Warhammer Online: Age of Reckoning
If nothing else makes Warhammer: Age of Reckoning a serious contender for the MMO top-spot, then at the very least you can't ignore its Beta queue. At time of writing the counter had hit 616 thousand, 616 thousand distinct entries (624 thousand now) begging and pleading to be let in. The game design team is inundated with everything from monogrammed chocolates to t-shirts to naked pictures of the people pounding to get in to the precious Beta servers. The eventually publicly available characters of chaos marauders and dark elf killers will, in all likelihood, be less fanatical and determined in their siegecraft than the legions already circling.
However, it's not all just nerdlings and the socially maladapted being whipped into a clumsy, greasy fury. Normal, healthy, robust and handsome people are looking forward to this release just as much. And by that, I mean me. The current undisputed king of the MMO genre might finally have itself some genuine completion.
Warhammer: Age of Reckoning certainly isn't radical in any particular way. Elves, dwarves, orks, humans, chaos, order, loot, instances, PvP, etc. - the standard menagerie with the usual associated characteristics. None of the essential themes will take anyone even passingly familiar with swords and sorcery style fantasy by surprise, nor anyone familiar with an MMO. However, Warhammer looks to take every single element, character archetype, MMO convention and expectation and go at least one better, and prove once again its better to make something well than to make something new.
Old school pen & paper RPG mainstay Games Workshop produced two main franchises, traditional Warhammer full of the usual goblins and elves, and Warhammer 40K, a bleak far future version where there is only war. Both have produced some excellent computer games over the last few years, but with 40K taking the lead with the underappreciated Fire Warrior and the excellent Dawn of War series. The recent Mark of Chaos that was hoped to do for Warhammer what Dawn of War had done for 40K was a disappointment, with none of the pyrotechnic crunchy RTS action so well done by Relic and THQ.
But with an absolute library of books and comics to flesh out the characterisation of the Warhammer universe, and decades of paper based fine tweaking of rules and stats, the Warhammer game is absolutely ripe for a MMO version. The arch and high-falutin' world of Lord of the Rings made for a perfectly respectable few titles, but was never built from conception to be so entirely playable and for gamers. Not a hairy foot or a singing Vigo Mortensen in sight.
From the videos, concept art and press releases, it quickly becomes clear that Warhammer is going for a more adult iteration of the fantasy world. The monsters are more monstrous, the weapons far more jagged and intimidating, and even the 'good' cities don't look like good places to hang out after the taverns close. As yet unfinished designs of chaos blighted wastes and tainted locations like The Inevitable City look like they have more in common with Clive Barkers' Jericho than they do with Ogrimaar. That and the evil elves are wearing far smaller, albeit spikier, bikinis than ever before.
Location, location, location. Thanks to the strength of already having had decades of artists sketching key locations for magazines and comic books, there is a great sense of individuality in every district of every city and every zone of each map. In inhabited areas, different quarters will have pronouncedly different feels. The noble district will be completely different from the dockside or the slums. The sense of scale and population is more in-keeping with the best parts of Oblivion than the static and abandoned feel that MMO cities are often afflicted with.
These cities are more than just shopping and quest hubs thanks to the ongoing conflict mechanic of the game, but still the bulk of your game time is likely to be spent out in the wilds making with the slaying and the chopping and the questing. Your chosen purveyor of slicing and dicing or hocus-pocus will be from one of the two factions essentially representing order or chaos. In the white corner is The Empire comprised of humans and dwarves and the predictably snooty High Elves. In the red and black and slimy corner are the Orks, the Dark Elves (still snooty, but more likely to put out on a first date) and the proper scary forces of Chaos. Let your mood and sociopathic leanings guide you in your choice, although each race comes with what boils down to their version of tank, melee, ranger and caster.
Whilst each of the races and classes or 'professions' is not particularly radical, the bad boys look to have enjoyed the most innovation. The Chaos Chosen is nearly certainly the most intimidating looking tank and damage dealer I have ever seen, and even at low levels looks like the sort of thing you'd find guarding the big pile of loot at the end of a high level dungeon. The Chaos Marauder, whilst smaller, is not a jot less scary - as he progressively levels up he has the ability to warp and mutate his own body. Apparently it takes a few moments to warm up and undergo the mutations, but the result is what Paul Barnett, creative director, described as the Incredible Hulk with crab-claws for hands and steel-scaled skin. I am sure the elves in their ludicrously shiny pointy hats are all very fine and impressive, but I know whose pint I'm going to extra lengths not to spill.
That said, the infectiously enthusiastic Mr Barnett recently released a video going into some detail about the latest class to be fleshed out - the High Elf Shadow Warrior. These individuals, rather than platting each others hair and singing about every damn thing that comes into their field of vision, have something of a chip on their shoulder about their Dark cousins, and are itching for a scrap. Although ostensibly being bow-based fighters, Paul went on to point out that 'these aren't scouts like the ones that will sell you cookies - these are guys that only want to sell you death!'
Seriously - they give this guy millions of dollars to oversee an enormous project, and you should see how completely impressed he is with his fan-made Warhammer t-shirts. However, what this really goes to show is that the people in charge of this MMO consider it a labour of love with subject material they were besotted with well before a sympathetic woman allowed them within 5 feet.
Other character examples that show that the Warhammer team have taken familiar themes but given them new life include the Dark Elf Disciple. Generally, these are familiar health casters and team-buffers, but the interesting twist comes from the fact that they gather their manna or mojo points or whatever by leaching them from opposing targets. Not only will this provide all sorts of tactical intrigue, its going to be a fair old hoot seeing an enemy tank having his life-force leeched and redistributed to his until-recently weedy victim.
Another highlight to look out for is the Dark Elf Sorceress - a spell-caster class that the inimitable Mr Barnett described as "Super Nuker emo". He is later to be seen doing an impression of riding an invisible pogo stick, so draw your own conclusions.
One of the key features that is likely to set Warhammer: Age of Reckoning apart from its peers is the continual state of war between the factions, and how that actually translates into every facet of gameplay. The 'Realm vs. Realm' (RvR) mechanic is based upon the underappreciated Dark Age of Camelot games, where controlling a series of increasingly powerful zones will accumulate the power to actually launch full burn and pillage sieges against each others capital cities. Even the control of the lowliest tiers will provide invaluable buffs and tactical advantage to the other zones. On the epic-looking sackings of the capitals, individual players can actually burn residences to the ground and loot the spoils for themselves and their guild.
The basic currency of this power struggle is the Victory Point, which can be accumulated not only through RvR battlefields and instances, but also by every single lowly player in their normal daily questing business. This translates to a real reflection of the overall war-effort, rather than just being carried through by a cadre of high-level players that solely dedicate themselves to one aspect of the game world.
Guilds also come into play here. Rather than loose social groups that ponce about in shiny personalised tabards, their primary task is as assault groups to establish and take fortifications in key locations through the actual game world. Rather than just turning a flag a different colour, Keeps are established that with work and investment become fortified positions with NPC guards and heavy defensive systems. Retaking these locations requires heavy siege weaponry, complete with battering ram teams, being hampered by trebuchet and boiling oil cascades. With mechanics like this, the players can seriously influence the tactical situation across the game world, giving a much richer sense of involvement and making a tangible difference to the outcome of the whole war. Any free agent that fancies lending a hand can weigh in to a siege, but it will be the guilds that have the power to instigate and carry the day on these world-altering campaigns.
None of the above will be any fun at all unless the actual combat system is engaging and simple to use. EA Mythic have invested a great deal of time and testing into tweaking their system, and it looks like they might keep doing so right up until release day, such are their obsessive-compulsive standards.
Combat powers are divided into 3 basic sections - Actions, Tactics and Morale Abilities. Actions are the basic overall stats that will be tailored to favour strength, speed, healing, dexterity and other such attributes that effect every single action of the player. Tactics might be best compared to Stances in other MMO's, that can be loaded or unloaded into a set number of slots dependent on what situation you think you are about to charge into. There are three distinct flavours of Tactic, effecting monster killing, player killing, and general buffs. There looks to be a sufficient range and variety of available powers, no longer arranged in the traditional or limiting 'tree' system, that each player will be able to produce a highly individualised set of strengths and weaknesses depending on their choices.
The Moral powers are familiar 'rage' based powers that will become available the longer the player is engaged in combat. There are four different slots for the morale powers, where increasingly powerful attacks can be prepared. The lowest tier will be a reasonably frequently used technique, but the final tier is promised to be serious ground shaking extinction level event.
Warhammer : The Age of Reckoning has been in development for what seems like forever now, but we are promised a serious look at an all but finished product soon. EA Mythic are certainly not short of guinea pigs volunteering to test out even the most cut down version of their product. The level of investment in this title is unprecedented in an MMO - whilst the current King of the Hill has indeed continued to invest in its product and provide expansion, it did not hit the ground running at quite the pace Warhammer promises to do.
Is over 600 thousand beta volunteers enough? I'm not sure - better hurry over there and sign up too.