the gaming industry.

So how does RIFT measure up?

The first thing to note is that RIFT does its share of WoW copycatting: There is no doubt that more than games like Champions Online, for example, WoW is the model on which RIFT’s engine and gameplay was built.

But having played so many MMOs that haven’t learned the lessons that Blizzard learned with WoW, I find that far more annoying. When you play a game that seems 3-5 years behind in MMO concepts, you get impatient. “C’mon, guys,” I think, “This has already been solved.” That’s true whether you’re considering death mechanics, interface options, quest guidance, or keybinding options.

So what does a Blizzard fanboy like me think of RIFT?

Honestly, I loved it. It’s the first MMO in a decade (besides WoW) that hasn’t severely disappointed me. I doubt that Trion has the resources to make RIFT a direct competitor with WoW, at least in the short term, but from interface to graphics to story to gameplay, there is a lot that RIFT simply gets right.

And having played WoW shortly after its own release, I can honestly say that RIFT was more polished in its beta than WoW was at launch.

Their commercials are right: You aren’t in Azeroth anymore.

See you Telara.

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