Wednesday, January 05, 2011
How different is different?
Rift announced a release date for the first week of March, and from what I've seen in the third beta event, this might actually be a game that is ready for release. At the very least "more ready" than the last half a dozen MMORPGs that were released. Nevertheless that doesn't save Rift from controversy. Pete from Dragonchasers isn't happy with some of the early reviews of Rift, especially not the one from Massively saying that after just one hour "it was more than enough for me to realize I’ve played this game about a hundred times over the last few years".
The fundamental problem of that controversy is that Pete and the Massively guy aren't actually talking about the same thing. Pete is perfectly right in saying that Rift has a number of unique features, most prominently the "rifts" after which the game is named, but also the soul system, and that in one hour you can't possibly have fully explored all these features. But Massively is also right in as far as one hour if totally sufficient to tell you what type of game Rift is. Imagine somebody let you play a new game you never heard about for one hour: Maybe you can't fully judge that game after one hour, but you most certainly will be able to say whether it is a first person shooter, a jump-and-run platformer, or a turn-based strategy game. And if it happens to be of a genre you personally don't like, you'll be able to say that too.
Rift is what I'd call a "quest-based MMORPG". Massively calls it "on rails quest grinder", others would call it a "theme park MMORPG", cynics would call it a "WoW clone". All these terms are loaded to some extent. But whatever term you use, there is absolutely no doubt that Rift is the same type of game as World of Warcraft, as Warhammer Online, as Lord of the Rings Online, and as dozens of other games. The controls are the same, the basic gameplay of doing quests to kill ten foozles is the same, even the combat system of targeting and using hotkeys for various special attacks is the same. The difference lies in the details: The Rift souls system is different from the WoW talent system in the details, the Rift "rifts" system is different from the WAR public quests system in the details, etc.
What is actually surprising here is that some people are complaining about Rift being of the same type or genre of game than other MMORPGs. It is like complaining that the latest Call of Duty game is yet another shooter with similar gameplay, controls, and combat like other shooters, just with different locations and some minor variations of features. Or complaining that Mafia II resembles Grand Theft Auto. I'm sure the experts can discuss for hours the similarities and differences between Blur and Need for Speed, or between Dragon Age and Mass Effect. But outside of MMORPG reviews you rarely find anyone complaining that a certain game is of a certain genre, and not something completely different.
Personally I love turn-based strategy games. Now if I review a new real-time strategy game and spend most of the review bitching about the fact that the game isn't turn-based, the review will end up being pretty useless. And for Rift reviews that is exactly the same: A review that is only complaining about the fact that Rift is part of the most popular and most widespread type among MMORPGs, whatever you want to call that sub-genre, is pretty useless. Yeah, Rift is not a sandbox MMORPG, get over it. Rift is also not a first person shooter, not jump-and-run platformer, not a turn-based strategy game, and not a racing game. But nobody ever claimed Rift was anything but a quest-based MMORPG, so there is really no reason to whine that it isn't something else.
To review Rift, one has to accept the fact that it is of this quest-based MMORPG genre, and compare it to other games of the same genre. What does Rift do well, or even better than other games of the same type? What does it do not as good? What innovations does it bring to the quest-based MMORPG genre, and are these new things actually fun?
If, like the guy from Massively, you hate quest-based MMORPGs, Rift obviously isn't for you. But people like that should maybe spend their time reviewing sandbox MMORPGs, if that is the genre they prefer. There are some interesting questions to answer about sandbox MMORPGs, like why they are so extremely unpopular, and why in the few games with a "sandbox MMORPG" label that have more than a handful of players, over 80% of those players are actually doing quest-based MMORPG-like content instead of sandbox content. But only complaining about yet another MMORPG being quest-based instead of sandbox isn't actually helping in any way. Why aren't all these sandbox MMORPG fans reviewing Mortal Online instead of Rift?