WarCry’s Official Review
By John Funk
Big-name game releases and hype are hardly strange bedfellows, but in some ways it seems that Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning (or WAR) has been placed upon a particularly higher pedestal than the norm.
Ever since November of 2004, when Blizzard irrevocably changed the face of the MMO market with their ludicrously popular megahit World of Warcraft, gamers and journalists alike have been searching and searching for a game that could be to WoW what WoW was to games like EverQuest and Final Fantasy XI – a title that could dethrone the reigning champion. Guild Wars, Vanguard, Lord of the Rings Online, Age of Conan and more all came and went. Some flopped, some stabilized with their own particular niche, but none of them were “WoW killers.”
Yet it seemed that with every potential WoW killer that failed to check Blizzard’s meteoric rise, there was an undercurrent of “Oh, but wait until Warhammer.” While still barely more than an idea when Mythic announced the title in 2005, it seemed to have as perfect a pedigree as a potential title could get. Few would argue that Mythic’s first MMORPG, Dark Age of Camelot, was a perfect game – but it was a popular, solid title from the pre-WoW era, with a strong focus on team-based PvP. The Warhammer brand name might not carry the same weight as, say, Lord of the Rings, but it certainly has a robust and devout fanbase – and thanks to a minor if constant squabbling rivalry between the ‘Craft and the ‘Hammer devotees amidst rumors and accusations of plagiarism, in a way the whole thing appeared to be almost destined. With the financial clout of industry big-dog EA behind the developers, if any game could possibly topple World of Warcraft, in the minds of many that game would be WAR.
Well, the Age of Reckoning is upon us at last, and gamers can finally start answering the question, “Does WAR live up to all the expectations?” In short, the answer is “not entirely.”
This, however, is not meant to be in any way a slight against the game – rather, the burden placed on Warhammer was utterly unreasonable. Over the years, the hype for the game continued to build until it seemed that many gamers were somehow expecting WAR to be a flawless gem handed down from the heavens. WAR will not dethrone WoW as many were hoping – but Mark Jacobs and the crew at Mythic were never trying to make a WoW killer in the first place.
For those of you who are already well-versed on the ways of WAR, or those who just want the final sum-up without reading the rest of the review, here it is: Warhammer: Age of Reckoning is a damn good game, even a great one. The PvE part of the game is competent though not noteworthy and slightly dull, a problem that is exacerbated by the slow pace of the game’s combat. However, that same slow combat shines in PvP, which is without a doubt the core of the game and its strongest selling point. There are some great ideas in Warhammer, though some of them suffer from flawed execution (Public Quests, I’m looking at you).
There are moments in the game that feel rough and unpolished, and one can’t help but feel that pushing back the launch even one more month to do one final pass would have done wonders. However, while a lack of polish might dull brilliance, it can’t mask it entirely – the core of WAR is very, very strong … it just needs the kinks worked out.
That said, let’s delve a bit deeper into the specifics of what works well in WAR and what, well, doesn’t.
WAR is set in the universe of the Warhammer Fantasy tabletop game (not to be confused with Warhammer 40000 – its sci-fi counterpart), and while familiarity with the source material might certainly make the experience a bit richer, it’s by no means a requirement. Games Workshop, the developer of the tabletop series, is notoriously strict about licensing out their franchise, and their collaboration with developers Mythic Entertainment is evident: fans of the Warhammer setting will find the game very faithful to the source.
Of all the numerous conflicts and battles in the age of Warhammer, Mythic has opted to focus on three racial pairings for WAR, giving players a choice between six armies to choose from. The humans of the Empire, members of The Order of the Griffon, defend their lands against the army of Chaos (also humans, but… evil humans) from the north – the Raven Host. Greenskins (a term for both Orcs and Goblins) of the Bloody Sun Boyz attack the Dwarf army, the Oathbearers. The third pair is the High Elves of the Shining Guard and the Dark Elves of House Uthorin, embroiled in conflict over their ancestral homelands.
Collectively, these six armies are grouped into two factions, or Realms: the Empire, Dwarfs, and High Elves on the side of Order, and Chaos, the Greenskins, and the Dark Elves on the side of Destruction. The concept of two warring “Realms” – in this case, Order and Destruction – is hardly a new one for MMORPGs, and many gamers who were first introduced to the Massive genre by Blizzard will likely dismiss the factions as carbon copies of the Alliance and Horde (and to be fair, it’s not a hard mistake to make). However, while many other games feature the conflict between factions as a sidepiece or bit of flavor, the battle between the Realms is entirely central to WAR.
RvR (“Realm vs. Realm”) is the absolute foundation of Warhammer, and the thing that sets it apart from the rest of the genre – the exception being Mythic’s previous title, Dark Age of Camelot. The war-torn lands of the three racial pairings are each divided into four Tiers, one for every ten levels of the game (1-10, 11-20, 21-30, 31-40), and most of which consist of two zones apiece. Players are thrust into RvR from quite literally the very beginning; both sides of each pairing share not just the same starting zone, but the same progression between the zones.
Every zone in the game can be controlled by either Order or Destruction, represented by a bar in the corner of the screen. Earning victories for your Realm in PvP will push a slider along the bar, and once it passes a particular point, your Realm will take control of the area. There are three ways to accrue points for RvR: Individual contributions, where killing any enemy player will very slightly tip the scales for your side. There are also objective-based, instanced PvP “Scenarios” (similar to Battlegrounds in Warcraft), and claiming victory in a Scenario will further push the bar. Every zone in the game also has a designated RvR area with objectives for players to capture, and controlling these RvR areas will give the slider a hefty push in your faction’s favor.
PvP in WAR – particularly group PvP, like in Scenarios or taking a team into the RvR areas – is a blast, and the game is clearly built around it. Players earn both experience and money for slaying enemy characters (and can even get items – though you won’t ever lose anything by being defeated in PvP). Since you can queue for Scenarios at any time from anywhere on the map, it is entirely possible to level completely through PvP without ever killing a computer-controlled enemy.
The “Bolster” system is a particularly nice touch that means lower-level characters can actually contribute to the fight instead of being dead weight. As soon as a character enters an RvR area (be it in a Scenario or out in the world), they will have their stats and power boosted to what they would be at level X8 (a level 3 will become a level 8, a level 15 will become a level 18, and so on). They won’t have the gear or the abilities that a natural level X8 character would have, so there’s still incentive to level up, but it means that players can contribute to the war no matter the level.
In addition to experience, victories in PvP will accrue “renown” for your character, gradually filling a sort of secondary experience bar. As you advance in renown ranks, you can buy armor from NPC vendors, so a player electing to advance solely through PvP can still reliably upgrade their armor (that other players might get through quests).
For the first three tiers, controlling a zone is nice but hardly essential. When your Realm controls a particular zone, characters of that faction get slight boosts to experience gained, money earned, and so on. At the fourth and final tier, however, RvR explodes in importance for everybody. Capturing a zone will allow your faction to contest more and more of your opponents’ territory, with the ultimate goal being to assault the enemy capital. City raids are the ultimate goal of WAR, yielding the best loot and the most exciting combat.
While every race was originally intended to have their own capital city to protect, four of the six were infamously cut not too long ago, leaving only Altdorf of the Empire and The Inevitable City of Chaos. It is worth mentioning that both Altdorf and The Inevitable City are gigantic and truly impressive bits of game design, but one can’t help but be disappointed that the other four won’t be in for a good while – if ever.
WAR manages to avoid one of the usual pitfalls of the MMO genre, making new characters feel too insignificant. There are no beginning quests to kill rats or snakes or other small critters – instead, from the very outset, your character is thrust into war. “Welcome to the fight, these are your ancient ancestral enemies – go kill them.” Even pieces of low-level equipment look less like random rags and more like cool armor and clothing (if not particularly decorative).
The downside to this, though, is that … well, your enemy never really changes. A level 5 Greenskin will have fun slaughtering Dwarfs on the field of battle. A level 35 Greenskin will still be slaughtering Dwarfs. When combined with the fact that there’s very little noticeable difference between different pieces of armor and weaponry you acquire as you play, it can feel like you’ve made very little progression with your character after hours of play. Thankfully, It’s easy to travel between the different battlefields, though, so a Black Orc tired of “bashin’ stunties” can go spend time killing “da pointy-earz” instead.
Unlike many modern fantasy-based MMOs where choosing one’s class is largely independent from the selection of one’s race, each of the six player races in WAR have three or four of their own, unique classes. While every class (or “career”) in the game falls into one of four archetypes – Tank, Healer/Support, Melee DPS and Ranged DPS – they all have their own individual career mechanics.
For instance, every time a Dark Elf Sorcerer casts a damage-dealing spell, they will accrue “Dark Magic” points. The higher their Dark Magic pool, the higher the chance of scoring a devastating critical blow – but they also have an increased likelihood of causing a Backlash when they cast, taking not-insignificant damage. While each career’s special mechanics are unique within their Realm – a Dark Elf Sorcerer, Greenskin Squig Herder, and Chaos Magus all play very differently despite all being of the Ranged DPS archetype – every career has a “mirror” in the opposite faction. The counterpart to the Sorcerer is the Bright Wizard of the Empire, the Blade Dance of the High Elf Swordmaster is set against the Brawl of the Black Orc, and so on.
Even though every career has its own flavor, they all share the same core resource: where other games have Power, Mana, and so on, every class in WAR uses Action Points (or AP) to activate abilities. AP constantly regenerates over time while in combat, much like the Energy system used by the Rogue class in World of Warcraft. Both AP and a character’s health refill extremely quickly while not in combat, so there’s no need to sit and rest in between fights – WAR has very little downtime, which is nice.
However, while there may not be much downtime between fights, combat itself feels rather slow, particularly with melee classes like the Swordmaster. A more apt term might be “sticky,” really – there seems to be a slight disconnect between when the game’s display tells you that an ability is available and when it actually is. It’s very slight and hardly makes the game unplayable, but the delay makes for combat that just feels slightly clunky. It’s possible that this might have just been the result of lag, but the consistency with which it keeps occurring (and the lack of any noticeable lag in other aspects of the game) makes me doubtful.
Players who select caster classes will encounter another problem – though being attacked while winding up a spell will slightly push the cast bar back, the animation continues as normal. It is not uncommon to see my Sorceress fling her spell at a foe and have it connect … only to have her stand around apparently doing nothing until the spell actually finished casting and dealt damage.
In general, the slow, sticky pace of combat makes the first few levels of play rather boring (though it picks up as characters learn more abilities), and players coming from games with faster-paced combat like World of Warcraft or City of Heroes may find it difficult to adjust at first. That said, bugs can be fixed and slower combat does not necessarily mean worse combat. The pace of combat is certainly deliberate on Mythic’s part, for where it might falter in early PvE, it shines in the PvP that is at Warhammer‘s core.
Almost anybody who’s spent some time PvPing in WoW will agree that fights can sometimes be over in the blink of an eye, with one character dead before they even realize it. In WAR, fighting another player feels less like getting insta-gibbed and more like, well, a knockdown, grueling brawl. Though one-on-one fights can be entertaining, the game’s crown jewel is its group PvP. Since healers have more time to react before a comrade is turned into a bloody pulp, coordination and focus fire are key in killing foes. A particularly nice touch is that – unlike many modern MMORPGs – characters flagged for RvR combat will have full collision detection with allies and adversaries alike. This allows tank classes to actually tank in PvP, holding a line of battle and throttling chokepoints. As frustrating as the slow combat can be while soloing, it works wonderfully in RvR, making it feel like more of a contest of skill and less like a contest of whoever can click buttons the fastest or whoever gets the most mace-stun procs.
The PvE content in WAR is really nothing out of the ordinary, with the archetypal MMO “Kill X number of Y enemy” quests being the rule rather than the exception. An admittedly nice touch is the decision to have every enemy always drop quest items – there are no eyeless wolves or declawed bears in the world of Warhammer. The game will also display the general area where quest objectives can be found on your map, which makes the questing process very streamlined and natural.
The one idea that makes WAR‘s PvE content unique is the Public Quest (PQ), where everybody in an area can make a contribution towards achieving a goal. An early High Elf PQ tasks characters to hold the line in front of a Dark Elf stronghold. After killing a number of the guards in the area, the next phase throws waves of Dark Elves at the players, requiring them to hold out long enough for NPCs to set up artillery behind them. Finally, the Dark Elves unleash a Hydra against their High Elf foes as a “final boss.”
Although the idea and the concept behind PQs is absolutely phenomenal, and it’s very cool to see players who are otherwise complete strangers come together in pursuit of this goal, they suffer from less-than-perfect execution. At the end of the PQ, loot is distributed based on a random roll. While contributing more to the completion of the quest will grant you a bonus to the roll, it’s still entirely possible to spend upwards of twenty minutes participating, contribute the most and yet leave empty-handed, a very frustrating feeling. Furthermore, many of the PQs follow the exact same three-stage pattern: kill lots of weaker enemies, kill fewer stronger enemies, and kill one really powerful enemy. Some more variation would have been very welcomed to avoid a growing feeling of repetition.
While in some ways, the MMO genre is all about “repetition,” it could potentially become especially problematic in WAR. The build-up to ransacking an enemy city is intended to take multiple weeks at least, though the victors will only hold it for a short period of time before the entire thing resets. Mythic’s challenge with WAR is to make it so that the process itself is worth doing, rather than just the ultimate reward – so once the battlefield resets, the reaction from players is more “Great! Let’s do it again!” and less “Oh man, I can’t believe we have to do that all over again.”
One particular thing that should keep players interested for a good while is the Tome of Knowledge. While a prominent aspect of the Tome is an Achievements system a la Xbox Live or Steam (kill 100 players in RvR, complete 250 quests, and so on), that’s certainly not all it does. The Tome records dozens of player statistics, keeps track of all the quests you’ve done and the things you’ve accomplished, and – for more lore-minded players – will contain little blurbs about the world of WAR as you discover content. The Tome is a brilliant idea that I wholeheartedly love and hope to see more MMOGs implementing in the future. Furthermore, unlocking some achievements awards your character with various titles you can choose to display. Some of these are serious, some are silly (clicking on your own character 100 times earns the title “Ow My Eye”), but it’s very fun to see someone with a title you’ve never encountered before and wonder “ooh, how’d they get that one?”
There’s a fair amount of in-game character customization through the Tome’s titles as well as the ability to dye one’s armor. Perhaps it might have been nicer to have even more colors to choose from (though the 12-15 or so offer a fairly decent variety), but then one risks allowing Black Orcs to run around in pink armor and that’s just brain-breaking. It’s a good thing that the option to dye armor and clothing is in the game, because the character customization options at creation are sadly limited. There’s the typical choice of face/skin color/hair/hair color/accessory/accessory color with a good number of options in each, which would have been perfectly fine if WAR had come out a few years ago. These days, however, it’s behind the curve.
Visually, the game isn’t anything noteworthy – the character models themselves look fine, but many gamers including myself were expecting WAR to look better than it does. The technical graphics are fine (though could benefit from allowing gamers with high-end machines to turn the settings up a little more, particularly on anti-aliasing and draw distance) but there are places where the art falls flat. While Mythic is attempting – and has succeeded – at really giving the feeling of a war-torn world, one can’t help but feel that they’ve fallen into the trap of so many modern games of equating mature and wartorn with drab grays and browns. Sure, happy vibrant rainbows wouldn’t exactly fit with the feel of the game, but having some vibrant color would have been a welcome change (and made the war-torn areas feel that much bleaker) instead of everything being washed-out.
In the end, WAR will strongly appeal to the PvP crowd, which should come as little surprise to anybody. If you like PvP, you will absolutely adore WAR, with a tremendous focus on strategic, team-based RvR at its very core, woven through the entire game. If you’re more of a PvE person, it might still be worth giving the game a try, though the first few levels can be hard to push through. Warhammer makes an effort to cover all the bases for gamers with a wide variety of playstyles, and falls short some of the time. Where it succeeds, though, it succeeds with flying colors.
All in all, as with any MMORPG, the true judgment can only come with time. While no game is perfect, and WAR certainly has flaws that need correcting, Mythic has put a lot of labor and love into the game, and it shows. The next few months are going to be absolutely crucial for Mark Jacobs & Company, polishing what works and correcting what doesn’t – making sure that what they have is in tip-top shape. This holds true with any MMO, but Mythic is under particularly urgent timing here: the clock is ticking until November when Blizzard returns fire with Wrath of the Lich King. If Mythic can solidify what it already has, WAR stands a very good shot at weathering the Lich King storm and coming out with a firm second-place position.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some High Elves to kill.