Last night, I logged into Rift for the first time.  When the game originally came out, I thought I might jump ship from World of Warcraft to play it.  Network effects kept me from jumping ship, so I figured I would wait for a trial to see if it was worth it.  Yesterday, Trion introduced the 7 day free trial for Rift and I took the plunge. 

 Let me give you a bit of background first.  I run a guild in World of Warcraft.  We’re a 10 man raiding guild and we’re making progress through the end game content of WoW’s latest expansion.  Almost everyone in our guild is a real life friend that is within driving distance.  I only have enough time to play one game and I do not want to maintain multiple subscriptions.  I’ve got over 100 days of play time invested in the single character I play on WoW and I’m a EASK Bartle type player.  So with that in mind, I logged into Rift and hoped for the best.  Meh…

 First, the highlights.  Rift is very well polished.  ...

Everything worked.  No bugs present.  Game patched from nothing to full install in less than 2 hours.  It loaded first try and I was able to log in without issue using an authenticator.  Good start.  Rift Connect is awesome.  Built in FRAPS with auto-post to YouTube is great and I could easily see how this could be handy for my raiding guild in WoW.  I hope Blizzard implements this feature in a future patch.  Animations were smooth; spell effects were well designed and the game simply worked.  The only thing I find interesting in that statement is that I’m still surprised when a new MMO achieves this.  It’s 2011.  UO’s been out for over a decade; WoW’s been out six years yet it’s still an achievement to have a smooth launch or a playable game on release.  Go figure.

Considering that the game worked as well as it did, there isn’t a technical reason why I probably will not subscribe.  Rift had to be more than WoW for me for me to shift.  It isn’t, though I’ve only played for an hour.  The first hour of any MMO experience is a critical conversion period.  If the game doesn’t grab you in the first session, it is very unlikely that the user will return.  In the first hour, if there are problems, the number of returning users drops considerably.  Rift will probably get me to play another session or two simply because there were no problems with the game technically and I would like to see what the “rift” mechanics are all about.  The first hour of gameplay was meh.  It didn’t turn me off to the game and it didn’t make me want to log into it instead of WoW.  Barely worth a second look but will get one because of the “rift” stuff I keep hearing about.

As polished as the game is, I think there’s a few lessons that the Trion team needed to learn from its predecessors.  The game isn’t entirely newbie friendly.  The first screen a new user is presented with is a choose sides screen.  Without reading the web site, the choice is entirely random because there is nothing more than a few dozen words describing the choice and a shiny “Next” button to commit to the choice.  No history.  No flavor.  No color.  Simply two buttons representing a choice.  WoW has the same choice but the background art and character art are mingled together with a decent amount of text describing the choices.  WoW combines the race and faction choices into a single screen which helps give the user additional context over the faction choice.  I had no idea what races would be available to me when I chose Defiant. 

The race selection screen is just as sparse and I was disappointed to find that there wasn’t a “magic user” race of sorts.  Actually, the choice boiled down to the abilities they had and I chose the one with a periodic speed boost.  Couldn’t even tell you the name of the race because the game didn’t give me any color or context that made me care about the selection.  Race selection was just as arbitrary as faction selection.  That said, character customization was good.  It wasn’t City of Heroes good but then again, I don’t think many games will ever be THAT good.  It was better than WoW and I liked the options that the higher graphics fidelity presented me.  It was fun to spend a bit of time getting the right look down for the character and the UI was well suited for the task.

All that done, I logged into the game to be presented with a starting quest and a few useful tooltips.  The initial zone was easy enough to figure out.  Quest markers and the minimap were sufficiently modern.  WoW only recently received some of the features that were included in the Rift release so I’d say they did a good job laying out the starter zone.  However, the zone is drab.  War torn zones are depressing.  LotRO had drab looking starter zones but at least there was familiarity to the IP and an understanding that you would soon be able to see the sights that you read about in the books.  Rift doesn’t have this lore and the starter zones don’t do much to make you want to discover this lore.  I can only hope that the terrain and game world get better as you level beyond the starter zone.

The only other glaring issue that jumped out at me in my first hour of play was the initial class progression.  It’s significantly too complex, even for a WoW veteran.  By the time I hit level 6, I had three “souls” linked to my character.  I went into the game wanting to play a Necromancer.  It’s the only class I miss from my EQ days and WoW doesn’t have one.  Honestly, that was the primary draw for me to even try Rift.  Before I even figured out what Poison Bolt was and how I could fight with my pet, I was presented with choosing another soul.  I chose Chloromancer, though the choice was mostly random save that it shared a recommended combination with Warlock.  Warlock was the last soul that I chose and now I had eight or nine skills before I killed my first 50 quest monsters.  Too much information, too fast.  I get the feeling that I’ll end up simply leveling while randomly choosing stuff that seems appropriate and then when I get to max level, I’ll properly build my character.  It’s a flaw in class systems that Rift should have improved upon yet they dropped the ball.  The system is overly complex for a newbie like myself and I have years of MMO experience.  The first reply to my tweet this morning was a link to a “Rift Masters Guide”.  I shouldn’t have to read a book to feel comfortable with my choices in the first hour of gameplay.

There’s a lot of things that Rift does well.  The game just works and it has some interesting social integration features.  The world is a bit drab for my tastes and it is not as newbie friendly as I would have liked but it is a solid game.  It’s not good enough for me to leave WoW, drop playtime with friends or make me convince my friends that Rift is better.  Maybe SW:TOR will be that MMO.  Rift wasn’t it.

Verdict: Buy if you want a solid MMO and have no vested interest in another MMO.  Otherwise check out the trial just in case but go back to what you were playing.