Ever since World of Warcraft was released in 2004, it has proven difficult for new MMORPGs to gain any traction, with a few exceptions. Now the IP that inspired Warcraft is getting a MMORPG of its own - Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning (WAR). The game is being developed by Mythic Entertainment, makers of Dark Age of Camelot, and it's due to launch on September 18th. Is Warhammer Online poised to become a contender?
I don't like to draw too many comparisons to other games, but Warhammer Online and WoW have so much in common that a comparison is inevitable. While Warhammer has a less cartoonish appearance, everything from the factions and races to the GUI and talent trees bear an unmistakable resemblance to WoW. That's not necessarily a bad thing. Given how successful WoW has been, other developers would be daft not to follow their lead to some extent. Rather than look at the multitude of similarities, I'll focus on some of the ways the two games differ.
Secondary targetting, which allows you to target an enemy and a friendly character at the same time, has found its way into WAR. When casting an offensive spell, it hits the enemy, but your heals and buffs automatically go to the friendly target. Some spells even make use of both targets: transfering health from the enemy to the friendly, for example.
The grouping system in WAR is a cut above what most games offer. As well as being able to search for groups, players can create "open" groups which anyone can join. When you enter an area, a small window lets you know if there are any open groups around. This system streamlines the whole process, optionally eliminating the "tells" and "invites" normally associated with grouping. It may sound simple, but it's remarkable how primitive features for finding a group are in many MMORPGs, including WoW.
Mythic also intends to make guilds a little more interesting in WAR by introducing a reward system for them. Guilds have an experience pool much like individual players, and as the membership accomplishes things in the world, they help to level the guild itself. This is a nifty idea that will give guilds a little more cohesion and will likely be borrowed by other games.
One of the most talked about features of WAR are the Public Quests, which you can't miss because you become part of them just by being in the area. These large quests play out in stages, usually culminating in some sort of boss fight. Loot is automatically distributed based on a combination of the player's contribution to the battle and a roll. You seem to come across one every few levels as you progress through the world.
Public Quests are a good idea and they're a lot of fun, but it's not hard to imagine that there will be some problems with them, especially given that they're not instanced. They don't seem to scale particularly well, so you often end up with too many players to keep it challenging, or too few players to complete it in a reasonable time frame. When the game launches the lower level Public Quests will get zerged, but as the player base matures there likely won't be enough low-level characters around to get through them. Mythic could have some way to address this, so it will be interesting to watch it unfold.
Like WoW's Battlegrounds, WAR has instanced player vs. player matches which they call Scenarios. Players can queue up for a Scenario right from level one, and they can do it from any location in the world simply by clicking an icon near their mini-map. Scenarios are tiered according to level, but everyone who enters a Scenario is bumped to the average level of the tier. I think this was done to make Scenarios more attractive to players who are not at the top of their tier. So a level 22 player in a level 21-30 Scenario will be a lot more competitive than they would be if the levels weren't adjusted. They will have a variety of objectives, and there will be as many as a dozen Scenarios in the game at launch.
Realm vs. Realm
Almost everything in WAR, from the PvE to the Scenarios, is tied back into the larger realm vs. realm conflict, with the ultimate goal of attacking the enemy's capital city. Players encounter an increasingly complex series of RvR objectives as they level up, and these can involve sieging keeps and fortresses.
Although I haven't spent a lot of time playing RvR in the game yet, it's evident that this is the most well thought-out PvP system a MMORPG has had prior to launch since, well, Dark Age of Camelot. Some of the little things, like showing PvP hotspots on the map, impress me the most. It seems like an obvious way to stimulate the conflict, and yet hardly any games have it. I'm sure plenty of adjustments will have to be made, but the foundation for a good RvR system is there. It's always encouraging to see a MMORPG with PvP features that are central to the game, rather than being tacked on months after launch.
Naturally, there are potential pitfalls in any RvR system. It remains to be seen how you keep the factions reasonably balanced in numbers, or how many players can participate in a siege before the server crashes.
The Bottom Line
Mythic knows how to do realm vs. realm combat, and it shows in almost every aspect of Warhammer Online. Public Quests are a cool idea, but this game is really about battling it out with other players. It's aimed squarely at PvP fans and it benefits from Mythic's years of experience running Dark Age of Camelot. We're all aware that MMORPGs today walk a fine line between "not different enough" and "too different." WAR has a very familiar feel to it, and yet it's just evolutionary enough that, if it holds together at the higher levels, there is bound to be a market for it. Rest assured, a WAR unlike anything we've seen yet is about to begin.