It’s time to give my overall impressions after a week of playing Warhammer Online in Open Beta. This is not a ‘review’ – the game isn’t out yet, and a review needs to take into account the conditions surrounding the game at launch. But it’s my analysis after a week of play.
This is a good game. It’s fun. It’s only incrementally innovative, but it was foolish to expect it to be a groundbreaker, and really, who cares? Nor is it bug-free even two days before Early Access starts – it’s not even bug-light; there are really quite a lot of bugs just now. Vanguard has been less buggy than this for at least six months. But very few of the bugs have diminished my play experience. The big villains have been the unattackable mobs problem, the ‘ability not yet ready’ issue, and various cooldown issues. All of these are significant drags on fun, but even in the course of the week they’ve been improving. Lag is also a significant issue, which up to now has been tolerable – if barely, especially in RvR situations.
The standout feature of WAR is RvR; this is not something new, but it’s a feature attractive enough to deserve a modern showcase, and WAR gives it that. The Tome of Knowledge is nice and the game’s biggest real innovation, Public Quests, are clever and fun, but neither is going to be a make-or-break feature for very many people; RvR is.
That’s so because of the way that RvR is integrated into the play experience. Scenarios work well and are reasonably (not perfectly) balanced for players at all levels, and your PvE questing will eventually lead you into Warcamps with RvR quests and contested areas in which RvR will be happening all around you. On a Core server, you won’t have to participate in it, but I think most people will end up trying it out, at least, and I suspect that the PvP in WAR is good enough that people normally turned off by PvP will find that they’re enjoying it here. WAR has, hands-down, the best implementation of PvP of any western MMO.
Part of this, though, is because WAR’s PvP is highly structured. There is opportunity for ganking in the open world, even on Core servers, but people who are attracted to totally unrestricted PvP and corpse looting – the ‘consequences’ crowd – are going to be disappointed with the lack of them in WAR. I think the implementation here is better than that; there’s no corpse looting but there are rewards enough for engaging in RvR, enough that you can happily play an entirely PvP game all the way up. And that is a big deal.
The PvE experience is solid and well-done, but nothing here approaches the variety of questing that one is going to find in EQ2. It is possible to stick strictly to PvE and avoid all the RvR hullabaloo, but I’d advise against that; RvR is a major part of what Warhammer Online is about, and is where it really shines. Even so, there’s a lot of PvE content to keep people busy; enough to fill out several months of play, probably.
WAR is going to be a very alt-friendly game; there are six totally different paths up the leveling hill, and this is, I suspect, going to help player retention when the subscription numbers shake out. The single path for the first twenty levels is Age of Conan’s biggest fundamental design fault, and WAR not only tackles it better, it does it better than World of Warcraft with its eight starting paths which start to converge after level ten.
This launch will not go as smoothly as the LotRO launch, which, rose-colored hindsight glasses aside, was not 100% flawless. But WAR is, bluntly, a much better game than LotRO, and improves upon that game’s best feature (Deeds) and its most interesting one (PvP.) It may not even go as smoothly as the Age of Conan launch, but WAR is demonstrably free of AoC’s biggest post-launch issues (lame PvP and lack of middle and upper level content,) and Mythic’s communication with the community has been a whole lot better than Funcom’s despite not even having official forums.
However, it will surprise me very much if WAR’s first ten days bring a major catastrophe. WoW was able to overcome a problematic launch through great gameplay, and I think that WAR is strong enough in that department to muscle through any launch-time problems that it has. As ever, what will be really telling will not be the problems, but Mythic’s ability to respond to them effectively. This is where Funcom fell on its face, and their potential-filled game still hasn’t recovered.
The bottom line, though, is that WAR is a lot of fun. Warhammer might be the game that lures me away from my occasional relationship with WoW, and that’s saying something, because WoW is really a very good game. But WAR is at least almost as good in pretty much every respect, and in several areas it’s better: in PvP, obviously, but also in class design, guild tools, and in open groups and public quests.
EQ2 and Vanguard outshine WAR in the areas of PvE questing and world immersion, respectively. EVE blows WAR away in overall depth and the sandbox nature of its play, and City of Heroes defeats it in the arena of character customization. D&D Online beats it for well-constructed dungeons. Even Guild Wars beats it for… well, being free. Those are games I will continue to play. But Warhammer surpasses World of Warcraft in every respect that’s important to me; the only thing that I can see luring me back would be if Mrs. Ardwulf decides she want to play again, and even then I’ll try to sell her on one of the above instead.
World of Warcraft is well-established and has become something of a cultural icon; WAR is not going to break those dedicated players away. But to the growing portion of the WoW fanbase that’s gotten tired of Blizzard’s ‘more of the same’ approach, WAR is going to be very attractive, and will have a much better chance of retaining those people than Age of Conan did.
It’s fun, and that’s all it needs to be. I recommend that fence-sitters try it and see for themselves.