Wednesday, September 10, 2008
Some readers preferred that I do a specific WAR review with a recommendation of whether to play it or not, so here is my take on that. As I've already talked enough about how the game works, this post is pure opinion. I don't do scores, but rather prefer relative comparisons: Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning is better than Age of Conan and Lord of the Rings Online, but not as good as World of Warcraft. This isn't to say that you should play WoW instead of WAR, because that totally depends on how burned out you are of playing World of Warcraft. If you've been there, done that all in WoW, WAR might be a good option, at least until Wrath of the Lich King arrives. So, lets have a look at various aspects of Warhammer Online to judge it by:
Graphics: As many people remarked, WAR graphics are somewhat similar to WoW's, being cartoonish instead of photorealistic. In my opinion that is a good thing, because photorealistic games have problems with high hardware requirements, and the Uncanny Valley. Nothing wrong with a game looking, well, like a game, and not like the real world. While similar, WAR's graphics are somewhat less cheery bright and colorful than WoW's, which is consistent with the grimmer lore. (Hah! Smooth transition to the next point!)
Lore: The Warhammer lore has a quarter of a century of accumulated material, a miniature game, a roleplaying game, and lots of books. It is considerably richer than WoW's lore, and more mature. Not Age of Conan's bare nipples kind of mature, but grim and serious. You won't meet any Haris Pilton selling gigantesque handbags in WAR. That is good. But there is also a serious downside: As Michael Zenke so correctly remarks, Destruction in the Warhammer lore is really, really evil. But only in the books. In Warhammer Online, playing a character on the Destruction side is exactly as good or evil as playing a character on the Order side. Dark Elves get quests to kill High Elves, but High Elves get quests to kill Dark Elves, so which of the two sides is "evil" is just a question of semantics. A Destruction character, just like any Order character, will spend a lot of time being helpful to complete strangers by running errands (aka quests) for them. In the Warhammer books the evil of Destruction might churn your stomach, but in the game this is unlikely to happen. WAR is more like a war between the red and the blue army than an epic struggle between good and evil.
Technical: I'm only talking about the game itself here, the European account registration site is a different chapter. Warhammer Online has less bugs than Age of Conan, but more than World of Warcraft. WAR is generally quite playable, but you *will* come across bugs, some of them annoying, in your daily gameplay. A week before release, and with Mark Jacobs' explicit statement that Mythic isn't doing miracle patches, the "this is just a beta" excuse for bugs is wearing thin. The current version 4.1 is rather solid, and improved things like pathing and the Tome of Knowledge. But it isn't bug free. You will still see some bad pathing, albeit less than in the first preview weekend, and you will come across mobs that can't be hit. My most hated bug: If you alt-tab out of the game and try to alt-tab back in, you are greeted by a black screen and can do nothing but shoot down the game with the task manager. But I finally managed to "fix" that problem by playing in windowed mode. Nothing game-breaking, but certainly one point to consider in our judgement.
PvE: Despite all the marketing hype praising WAR as a PvP game, WAR is a great PvE game. PvE fun might stop at the level cap, which is only 40. But for making alts and leveling them to the level cap without doing any content twice, WAR even beats WoW. You can level up at least 6 characters to 40 before doing any quest twice. And there are more character classes than in WoW, although I can't exactly say how many. Technically there are 20, but some are mirror images; an Archmage plays exactly like a Shaman. But not every class has a mirror image, so the number of different classes is somewhere between 10 and 20. And there are more different game mechanics than WoW has. WoW only has 3 right now, using mana, rage, or energy, with a 4th on the way for Death Knights using runes. WAR has more different basic mechanics right out of the door, but again I haven't played all the classes yet and thus don't have an exact count. Another great WAR PvE feature are public quests, which are a lot of fun. But WoW still keeps the PvE crown, because it has a wider variety of quests, and a huge PvE raid endgame.
PvP: I like WAR PvP. I'm a carebear. If you are a pre-Trammel UO, hardcore impact PvP fan, that should make your toes curl up: If I like WAR PvP, you won't. WAR does not have "meaningful" impact PvP with permanent consequences and the ability to free-for-all gank anyone you dislike. WAR has a solid system of carebear PvP, which is much better integrated with PvE than it is in WoW, and there is a whole lot more of it than in WoW. It just isn't much more permanent than in WoW. At best you can conquer the enemies capital, which will cause the map to reset a couple of days later. The keeps you conquer will be lost to a sneak attack at 3 am in the morning, unless you are crazy enough to organize a 24/7 substantial guard, armed with the telephone numbers of all your guild members, and your guild members are willing be woken up in the middle of the night to defend that keep. I think the WAR PvP is the best option for a mass market MMORPG, but the real hardcore PvP fans will certainly be disappointed by it. WAR PvP is substantially better than WoW PvP: Staying to the end is more important than winning, so no people afking out when they start to lose. But actual participation is better measured and rewarded than in WoW, so no people staying back in the cave and collecting rewards while absent either. Another great feature is good PvP reward gear for every level, not just epics for the level cap. In WAR you don't level up to the cap doing PvE and only then start with PvP. In WAR, just like the marketing slogan says, war is everywhere, you are best off if you do some PvP at all levels, and constantly switch between PvP and PvE. Maximum fun by maximum variety, a good concept.
Social: With open groups, public quests, and living guilds, WAR beats WoW easily in social functions. It is a lot easier to play together with a bunch of strangers in WAR than it is in WoW. Groups in WAR are inclusive, the more the merrier; groups in WoW are exclusive, you better take the right mix of classes, levels, and talent builds. But while in WoW "pickup group" is a dirty word, a good group in WoW is a marvelous machine of collaboration, and WAR is missing that somewhat. The social dynamics are very different, you group easier with strangers, but you don't feel that much of a bond with some once you finished beating that public quest together with them. It remains to be seen how that works out for WAR guilds; in principle it is easier to do something together with all online guild members, regardless of class or level, in WAR than it is in WoW. But by making cooperation easier, the level of trust required is necessarily less high. WAR will probably have a lot less guild drama than WoW, but we will have to wait and see whether a WAR guild raiding a keep will feel the same level of connection as a WoW guild raiding a dungeon.
In summary, Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning is a good game, albeit not perfect, and it will have some problems living up to the excessive marketing hype from Mythic. It is certainly worth buying and trying out for a month or two. But I honestly don't know yet whether I will play WAR or WotLK in December. And I certainly can't tell *you* which game to play. But I would suggest you give WAR a chance while Blizzard is still building their expansion. WAR has enough good, and new, features to justify giving it a try. Don't let anyone tell you it's just a WoW clone! Recommended!